Something rotten in the state of Denmark? Here’s an interesting take on Copenhagen’s recent youth riots.
Copenhagen is burning. For four days the downtown area of the Danish capital has looked like a war zone. At least 690 people have been arrested, many of them younger than 18. As I write, Copenhagen is still trying to recover from a most violent confrontation between supporters of Ungdomshuset (the Youth House) – a Danish squat that has been at the heart of the Danish youth subculture since 1980 – and the police who had just evicted the squatters.
Such was the ferocity when the conflict culminated Friday and Saturday night that several parts of Copenhagen were rioting simultaneously. From Nørrebro, where Ungdomshuset is situated, to Christianshavn, where the free town of Christiania is, sleepy Copenhagen was transformed into something reminiscent of Belfast in the bad old days. International riot supporters from Sweden, Germany and Holland arrived by their hundreds and Danish police had to borrow vehicles from neighbouring Sweden to cope with the ever-increasing numbers of arrests. Police officers have been wounded, as have many protesters, members of the press have been beaten up and cars and houses set on fire. Something rather un-Danish is going on in Denmark it seems, but everybody knew the conflict was coming.
The squatters, who have resided in Ungdomshuset since 1982, follow a Danish squatting tradition. In the 1970s and at the start of the 80s, when Ungdomshuset came into existence, The BZ-movement was active. The BZ-squatters were predominantly peaceful and enjoyed a lot of support from the locals. Their greatest victory was the standoff with the police at a squat called Alotria, where the squatters famously dug an underground tunnel out of the house. When the police finally stormed the premises, the youths had escaped through the underground tunnel.
How things have changed. Back then, Denmark was going through a rough spell with unemployment and the youths had every reason to take a “no future” stance. Political tension was in the air, recurring anti-nuclear demonstrations and massive disarmament rallies created a feeling of togetherness on the political left, and the radical youth was merely the extreme part of this togetherness.
Today Copenhagen is one of Europe’s most affluent cities, a place focusing on its commercial success and materialism, which creates a strong tendency to political apathy – much like in Britain. From being a social democratic stronghold Demark is today libertarian to a large degree. The material middle-classes have little understanding for young wild bloods, and maybe this in part explains the protesters’ increasingly aggressive and confrontational stance.
It’s far from the first time that the “autonome” (the autonomous), as the protest movement is known today, and the police clash. Back in December 2006 when it was announced that the Christian organisation that actually owns Ungdomshuset had the right to evict the squatters, they clashed with the police and more than 200 were arrested.
From then on it’s been a waiting game. Everybody knew that sooner or later the police would strike and the squatters were making plans to defend themselves. When the police struck in the early hours of Thursday – air lifting special units unto the roof of the house – the squatters were taken by surprise. But their intentions were clear. The place was littered with barbed wire, Molotov cocktails and stones. They did not intend to give in without a fight and, when evicted, the fight was taken to the streets where it has been ongoing for days now.
The fighting is meaningless and deplorable. What makes the whole thing even more ridiculous is that the squatters were offered an old school nearby as a replacement for Ungdomshuset. This offer was refused by the youths on grounds that it is the symbolic value of the original house that matters. It does, however, look like the protesters wanted the confrontation. With their skilful orchestration the protesters at times looked more like a trained and experienced fighting machine than a group of kids wanting a place to hang out; or a disenfranchised revolutionary movement. This was underlined by the continuing stream of European anarchists moving towards Copenhagen, eager and ready to fight.
The police’s adaptation of a zero tolerance with an unprecedented 690 arrests, including the detention in custody of hundreds of minors – some in isolation – plus the police’s apparent joy of beating up the unruly adolescents, may have won the day for the law and its enforcers, but it hardly leads the way towards a greater mutual understanding. It is difficult to call a winner, but easy to identify the losers.
But why all this aggression in such a peaceful society? That is the question that the Danes will have to ask themselves when the last fires have died out. The truth is that the ongoing violence is about far more than just a squatted house. It is notable that a lot of the tension was situated around Christiania – the old hippy commune that has become a major tourist attraction, a cultural hubbub and a thorn in the flesh of the Danish political establishment.
The current centre-right government remains a staunch enemy of the social experiment, and protagonists on both parts see the eviction of Ungdomshuset as phase one in an ongoing process to rid Copenhagen of Christiania. The free town still divides the nation, 36 years after it came into existence. The alternative way of living, the cannabis smoking and the non-adaptation to the bourgeois lifestyle of modern Copenhagen is a red cloth in the face of many ordinary citizens, who sympathise with the government’s desire to normalise the free town (read: demolish it). This tension has been ongoing for more than 30 years, and the current conflict will not ease the tensions between the advocates of tolerance and those who feel that enough is enough. However many citizens of Copenhagen are fed up with having the shop windows in their neighbourhood smashed in on a regular basis and recurring clashes in the streets that frighten their children. The tolerance has been stretched too far they claim, and it is now time to crack down on the antisocial behaviour.
But it also merits the question why such an affluent society has failed in offering its youths something meaningful to do. It may be that sheer boredom and apathy are the biggest triggers of the conflict. The Danish political system has failed in communicating with the youth. Society’s apparent lack of interest in looking after the drop-outs seems to be a European problem. From the disintegrated North Africans of Paris to the youth gangs of London and the sub cultures of Copenhagen, there seems to be a serious problem of communication and understanding between the generations – a responsibility that surely lies with the grownups.
Being young in Copenhagen should not, however, be compared to the tough conditions of life on the outskirts of Paris or in parts of east London. The biggest problem the squatters have to deal with is probably boredom. The protesters in Copenhagen may think that they are rebelling against the political right – against capitalism and lack of tolerance. But in fact the use of violence as a means to further their cause is only helping the forces that want to crack down on subcultures, and close down Christiania, simply because it is very difficult to defend the havoc that is being raised in Copenhagen right now. In a curious attempt to eradicate the immediate past, Ungdomshuset, the object of all the fighting, is being demolished right now. As if that would make the problem go away.