From Iceland — The Day We Started Fighting Back

The Day We Started Fighting Back

Published December 4, 2008

The Day We Started Fighting Back
Photo by
Jói Kjartans

“We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

These words were spoken by a fictional President in a, let’s face it, pretty terrible movie. Still, when you learn that your economy is fiction and a bad one at that, words from a crappy Hollywood film can resonate pretty strongly. On our Independence Day, December 1st, we started fighting back. The people of Iceland got farther into the halls of power than they have for a long time, right into the Central Bank itself.

It was a long time coming, but now it’s here.

The Growing Movement
Ever since the Prime Minister’s so-called “Disaster Speech” on October 6, where he outlined the crash of the Icelandic economy, a crowd has gathered outside the parliament building every Saturday afternoon to voice their discontent and demanding the resignation of the government, the Central Bank directors, and other key figures associated with the collapse. The turnout has grown steadily, from 500 people at first, to roughly 7000 on November 22, the largest demonstration yet.

The crowd of Saturday afternoon protesters is made up of people from all walks of life and persuasions. Some carry the EU flag, others an anti-EU flag. On November 22, representatives from the Alliance Party Youth Movement invited people to “throw away the króna” and brought buckets for this purpose, while a group of women who call themselves “The Women‘s Emergency Government” climbed up onto the statue of founding father Jón Sigurðsson and draped the statue in a pink dress.

The protest ended, as usual, at 16.00. And for the third week running, a group of mostly young people then gathered outside the Parliament building and pelted it with eggs and other foodstuffs, including hamburgers and pasta. One window was broken. A young man who concealed his face with a scarf climbed onto the Parliament balcony and put up a banner with the words “Iceland: Sold to the IMF for 2 Billion Dollars.”

So far, few policemen have been apparent during the protests and have not intervened in the egg throwing. Meanwhile the police task force, known as “The Viking Squad”, have been on alert just out of sight in the Parliament basement. They have not provoked the crowd by a show of force, perhaps because they know how little it would take for them to lose control.

The Flags of our Fathers
One week earlier, a young man climbed up onto the roof of the Parliament building and raised the flag of the Bónus food chain where the Icelandic national flag usually flies. Bónus is a part of Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson’s Baugur investment empire, which owns the majority of the country’s food stores as well as most of the media, and is widely seen to be one of most powerful men in the country, and a key figure in the economic crash.

The man carrying the Bónus flag was Haukur Hilmarsson, also a member of the Saving Iceland group, which has carried out many direct actions at the building site of the controversial Kárahnjúkar dam. In 2005, Haukur was arrested for climbing onto a construction site and sentenced to pay a fine or serve 18 days in jail. He opted to be jailed instead. After serving four days of his sentence, he was released, since the jail was needed to host more serious offenders.

Hilmarsson thus had 14 days left of his sentence when he was let go and resumed his studies as a philosophy student at the University of Iceland. A week after he raised the Bónus flag on the Parliamentary Building, his class was invited to visit the Parliament building on a school trip. It was there he was arrested by the police, and told he now had to serve the rest of his sentence. Hilmarsson maintains that he has never evaded authorities and no previous attempt has been made to inform him that he was required to return to finish his sentence.

Assault on the Precinct
The following day, November 22nd, Hörður Torfason implored the authorities to set him free. After the speeches, hundreds of people walked over from the Parliament building to the police station, demanding his release. They chanted the slogan “Let Haukur out, put Geir in,” a reference to Prime Minister Haarde. Eva Hauksdóttir, Haukur’s mother, gave a speech on the police office steps, asking for her son’s release.

With no apparent progress being made, the demonstration soon escalated.  Several people started kicking at the doors of the police station. Eventually, the outer door gave way and protesters surged through. There, they were met by an inner door. When the second door started to give way to the force, police on the other side sprayed the crowd with mace.

This dispersed the protesters away from the door, while The Viking Squad in riot gear emerged to clear the steps. The crowd initially fell back, but then surrounded the policemen on the steps and started pelting them with eggs. There, they stood face to face for an hour.

The onion
Protesters called for an ambulance to take away those who had been injured by the mace. It took the ambulance half an hour to arrive. Protesters claim this was because calls for help had been rejected by police. Meanwhile, some protesters passed onions among the crowd, as this supposedly helps people breathe after a mace attack. One of those hospitalised was Eva Hauksdóttir. Another was a 16 year-old girl.

Just as Channel 2 was starting a live broadcast from the demonstration, Haukur Hilmarsson suddenly emerged on the police steps. An unknown person had paid his fine and he was free to go. On the police office steps, Haukur said that even though he was opposed to paying the fine, he had agreed to the release as he did not want people to be injured.

“If people want to protest, it has to be in order to change the government, not to rescue one man,” he said.

A Visit to the Bank
The following Saturday passed quietly, even as thousands of people gathered outside of the Parliament building. Perhaps this was because of the biting cold, or because there was no real focal point for people’s anger apart from the empty building. The MP’s were away and no one was being held prisoner.

December 1, was a different story. That day marked the 90 year anniversary of Iceland as an independent state, even though it did not become a republic until 1944. Thousands of people gathered on Arnarhóll, by the statue of first settler Ingólfur Arnarson, right between the real palaces of power, the Seat of Government and the Central Bank.

Which one is the bigger culprit? People voted with their feet, and once the speeches were over, they headed for the Bank. They crowded into the foyer, and stood there face to face with three policemen. In between pelting them with eggs, the crowd made attempts to win them over.

Surprisingly enough, this seemed to work, and the crowd erupted into applause when the policemen left their posts. The crowd surged through the second door and into the bank. It was only here that they realised that they had in essence been trapped. Behind glass doors, around 30 policemen in full riot gear stood waiting.

The police declared the proceedings to be an illegal protest, and an officer with a bullhorn said they would use mace to disperse the crowd. So far, the police has shown remarkable restraint in the face of angry crowds, but here they seemed about to resort to sterner measures. It was a long way back out into the open air, and unleashing teargas here on people trying to get out of harm’s way would undoubtedly have resulted in severe injuries and possible fatalities.

Oddson has left the building
The crowd put their hands in the air to show that if they were to be rushed by police, they would do so unarmed. They then sat down, and this seemed to avert the attack. The police put their shields down. Another standoff started on each side of the glass, each side trying to stare the other down. Almost. “They won‘t look into our eyes,” said one of the protesters.

The crowd burst into spontaneous song of a verse of “The Times They Are a-Changing,” among other numbers. This was interrupted when Police Chief Geir Jón Þórisson entered the crowd and tried to induce them to leave, but to no avail. “We won‘t leave without Davíð Oddsson,” responded the crowd. Former Prime Minister and current Central Bank director Davíð Oddsson had by then long since left the building.

The Police Chief left and on the other side of the glass, the Viking squad lined up again. It seemed the volcano was about to erupt. People tried to cover their faces as best they could, in the event of teargas.

A Hero from Mosó
Then, a young man from Mosfellsbær defused the situation. “We‘ll leave if you will,” he said. It did not take the cops long to take him up on his offer. The police stood down and evacuated their side of the glass. On the other, the protesters filed out into the cool Reykjavik night. The danger of being maced in cramped spaces had abided for now. A token victory had been achieved, even if the protesters’ goals were no closer to fulfilment.

What next? It seems that every other protest, things start to happen. Things were building up for a month. On the fifth Saturday, people started throwing eggs at the Parliament building, a then striking event that has now become commonplace. On the seventh, the crowd raided the police station. The eighth passed uneventfully, but the first of December did not. Perhaps this pattern will continue. There is the possibility that the coming of what seems to be a very cold winter will put a damper on things. But the economy is only going to get worse, and this might make tempers flare in spite of the creeping frost.

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