Sticking it to the man, Icelandic style

This evening, two thousand Icelanders gathered outside parliament demanding the resignation of their government. Demonstrators waved placards, banged pots, and kicked the steel fencing the police had erected around the parliament building. The noise was incredible.

Corruption, wage inequality, the environment and a plethora of other issues sparked the protest. The Icelandic campaigners have made a list on Facebook here.

The issues are similar to those protested in the UK. The police response could hardly have been more different.

One lady was shaking a rock in a noisy plastic jar throughout our entire conversation. When I told her that a protest about similar issues in the UK just weeks ago had seen hundreds of people kettled, she had no idea what kettling was. I explained that kettling was a tactic the police used to control protesters which involved forming a ring around them and not letting them out for food, water or toilet breaks, sometimes for hours at a time.

She had never heard of it, and she was horrified. “You should take photos of it, so you can show the world what they’re doing!” she said.

When your country has a population of 300,000, your relationship with the police changes. “You probably know the policeman’s daughter or something. You’re probably related!” my Icelandic host said that evening. The intimacy of the Icelandic community seemed to create a far more humane, direct connection between the activists and the police.

It’s a world away from anonymous faces hidden behind riot gear, bellowing threats of arrest or wrestling demonstrators to the ground.

It feels to me as though the British left is characterised by the anger, despair and bitterness of people who feel they are not being listened to, who may as well be shouting at a brick wall.

In Iceland, I felt less bitterness. I didn’t see police and demonstrators screaming at each other. A little child with a blue ukulele was being wheeled around in his buggy. It felt like a community expressing its anger, without being ashamed of that anger, or without their peers deeming it misbehaviour. Public protest made Iceland’s government bring the election forward in 2009. Perhaps this is what it is to live in a country where protests have led to real change. Was that change possible because police, government and activists could treat each other as people they might bump into in the corner shop?

Is this what it means for a country to be formed from a single community? Does Britain view protesters as little more than criminals? I know very little about the Icelandic movement. If you’ve been involved, I’d love to hear your views.


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