On Monday, 5 March, bull-dozers and a huge hydraulic excavator moved in to destroy an historic building in Copenhagen, the ‘Ungdomshuset’ or Youth House, which had more than 100 years of political history. It once hosted socialist revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemborg.
The demolition teams wore masks and the equipment they used had the firm’s name painted out for fear of revenge attacks. The lorries taking away the rubble had armed police escorts.
Last Thursday, 1 March, a helicopter landed on the roof of the Ungdomshuset, as part of an operation to remove hundreds of young people occupying the building. Fierce resistance was put up. After three days and nights of pitched battles, 650 people were arrested. Extra police vehicles were lent by Sweden and the Netherlands, and the prisons’ director said the prisons were "bulging". Some areas of Copenhagen, near to the scene of the police raid, were described as looking like ‘war zones’.
Solidarity demonstrations erupted across Denmark, and in other North European countries. The ‘Ungeren’ has a special place in the hearts of millions on the left. It was built as a centre for socialist and trade union meetings at the end of the 19th century. For decades, it was occupied and run by young people, as a social centre for youth.
A 25 year-old woman commented to reporters that the house’s destruction was a consequence of Denmark’s drift to the political right and the erosion of the welfare system. She felt the protests were as much a demonstration against the government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as an attempt to save the centre.
Far from destroying places where young people can pursue all sorts of creative and cultural interests, the national and local governments should be spending more on provisions for the young and the unemployed.
Sarah Bruun describes the background to the demonstrations of protest and an eye-witness report from her home town of Århus.
Battles over historic left-wing centre in Copenhagen
The history of ‘Ungdomshuset’
The house on 69 Jagtvej, which was built in 1897, under the name, ‘The House of the People’, was a gift to workers. It was used as a gathering place for those who could not afford to go anywhere else, but also for those who opposed the system they lived in. The house has been used for many events, politically, as well as culturally. For instance, it was in this house that it was agreed to have a Women’s International Day. Socialist revolutionaries, like Lenin (in 1910) and Rosa Luxemburg, visited the house.
For some time, the house was left empty, and owned by different people, but no one actually opened up and used it for anything good. In 1982, Copenhagen Council finally decided to take over the house and handed the right of use to an undefined group of people called ‘The users of Ungdomshuset’. Since, the house was used as a popular cultural and youth centre, and, undoubtedly, created a colourful and joyful mood in Nørrebro in Copenhagen.
In 1996, the house caught fire, causing severe damage. The council did not think it would be worth saving the house, and decided to close it down. Shortly after the fire, though, its users rebuilt and repaired the house. The authorities later accepted this and the council decided not to close it down.
Suddenly, in 1999, for no apparent reason, the council decided to sell the house to an extreme religious fundamentalist, homophobic sect, called ‘Faderhuset’. This is where the troubles seriously began.
The struggle for the house
Fearing closure, tens of thousands of people around the country took to the streets in protest. In the last few weeks, demonstrations spread to the rest of Scandinavia and to Germany. The demonstrations were very different - from peaceful torchlight processions to demonstrations of very angry young people fighting against the armed police. No matter what kind of demonstration took place, they were all similar in one respect: hundreds of people were on them. These are large numbers, considering the marches were not really organised.
The struggle has not only been marked by demonstrations. The occupiers of ‘Ungdomshuset’ had a lawyer running their case, who has been fighting bravely in court, but in vain.
Disturbances and riots
It is hard to blame one specific group for the violence which developed over the past weekend. We saw demonstrators throwing paving stones against the police, burning cars, and vandalising a high school. But we also saw the police acting violently, using batons and tear gas.
In reality, Copenhagen Council should be blamed, as they decided to sell the house and let the sale go through. This is the main argument of the Left. The chaos of "Ungeren" is a political issue and, therefore, it is wrong of the council to use the police. The council know they have got big problems with this issue and do not know how to deal with it. They run away from it instead of solving it. But it could only have been solved by saving Ungeren, giving it adequate council funding and also by putting big resources into resources for local youth and working people.
Police surrounded us
Last Thursday afternoon, on the same day the police began to ‘clear’ the house, were demonstrations took place in both Copenhagen and Århus. In Århus, up to 200 people joined a peaceful demonstration which started out very well. But then suddenly the police decided to stop the demonstration. When the demonstrators did not accept this, the police surrounded us. Soon afterwards they let us go, although only a few people at a time. This was to "protect the people", they said. The police behaved aggressively and pushed many of the demonstrators hard, for absolutely no reason.
At the latest demonstrations, the police arrested up to 300 demonstrators. Many were activists from other countries and were now been kicked out of Denmark.
Lack of unity and policy
The last couple of days clearly proved the lack of unity, not just on the left in parliament, but also in general. The left failed terribly to support a policy for youth. This is quite obvious when we see young people with paving stones in their hands, ready to use them, instead of allying with the organisations and parties which support their fight.
Also, the "leadership" of Ungdomshuset was more focussed on getting in the media than organising the protest movement. This resulted in activists getting spread out instead of united and a lack of political discussion amongst activists to find a way forward.
In addition, unfortunately, there is a group of ‘autonomists’ with no interest in cooperating with any politicians, the police or even other movements on the left, if they disagree on the smallest thing. This group has a lot of power, which is very bad as they have a negative influence on the rest of the peaceful movement of young people.
We will definitely witness many more demonstrations over the next weeks, and when it will settle down is impossible to say. This depends partly on whether the left in this situation will succeed in gathering the activists under an effective slogan and, partly, if the activists become too exhausted to continue with the struggle.
No matter how this movement turns out, we cannot change the fact that a 100 year-old, historic building was deliberately destroyed. Yet another part of our culture died. Such vandalism and injustice is all part of neo-liberalism.
Nørrebro in Copenhagen has become an even poorer place by this destruction. Will Christiania be the next target of the heartless Copenhagen council - a centre for nature, ecology and culture run democratically by the hundreds of families who live in the area?
Instead of this right wing agenda of destruction, proper funding should be put into projects like the Ungdomshuset and other facilities for young people. Socialists, need to fight against the authorities with a programme against cuts, and for a massive expansion of welfare and public spending.