17 March 2007

Denmark Bedeviled

Annals of Activism

From March 1 through 7, the building at 69 Jagtvej street in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen was cleared of some thirty occupants by police and then demolished at the request of the 120-member Faderhuset Christian community. The building, lately known as Ungdomshuset (Youth House), was built in 1897 as a workers’ meeting place, and over the years it had served as an outpost for labor and radical groups. In 1910 the Second International met there and celebrated the first International Women’s Day (March 8). Because of upkeep problems, the building was eventually sold to the city of Copenhagen, but in 1982 the city signed an agreement with a group of young people allowing them to use the building. From that time on, Ungdomshuset was a punk rock music venue and left-wing cultural and political activity center enjoyed mostly peaceably by hundreds of kids and adults. Protests began in 2000, when Faderhuset achieved control of the building by becoming majority shareholder of the building’s latest owner, a company called Human A/S, which some believe was formed as a front for the sect. Actions by Ungdomshuset users and supporters escalated into rioting in December, as the court-ordered deadline for the Ungdomshuset group’s departure came and went. Sympathetic vigils against the eviction and demolition have been held at Danish embassies in Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Turkey, and France. Cell phone and video camera footage of the fires, rioting, and less violent actions have appeared on YouTube. The following text is from an email interview with “Jack,” an activist in his early thirties who has participated in the protests.

n+1: What do you do for a living?

Jack: I’m a university student and work in a sex club.

What is your political affiliation?
Hmm—I’d probably call myself radical left, autonomous, or something around there.

How did you become politically active?
It’s hard to say. I guess, retrospectively, you can say that having a working-class background and an emerging gay identification brings questions of power and social justice into focus when starting a middle-class dominated education. I’ve been active in the radical left scene since the mid-90’s—and all the time Ungdomshuset has been a political and cultural key factor and meeting place—with its ups and downs of course.

What did you do at Ungdomshuset? 
It has varied a lot how much I’ve been there, depending on what has been going on politically at different times. But I have mostly been active concerning queer/LGBT activities. Ungdomshuset was one of the few places in Copenhagen where it was possible to make cheap, inclusive queer/LGBT-events, and it has been the only place in Nørrebro with continuous queer/LGBT activities. Of course it has not been without difficulties to make, especially separatist, LGBT-activities in such a place—we did meet some resistance, but it was possible.

Ungdomshuset’s existence has been threatened several times over the years. What protests have you been a part of and what did you do? 
I’ve participated in different protests—earlier and now. And of course I’m not interested in either confirming or denying anything in particular. The police have arrested about 800 persons during the last two weeks, more than 200 are still in custody, and several houses and addresses have been searched without warrants.

Without confirming or denying anything, can you describe some of the protest methods used in this case?
Quite a wide range. You have seen, or heard of, the militant street protests. To mention a few other things from the past two weeks: the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party has been shortly occupied, and a lot of street signs in Copenhagen have been changed to “Jagtvej.”

Was anyone killed or injured during the rioting? 
As far as I know a few people have been hit by tear gas grenades and one has had his foot crushed by a police van. And some people have been beaten up during arrests and in police custody.

People were barricaded in the building from the end of August to December. How did they get food and supplies? 
Barricades were built in the house and there were always people on guard there to alert when the police started the eviction. But there were concerts and other activities going on up until the eviction, so the house wasn’t sealed off as such.

Where will the people who lived at Ungdomshuset go now? 
It’s still a common mistake in the Danish media to assume that people actually lived in Ungdomshuset. It was an alternative left-wing cultural and political center. Of course some people slept there on and off, and a lot of people spent a lot of their time there, but nobody actually lived there as such. But where people will go? Good question. So far they have gone into the streets.

Our impression in the States is that Scandinavia is an egalitarian heaven—that you all have domestic-partner benefits and long paternity leave and other things we only dream of. What were you trying to achieve with your LGBT activities?
Lesbian partners are actually always having problems getting paternity leave, and many people with an immigrant background cannot get the same social security as “normal” people. Let’s just say that Scandinavia might not be as egalitarian as the story goes, and that the activities in Ungdomshuset should be seen as an attempt to create alternatives to assimilationist, commercial, and nationalist tendencies in the LGBT community in Copenhagen. And as an attempt to expand our own space, also on the leftist scene.

Why did the city originally give the building to the youth? 
The short version: The squatters’ movement was quite strong at the time, and demanded a place for different activities run on people’s own terms.

Why do you think the city allowed the building to be acquired by Faderhuset? 
Basically, I think it’s about gentrification of the city, and a result of an increasingly right-wing political agenda that has gradually taken over in Denmark since the beginning of the ’90s. That means that selling the house was not only an attack on maladjusted youngsters and loud punk music, but part of an attack on left-wing social and cultural structures. And even though a different story is mostly told in the media today, that was actually central to the arguments brought up in the city council when it was decided to sell. And the selling and the eviction fit very neatly along with the state-forced normalization happening in these years as well. Attempting to run autonomous, democratic structures on anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-heterosexist grounds is getting more and more difficult.

It’s been reported that the building was sold in part because the users weren’t paying rent, according to a contract that was signed with the city. Who from the Ungdomshuset group signed the contract originally and why? How much was the rent? 
I don’t know all of the legal details, but a few persons did sign a contract about the conditions for using the house. But it’s not true that Ungdomshuset didn’t pay their bills. They did—power, gas, etc. So actually it should seem as quite a neat arrangement for the city council: The place was run for free, paying its own bills.

Does that include property taxes? 
Yes.

A group called the Jagtvej 69 foundation tried to purchase the building from Human A/S on behalf of the house’s users, but their offer was rejected. Were they supporting the house out of nostalgia for the building’s history? Were they directly involved with the people who lived in the house? 
The most visible member of the foundation, who also negotiated with politicians from the city council, has been a lawyer named Knud Foldschack. Among the other board members are Anders Olesen, the head of the labor union Byggefagenes Samvirke (for construction workers), Martin Sundbøll, who is a former activist, and Leif Skov, the leader of the Roskilde Festival, the biggest music festival in Northern Europe. I think their motivation has been based on a mixture of recognizing the history of the building, a sort of innovating, alternative cultural scene, and the political importance of the place.

Who were the demolition crew? Are they not part of a union? 
I don’t know all of them, but probably not. Some of the companies working for Faderhuset have tried to remain anonymous, painting over their logos on their machines and such. But nevertheless there have been quite a few threats and attacks toward several companies during and after the demolition. Among other things some vehicles have been set on fire.

This has been the biggest demonstration in Denmark since the 1993 protests against Danish EU membership. Why has the destruction of this building set off such violence? 
It is bit annoying always having to talk about the meaningless violence of the activists. Basically people were trying to get beyond the massive police forces to get back to the house. And the police fought back violently and this is how a battle starts. But why were people reacting and why were they angry enough to continue, despite the massive use of police force? Ungdomshuset has been there for 25 years, and it’s a big part of many people’s lives. Also, Ungdomshuset has actually during the last years run a campaign on many levels—in court and towards the media and the politicians—trying to solve the situation and emphasize the constructive, innovative, creative, social and so on aspects of the place. And the authorities, including the vast majority of the city council, just don’t care. I think it’s frustrating for people to get it thrown in their faces that politics work that way—that private ownership is the bottom line. And also, for many people living in Copenhagen, the eviction signifies that the political and cultural life is getting just a bit more claustrophobic, in the city and in Denmark in these years. Another component which could also have an impact on why so many people went into the streets after the eviction is that the right-wing government in Denmark in these years has pressured a lot of people, especially the not so normal ones. Many people are fed up with racist laws, so called anti-terror laws meaning limiting basic freedom rights and increased prosecution and normalization of people and activities that differ from the white normal Danish middle-class norms.

It’s clear from Faderhuset leader Ruth Evensen’s “victory” speech that Faderhuset has an antigay agenda. Do you think there is a racist or xenophobic component also, on the part of the city or residents of Copenhagen? 
Faderhuset itself is an extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalist movement, namely the so-called progress-theological wing and connected to the international scene, for example Ulf Ekmann’s organization “Livets ord” in Sweden and the preacher Kenneth Hagin in the U.S. Progress theology basically means that if you are a true believer you will get success, including economic success, and if you are poor, it is one of many signs that you are possessed by demons. Faderhuset is very concerned about demons. In the beginning the statements of Faderhuset in the public were very much flavored by that: proclamation of a Crusade against demons, by which they mean punks, left-radicals, homosexuals, Muslims, and Communists—all favorite targets. They made demonstrations in the neighborhood Nørrebro to “clean” the area for such demonic elements. During the last year they slowed down a bit and tried in their press statements not to focus on these topics to create a nicer image in the press. Instead they tried to play on a broader nationalistic rhetoric, which unfortunately has big support in Denmark, also in the city council. And all the time it has been well known by the city council which people they where dealing with. The city council just decided to ignore that the house was sold to people who are part of the international radical Christian right and proclaimed support to pro-life anti-abortion groups in the U.S. and which are themselves making sessions in their church to drive out “demons” of homo- and bisexuals to “cure” them. After the eviction of Ungdomshuset they have started to speak very bluntly again. The leader announced that homosexuality and the right to abortion should be the next targets.

What are Faderhuset planning to build on the site? 
They say that they are planning to build a Christian cultural center in a year or so. In the press they are talking about a nice place for “everybody,” but in their victory speech they used formulations such as “Nørrebro [meaning the multicultural and alternative neighborhood, where the house was situated] doesn’t have a chance.” Meaning: once Faderhuset comes and cleans up the place.

Are you still protesting the demolition? What is the next move? 
The struggle will continue, and a lot of people have been mobilized by the eviction and the following protests. But it’s hard to say in what way. The militant protests were very massive in the first days. During the last days we have mostly seen large peaceful demonstrations and smaller happenings and direct actions. What is needed now is also international support, also from the LGBT scene, the feminist scene, and so on.

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