The Twilight of the Evening Lands
Denmark is internationally known for two spectacular events in recent social political history: The Mohammed Cartoons crisis in 2005 and the riots that followed the eviction of the Youth House, an anarchist social centre in Copenhagen, in 2007. What is interesting in relation to the two events is the scale of the unrest that they catalysed and the fact that the massive escalation of both conflicts came to a surprise to all: the politicians, the media – as well as the protesters. The two events showed that the people in power could be shaken. They exposed the fragility of their power – and what they will do to maintain it.
The Mohammed cartoons and the eviction of the Youth House were events that did not stay within their initial frame. They became occasions for the outpouring of vast amounts of accumulated anger and frustration that had built up in the wake of a much broader ideological campaign. This campaign was orchestrated by the people in political and economic power, not only within the Danish national state, but across the globe. In the case of the cartoons, it was Western globalisation and arrogance, accelerating since the fall of the Iron Curtain, that provided the backdrop for the widespread unrest ignited in the Muslim world by the publication of the cartoons. The cartoons were just a symbol. But this symbol had its roots in this small Scandinavian state called Denmark, known for its social democracy and welfare state project that developed in the 1970s.
The Youth House riots were also a reaction to a specific socio-political incident, but the massive scale of the unrest and riots that followed the eviction have also to do with the general political and social situation in Denmark. The riots were an occasion that many welcomed as an opportunity to react. Lots of people that never had anything to do with the social centre joined the riots. Just the general feeling of disempowerment in daily life made them go into the streets. The politics of the riots the months after the eviction were rather diffuse as they developed, with the Youth House as the leitmotif, but the background was much more complex. It was a wild outburst that inevitably involved many other issues than the lost social centre: the increasing class divide in society, the official racist agenda of the government, the fact that Denmark is a part of the coalition in Iraq, the general attack on alternative and ethnic lifestyles that is taking place in Denmark since 2001 and perhaps more.
The Cartoon Crisis was triggered by a direct provocation by the Minister of Culture, stating that he was worried about artistic freedom of expression owing to what he saw as artists’ fear of repercussions from Muslims. He said that artists should be free to piss on the Koran if they wanted to. This invitation was taken up by the national newspaper Jyllandsposten and it published the Mohammed Cartoons within weeks of the pep talk by the Minister. On the other front of the cultural battle the attack on alternative lifestyles was first initiated with a push to ‘normalise’ the free state Christiania in Copenhagen. The term ‘normalisation’ became a key term of the government, a term that covers a drive to attack and criminalise subcultures and already marginalised groups and a push to integrate all human beings within the sacred land of the freemarked neoliberal identity. The way they wanted to normalise Christiania was not by physical removal of the former squatters but by attacking the key collective ownership of the buildings in the free state. The government’s clever move was to offer the houses to the habitants as private property. Through the promise of private ownership they spearheaded the abolition of the basic idea of the free state as a collectively owned and governed community. The card of private property was also played in relation to the eviction of the Youth House. The government just leaned back without intervening in the conflict, asserting that it was a matter of private property and they could do nothing about it. This was the city council that owned the Youth House until 2001, when they all of a sudden decided to sell the building without even consulting the users of the social centre. A very simple way to get rid of a social problem: put it up for sale and float it on the free market. And who picked the problem up? A right wing Christian sect, the Father House, bought the house exactly with the aim of finding a definite solution of the social troubles connected with the youth that used the house as their meeting place. And this was what the sect did on the morning of March 1 2007, with the help of the anti-terror units of the police and the army. And it was made definite within a week, as the house was erased from the face of the earth behind lines of thousands of Danish cops supported by the Dutch and Swedish police. This was the old house that was formerly called the Peoples’ House, built by and serving the workers’ movement in Copenhagen since 1897. It hosted a socialist women’s congress in 1910, when the German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed an International Women’s Day of struggle to be held on March 8. By March the 8th of 2007 the house had been destroyed.
The Cultural Battle is thus a very aggressive campaign to suppress a wide array of alternative and ethnic lifestyles that are not following suit to the main ideological project, a project which is basically about the restoration of the class system. The hegemony of Western capitalist elite power is being reinstalled not only from a global perspective but also in the streets of Copenhagen. This goes hand in hand with the ‘war on terror’ that operates by stripping people of basic rights, one layer after another. During the days of unrest in Copenhagen the police introduced a state of emergency in selected areas of the city where they allowed themselves to search anybody even without any suspicion. The police was not obliged to give any explanation for such infringements of privacy. It was also explained that they would be searching mobile phones and reading private text messages in order to find information to maintain public order. Almost all meeting places for progressive political and cultural activities were raided without warrants, doors and equipment destroyed and anyone found at those addresses was arrested. tv-tv, a local television station that we have helped establish, was one of the places that was raided and trashed. During the first two weeks after the eviction more than 800 people were arrested, and more than 250 jailed with or without specific suspicion – just being in the wrong place at the wrong time was enough to make you a criminal – as happened to our friend Niels who was caught in a wholesale arrest on March 1. He took part in a legal protest and as it developed into riots he stayed as an onlooker to the confrontation and didn’t run as the activists did when the police arrived. He spent ten days in jail and he is still charged for taking part in ‘serious disturbance of public order’. The state of exception in certain neighbourhoods and the criminalisation of entire subcultures are becoming a part of daily life in Copenhagen. This escalation of the repression has maybe only just begun. The escalation, they tell us, is to maintain our security, but honestly, isn’t it about maintaining their power?
The Evening Land had its premiere in Copenhagen 30 years ago. It is a two hour-long film about, as of the protagonists says at the end, “the capitalist world in decline”. On the promotional poster The Evening Land was presented as “a film about your life and those who steal it”. It was originally titled Coup d’Etat and the main narrative is about the dangers of a fascist state lurking under the surface of Scandinavian welfare democracy. The film was produced in Denmark with non-professional actors and directed by Peter Watkins. The cinematographer was Joan Churchil, who with her handheld and nervous style had already worked with Watkins on Punishment Park six years earlier. The Evening Land was a series of dramatic episodes made in the style of a documentary with actors that “in most instances express their own feelings and opinions”, as it was said in the press material.
The film takes its point of departure in a strike that starts as a protest against the management of a shipyard in Copenhagen that plans to accept an order to build vessels intended for nuclear arms shipments for the French Army. Concurrently with the developing conflict of other workers joining the strike, the defense ministers of the EEC are meeting in Copenhagen. The ministers are together with the army discussing an increased military integration across Europe. As the strike threatens to turn into a general strike, an underground group of anarchists takes the Danish Minister of Commerce as a hostage, demanding that Denmark withdraws from NATO and a stop for the defense integration within the EEC. The strike committee is at pains to distance itself from the hostage taking and the anarchists make it clear that they have no connection to the strike committee. Despite this the authorities and the media conflates the two protests into one; the terrorists and strikers are part of one and the same threat that is undermining the state. This triggers a wave of repression; the police brutally attack a legal protest of the strikers, organise harassment and raids on a leftwing publisher and workers’ organisations. The repression eventually culminates in the killing of one of the unarmed anarchists when the police attack their hideout to rescue the Minister.
With the film weaving in and out of the sociopolitical reality of the 1970s Denmark, it positions a group of activists of the then Communist Party as the core of the strike committee. The Danish police and the military refused to collaborate on the film, because, as the Chief of the police expressed it at the time, they found the objective of the film political and therefore didn’t want to assist in the production of the film. Even the main organisations of the Danish film industry chose publicly to support the police in the case against Watkins. It later turned out that those organisations came forward with their criticism due to pressure from the police. As the filming proceeded, the producers were forced to buy specially manufactured police equipment to be able to realise the street battle scenes of the film – with the ‘real’ police harassing the ‘fake’ police forces trying to get to location. As stated in one of the Danish newspapers of the time “No one is going to tell us that the police is apolitical”.
The press material of The Evening Land asks: “How will (the model) Denmark look in some years, if we get nuclear power and nuclear armament, if the ECC integration is increased, if the militarisation continues, if inflation grows, if unemployment expands – or would it be more realistic to exchange this ‘if’ with ‘when’?” Interestingly these issues are perhaps not the main social and political issues of today; inflation and unemployment are non-existent at present (in Denmark at least) and the arms race of the Cold War with its nuclear terror balance has been superseded by the global War on Terror (with the EU army as a minor player). Peter Watkins was at the time accused of being a pessimist, and it is quite ironic that the most of the problems portrayed in the film never developed into the feared twilight of The Evening Land. But in terms of the patterns of reaction by power in situations of social unrest and crisis not much has changed. The film draws a picture of a political rationale that turns to increasing repression and police state methods for a solution to a crisis in the context of welfare democracy. A solution we also meet today in Denmark and many other places under the shadow of neoliberal normalisation and war. Fascism is still lurking under the surface of the free market democracy of today. Pinpointing this spectral presence was Peter Watkins’ main objective with the film The Evening Land.
Jakob Jakobsen 2007
Published in Work to do! Self-Organisation in Precarious Working Conditions