Friday, March 9, 2007

The Battle for Ungdomshuset

I was awoken before dawn last Thursday by the ringing of my cell phone. On the line was a friend from Copenhagen. “I’m sorry to call so early. It’s happened.” Having very recently spent a lot of time in Denmark, I knew right away what this meant. Denmark’s flagship anarchist squat, one of Europe’s oldest squatted social centers, had been attacked by the police. “They landed helicopters on the roof,” my friend informed me.

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.

Every afternoon since the police occupation of Ungdomshuset, thousands of people from all walks of life have been peacefully demonstrating in support of the squat. Every night thousands more have been taking to the streets in decidedly less pacific ways. Various parts of the city have been characterized by burning barricades, broken glass, water cannon and tear gas. With 600 people arrested, by Saturday night the streets were a bit calmer.

Police have been recruited from all over Denmark to participate in the repression of the squatters movement and their supporters, and they have apparently even borrowed police cars from Sweden. Being part of the Schengen zone, driving into Denmark is normally as easy as driving across the border from Massachusetts to New York, but for the past several days there have once again been government agents at the borders. Among the 600 arrests in Copenhagen have been scores of Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and other international supporters, but many other would-be supporters have reportedly been turned away at the border.

My contacts tell me that people from within Denmark have been turned away from entering Copenhagen if they raised the suspicions of the police. Denmark is made up of three main land masses connected by two very long bridges. Pretty much anyone coming from one of the two western sections of Denmark would be coming to Copenhagen over a bridge, so keeping Danes from reaching their own capital city is not logistically as challenging as it might be in many other countries.

Several leftwing social centers, infoshops, and collective houses have been raided by the police, who have destroyed property including a number of doors which they unnecessarily smashed down, and people inside have been arrested. Members of the Anarchist Black Cross doing legal support for those already in prison were themselves arrested.

At Ungdomshuset and the surrounding neighborhood of Norrebro, activists there estimate 100-200 police are at all times guarding the building. The struggle for Ungdomshuset has received tremendous support from much of Danish civil society, including the unions, who in principle refuse to work under police protection. The rightwing Christian sect that bought the building, Faderhuset (“Father House”), however, has found people to work on clearing and destroying the building. They are wearing masks because they don’t want to be recognized. A Danish flag is now flying on top of 69 Jagtvej.

There have been dozens of protests at Danish embassies around Europe in solidarity with the struggle for Ungdomshuset, and in Paris the Danish embassy was occupied by protesters.

Supporters of Ungdomshuset formed a foundation with the hope of legalizing the squat by officially purchasing the building, but Faderhuset refused to sell. The foundation has been told by the city of Copenhagen that perhaps a different building could be purchased. Ungdomshuset issued a statement rejecting this idea, out of the principle that the government should provide the solution to a problem that the government itself created, without making other people pay for it.

The squatters of Copenhagen dare to ask the question, who’s world is this anyway? Who are these people who claim to own everything, these lords of the land? Perhaps privatization and gentrification of society is 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.

Since 1982 Ungdomshuset has been a major center in Europe for the autonomous movement. People who have stood against corporate greed, stood for an egalitarian society. Against nationalism, for a world without borders. Against racism, for a world without discrimination and xenophobia. To these and other ends, Ungdomshuset has been host to thousands of concerts, workshops, meetings, conferences, and protests.

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 70’s, and was squatted in 1982 by autonomous youth.

The police takeover of Ungdomshuset and draconian security measures adopted over the weekend come at a time when the Danish government has shifted markedly to the right. The Rasmussen government has sent Danish soldiers to participate in the illegal occupation of Iraq. Denmark has recently passed some of Europe’s most restrictive asylum laws.

The sensible toleration that once characterized the Danish state’s attitude towards marijuana has been shattered by the ongoing police occupation of Christiania. The 900-person squatted community in the old military barracks not very far from the center of the city has for many years been one of Denmark’s most popular tourist attractions, featuring a successful bicycle factory, restaurants, cafes, a daycare, and, until recently, an open market for marijuana and hash. No hard drugs were allowed, and the atmosphere was very easygoing. Now the drug trade has once again been pushed underground, violence has gone from rare to commonplace, including one beating death, and police are searching people at will for drugs, maintaining an intimidating atmosphere for residents and tourists alike.

And now, along with selling Ungdomshuset, the Danish government is making plans to seize property in Christiania, kicking out residents in order to create what they’re euphamistically calling “low-income housing.” Those seeking to profit from gentrifying cities seem to be using the same capitalist’s handbook, from New York to San Francisco to Copenhagen.

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 it’s 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.

And for sure, whatever Faderhuset ends up building on 69 Jagtvej after they’ve destroyed the historic building that stands there now, they’re definitely going to need some molotov-proof windows.