From Iceland — Extremely Unchill: How Police Went Too Far At A Music Festival

Extremely Unchill: How Police Went Too Far At A Music Festival

Published August 15, 2015

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Pan Thorarensen

The Extreme Chill Music Festival is not exactly the rowdiest scene, as the name might attest. It’s more known for being a small gathering of people listening to electronic music played live. But last weekend, it became the focus of a police operation that would make headlines and draw criticism for overzealous and possibly illegal tactics that are virtually unheard of at larger events.

According to several eyewitness and firsthand accounts, police searched the bags and pockets of multiple attendees. Some guests were reportedly made to disrobe. Police also went so far as to go into the unoccupied tents of guests. Police activities weren’t confined to the festival grounds, either. They reportedly stopped a bus en route to the event, ordering all the foreigners off of the bus. The police then went onto the bus, where the Icelanders left on board were questioned and searched. None of this, incidentally, is legal.

“The obvious use of musical profiling is a special case, allowing the police to harass people that like techno music, but leave us, the classical rock and opera freaks, alone.”

The headlines after the event more or less parroted what West Iceland Police said in a statement: that there were 29 drug arrests at a festival of 200 people. (West Iceland Police did not respond to requests for a comment.)

Festival organisers immediately sent out a statement on the events of the past weekend.

“This year, the police held our festival guests in a death grip from the moment they arrived, and went way over the line as far as we are concerned,” the organisers wrote. “We greeted numerous guests in the festival entrance who were in utter shock, and did not trust themselves to go back to the camping area after the encroachment and abuse of power of the police.” Soon thereafter, they called upon all festivalgoers who were subject to police scrutiny to come to a closed meeting, with a lawyer, who would review testimony and video footage taken by the guests. The results of that meeting have yet to be announced at the time of this writing.

Why this festival?

“I find it kind of strange that a very small music festival, that is held in a tiny fishing village where the community celebrates the event—which has never had any trouble with any form of violence or property damage whatsoever—was the target of such massive search and seizure tactics by the police,” Morgunblaðið journalist Davið Már Stefánsson, who was at the event, told us. “Just to be clear, I appreciate the presence of the police and hate the kind of discourse that paints all police activity as some kind of brute coercion. But I think entering tents without permission with detection dogs, while guests are far away enjoying music, putting up roadblocks and searching attendees over and over again while refusing to provide any sort of probable cause is just a tad bit dramatic—if not illegal. ”

Davíð isn’t alone in his reservations about making a small music festival the focus of such an intense police effort. Stefán Magnússon—who runs the east Iceland metal festival Eistnaflug, which saw some 3,000 guests last year—told us that they never had any problems with the police.

“I have to admit, I don’t understand how things work in this country,” he told us. “I don’t understand why the police don’t show up with drug dogs at Independence Party conventions or the Frostrósir Christmas concert and sniff around there. Is it because if you’re in a suit and have a political party logo on your lapel, you get a chance, but if you’re wearing a woollen sweater, then you’re clearly questionable?”

Grímur Atlason—who runs Iceland Airwaves, a multi-venue festival that sees thousands of attendees each year—was similarly baffled by the overzealous police.

“It’s very strange how the police force works,” he wrote on Facebook. “In the Westman Islands, you may not talk about one type of crime, but only while the [annual Merchant’s Weekend] festival is going on. In Snæfellsnes, on the other hand, [police] go way over the line, and then send out this dramatic description of the ‘horror’ that greeted the four drug dogs and the police squad at this 200-person festival under a glacier. Trying to disparage the festival and its guests in order to justify the means.”

The law is (probably) on your side

Davíð believes last weekend’s police operations can be chalked up to one simple factor: the genre of music performed and celebrated at Extreme Chill.

“It‘s clear that the Icelandic police authorities link the electronic music scene with substance abuse,” he told us. “In 2014, the police showed up at Harpa with detection dogs while Sónar Reykjavík was in full swing, something that was unheard of at that time. I’ve been working as a cultural journalist for four years now, and never have I witnessed such an extreme approach. We need clarification on what probable cause really entails and what rights people have when being searched.”

The legal point is an important one. As Pétur Þorsteinsson, director of civil rights group Snarrótin, told us, the law can be murky when it comes to situations like this, but our civil rights remain clear.

“The big problem is that almost every paragraph in the chapter on human rights in our constitution ends with some exceptions from the protection given in the paragraph,” he told us. “But the police also break the law, for example, by forcing people to accept searches by threats and by their world-famous ability to smell illicit smoke, even where it does not exist. The obvious use of musical profiling is a special case, allowing the police to harass people that like techno music, but leave us, the classical rock and opera freaks, alone.”

Pétur advises that festivalgoers adopt a “just say no” policy to being searched, as is well within your rights if the police officer asking to search you or your belongings has no warrant. He does recognise, however, the human component in that advice.

“That’s easier said than done, when you are confronted by rude and rogue policemen,” he said. “But that’s the only way, and we have several documented incidents where the police gave in when the suspects knew their rights to be let alone and dared to stand up against oppression. Knowing your rights and defending them, wherever needed, is the way to go.”

Know your rights

Snarrótin started an effort last year to make festivalgoers more aware of what their civil rights are when confronted by police wanting to search you or your belongings. Below are the basics you should have in mind, should you end up in such a situation.

1. You always have the right to talk to an attorney. If you cannot afford or do not have your own attorney, you can ask the police officer questioning you to contact the Icelandic Bar Association, which has lawyers available 24 hours a day.

2. Unless the police have a court order or a search warrant, the police cannot search you, your backpack or purse, your phone, your car or your home, nor may they search your mail.

3. The only exception to needing a search warrant is for the police officer to have a “reasonable suspicion” that you are in possession of a specific item. The three conditions for such a search are that a) it is necessary to seize the item in question, b) the police have a reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed, and c) the aforementioned crime is one that could result in jail time.

4. Body cavity searches may only be conducted with the approval of a doctor.

5. Article 65 of the Icelandic constitution states that “[e]veryone shall be equal before the law and enjoy human rights irrespective of sex, religion, opinion, national origin, race, colour, property, birth or other status. Men and women shall enjoy equal rights in all respects.”

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