There’s a riot going on

Since Thursday morning, Copenhagen has been a pretty interesting place to be. Thursday morning was when the police forcefully and effectively evicted the activists of the Youth House which had been in the hands of several generations of young punks and squatters for the past 24 years – most of this time with a legal agreement with the city of Copenhagen.

But the city council sold off the house to a Christian sect in 2001, and despite a number of long-running appeal cases, the activists found no way to overturn the decision. And when the final appeal was turned down in December last year, making the house officially squatted, there was a huge protest as frustrated young activists went on a rampage, wrecking neighbourhood store fronts and fighting the police.

Back then, the city council politicians immediately used the opportunity to condemn the Youth House activists for their violent protest, conveniently forgetting that the activists had exhausted every other option for a peaceful solution at that point. Then, a group of investors sympathetic to the Youth House cause stepped up and offered to buy back the house from the Christian sect who refused all offers.

During the first months of this year, the politicians have warily sought to find a solution of sorts, entering into negotiations for finding a new youth house for the activists. The Youth House activists usually work together and make decisions based on a direct consensus-based democracy at their Monday meetings, and after a long week of meetings, they agreed that they were willing to give up their current house for a new one – if, and only if, the city council would acknowledge the need for alternative cultural centres such as the Youth House by giving them the new house for free – just like city council originally had given the activists the old house.

The city council refused saying that they would not be pressured into giving away the house by threats of violence (thus ignoring the 24 years of free cultural activities the activists had already supplied) and quoted a price of 12 million kroner – a price the investors were willing to pay, but the Youth House activists refused on grounds of principle, arguing that this would be to acquit the city council for selling their house and let them avoid acknowledging the activists’ rights to a youth house as per the original 1982 agreement.

That was were negotiations finally soured and died, leaving little hope to killed off when the police evicted the activists. When the activists left the house, the Monday meeting – their sole instance of decision-making – disappeared with it, leaving in essence the unmediated anarchy of individuals each on their own taking up the measures matching their frustration. And there has been protests every day of the weekend, a number of them turning violent with flaming barricades in the streets, Molotov cocktails and burnt out cars. The feeling being that they have nothing left to lose.

This seems to have been confirmed just today as the mayor, Ritt Bjerregaard, is quoted for saying that it is not the obligation of the city council to guarantee a youth house for the autonomous activists of Copenhagen and refused to spend another minute discussing the matter.

Living fairly close to the Youth House, I’ve passed through the area several times during the past few days, once having to skip over a burning barricade on my way, once having to dodge police trucks advancing down the street clearing the rubble (and rabble?) before them, once almost running afoul in tear gas spreading down the streets. And it really gets your adrenaline pumping.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was curious and excited about the events. Any place where there were slightest hint of trouble, journalists and photographers immediately joined the fray, filming and snapping photos, the most adventurous ones even standing in the front line, and one of them getting in trouble about it with his employers.

In the activist circles that kind of footage and reporting is called riot porn, and usually it requires little pretense. Riot porn pretty much looks the same all over the world, whether it is a political cause or just random football hooligans brawling. The important part is the raw aggression of the mob against the police.

All riots look the same since the circumstances under which they occur tend to be the same. That vital mental connection between your actions and the state-sanctioned actions of the police is cut. When you look at a window and see no good reason not to break it. All seems fair, and all goals apart from the mayhem itself seems to disappear. From the rumours I’ve heard, many of the people involved in the riots weren’t actually youth house activists (not to excuse them, since many of them most definitely wanted the confrontation as well), but rather random adrenaline junkies, football hooligans, drunks, local hoodlums, old punks and adventurers drawn out by the simple promise of confrontation rallied under by the carnage itself.

Ironically, the estimated damages in destroyed property, cars, roads, storefronts combined with the expenses in police man hours now exceed 14 million kroner – more than what the city council asked for the suggested alternative youth house. And today, the Christian sect owning the old youth house have begun tearing the whole thing down to avoid further confrontations with the activists (they claim it’s because the house was in a state beyond repair, but that seems to be another convenient excuse).

It seems only the ones who wanted the confrontation – whether for reasons of principle or simply for the hell of it – the Youth House activists, the Christian sect, the City Council, the media and all of the random trouble-makers joining in, got something out of this mess.

Hopefully, they’ll wise up someday.

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