Remember, Remember… Ungdomshuset

Shift look at the struggles over the autonomous Ungdomshuset in Copenhagen. Originally published in January 2010.

Mass arrests of anarchist activists, squatters and punks are nothing new to Copenhagen. Compared with the battle to protect an autonomous social centre in 2007, the climate protests last December hardly saw the worst of the Danish police.

An extraordinary wave of state repression against left-wing structures hit Denmark early in 2007. Large numbers of police, helped by anti-terror units, ran operations against Copenhagen’s “scene” of punks, anarchists and alternative youths. Hundreds of anti-establishment activists were arrested, some during peaceful anti-police demonstrations, some during violent riots, and some in their own homes. Most were not charged with any crime, but were remanded in custody for periods of up to 27 days, pending further “investigation” into their political conduct. Numerous alternative housing projects, bars and social centres were violently entered by anti-riot police units, using tear gas and breaking doors, windows and bones. Homes and even a high school were searched. Police also entered the offices of the group “ABC”, which provided legal aid and psychological support to the hundreds of prisoners, arresting everyone within it. Dozens of protesters were admitted to hospital after the worst days of police violence, some with severe injuries. During the heights of the street fights between the authorities and anti-police protesters, any Danish citizen with an “alternative look” about them could risk arrest, while foreign activists were liable for immediate deportation. Controls at the border with Germany were stepped up, as were police controls on the motorways leading to Copenhagen. On 1 March, citizens were advised by the authorities to stay out of the districts where major police operations were expected. Schools and shops remained closed.

At the centre of attention stood an alternative youth centre – the “Ungdomshuset”. The building was “given” to activists by the City Council in 1982, after a decade of campaigning in the 1970s for an autonomously-run social centre. In its 25 years of existence, the Ungdomshuset provided co-operative housing and functioned as a vibrant centre for youth culture. Ownership of the premises, however, had remained with the Council. In 2000, the Council sold the house to a right-wing Christian sect, which designated the building for demolition. Unwilling to give up their project, activists kept the house occupied and the centre running. At 7am on 1 March 2007, police and anti-terror units sealed off the streets surrounding the Ungdomshuset and began a full-scale eviction. A crane lifted a container next to the house from which police could enter the windows. Simultaneously, police used helicopters to reach the roof of the building. The eviction lasted about one hour. What happened inside is unclear. No press or bystanders were permitted near the scene. It is known, however, that two ambulances were called to the premises and that all 35 people in the house were arrested and were remanded in custody for initially 27 days.

When news about the eviction got around, the Copenhagen “scene” began to assemble in the streets near the Ungdomshuset. The same afternoon, thousands of people were in the area, forming a protest march, with some attempting to get close to the building. With emotions running high and fuelled by aggressive provocations from the side of the anti-riot police, some bottles and cobblestones were soon thrown at the lines of police. They, in turn, responded with tear gas and arrests. Tension on the streets of Copenhagen lasted for the next two days. During daytime, hundreds of protesters would form marches into the town centre, which were occasionally attacked by police forces. During quieter hours, anti-terror units would patrol the streets with armoured vehicles. At night, activists employed guerrilla tactics, building burning barricades and torching cars, just to disappear again when police arrived on the scene. The riots were used by the authorities to justify an unprecedented scale of repression. During the first 24 hours after the eviction of the Ungdomshuset alone, nearly 300 alternative youths were arrested by “snatch squads”. Many were severely injured during the protests, frequently being hit or run over by police vehicles. Some 270 people had already been arrested in the previous December, when police attacked a 1,000 strong anti-eviction demonstration and a riot ensued.

It was not long until the eviction made international news too. Following the eviction activists from other European countries responded widely with dozens of solidarity demonstrations. Support came largely from other Scandinavian countries and Germany with hundreds reported on the streets of Berlin, Köln, Hamburg, München, Göttingen, Frankfurt, Hannover, Vienna, Heidelberg, Gothenburg, Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm, and Leipzig to name but a few. Protesters in these countries also faced police oppression and brutality. The Danish consulate in France was occupied as well as a number of houses in Germany in solidarity with the Ungdomshuset.

The police reaction to the largely peaceful demonstrations in Copenhagen during the UN conference this winter were certainly outrageous, but have to be seen in a context of Danish policing over the past 25 years or so. COP15’s mass arrests have taken their place in a history of conflict between left-wing protestors and the Danish police which also includes the massive housing battles in 1986, the 1993 anti-EU membership riots, the 2000 anti-EU summit protests (where police fired live rounds into a demonstration) and the Ungdomshuset demonstrations of 2007.