The riots in Rostock, Germany began around 3 pm last Saturday. In European riots outside of G8 meetings and such, generally all sides refrain from using lethal weapons. (If anybody breaks with this tradition – such as Genoa in 2000 or Gothenberg in 2001 – it is always the police.) The riots on Saturday were part of a long series of such confrontations around Germany, around Europe, around the world.
On one side were many thousands of police brought in from all over Germany, dressed in space-age green or black riot gear. On the other were thousands of mostly young men and women, mostly German but including participants from all over Europe and a smattering of other places, many wearing balaclavas or bandanas over their faces, most dressed in black.
These events are strangely beautiful, partly like a brilliantly choreographed modern dance performance with the city as it’s stage, partly like a medieval battle. Many of those who don’t wish to be involved leave the scene in a hurry, many others find some high ground and watch the melee unfold, and quite a few more try to keep on with whatever they were doing before the riot started and hope it ends soon.
For months before the event tension had been building, as is standard before these big convergences. As if following a script, the German authorities raided leftwing social centers throughout the country looking for people they described ominously as “terrorists.” (What a useful word for anybody you don’t like.) These raids were reported throughout the European press, of course. The idea is to scare people off from coming to the protests. As usual, it worked, and the crowds were probably less than half what they would be if so many people had not been afraid to go.
Police were stopping people driving suspicious-looking vehicles, looking for gas masks, fireworks, or other things they didn’t want at the G8 protests. Of course, anybody coming in a day early driving a normal-looking rental car like me had no problems and could have brought anything into Rostock, but if you were trying to bring some banned item in with a home-made “pull-me-over” car, or a big bus full of anarchists, you had problems.
But all the efforts of the police were in vain, since one of the most effective weapons people use in these confrontations are readily available in unlimited quantities in every European city – cobblestones. The streets of Rostock were littered with broken cobblestones that young people had been smashing on the street and breaking into fist-sized pieces to throw at the cops.
The most impressive part are the modern equivalent of the archers, those firing flares, lighting up the sky, arcing far over the heads of the crowd and landing in the packed lines of riot police. Many times the police retreated, many times they charged, and many times they tripped over each other in the narrow streets, where their numbers simply couldn’t be accommodated. By the end of the day there were hundreds injured, dozens with broken bones, including quite a few police.
The day began with my friend Lisa dropping me off at the main train station, where one of the two opening rallies was to take place. She forgot her cell phone in the hotel room and it took her hours to drive back to it. For the whole day it seems the police had shut down most of the roads leading into the city. Sometimes roads leading out were also closed, but mostly it was easy to get out but hard to get in.
For days leading up to June 2nd, mostly youthful alternative-looking sorts of folks were streaming out of the main train station, coming from all over, then heading purposefully from the train station to the main Convergence Center or one of the three camps within twenty kilometers of Rostock, surrounding the small resort town of Helingendam, where the G8 meetings are taking place as I write. On Saturday morning the crowd kept doubling in size every ten minutes or so until by 11 am there were tens of thousands of people, and the same thing was taking place at another site in town for the other opening rally.
The crowd was a multigenerational collection of people with very diverse views, but united in the idea that this world could be a very different place. There were representatives of the massive German anti-nuclear movement, there were those calling for the G8 nations to end their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to do something about global warming. There were quite a few Turkish communists, there were Danish union members, Dutch squatters, and many, many others with no particular political affiliation or ideology. Just people who know that things are not as they should be, this world is not quite the world we want, and these G8 leaders need to be held to account for the world they have, in so many ways, created for us.
They are essentially asking the question that is as old as what we dare call “civilization.” Whose world is this? Is it for the corporate elite and their pseudo-democratic governments to rule in the interest of profit, or is the world’s wealth for us all to share more equally? Is our world a place where we can allow any nation’s army to bomb cities in another nation? And when all this death and destruction is all about oil and control, what then? What is the appropriate response when our air is being poisoned by coal-burning power plants, our food and soil poisoned by pesticides, our water poisoned by nuclear waste, and we’re all dying of cancer? Is this how things should be? If not, how can we change the situation?
One of the speakers was from the MST, the landless peasants movement in Brazil. They have answered the question of whose world is this by seizing the land that the rich call their property and they are forming collective farms. They have chosen to eat and fight rather than to starve and die. The questions are immediate, the stakes high, and in Brazil, as with many other countries, much blood has been spilled over these questions.
In modern Europe there have been historic compromises between the haves and the have-nots, and most people live in relative comfort. The struggles rarely result in people getting killed these days. But as in the rest of the world, all over Europe the historic struggle goes on, continually trying to answer the question in one form or another, is the world here for the private gain of the few or for the public good of the many?
One of the things that’s always so striking about these mass convergences such as this week of action going on right now in and around Rostock is how few of the people I know in various activist networks around Europe are actually there. There were tens of thousands of people present at the big rally last Saturday, but they clearly represent a small fraction of the European left. Throughout my tour of Europe leading up to the G8 protests I asked people if they were planning to go. There were always one or two, sometimes a few, who were. But most said no, they couldn’t get off work, or they had to take care of their kids, or they were concerned about getting arrested, or they were on probation from the last arrest, or they were too broke to afford the train ticket.
Yet here we were on June 2nd, with the big public space in front of the train station thronged with tens of thousands of people. Behind the stage for everyone to see were two large banners, proclaiming in German and in English, “another world is possible.” I sang, a German hiphop artist performed, and then there were several speakers from around the world, including the woman from MST.
It was a long and peaceful march to the site of what was supposed to be the main rally, which turned into a smaller rally than the opening ones, as many people left, others stayed and fought, and a few tried to pay attention to what was happening on the stage, which kept on starting and then stopping again depending on what was happening around it.
June 2nd was the main rally against the G8, but the actual G8 meetings are happening now, with smaller groups (many thousands) based at their various camps engaging in road blockades and many other different types of actions to try and prevent the meetings from happening, or at least to disrupt them.
Already the G8 meeting organizers have cut their meetings down from three days to 1-1/2 days. They presumably have their reasons why they’re doing this, but everyone knows the real reason – fear of us, fear of humiliation, fear that the world will see them naked, humbled by a few thousand citizens determined to let them know that their elitist, corporate version of “democracy” is not ours.
My “G8 Warm-Up Tour” began with a flight to Copenhagen at the end of April. As soon as I dropped off my stuff in Norrebro I took a walk to the place that’s now being called “Ground 69.” 69 Jagtvej was the address of what was Copenhagen’s oldest leftwing social center. Built by the union movement in 1897 and called Folkets Hus – the People’s House – it eventually fell into disrepair and was squatted by leftwing youth in 1982 and called Ungdomshuset – the Youth House. Since then and until last March it was a thriving center that included a bar, an infoshop, several performance spaces including a ballroom with a stage and a great sound system, a kitchen where thousands of meals were cooked, practice rooms for local bands, and rooms for all kinds of other industrious and creative activities.
A whole generation of youth had grown up in and around Ungdomshuset. Many of them had kids who also grew up with the Youth House being a center of their daily lives, as their parents from the 1980’s generation mostly moved on to other things. In March the anti-terror police landed with helicopters on the roof of Ungdomshuset, filled the building with tear gas, arrested it’s defenders, and destroyed the building within a week. They had to use masked construction workers imported from Poland to destroy the building, since none of the Danish unions would work under police protection, out of principle.
In the taxi on the way from the airport, and walking down the main street in Norrebro to 69 Jagtvej, the evidence of the battle for Ungdomshuset -- for the right of the youth to have their house, and more broadly, the rights of people other than yuppies to exist in the quickly-gentrifying Norrebro neighborhood – was everywhere. There were thousands of posters carpeting the city advertising upcoming demonstrations. Ubiquitous graffiti saying things like, “I still feel like rioting.”
Official-looking signs saying “Jagtvej” had replaced many street signs that used to indicate that you were on another street. But now, evocative of the end of the film, Spartacus, we are all Jagtvej now. The two numbers that everyone in Denmark knows as synonymous with Ungomshuset, “69,” had replaced many addresses. My taxi driver was complaining about how much harder it is now to find the addresses of his customers since last March.
He was also complaining about the riots. Like many Danes, he was sympathetic with the struggle of the Youth House up until the several nights of rioting that followed the police occupation of the building.
But many others were either involved with, supportive of, or at least not particularly bothered by the riots, which were seen by many as a sensible or at least understandable reaction to the events that led up to them. This was also evident as soon as I got into the city. Many varieties of Ungdomshuset t-shirts and hoodies were everywhere, worn by many really young kids who had probably never seen Ungdomshuset when it existed. Many youth had made home-made patches saying just “69” or “Ungdomshuset Blir” – Ungdomshuset Stays – also the title of a song that became a national hit last fall. The scenes on TV of the riots – and they were well-publicized on national television – had caught the imagination of many young people, who identified viscerally with the young men and women battling with the police.
For several days, several neighborhoods in Copenhagen were characterized by burning barricades made largely of bicycle tires -- as with anywhere, you burn what’s available, and in Copenhagen you can’t walk down the sidewalk without tripping over hundreds of old bicycles on each block. Broken glass, broken cobblestones, tear gas and sirens were the order of the day. To a very large extent, the youth of Denmark were on the side of those throwing the stones, not the ones firing the tear gas, whether or not they were entirely clear on the origins of the conflict.
It was a shock to see how narrow the new dirt lot was, where Ungdomshuset had stood. The building was a lot taller than it was wide, I realized upon visiting Ground 69. But what really brought back the memories of that place where I have played shows to so many great audiences was when we were outside the prison where fifteen of Ungdomshuset’s defenders were being held, close to three months after the destruction of the building.
It was there that I came into contact once again with the microphone that had been used for all of my shows there, and for many other shows as well. The mike smelled like someone who had not brushed his teeth in years, it was the worst-smelling microphone I’ve ever encountered. I suddenly could see the clouds of smoke, behind which sat or stood a hundred black-clad youth, listening attentively, or singing or shouting along with me, facial piercings reflecting the lights.
Every Thursday since the beginning of March, different groups were taking turns organizing protests and marches with sound trucks through the city. Many people from the early days of Ungdomshuset have come out of the woodwork, along with many young kids who had never seen the place other than in a photograph.
I was in town for several rallies.
On my first real day of gigs, May Day, I sang in the morning in the nearby town of Roskilde for members of the red-green coalition, Enhedslisten, who have a number of people in the parliament and are the extraparliamentary left’s biggest ally in parliament. In the afternoon I sang at the communist-sponsored May Day stage in a big park near Norrebro. In the evening I was hanging out by a park with anarchist youth and others there to party for May Day, who had put lots of burning rubbish in the street, something which has recently once again become a Copenhagen tradition, particularly since March. Police stayed a hundred feet away. This time nobody threw anything at them, and they didn’t try to clear the street.
One rally and march was on the 69th day since the raid of Ungdomshuset. Many hundreds of us were marching behind a very loud sound truck, and for the first time I was able to appreciate techno. It reminded me at the time of hearing the call to prayer coming from the mosques inside Israel. A very different social milieu, to be sure, but in both cases there was a kind of loud statement of existence, this affirming cry of “we’re here.” People from Christiania had come and added to this, bringing with them dozens of little home-made instruments consisting of tin cans and latex formed in such a way that when you blew into them lightly they would screech with twice the volume of a good bugle.
The more conservative end of the establishment is often characterizing the growing Danish youth movement as a bunch of self-centered brats, and with that in mind, one scene on this particular march was noteable. There was a police “escort,” as always, on both ends of the march. At one point they were suddenly agitated. Not speaking Danish, I didn’t know what they were yelling about, but it was suddenly clear as an ambulance was making it’s way down Norrebrogade. But as soon as the march saw the ambulance coming, with no need for any prompting, the street suddenly cleared of people and the ambulance sped through unimpeded.
It was a few days later that I got my first taste of Danish tear gas.
The conservative government in power in Denmark has decided to “normalize” Christiania. For decades there was a sort of détente between the Danish government and this 900-person commune in the middle of the city, two blocks from the Christianshavn metro stop. But since Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to power this is all changing. He has sent Danish troops to assist the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (though they are now leaving Iraq). He and his rightwing political allies in the racist “Danish People’s Party” have turned Denmark into one of the least friendly nations in Europe for immigrants and refugees. And, among his other crimes against the people, he has embarked on a project to “normalize” Christiania.
Christiania is a magical place, and is one of Denmark’s biggest tourist attractions. In 1970 it was an old military barracks, no longer being used as such, and the counter-culture decided to take it over and create a community on these several hundred acres of land. They cleaned up the land and the water beside it, fixed up the buildings that were there, and built many more funky, artistic dwellings. They decorated the land with artwork, built cafes, restaurants, music clubs, and a very successful bicycle-making workshop, among other things. They provided office space for activist groups and a large building was given over to be used exclusively by people from Greenland. (Still a colony of Denmark, much of Greenland’s population has suffered at the hands of their Danish colonizers and suffer from alcoholism and other problems.)
The continuing existence of Christiania has been an inspiration for people around Europe and much of the rest of the world. It is essentially a small town with no cars, no police, no landlords, no rent, generally bustling with tourists and residents. Until Fogh’s police went in several years ago and busted the open hashish and marijuana market, it was the only place in Europe outside of the Netherlands where hash and pot could be bought openly on the street, in a safe environment. With no police force, hard drugs were kept out of Christiania by mutual agreement between the residents and the people running their stalls on what is still known as Pusher Street.
The people of Christiania resoundingly answered the question of to whom the city belonged by taking land that was not being used and declaring that it belonged to the people. The buildings had long ago been built and paid for, why should anyone “own” them? Why pay rent or mortgages for them? Who needs police or other such services? They pay directly to the utility companies for their electricity and water. Rather than being a burden in any way to Danish society or taxpayers, they are a top tourist destination.
But the government apparently can no longer stand this kind of example being set. They say they want to create a park and “low-income housing.” What the residents of Christiania already have is a beautiful park for any visitors who care to come, and free housing – but so close to the center of the city, on property that could presumably be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, and Copenhagen’s real estate developers are salivating in the back rooms behind the Prime Minister.
So on the morning of May 14th, after claiming that “normalization” negotiations with the commune had broken down (they hadn’t), police arrived unannounced with a bulldozer and proceeded to destroy one of 52 houses which the government wants to destroy, for one reason or another. They’re not up to code, they’re built in the wrong place, or whatever.
As the house was being destroyed, supporters of Christiania – including many also involved with the struggle for Ungdomshuset – started sending text messages to each other, and within a couple hours there were hundreds of people there. By afternoon there were hundreds more, and still more by evening. I got there by around 4 pm, about seven hours after the house had been destroyed.
I was walking from the metro station towards Christiania and I saw a couple of women from Ungdomshuset that I recognized. I had heard that the main road that runs alongside Christiania was completely blocked off by the police, and it had occurred to many of us that looking “normal” could be a good strategy for getting through the police lines. These women, however, had multicolored dreadlocks and facial piercings. I asked them about that. “We’re under cover!” They said. “We’re not wearing black!” And it was true. I hadn’t noticed.
The police were still blocking off the road, but there was one smaller road that went into a residential neighborhood, and they were letting people in there. From that road you could get into Christiania. As soon as I stepped foot into Christiania I found myself running with a crowd of people away from a cloud of tear gas. Groups of mostly young people had made barricades to keep the police out, and set them alight if the police were trying to come in that way. The crowds would then stand back and throw rocks and bottles at the police, who would fire tear gas back. It went on like that all night. On the roofs of the buildings many people were watching the show, and trying to be helpful, making noises when police were coming from around the corner.
This was not the preferred response of many in the Christiania community, who are coming from a more nonviolent, hippie orientation. The spokeswoman of Christiania duly distanced herself from the rock-throwing. In response many youth that I talked to complained that the hippies just weren’t responding. But if they had waited a few more hours they would have seen how people at Christiania were responding.
Overnight several dozen people built a new, very artistic house on the site where the house had just been demolished.
A few days later there was what you could call an anarchist-hippie unity march. I stood on the sound truck, which was a more improvised version of the ones used by the Ungdomshuset supporters, a more colorful Christiania version, pulled by a tractor, one of the few motorized vehicles driving on the narrow dirt roads of Christiania. It was raining, but not too hard. Behind the crowd of several hundred people was one of the main entrances to Christiania. On top of an arch that you pass through to get in or out it said, in English, “You are now entering the EU.”
Despite the fact that the house had been destroyed, Christiania felt more like Christiania than it had in years. Since the hash market was busted by the police, gangs of cops had been roaming around Christiania nightly, randomly searching the bags of anybody they wanted to. This kind of behavior is very unusual for police in Denmark anywhere outside of Christiania, but ironically, it had become one of the least safe places to smoke weed anywhere in Europe. That week was different. Thanks to the burning barricades it had once again become a liberated zone, and people were taking the occasion to roll and smoke lots of big spliffs. The sound man and I were feeling good by the time we got to the government building downtown.
There we were met by the other half of the march, the weekly Ungdomshuset march that the Christiania march was timed to coincide with. The rainbow flags and the black flags intermingled, punk rock, hiphop and acoustic music once again on the same stage, completely surrounded by hundreds of riot cops, who stood around looking mean but didn’t do anything.
The new movement for Ungdomshuset was well in evidence, with many very young kids there along with the more typical teenagers and folks in their 20’s. As with marches every Thursday, there were older folks with vests that said (in Danish), Parents Against Police Brutality. They were keeping an eye on the cops at these marches, but not trying to play the unpopular role of “peacekeepers,” just watching out for the cops, and everybody liked them.
One of the people who performed was a woman named Nia, a great singer, sister of a great singer named Billie, daughter of a pair of legendary Danish rock stars, Annisette and Thomas Koppel of the band Savage Rose, generally identified by the 1960’s, but still going strong today. Thomas died unexpectedly of a heart attack not long ago, at the age of 60, and he is sorely missed by many. Only days before he died he finished a CD of instrumental music, which rose to #1 in the Danish charts posthumously. He also wrote something called Message From The Grassroots, a sort of “where do we go from here” piece, around which many older and younger Danish activists formed a group of the same name, and their banners and sweatshirts were well-represented at the rally. (Annisette was also at the rally, but didn’t sing that day.)
The weekend before the house demolition in Christiania I was in Sweden. I had played at a three-week-long film and music festival in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in Malmo, just over the bridge from Copenhagen, and my next stop in Sweden was further north, in Gothenberg. I was singing at a rally against NATO. It was the second anti-NATO rally I had sung at in Sweden, which seems particularly odd since Sweden is not a member of NATO.
But there in the harbor of the lovely, canal-filled city of Gothenberg were dozens of warships from the US, Britain, Spain and elsewhere. Sweden, like most places, is a land of contradictions. It is by far the most welcoming place in Europe for Iraqi refugees, while at the same time it sells large amounts of high-tech weaponry to the US to bomb Iraq with. In fact, I understand that per capita, Sweden is the biggest arms exporter in the world. Officially “neutral,” whatever that means, it is a member of the European Union and has hosted many NATO events.
The anti-NATO rally was the biggest in Gothenberg in a long time, with thousands of people there by the harbor across from the warships. After the European summit in 2001 during which a protester was shot in the stomach by the police with live ammunition, the police were trying to be friendly, but of course they were there to protect the warships from us, posted every few feet along the harbor.
Here we had another very privileged European country with a large chunk of the population concerned and asking basic questions. Why are we hosting a meeting of an organization that is busily making war with half the Muslim world? Why are we exporting so many arms to nations at war when we claim ourselves to be “neutral”?
Unlike some other countries in Europe, Swedes these days don’t do a whole lot of rioting. The same can be said of Norway, which was the next stop on my G8 Warm-Up Tour.
I had gigs in Oslo and in Trondheim. Trondheim is a city of 150,000 or so, seven hours on the train due north of Oslo, but not even halfway to the northern tip of Norway, which is well into the Arctic Circle.
Around both cities could be found posters and graffiti in solidarity with the struggle at Ungdomshuset. Along with them can often be seen “Blitz Blir” – Blitz Stays. Blitz is Oslo’s answer to Ungdomshuset, another leftwing punk rock social center that has been in downtown Oslo since the 80’s.
You’ll also find posters saying (in Norwegian), “Norway out of NATO, NATO out of the world.” Not long before I got to Oslo, NATO had a meeting there, and it was met by a small but festive protest which the authorities and the media were referring to as “violent.” It certainly was no riot by Rostock standards, but there was a bit of fence-shaking and a lot of tear gas.
Because of this, my friend Stein was once again in the news. Since the heyday of the Norwegian squatters movement in the 1980’s, if anything exciting happens in Oslo, Stein gets the blame for it. He doesn’t seek the publicity, but if there’s a protest and he’s saying something into the bullhorn along with many others, more often than not it’s his picture that’s in the paper and his words on the television news broadcasts. Walking with him from the train station to his house and back, about a 20-minute walk altogether, he was greeted by at least a dozen people, some of whom he knew, and harassed by one cop who he didn’t know.
It was about a year before the NATO meeting when Stein and many other people were playing support roles for 23 young men from Afghanistan who were doing a very public hunger strike while camping on the grounds of a large church in the center of Oslo. The Afghans were asking the people of Norway a simple question. Is Norway a country where people like them shall be deported back to war zones from which they had fled for their lives, or a country that shall give them safe haven?
For 26 days they ate nothing, wasting away in front of the eyes of the masses of passing shoppers, commuters and tourists. I was in Oslo for a week or so during that time, spending a good bit of it hanging around the churchyard. Every day at 5 pm there would be a cultural event for the Afghans, their supporters, and the passersby. While I was around there were performances by musicians from all over Asia, Norway and, at least in my case, the US. I first met the Afghans by playing for them, and realized in the process to my delight that most of them were quite fluent in English.
It was an eventful week while I was there. The most memorable occasion was when the police came at dawn one morning to destroy the tents and arrest the hunger-strikers. I was there with several dozen other supporters, including many from Blitz, surrounding the Afghans and trying to prevent them from being removed. As usual, the television crews spent much of their time following Stein with their cameras to see what he might do or say next. If they tried to talk to him he’d tell them that the Afghans have a spokesperson and he’d point to Zahir, a tall, thin, intelligent man of all of 23 who was working day and night in the position his comrades had chosen for him.
When the hunger-strikers ultimately were taken away by the police and then released, they all came back and stayed in the churchyard with no tents.
It was a heartwarming moment when soon thereafter the Norwegian Red Cross came and erected their own tents for the Afghans, and also hooked them up with running water. The Norwegian parliament then finally said they’d reconsider each case. After 26 days of not eating this was the best offer that had been made, and the Afghans decided to end their hunger strike. Since then, however, Norway has deported many more people to the war zone that is Afghanistan today, occupied by Norwegian troops along with many other NATO soldiers.
After riding in the train through the snow-capped mountains and small villages dotting the landscape here and there from Oslo to Trondheim, I was met at the train station by activists from the UFFA anarchist social center and taken to a protest downtown.
Not only was it roughly the anniversary of the hunger strike in downtown Oslo, but it was also the one-year anniversary of the killing of a young immigrant from Nigeria by a Trondheim cop. It was a classic story, repeated ad nauseum in the US. It was almost identical to a story I had heard just weeks before in Sonoma County, California. The young man from Nigeria had low blood pressure and had gone too long without eating. In front of the social welfare office he was feeling delusional and apparently acting out. If he were a white Norwegian, of course, the cop probably would have recognized the situation for what it was and sought medical help for him. Being black, however, he instead strangled him to death.
Over a thousand people there in downtown Trondheim, and over a thousand at the same time in Oslo, wanted to let the authorities know that this kind of racism is not OK in Norway.
There also at the rally were many of the Afghans I had met in Oslo a year earlier. They had chosen that day to embark on a long march from Trondheim to Oslo to highlight their plight and that of other asylum-seekers who are daily being deported back to war zones like Afghanistan. I sang for them as they began their walk. As I write this, they are about three-fourths of the way to Oslo. Many people were concerned about how they’d do in the very sparsely-populated, snow-covered mountainous regions that they had to walk through to get to Oslo, but they assured everyone that they had had lots of experience walking through snowy mountain ranges escaping their homeland and getting to Europe. They all made it through those mountains just fine.
That night after the rally in Trondheim I was to play at UFFA’s annual three-day music festival. Before the festival I was talking with one of the organizers, Bjorn-Hugo, about the differences between the activist scene in Norway as opposed to other European countries. “It’s hard to be very militant when they keep giving you what you ask for,” he explained. For example, when the old UFFA center burned down by accident, the anarchists demanded that the government give them another building. The government did. It’s a bit further from the center of town, but it has a bigger backyard than the last one, and everybody’s happy with it.
But the folks at UFFA still have a lot to be mad about. Although the society is prosperous and nobody’s going hungry, Norway is an oil-rich nation that encourages fossil fuel dependency and global warming. It’s a big arms exporter. It’s troops are occupying Afghanistan. And a member of the Trondheim police force strangled an African immigrant to death last year, to name a few concerns.
It’s summer, and in Scandinavia in general, and northern Norway in particular, the sun never really sets. It always feels eerily like it’s about 5 pm. Long shadows, a dusky light, but never dark. For maybe a half hour at about 2 am it almost got dark, but then it started getting lighter again. When the festival was over, at 4 am, several dozen fairly intoxicated anarchists – they had been drinking a northern Norwegian specialty called Kolshk, a mix of moonshine and coffee – marched towards the social welfare office where the Nigerian was killed. It was only a few blocks from UFFA.
Along with the march, in a shopping cart, they brought with them a toy wooden police wagon, about a meter tall and a meter wide, big enough for a child to sit in and pretend to drive. “It’s Trondheim. We don’t burn real police cars here,” someone explained. They wheeled the toy police wagon up to the social office, doused it with moonshine and set it on fire.
In the early dawn light, beneath the cloudy sky, the bright red fire and black smoke was beautiful, and far more dramatic than I had imagined burning a toy police car might be. A couple of real police cars circled us but didn’t do anything provocative like get out of their cars or anything… The fire department responded with impressive speed, looking like they had just gotten out of bed and thrown their gear on, and were not happy to be awoken so early for no good reason. They dutifully put out the fire, turning the black smoke white, leaving a smouldering toy police wagon still sitting in the shopping cart.
Without missing a beat, folks bid the social office adieu and wheeled the cart back to UFFA. Some of them climbed onto the roof and planted the partly-burned, still-smouldering toy police wagon on top of the chimney for all passersby to see. I suspect the partly-blackened police car atop UFFA will be staying there for quite some time.
“From dreaming comes knowledge.” Armand was quoting an ancient Arab writer. I was in the Netherlands, starting the Holland leg of my tour. Armand and I were backstage at the ACU club in downtown Utrecht, smoking big spliffs.
“What kind of weed do you recommend I get at the coffeeshop down the street?” I asked. He looked at me skeptically. “I don’t touch the stuff from the coffeeshops. I only smoke outdoor organic.”
The Netherlands is now the only country in Europe where you can buy pot and hash over the counter in coffeeshops (since the Danish police put an end to Pusher Street in Christiania). It hasn’t always been that way in Holland, though, and Armand remembers those days well. When he was a young man in the late 1950’s he first smoked cannabis with some folks from the Carribean he met at the harbor in Belgium, and he’s been a proponent ever since.
In the 60’s Armand became a household name in Holland and Belgium (the Dutch-speaking world, you could say). As in Denmark, the US, and much of the world, it was a time when leftwing hippies like Armand could become rock stars, and he did. He had many hits, and was known as the Dutch Bob Dylan. Stylistically there is certainly a resemblance, though his lyrics, from what I’m told (they’re almost all in Dutch), focus largely on cannabis, with peace and love and other nice ideas thrown in for good measure.
At age 61, with a full mane of long, bright red, dyed hair, and very multicolored clothing, he can enthrall an audience for hours. He used to pack stadiums. Now he packs smaller venues, though with significantly larger audiences than I’d normally get most places, so doing several gigs in Holland with him was a pleasure for various reasons.
Armand and I were first playing at a G8 informational event, encouraging folks to go to the protests, talking about what was going to be happening there, before the music started. The fear tactics of the German authorities seemed to be crossing borders, since just the week before a hundred bicyclists were mass-arrested for having an unpermitted Critical Mass bike ride there in Utrecht. The general consensus was that the Dutch authorities were looking for names of people who might be going to the G8 protests in nearby Germany, to pass their information on to the German authorities, since mass-arrests of bicyclists is not the norm in this otherwise very bicycle-friendly nation.
That night I slept in a large squatted building only a couple hundred meters from City Hall, in the center of downtown Utrecht. There had been a big fire in the building fifteen years ago and the building was abandoned. Taking advantage of Dutch laws which say that buildings left abandoned for a certain amount of time can legally be squatted, it was squatted and fixed up at least to the point where people could safely live in it.
As in cities throughout Europe, real estate prices have gone through the roof, and abandoned buildings these days are rare, so there are always palpable tensions between the scruffy squatters and their yuppie neighbors who otherwise populate the downtown areas. Is living in the city you grew up in a right or a privilege? You’ll find very different answers depending on who you ask.
The same tensions can be found between those favoring more industrial development and highways and those favoring more forests, farms, bicycles and villages.
Sometimes these tensions exist poetically within the same family. My friend Antwan has been campaigning for many years on behalf of the forests, farms and villages. Campaigns he’s been involved with have gotten quite a bit of media attention, and he has at times been a bit of a celebrity, in some sense Holland’s answer to England’s Swampy or Julia Butterfly in the US.
Antwan’s brother, on the other hand, is known for a different reason. He started a multi-million-dollar business, running a factory in China that makes plastic trees and sells them to corporations around the world who like that sort of thing. You just can’t make this shit up.
One of the gigs I did with Armand was on the outskirts of Amsterdam, in what is essentially a small village called Ruigoord.
Ruigoord used to be a small village to the west of Amsterdam, right on the harbor. Below sea level, like most of Holland, separated from the water by a dike. There were a hundred or so nice old houses and a big old church in the village, with farmland and forest surrounding it on three sides.
In the early 1970’s the Dutch government decided they wanted to expand the industrial harbor, make way for more industry, make more money, dump some more toxins into the air, clearcut the forest and pave over the farmland. With these lofty goals in mind, they forced the people of Ruigoord to sell their houses to them, with the intention of destroying this lovely village.
The hippies of Amsterdam, upon hearing about the fate of Ruigoord, thought rather that the village should stay. They moved in to the now-vacant buildings and started a thriving community there in 1973, and they – and now a whole new generation in addition to the original squatters -- have been there ever since.
Until very recently, Ruigoord was a village under constant threat. The harbor company kept on expanding, taking more and more farmland and forest. Facing the loss of the last bits of farmland only a few dozen meters from the edge of the village, in the late 1990’s members of the Ruigoord community and supporters from around Holland acted decisively.
They set up camps on the threatened land. They lived in treehouses and tunnels beneath the roads, to prevent bulldozers from taking down the trees or using the roads. Antwan lived in a tunnel day and night for a month, and was nearly buried alive there when the harbor company ignored the fact that he was living under the road and tried to drive on it anyway.
“For ten years, every year was the last year for Ruigoord,” Armand explained. But after the campaigns, all the media, and some sympathetic politicians, recently a Ruigoord was officially allowed to stay. The forests and the farmland around it are gone, but the village remains. Next door, the first company to move in to one of the industrial buildings by the new expanses of harbor was Starbucks. When the wind is blowing the right way, the acrid smell of roasting coffee beans hangs in the air. Capitalism stinks, literally.
The occasion for our concert was the annual Ruigoord poetry festival. The poetry was all really boring (it was all in Dutch). But there were some fantastic bands in the big church, and Armand and I on another stage outside. Hundreds of big, sturdy, but lightweight rectangular buoys were all over the field outside the church. Normally these multicolored box-shaped things are used to keep ships from scratching up against docks, but somehow lots of them migrated to the village… They make great seats, as well as fabulous toys for kids, like giant leggos you can climb.
Reminiscent of the Merry Pranksters, there were two buses on the field, beautiful buses with windmills on top. One was from the older generation, and on the back, in big lettering of the sort that was used to advertise Grateful Dead shows at the Fillmore, were the words Amsterdam Balloon Company. The other bus was the creation of the younger generation of Ruigoord, and on the front of it were the words, Dutch Acid Family.
Now that Ruigoord has finally been more or less legalized, many from the community are planning on boarding the ABC bus to go support Christiania later in the summer. Others were planning to head to Germany. That was my next stop.
My first stop in Germany was the Rostock Convergence Center, then an anti-war protest about 120 kilometers south of Rostock, then back to Rostock for the G8 protests.
The first G8 rally was still almost a week away, but the Rostock Convergence Center was already buzzing with activity. Every hour small groups of people were arriving from all over Germany, Russia, Spain, the US, all over. The Convergence Center was a big old disused school building, but what it had become was unmistakable. Political art and graffiti was everywhere. A large banner hung from the top floor proclaimed “kein mensch ist illegal” – no one is illegal.
Inside the building were posters, announcements and proclamations from all kinds of different groups, each playing their part in making these protests a historic event. Without any central leadership, the place had the familiar atmosphere of a beehive. There were those organizing the massive undertaking of feeding organic vegan food to thousands of people each day. There were those organizing anti-racist actions against eastern Germany’s sizeable Nazi skinhead population. There was the Clown Army planning their own unique disruptions to business as usual. There were the techies setting up computers with high-speed internet access. There was the legal team, the people organizing shuttles to drive everyone to various locations in the area, and of course many groups making plans for a multitude of direct actions.
I played an acoustic show there at midnight. The next day I went to visit the camp in the small town of Reddelich. Reddelich is a farming community of 150 people or so fairly close to the resort town where the G8 meetings were to take place. When I first visited the camp there were maybe a hundred people there setting up tents, digging latrines, rigging up electricity, preparing the kitchen for thousands of people who would be coming, and so on. I talked to the cultural working group who happily scheduled me in to do a show on June 1st at the bar, then I headed out to Hamburg.
Hamburg is a beautiful city where I have spent a lot of time over the years. I visited friends there, and caravaned with some of them to a small town 120 miles south of Rostock, where local people have been in a legal battle with the German government over the fate of a large chunk of land which used to be a military practice area for the Soviet military.
Since the wall fell this area of land which was once covered with dust and Soviet tanks has now turned back into a lovely forest, and the people in the area want to keep it that way. The German government, after some talk of turning the land into a park, have in more recent years been talking about once again using it as a practice bombing range.
Once again the familiar theme, the familiar question which can be found everywhere you look – whose world is this? As is so often the case, the people and the government are at odds.
The military typically uses pyramid-shaped targets for their bombing practice, and the people there had small and large pyramids they had made, with the slogan on them and on signs all over the place, “every target is a home.”
After spending the night at a pristine campground by a lake near the prospective bombing range, I spent the morning talking to folks who are veterans of the anti-nuclear movement. Hearing about villages in the Wendtland region where there is a nuclear fuel processing plant, villages where the farmers have become very politicized, not just about the dangers of nuclear power in their backyard, but about the bigger realities of who shall control our planet’s destiny.
I remember visiting the Wendtland region just before the G8 protests in Italy seven years ago. In small farming villages I passed signs wishing people luck at the protests in Genoa. I heard stories of the unusual creatures of the area, the giant moles that mysteriously dug huge holes beneath the railroad tracks to prevent the nuclear transport trains from moving, or at least to delay them massively. For many years it has gotten to the point that tens of thousands of police are necessary to allow the train to make their way across the country.
When tens of thousands of police arrive in the area, people know a transport is coming, and soon there are far larger numbers of farmers as well as activists from across Germany there to lay down on the tracks, dig holes beneath them, flood them with water, cut them with saws, block the roads with tractors to make police movements very difficult, and so on.
The nuclear transport is a ritual that goes on every year, but this year it’s not happening, apparently because the police throughout Germany are too busy keeping the G8 meetings from being shut down instead.
After a festive rally outside of what is known as the Bombodrom -- the land where the government wants to do their target practice – people headed in to camp on the land illegally and be arrested. The arrests never came, however, perhaps because the German police had other things to worry about further north.
After the rally ended and folks were headed into the forest to set up camp, others of us headed up to Rostock. Most of the rest were planning to head there the next morning. I sped down the highway with a car full of anarchists from England, Belgium and the US that I had picked up, and made for the Convergence Center.
As I had anticipated, it was jammed with people and full of activity and anticipation. Everything was in high gear. Information was flying around about who was being stopped on the highway, which borders were being closed, who was being turned away from Denmark or Holland, were the police in one of the camps or not, which roads were open in the city, how many people were still being held from a protest the day before in Hamburg, how many arrests had their been at an anti-Nazi protest nearby, and so on.
With another car full of people I headed out to Reddelich Camp. It was June 1st. The camp looked nothing like what I had seen only a few days before. What had been tents had turned into buildings made of pallettes and other pieces of found wood or downed trees dragged out of the forest. Near the bustling tent-turned-building where I did my concert, people had built a huge children’s play area, including a merry-go-round type thing which was fit for an amusement park. Eight people (kids or adults) could fit on the eight seats that surrounded a large pole with ropes connected to each seat. Once other people pushed it clockwise so the ropes were wound up around the pole, it could spin fantastically for five minutes or so on it’s own.
Nearby was a very impressive jungle jim kind of thing. The kitchen was in full swing, feeding thousands of people. There was a welcome center to help people orient and figure out how to plug in to what was happening. There was a building with computers with broadband internet access, and many, many more structures that I didn’t have a chance to investigate.
Hundreds of people were milling about at the bar by the time the sound system and the improvised mike stand was constructed, at 11 pm. One friend of mine there from the US was skeptical about whether this crowd of mostly anarchist youth was going to be interested in some guy with an acoustic guitar, when it might be assumed that many of them were more into punk rock.
As soon as I started strumming, though, the milling crowd turned instantly into an attentive audience, and suddenly I recognized people I knew from all over Europe and North America. There they were, people I had just recently seen in Utrecht, Gothenberg, Copenhagen, and other folks I hadn’t seen in months or years from England, Belgium, Berlin… And, as always at these mass convergences, mostly just lots of good people I had never met before.
I headed back to town in the wee hours of the morning to get some sleep before heading to the train station for the big rally. I thought about the jaded leftists I’ve known who say these mass convergences are pointless, and how completely wrong they are for saying this.
Whatever did or didn’t happen in Heilingendam this week, thousands of people from all over the world have worked together, marched together, sat in together, made new friends, and they’ll be bringing these connections and these experiences home with them. Whether the G8 meetings were seriously disrupted or just inconvenienced, the authorities and the world at large has once again had to take notice.
All is not well in paradise, and just who calls the shots, and in whose interests, is not at all set in stone. Whether refugees shall be welcomed or shunned, whether countries shall export arms or build windmills, whether forests shall be forests or bombing ranges, whether villages shall be villages or industrial harbors, whether recreational drug users shall be productive members of society or shall be thrown away in prison, these are all matters of life or death, and these matters are by no means decided.
Democracy is in the streets, in the big cities, the small towns, the forests – but not in the seaside resorts. Sometimes – often – governments are compelled, forced to listen to their people, especially when the people shout loud enough, long enough, sit down in the streets and refuse to move.
And sometimes when so-called democracies feel they must defend themselves with armies of riot police, the cobblestones get broken. They can be replaced.
Whose World Is This is also the title track of a great Jim Page CD. You can read more of my essays by going to www.davidrovics.com or www.songwritersnotebook.blogspot.com. Hope to see you on the road and in the streets.