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Letters From Copenhagen

Disturbance at Ungdomshuset

Scandinavians are not known for reaching an impasse, much less for rioting over squatters’ rights. Last week Beth Milton woke up in an urban war zone.

Just to be clear, Copenhagen is not an exciting place. We like to keep things quiet around here, and would appreciate if you’d do the same. Saturday night being the exception—binge drinking is a national hobby—we bike to work, push some papers, return home for a cozy dinner and whatever film is on TV, and finally toddle off to bed at a reasonable hour. It’s no wonder Danes are consistently ranked as, if not the happiest people in the world, then at least the most satisfied.

Which is why this massive rioting is rather confusing to us.

Since last Thursday, more than 650 people have been arrested in clashes with the police over the eviction of the residents of the Ungdomshuset (Youth House). And I have the good luck of living next door.

I moved to Copenhagen from New York City last summer after studying abroad here during my junior year of college. I liked how the Danes thought, and the prospect of a little peace and quiet after living half a block away from a fire station was enticing. I picked my apartment because it was close to my work and cheap, not because I thought it would give me a front-row seat to European youth gone amok.

Scandinavian civil unrest sounds like a paradox, and in many ways it is. Denmark is a famously homogenous society. Danes rarely disagree; when they do, they debate and discuss and eventually come to a compromise. Which is why the fact that the protesters and police could come to blows is such a surprise.

The very fact that Ungdomshuset exists is a product of Danish compromise. In 1982, the city of Copenhagen gave the cranky and loud “youth of Copenhagen” an unused building, originally a labor union’s headquarters, as a place to play. One could say the building was destined for infamy from the beginning: Its street address is 69.

For the past 20 years the house has been a center for youth culture in Copenhagen—at least, for a certain kind of youth culture. The kind that doesn’t bathe much and listens to loud punk music and really likes the word “fuck.” (Though many Danes don’t fully appreciate its place in the lower regions of the English vocabulary.) American and British media have developed a rotating list of words to describe the house’s occupants: “underground,” “punk,” “progressive,” “leftist,” and “anarchist.” Of these, though, the favorite is “squatter.”

Not many Copenhageners, though, would agree with that term. Many view the occupants as having something of a common-law marriage to the house: If after 20 years the post office will deliver your mail and you can book Björk to perform there, the place is yours. The youth, though, being as youth are, would rather co-habitate than make that marriage official.

I awoke to the sounds of helicopters. Ungdomshuset was being cleared out. And so when the house was unexpectedly put up for sale by the city of Copenhagen in 2000, and in 2001 a buyer was found, the youth didn’t have much legal recourse. They managed to draw the eviction process out in court for years, but finally, in October 2006, the highest Danish court said the youth had until Dec. 14 to be out. The police promised they’d make sure it happened.

Which leads to my very first experience with civil unrest (if you set aside one bar fight during the Red Sox-Yankees World Series in 2004).

Dec. 14 came and went without incident, but on Dec. 16 a protest turned violent. The end result was smashed windows. Lots of smashed windows. Up and down the neighborhood’s main street, Nørrebrogade, storefronts and ATMs were in pieces. The glaziers who came the next day were practically gleeful.

Around 300 people were arrested and, realizing things were getting messy, the police put the eviction on hold.

Then, at 7:15 last Thursday morning, I awoke to the sounds of helicopters in the air. This is not normal for Copenhagen, where even the birds go missing from the sky during our dreary winter. Ungdomshuset was being cleared out, and the police were doing it by rappelling onto the roof. They caught the anarchist occupiers softly snoring in their sleeping bags and made short work of arresting the 30 or so inside.

Even with a million residents, Copenhagen is still a small town at heart, and news travels fast—even faster via text message. Within minutes the first spectators showed up at the House, and soon after came the youth.

Thursday morning was the calm before the storm, and by the minute more protesters were gathering at the house, joined by more police. Stores along the main street, having learned their lesson in December, boarded up their windows, and things began more closely to resemble Florida during a hurricane than a quaint European city.

That afternoon there were a few scuffles and arrests; the real action started that evening. A protest group a few hundred strong started marching toward the house, and when the police tried to stop them, the crowd turned violent, throwing that favorite European weapon of mob violence: cobblestones. While the police were busy dodging rocks, another group of protesters built barricades of trash in the street and set them on fire. Across town and near one of the world’s most successful squats, Christiania, protesters set fire to a car. Most say that’s when things really started going downhill.

Unrest continued through the night but by Friday morning, everyone was just too tuckered out to continue on. The sun rose on a neighborhood that, to be fair to the BBC’s trope, did look like a war zone.

Things were peaceful again the next morning when I stepped out—except for the burning stack of bicycles. Already we had established a pattern—the day was quiet, save for police vans racing the streets, sirens blaring but with no apparent destination, while we braced for the night. That evening, determined not to let anything like riots ruin my weekend, I headed over to a friend’s apartment. After making it out of my neighborhood, I realized the 15 police vans, two fire trucks, an ambulance, police with gas masks, and barking German shepherds might serve more purpose than just decoration. I turned around and returned home. Good thing, too, because that was the night the riots moved one block over. I slept soundly, last having heard at 12:30 p.m. that the protests were peaceful. Things were peaceful again the next morning when I stepped out—except for the burning stack of bicycles, the fact my sidewalk had been torn up for protesters’ ammunition, the smoking ruin that had replaced the shed next to the kindergarten, the smashed car windows, and the pink paint covering the street. Nothing pisses cops off more than being covered in pink paint. The sun was shining, and all was calm.

Saturday night I ran into a patch of tear gas while bicycling home. But Sunday dawned quiet. And miracle of miracles, Sunday night was, too.

Maybe, we all thought, we’ve gotten over the hump. Maybe it’s time to reconcile and suck up our pride and work together for a bright new tomorrow.


* * *

Danes are some of the most pragmatic people I know. Maybe that comes with size: A certain level of idealism is expected from a large country, but when you’re small, you simply have to solve your problems in order to survive. If it’s 1940 and Germany wants to invade, just get the Jews on a boat to Sweden and hand over the keys. Otherwise, there won’t be much of you left tomorrow.

Many Danes I’ve talked to about Ungdomshuset have the same reaction: They wish the youth weren’t doing this, and they think the government screwed up somewhere. We’ve got to find them a new house and we’ve got to make them want to accept it. There’s no talk of ideals: violence as an acceptable means for political change, the basis for property rights, the burden of responsibility when an angry public meets an unmoving government. Instead, they just want a solution and then some quiet.

A solution isn’t soon coming, though. At 8 a.m. Monday, a (de)construction crane moved in and started tearing down the house top to bottom, back to front. This was what you could call “picking a scab just to watch it bleed.” A few hours after the demolition began, crowds had begun to form.

Living as an expat in Denmark, I find it hard not to wonder how this would play out in the States. Would we let an anarchist squat hang onto valuable real estate for 20 years? Probably not, unless we’re talking about People’s Park in Berkeley. Would we ever think society’s needs might override a bill of sale? Not unless it involved wetlands, and not 15-year-old punks.

The question that I think about most, though, as I bicycle through the commotion, is whether hundreds of American police could face hundreds of angry American protesters and have nary a shot fired. Violence of that degree is so far from the Danish mind—this is a country that sets a life sentence in prison at 17 years—that it seems impossible. Mobs torching Mercedes, however, seemed pretty unlikely last week, too.

Soon it will be dark and the crowds at the house are still growing. They’re making it extremely difficult for us to eat our cozy dinners and watch whatever film is on TV. Copenhagen is not supposed to be an exciting place, and Scandinavians are not supposed to riot.