Whose House? Our House!
“The people in the house have been trying to get into dialogue for a lot of years and now there is no dialogue. So now they are fighting for a place to be.“ —Simon Nyborg
Last Thursday, the silence of dawn in the Danish capital was abruptly shattered by the sound of helicopter blades. Then came the rhythmic stomping of boots on the rooftop, the hiss of tear gas canisters, the shouts of commandos, the terrified screams of residents, and the crack of doors being kicked in. The handful of youth who had been keeping a 24 hour watch over the Ungdomshuset (“Youth House”) squat proved to be no match to the overwhelming force of the heavily armed Danish anti-terror squad that descended from a police helicopter onto their roof.
The raid ignited three days of unrest in the surrounding Copenhagen neighborhood of Norrebro. Fighting back against the privatization of their home and neighborhood, activists put up a fierce resistance. Clad in homemade armor, hundreds of young activists erected barricades, tossed Molotov cocktails, set fire to cars, and pelted the police with cobblestones. When it was over, over 650 protesters had been arrested. Now their home, as well as a piece of their hearts, lies in ruins.
The raid, and following few days and nights of intense battle on the streets, eventually led to the forcible eviction of the squatters, and the demolition of their home. This, at least in part, is their story, and the story of the life and death of the Ungdomshuset, which they called home. The Ungdomshuset saga is only the latest episode in a larger, centuries-old story, and greater narrative of appropriation, enclosure, and privatization of land and wealth into the hands of a few.
Many Battles In A Longer War
For two decades, the Ungdomshuset has been the home of squatting community organizers, activists, anarchists, and left-wing punks, among others. In 1982, former Mayor Weidekamp gave the house to the youth, at which point it was renamed Ungdomshuset. The building has been more than a home. It has been a community, a cultural center, an activist and organization headquarters, a grassroots office building, a community kitchen, an event center, and a concert hall, among other things. It has been host to concerts by performers such as Australian Nick Cave and Icelandic singer Bjork, as well as an impressive array of underground punk and metal bands. It has come to be loved and cherished by those who lived and worked in the house, or just visited. For many, their own identity has become inextricably entangled with that of the Ungdomshuset, and the siege and destruction of it equates the siege and destruction of a part of themselves.
The building that, at least up until last Thursday, housed Ungdomshuset, had a long history before 1982. It was built by the Danish labor movement in 1897 and was called Folkets Hus – the People’s House. VI Lenin spoke there before he launched the Russian Revolution. The Second International took place there. From that house, the first International Women’s Day was declared. It fell into disrepair and disuse in the late ’70s, and was squatted in 1982 by autonomous youth.
In 2001, the government of Copenhagen sold the Ungdomshuset to a developer, which then sold it to a Christian group called Faderhuset (fatherhouse). Since 2003, the activists of Ungdomshuset have been fighting against their eviction, although a court decision in August this year declared December 14, 2006, to be the final eviction date – although Danish police say that 2007 is a more realistic deadline, probably owing to the defensive capabilities of the house’s defenders. Since the court decision, activists and their supporters have offered twice the amount paid by the Christian group for the house, but the offer was refused. (Dec. 18th, 2006)
Three hundred or more protesters were arrested on December 17th of 2006, and afterwards, police spokesman Flemming Steen Munch told reporters, “It was extremely violent. It looked like a war zone and it’s been many years since we last had to use tear gas on the streets.”
The Final Siege
Months later, the police came to make good on their word, and according to police spokesman Flemming Steen Munch, on March 1st at 7:00 AM, the operation began with the placement of a riot squad on the roof by means of helicopter. The initial raid hospitalized one protester, and led to activists and house residents blocking traffic with bonfires and barricades. Police responded by raiding and searching houses in search of protesters and suspected “ringleaders.” Several other infoshops, collective houses, and left-wing social centers have been raided in the aftermath, and members of the Anarchist Black Cross—who do prisoner support work for those already abducted (arrested) and incarcerated by the State—have also been arrested and imprisoned. At least 25 protesters were injured Friday night alone, during the worst of the civil unrest.
Then, on Sunday, March 4th, 2007, after two nights of riots sparked by the physically coercive eviction of the Ungdomshuset residents (which has been planned since last year), it was reported that “more than 500 people, including scores of foreigners, have been arrested since the riots started Thursday,” and that “authorities said more than 200 were arrested early Saturday following overnight clashes in which demonstrators pelted police with cobblestones and set fire to cars.”
David Rovics wrote of the raid:
Danish anti-terror police landed at dawn, unannounced, and certainly uninvited, using helicopters, construction equipment, and lots of tear gas to overcome resistance from the handful of youth who have for some time now been keeping a 24-hour watch over Ungdomshuset (“Youth House” in English). The medieval-looking barricades that had been perfected over the course of the past few months were impressive to see, but everybody at the house that I talked to during my recent visits to Copenhagen was fairly resigned to the possibility of an assault using helicopters being impossible to resist.
Two days after the initial raid, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reported:
In Denmark, over 640 people have been arrested in a series of protests and clashes with police. The demonstrations began on Thursday when police moved to evict a group of squatters from an anarchist youth center in Copenhagen. As word spread about the evictions, anarchists from around northern Europe traveled to Denmark to show solidarity. Anarchists had lived in the building since 1982 and it had become a symbolic center for many groups in Denmark. Protesters on the street criticized the police actions. On Saturday night, police searched homes in Copenhagen for activists involved in the street clashes. Earlier today cranes began demolishing the graffiti-covered red-brick building.
Reports have emerged that a school and other buildings were vandalized, and dozens of police vans have been lurking the streets to break up gatherings of protests. The Danish police have described this battle as “Denmark’s worst riots in a decade.” Police spokesman Flemming Steen Munch said, “In the last 10 years we haven’t had riots like we’ve seen in the past two days.” Police have reported that “activists from Sweden, Norway and Germany had joined hundreds of Danish youth in the protests. Sympathy protests were held in Germany, Norway, Sweden and Finland.” So far it has been reported that at least 25 foreigners have been arrested. Protests of support and solidarity have broken out across Europe and the world, including Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, and Tel Aviv. French activists occupied the Danish consulate in Lyon.
A 22-year-old activist named Jan, who declined to provide his last name, who says he has been coming to the house for the last ten years, told the AP that “this is a display of anger and rage after more than seven years of struggle to keep what is ours.”
After three nights of intense battle on the streets, in which protesters erected barricades in the streets surrounding the house and police injected tear gas into a window of the house, the police managed to take the Ungdomshuset. Soon after, the bulldozers moved in, and the demolition of the center began, as residents and activists looked on in horror and disbelief, their eyes and throats still itchy and sore from tear gas. It has been reported that, fearing reprisal from those whose only home they were destroying, demolition workers wore masks to conceal their identities, and were protected by an estimated 100-200 police officers. Apparently, these workers were hired by Faderhuset (“Father House”), the rightwing Christian sect that bought the building, because the Danish labor unions, out of principle and solidarity, refused to work under conditions of police protection.
Birgitte, described by the BBC as “a black-clad 21-year-old woman with dreadlocks,” said “they are breaking my heart. I cannot stand it.” Many people around the world have had their heart broken as they were torn from their homes to watch them be demolished, and many of us recognize a bit of our own story in the story of the Ungdomshuset. “Solidarity among people has no borders,” said Rene Karpantschof, former squatter and sociology lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, “just like the Spanish civil war or the youth rebellion in the late 1960s. People recognize themselves in such causes.”
“We only just started! Thanks for a great weekend. Its been amazing taking to the streets with you all. None of us will ever be the same again,” stated an inspiring and passionate anonymous communique from Ungdomshuset activists. “Now we must stand together and look out for each other. We must make big plans, and on top of that it will be great fun too. Are you ready?”
David Rovics asks:
Who are these people who claim to own everything, these lords of the land? Perhaps privatization and gentrification of society are neither just nor inevitable. Perhaps the air, water, land and even the buildings on the land should be held in common. Perhaps in such a prosperous society every city should have free social centers like Ungdomshuset, and they should not need to be fought for… The battle for Ungdomshuset is not over though the building is now occupied by the police and being destroyed by masked construction workers. The elements of the autonomous movement that made Ungdomshuset the center of its community will not disappear, with or without the house. The same fight for common space against corporate greed, the struggle between the forces of capital and the forces of liberation, will continue in different forms, in Copenhagen and around the world.
A Contemporary & Historical Context of Resistance
In the streets of Copenhagen, and all around the world, a battle is under way. There is nothing new or novel about this struggle. It is a battle that began with the great European land enclosures from the 12th to 19th centuries, and the herding of the newly landless, dispossessed peoples into the factories and tenement slums of the emerging industrial urbanism. Lands and resources once held in common were appropriated by a small ruling-class elite, and the masses were dispossessed of the land which once sustained them, and enslaved by the moloch of industrial production.
There has always been resistance to enclosure and privatization, and there have always been those who refused to buy into the illegitimate and illusory rule and authority of the ruling class. During the initial phases of the land enclosures in Europe, there were the Diggers, the Levellers, and the Enclosure Riots. The industrial “revolution” saw such resistance as that of the Luddites. Slave rebellions and revolts were common in the colonial world, as was indigenous resistance. Later, in the so-called “New World,” as the lands already inhabited by an indigenous population were being appropriated and privatized, there were the tenant movements and rent strikes. Today, around the world — in places like Vancouver, BC, and Miami, Florida — and on the streets of Copenhagen, that legacy of resistance to exploitation continues, albeit in a somewhat different form.
Some have already began fighting to establish new youth houses. Squatting, dumpster diving, guerrilla gardening, and feral foraging are now world-wide counter-cultures, as human beings re-enter the earth community that they have so long ignored and isolated themselves from in their attempts to dominate and control. Around the world, the battle against the capitalist commodification of basic human rights (and indeed, of life itself) continues, from housing to food and water to genetic integrity, ecological integrity, and biodiversity. The struggle to reclaim the commons and the true fruits of our labors continues on, despite overwhelming odds. Another world is not only possible, it is inevitable. What that world will be like is up to us.
List of Danish Embassies for Actions in Solidarity with the Eviction and Arrested: The Government of Denmark has evicted a two-decade-old anarchist cultural center in Copenhagen. Will the government of Denmark be held accountable? Solidarity knows no borders. Get out there and do something.
GNN contributor and blogger Nathan Coe is a guerrilla journalist and activist residing in the mountains of Southwest Colorado, where he is attending college and working on his Major in Humanities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.