On the Youth House Protests and the Situation in Copenhagen
Team Colors Editorial note: On the Youth House Protests and the Situation in Copenhagen provides one of the first portraits for the English speaking audience of the intertwining Danish squatter, social-center and counter-globalization movements. Thus far we have only received tentative reports and photos of the struggles taking place to maintain social-centers and squat spaces against the forces of neo-liberalism. Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen's contribution seeks to expand upon this and explain the cycles of protest and riots taking place there. This is not simply a report and an inquiry into the current situation in Copenhagen, but a description of a larger struggle taking place around Denmark and Europe. Here the militant actions of the Danish youth serve not just as an example for American activists, but as a way of generalizing struggle across the social field. After substantive and engaged discussion between the author, Team Colors Collective and The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest the following text appears. May the lights of our barricades (and our inquiries) burn as bright.
During the last year Copenhagen has been the scene for hundred of demonstration as well as riots following the raiding of the Youth House that took place on March 1 2007 when Danish police forces stormed the house at Jagtvej 69. The raiding was conducted in a very brutal and spectacular manner, with helicopters dropping policemen on the roof of the building and policemen being lifted in small containers to the top windows in the building to gain access by breaking a hole in the front wall of the fourth floor. Before entering the house the police filled it with teargas. The 36 people sleeping in the house were arrested. The action caught the activists by surprise and the spectacular staging of the forced entrance quickly escalated into confrontations between police and activists in the streets around the youth house.
Within the next few hours after the police action, young people started building barricades by pushing dumpsters into the street and as the police tried to remove them they were meet with stones. At around five o’clock that day thousands of protesters went into the streets fighting broke out between the police and protesters who sat cars on fire trying to take over the streets of Nørrebro, the neighbourhood where the Youth House was situated. In the next days more and more people including young kids of Arab descendent hit the streets and joined the demonstrations that spread to Christianshavn where the hippy free city Christiania is located. Cars were burned down and barricades kept being set up faster than the police could remove them. Peaceful demonstrations as well as violent clashes with the police and the thrashing of a high school took place. It was not just the usual political activists that were out in the streets, thousands of young people joined the protests out of frustrations with the direction that Danish society has been heeding for the last decade or so. The Danish police had to get help from the Swedish police in order to handle the problem and policemen from all over the country were sent to Copenhagen.
Throughout the entire process the police did not hold back in their use of force: they broke up demonstrations by firing large amounts of illegal deadly teargas into them, they arrested hundreds of people with or without relation to the events, they searched a number of addresses without search warrant and they repeatedly beat up protesters. This however did not prevent thousands of youngsters from showing their discontent in the streets. Politicians and so-called experts on social affairs were busy, of course, distancing themselves from what was going on; dismissing the protests as the work of juvenile troublemakers refusing to consider the question as a political problem.
But as the continuous protests demonstrate these explanations were completely wrong. Although there has been a decrease in activities lately people are still protesting and there are still demonstrations at least once a week every Thursday. If somebody thought that the battle for a new youth house would quickly die out. or that the youth house only mattered to a few hundred of activists, they were wrong. The protest movement is so confident that it publicly announced in advance to the media that it would squat a specific house October 13th. 2007.(1) And although the police tried hard to prevent it, several hundred protesters out of a demonstration comprising more than 8,000 people actually managed to get past the police and into the house. This incident and others like it. all testify to the fact that there has occurred a kind of generalization of the struggle in Copenhagen: More and more people support the fight for a new youth house and for the right to live another life, different from the one supplied by the ruling order of work, family and ever new commodities.
Racism and neo-liberalism in Denmark
The widespread support for the fight for a new youth house has to do with the so-called ”normalisation campaign” that has been sweeping across the country for the last seven years. Ever since the elections in 2001. where the liberal candidate Anders Fogh Rasmussen formed a government backed by the extreme right wing party, The People’s Party, the political system in Denmark has developed a peculiar mixture of democracy, racism and chauvinism. A kind of national democratic authenticity totalitarianism primarily expressed as a cultivation of authenticity and hatred towards foreigners. (2) Having won the election in 2001, Fogh Rasmussen launched the so-called ‘battle of culture’ aimed at the left and Muslims alike. We have seen a steadily growing repression of various groups that somehow do not fit the dominant vision of Danish identity. The eviction at the youth house and the following events have, along with the Mohammed drawings, been the most visible signs of this campaign against alternative life forms. Excessive use of violence and criminalization of formerly accepted expressions and actions have been the order of the day. This local development is of course linked to a global process which, although currently termed ”the war on terror”, actually constitutes an extensive neoliberal counterrevolution expanding the power of a closely defined capitalist power.
The campaign against foreigners can seem strange, as Denmark is one of the least mixed countries in the Western world. Denmark has had very limited immigration as the country, even before 2001. had very severe immigration laws. But because politics has been reduced to authenticity in Denmark, the idea of a multicultural society has become a threat. The challenge of globalisation has been met with entrenchment. The Muhammad cartoons epitomized the cultural crusade against Muslim migrants. The cartoons were not at all about free speech, they were yet another attempt by the rightwing newspaper Jyllands Posten to demonize Muslims. The mishandling of the affaire by the Danish prime minister was symbolic of the attitude towards foreigners that are perceived as unwilling to ‘integrate’ into Danish society.
Cultural heterogeneity and cosmopolitan sensibility is not an option for the minority government as it depends on the support of the explicitly racist Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party). Dansk Folkeparti gained 13 seats in the Parliament in 1998 after a campaign based exclusively on the hatred of foreigners. This situation forced not only the other right wing parties, but also the Social Democratic government, to react. The Social Democrats choose to enter the fight for racist votes and tightened the immigration rules several times after June 1998. Already at that time it became common for politicians to throw suspicion at foreigners using a very brutal language. Several Danish newspapers helped pave the way for this development by publishing ‘exposures’ of migrants’ ‘misuse’ of the Danish social security system.
With the “State of War” proclaimed by the American President after September Eleventh. where the question of a global equality between rich and poor countries was transformed into a war against terror, racism was finally legitimised in Denmark. Fogh Rasmussen’s right wing party won the election and took over the government supported by Dansk Folkeparti that got 12 percent of the votes. Unlike in France where it was possible to isolate Front National, Dansk Folkeparti participated in the composition of the new rightwing government’s program. Of crucial importance in this program were new restrictions in immigration making it very difficult to gain asylum in Denmark. But the launch of the defence of the Occident against Muslim immigration was just one component of the new government’s politics. Another one consisted in siding with George W. Bush and his war on terror. The Danish government was there right next to Bush and Blair, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. Danish troops have taken part in operations in both countries. According to the Danish prime minister, being against a Danish participation in the invasion of Iraq was the same as being Saddam Hussein’s ally. Whenever someone during this bloody occupation of Iraq has tried to question the Danish participation in the operation, they were told that they were playing the terrorists’ game.
The xenophobic campaign against Muslim immigrants was accompanied by an attack on seemingly everything leftwing in Denmark. According to the government and Dansk Folkeparti the country is in need of a cleansing of old left wing and 1968 ideas that threaten to destroy the Danish community in favour of a multicultural society. To an unprecedented extent the government has tried to put pressure on a number of public institutions like state television and universities wanting them to distance themselves from what the government perceives to be dangerous 68ist currents. Former employees from the state television have reported drastic increase in attempts to influence programming, and the university system is currently going through a changeover where corporate ideas are replacing classical notions of Bildung and autonomy. Funding for schools and hospitals are being reduced. In this situation, where the government is involved in a thoroughgoing attempt to make hegemonic a particular Danish neo-conservatism, both the Youth House and Christiania have been thorns in the side of the rightwing parties that constitute the government. In their own ways the two places have been able to create alternative communities with values different from the ones the government is promoting.
In a way it might seem strange that it took so long before a reaction manifested itself in Denmark. But even though the Fogh Rasmussen government since 2001 has promoted a Danish national democracy expressed as racism along with complete support for the US-led ‘war on terror’, hatred towards the intelligentsia the left, political correctness and of course Islam, it took the raiding of the youth house to prompt action in the streets. The big demonstrations in May 2006, where more than 100,000 people protested against the government’s welfare cuts, were easily channelled into the existing political system’s traditional logic of exchange and thereby neutralized; at that time it proved impossible to introduce something new and it was easy for the Social Democratic party to falsely stage the protests as merely a wish for a new government, rather than a wish for a break with the current and entire political establishment which caused this situation in the first place. But the demonstrations in 2006 do testify to a growing discontent among large sections of the Danish population who had until then remained passive. So far it has remained difficult to connect the different protests, protesting welfare cuts and the fight for a new youth house, and so far no one has really got involved in each other's battles, added anti-racism and resistance to the war with critique of the government’s neo-liberal policy.
That is one of the problems right now: there is no coherent resistance. The protests in favour of the youth house are thus far completely disconnected from what is going on in the workshops around the country. Thus there is a deep abyss between the street and the shop floor. The militancy of the street has not been able to expand itself into militancy other places. The fight for a new youth house is not yet connected to a wider resistance encompassing rejection of the process of normalization and the racist national democracy, which the neoliberal forces are trying to create in Denmark. And the protests against the raiding of the Youth House are thus not understood as the result of long-term counter organizing that finally began to bear fruit, but are seen as more a question of being enough for a critical mass of people. This is without a doubt one of the tasks that lie in front of us: to formulate a coherent critique in which the individual objects of critique are not separate but joined together in a radical critique of the capitalist system and its money and state form. Confronted with the repressive movements of the Danish state that seeks to represent all critique as terrorism, is it necessary to politicize the protests even further(l) and give them a powerful voice in the present consensual political atmosphere.
The situation demands careful consideration. Becoming militant necessitates a discussion of goals and means and requires the development of a new language and new strategies combining critique, creativity and illegal actions. Many insist that non-violent actions are the only right ones. But in this situation, I think, it would be inopportune to rule out the use of violence in the form of property destruction (banks and corporate headquarters) or squatting. Indeed violence in this situation is to be understood as a premonition of the far greater conflict that will inevitably occur if we do not succeed in blocking militarized neoliberal capitalism and its attempt to hold on to wealth and power by means of control, market expansions, a provocatory public sphere, ”white health” and extreme tourism. After the protests last summer in Germany in connection with the G-8 summit. we witnessed the movement being divided into two fractions: a violent and a non-violent one. It is necessary to reject this division. The street battles in Copenhagen in March 2007 show that for the state there is really no difference between violent and non-violent protestors.The passers-by were arrested along with the more unruly elements, indiscriminately.
This is the important lesson for the local scene of what took place in the streets in Copenhagen last year. In this way the state tries to destroy not only the effectiveness of the protests on the street, but also the protestors’ credibility in the media. The state knows very well that another world is possible and that the threat is real. Therefore the state tries to isolate the mere rebellious elements by using official institutions like unions and parties or different left wing groups connected to the political system. At the same time the state tries to reduce resistance as illegitimate non-political babble: “this is just the actions of irresponsible youngsters who have not been properly raised by their parents.” (3) If this is not enough, the state creates a state of emergency setting up so-called visitation zones where people can be stopped and searched at random by the police without being suspected of any criminal activity, making everyday life difficult for ordinary people. If it is not possible to identify and control the unruly elements, whole neighbourhoods are closed down.
This took place in Nørrebro and Christianshavn in March 2007, and it is happening again right now in other neighbourhoods in Copenhagen. If it is not possible to catch the fish, the water is polluted. That is why groups within the Youth House movement launched the slogan: We are all militants! (4) In an attempt to reject the demonization of the protests it is not possible to divide us into a black and a blue block. The protests are an expression of a general will to resistance and a common wish to do things that run counter to the interests of the state and are subversive with regard to capitalist valorisation. It is necessary to move beyond the usual and recurrent attempts to distance oneself from militant resistance. That the established working class organisations and left wing parties participate in such a move is not a surprise. It just illustrates that they are closely linked to neoliberal restructuring that, according to David Harvey. has been taking place since Chile 1973. (5) It is not from them that we should expect any solution. They have no interest in seeking alternatives to the present order of things.
The automatic rejection of violence and militant resistance in favour of a non-violent critique risks consolidating the status quo and effectuates a falsification in so far as it is not possible to envisage a revolutionary movement that refrains from the use of violence in the battle against capitalism and the state. Denunciation of violence is opportunistic. It is either an attempt to gain acceptance in a consensual political public sphere where all radical expressions are derailed or recuperated, or it is a sign of a wrong and misguided understanding of the necessity of critiquing the ruling representations about violence and terror.
Naturally, every effort must be made to ensure that militancy does not reduce itself to the individualism of rebellion or end life. It is never the individual that is militant, it is the collective that uses militant measures in a political battle. Even if individual revolt, in certain situations, may present itself as morally effective it is always politically inexpedient and necessarily results in various mental short circuits where the fighting isolated individual sees himself as chosen and regards others as objects of mobilization. As if the mission was to force people into doing something. The task is never to organize others but to organize oneself with others. When individual militancy strives to rouse others by the use of violence through exemplary actions, it risks being caught up in a suicidal mirror trap in which power becomes nothing more than a homology to power. (6) Thus, the point is not to glorify violence – it is not certain that violence is a key ingredient in the foundation of a new society. But it is clearly stupid to imagine politics without violence. There is always a need to strike back in defence of the new.
Streets around Copenhagen renamed Jagtvej Street after the Street on which the squat was on.