In the dark and murky city centre on this Tuesday morning in late October, the streets were empty. Even if you tried your very best you couldn’t spot a single soul, save for a small grouping of masked vigilantes who had gathered around a statue, one that once symbolised the people’s independence and valour but now only serves as a reminder of the nation’s long lost dignity. Joined in their disgust for the current government, they had decided it was now time to take some radical action.
While those idealists muttered suspiciously in each other’s ears, unmarked vans prowled all around the area. The masked gathering soon realised these were in fact members of the riot police that had been considerably visible over the last few weeks. Thus, the vigilantes soon scattered, waiting for their next chance to contemplate direct action against the powers that be. This might seem absurd, but I am not describing any enslaved former Soviet republic with a coup d’état waiting around the corner, but our very own Reykjavík in late 2008. This turn of events aroused my interest, so I decided to join the ranks of the activists. The following is my account of what I’ve witnessed thus far, both as an active participant and casual observer.
Who are they?
This secretive meeting was the first sign that an organisation was being established, hitherto the only sanctioned protest venue was the weekly political gathering in Austurvöllur on Saturday afternoons. Although meetings fulfilled the fiery longings of the bulk of angry and confused Icelanders, there were some who found the meetings simply a poke in dire need of a punchline, even likening them to social gatherings rather than effective political demonstrations. And these few formed an alliance.
This assembly of vindictive vigilantes was immediately depicted in the local media as a group of naïve youngsters in need of an adrenalin kick, hiding their identities with masks so they wouldn’t get into trouble. To anyone who observed them in action, however, the actual participants were greatly varied in age and came from assorted backgrounds. These made-up media facts didn’t bother them at all though; in fact, they claim to enjoy feeding the media whoppers, something that explains the cooked up monikers they’ve gone by, such as “Action, Action” and “The Secret Organisation of the Street”, none of which are factual. What you learn once you start studying the group is that it is by no means a synchronised one, with a unified end-goal. They share a longing for direct action that cannot be brushed off or easily ignored like so many protests are on this island.
This could for instance mean that instead of standing outside Alþingi, yelling clever slogans, the need for actually rushing inside the house and creating barricades, either verbal or material, thereby thwarting the MPs from doing their work.
And, a few days after their original rendezvous, this is just what the group accomplished.
When the raving mad crowd rushed into Alþingi and nested in the audience platforms, with no intention of behaving in an acceptable, orderly manner, they were met by a stupefied crowd of MPs and security guards. The latter, few in numbers, could barely count all the protestors, let alone stop them. The MPs themselves were flabbergasted, some applauded to cheer on this new power, but others frowned so intensely upon the flock that their eyebrows almost burst. But as was expected, reinforcements from the local police soon arrived and started beating on the masked protestors immediately. While bulk of the demonstrators put up their hands and calmly walked out, there were a few who liked baffling a bit more with the police, causing a greater stir.
It was in the aftermath of this first strike that Icelanders started talking about the controversial vigilantes, some condemning their input while others, such as Össur Skarphéðinsson, Minister of Industry, Energy and Tourism, reminisced when he himself recited a protest speech on the very same platform a few decades ago and found the event justified in every way.
One foggy Tuesday morning in November the assembly gathered yet again, this time in front of the ministers’ meeting place in Tjarnargata, the place where they have their weekly get-together. The aim of this assembly was to prevent the ministers from entering the premises, thereby thwarting the meeting from taking place.
While I stood on the sideline I contemplated that to any unsuspecting passerby, the activists must have been a fearful sight: a pack of masked, vicious would-be vigilantes holding up scary red flares while shouting obscene slogans as the ministers snuck in from behind, or “through the ass” as they demonstrators dutifully pointed out. The police squad on duty seemed a bit confused when they prohibited the demonstrators from leaving the scene via Tjarnagata, but backed off as soon as the flock’s spokesman explained their peaceful intentions.
The fact that so many of the activists choose protest wearing masks has definitely disturbed the larger public. Many argue that this has in the end shifted public sympathy away from protestors and to the government, which is kind of absurd any way you look at it. The activists tell me that the masks have a logical explanation and aren’t meant to be threatening or stir up fear. “It’s not that I want to hide my own identity, but as soon as we can be categorised based on who we are and what we look like, grouped into this type or that, we do not stand for as strong a union as we intend,” stated one demonstrator when I enquired about the masks. Another illustrated that he himself never wears a mask, but understands the mask-wearing part of the group, and it doesn’t bother him at all.
The Last Strike of 2008
On the last day of the year it is a tradition in Iceland that the leaders of every political party feast on a grand lunch of herring and Brennivín while lightly discussing the year’s events with a reporter. The luncheon is broadcast on the TV station Stöð 2 (“Channel 2”) in a program called “Kryddsíld”. One demonstrator described the proceedings thusly: “Inside a delicately decorated hall the torsos, who call themselves our leaders, made champagne toasts for their own sins, made fun, enjoyed themselves and shamelessly praised their own alleged excellence”.
Some find it notable that both Saga Film, the company that produces the program, and Stöð 2, operate under the aegis of Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, one of the main culprits in the nation’s economical crisis.
On December 31st, 2008, while this event was happening inside the shadily decorated dining room of Hótel Borg by Austurvöllur, demonstrators gathered outside the government offices in Lækjargata and lit red flares, “to represent the flame of justice”. They marched to the hotel with the intention of interrupting the broadcast. They proceeded to force open the locked gates and doors of the hotel, resulting in scuffles breaking out between them, conscientious hotel staff and the police. In the resulting chaos, some TV cords were mangled and the broadcast ultimately tapered out. A lot of the rebels were exposed to heavy doses of pepper spray from the police, strewn across the lawns of Austurvöllur, crying in pain and screaming accusations of fascism.
As the staff of Saga Film mourned their expensive cables, the crowd got to witness a new breed of activist take the stage. These recent adherents to their own interpretation of direct action weren’t masked demonstrators, but a respected anaesthesiologist and his elderly brother, an economist with a long career in the Icelandic Central Bank. Together they menacingly marched between demonstrators, raising their fists in thinly veiled threats of violence, even going so far as pushing some demonstrators to the ground. To emphasize the flock’s peaceful agenda, the original demonstrators stood still and didn’t reply in any physical way. But if this anti-activist strain becomes a force, we might start seeing increasingly violent clashes between the two factions.
Now it is apparent that an unacceptable situation has been declared, and there is a lot to come from the masked vigilantes standing guard of our nation’s democracy. Although the group offer no brilliant solution, as the media keeps hammering on, it is not their duty to find one. When things have gone down the drain there is no point in pretending they haven’t. The government really has fucked up, yet there have been no signs of any repentance or even accepting responsibility for the clusterfuck of trouble they got their employers, the Icelandic people, in. Thank God, somebody is sticking it to them.