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About that Hotel Borg demonstration

A few readers have been wondering what the demonstration was all about on New Year’s Eve Day, in front of the Hotel Borg.

I can’t claim any expertise since I wasn’t there and can only report what has been said in the media … and even that is a little sketchy because it was on that sort of day where most people are really busy and aren’t doing much of watching the news or checking the Internet [at least not Chez YT]. I just caught wind of what had happened on the radio sometime during the afternoon in the midst of preparing for the evening’s festivities.

However, I gather that around 200 demonstrators collected in front of the Hotel Borg downtown [on Austurvöllur square] where the leaders of Iceland’s five political parties were gathered for a TV broadcast. The programme is called Kryddsíldin [Spicy Herring] and it is an annual affair on Channel 2 that is sent out live from the hotel restaurant on December 31 at 2 pm. It’s basically a round-table discussion in which the aforementioned are gathered along with two moderators from the station, and they generally have a pleasant little chit-chat about topical issues, significant events over the course of the year, and blah.

The demonstrators were carrying torches … if I’m not mistaken they were coming from some sort of other protest or  march. They basically did what they could to disrupt the broadcast, making noise outside, storming the lobby of the hotel, etc. As things heated up, they went for the TV cameras and managed to burn cables in two so that the broadcast went off the air. Police used teargas and three demonstrators were arrested. One police officer was injured when he was hit with a brick on the side of the face. Equipment from the TV station was evidently damaged amounting to a couple of million ISK, and police report that demonstrators were carrying home made smoke bombs of some kind.

AAH was pretty close to all the excitement – she works at a nearby café and was on duty that afternoon. According to her one of the demonstrators came rushing in after having been sprayed in the eyes with mace. He was freaking out, cursing and screaming, and after splashing water in his face and eyes he went back outside and went ballistic on a police cruiser.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion about this … probably just because it was at that time of year and people and media have been preoccupied with other things, but I do get the feeling that the general public doesn’t look too kindly on it. Mostly because innocent people were involved and there was damage to property – the hotel, the broadcast equipment – and it got out of hand. Personally I don’t condone that sort of protest, but on the other hand I’m not surprised and would even go so far as to say that it was predictable. People are supremely pissed off. They don’t feel like they’re being listened to. They feel like they’re being made fools of.* And for the political leaders to gather around for a pleasant chit-chat with the current climate the way it is seems a bit off kilter, to say the least. So while I wouldn’t go out to throw bricks and smoke bombs myself, I totally get why someone else would.

Tomorrow, Saturday, there will be another demonstration on Austurvöllur. There has been a lull in them during December; it will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow.

STILL VERY MILD
It was a really pleasant day weather-wise, moderate winds and warmish temps, overcast but very refreshing. It’s currently a balmy 7°C [45F]. The sun came up at 11:18 am, will set at 3:46 pm.

* A couple of days ago came another reason to feel outraged: the parliamentary ombudsman ruled that the Minister of Finance had violated regulations when he appointed Davíð Oddsson’s son as a regional judge in Akureyri, north Iceland, a few months ago. There was an outcry at the time, because people who were so obviously better qualified than Doddsson’s son were passed over. A complaint was filed with the ombudsman, who has now delivered this ruling. Calls are now being made for the Minister of Finance to resign [yet again] but there’s little chance of that – as before, he basically just gives us – his employers, the taxpaying public – the finger. I really don’t like to criticize individuals personally in this space, but it has to be said: the corruption just DRIPS off this guy. Gag. Plus, if someone could please explain to me how being a vetrenarian qualifies you to be Minister of Finance.

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  • James January 2, 2009, 11:27 pm

    From a video on Visir (http://visir.is/article/20081231/FRETTIR01/888977318), it looks like the police sprayed mace around to disperse the protesters – not to protect themselves…

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson January 2, 2009, 11:40 pm

    Alda, when you are the son of Matthías Á. Mathiesen you are obviously qualified for anything.

  • Ann January 3, 2009, 12:45 am

    Not on topic, sorry if I shouldn’t ask in this spot, but my husband and I have a chance to see an Icelandic film Friday entitled White Night Wedding? Have you seen it and would you recommend it?

  • alda January 3, 2009, 1:00 am

    Ann – funny you should ask, we just watched it the other night on TV. I thought it was dreadful and so did EPI. The only redeeming feature is the pretty Icelandic scenery (it’s filmed on an island named Flatey which is exceptionally beautiful) — but even in that I have to say that I’m so sick of seeing Icelandic films that are crap and try to make up for it by showing pretty landscapes. Sorry I can’t be more upbeat about it, but really, I thought it sucked. :-/

  • hildigunnur January 3, 2009, 2:26 am

    No way this was a couple of millions damage to equipment, an aquaintance of mine (who’s actually very much on the TV station’s side) could only dredge it up to just under a million. It was ‘only’ cables. They can be pretty expensive, but not above a million. Bad enough.

    They ‘klóra í bakkann’ now and speak about lost revenue and stuff, but that wasn’t what they spoke of to start with.

    IMHO the policeman being hurt was way worse than the damage to Stöð 2 (which of course is owned by the Bónus ppl)

    James, you’re right about that. The police needed better leadership, this time round. They did great in the Seðlabanki thing, the other day.

    About the ombudsmand ruling, yes no outcry, I’m reading about this here, as a first! Grrr!

  • Ralph Haygood January 3, 2009, 2:48 am

    Alda, your question about “how being a vetrenarian qualifies you to be Minister of Finance” reminds me of a Woody Allen piece in which “a man awakens to find his parrot has been made Secretary of Agriculture.”

    I’ve been enjoying The Iceland Weather Report every day since I discovered it a few weeks ago (via your endorsement of Thesis). Thanks for writing.

  • Jessie January 3, 2009, 3:10 am

    Hi Alda,
    I’m actually visiting in Reykjavik from the US for the second New Year’s in a row and attended this protest, and will also be at tomorrow’s (today’s).

    First, I want to say that Icelanders really know how to celebrate New Year’s, and Happy New Year to you! The weather this year was great, and I felt so fortunate to attend the festivities here.

    The protest started peacefully, but some people jumped the barricade in the back of the hotel and then people forged their way into the entrance, at which point they sat down and started chanting, while police and hotel employees tried to hold people back. Eventually, the police tried to get people to leave the premises, and those who resisted were sprayed with pepper spray (?). I have seen some footage of this, but it doesn’t seem to show the fact that there were still hundreds (?) of people who were peacefully demonstrating at the square across the street while all of this was happening.

    Some of the protesters were also setting off fireworks which, at least from an American’s perspective, sounded like gunshots, which was a little scary.

    I don’t know how I felt about the protest overall. If this happened in the US, they likely would have immediately arrested anyone who trespassed on the hotel property, but on the other hand, it’s understandable that people are so infuriated and that they’re trying to stand up for their beliefs. I don’t think they intended for anything other than being “heard”. Still, it was horrible to see people maced in the eyes like that. We breathed some of it in and took that as our cue to leave, as it was really terrible.

    I was wondering if this was a culmination of the anger that has built up in people over the year or a sign of things to come.

    I’ve also heard that there are a couple (or a few) individuals who attend the protests to protest the protesters (or intimidate them), and that one of these individuals is allegedly a top economist at one of the main banks, which I thought was quite interesting (if true).

    At any rate, tomorrow should be interesting!

  • SirB January 3, 2009, 4:25 am

    Ann: I watched the movie a few days ago and I loved it. The story is interesting I think and it depicts the weakness of the human mind, in contrast with a beautiful summer’s night and landscape in Iceland. I think Margret Vilhjalmsdottir and Ilmur Kristjansdottir were excellent in their roles along with most of the other actors. The only one I’d say wasn’t too convincing was Hilmir Snaer. But it’s worth watching in my view. Sorry Alda 🙂 but I suppose this is what makes the world go around, all the flavours and tastes of the world make it more interesting.

    In regards to the protests. I’m not surprised. People are looking at possibly loosing everything they’ve worked for, their whole lives. These are hard times indeed. I’m surprised it didn’t happen before
    I’m also amazed that politicians are protected by the police, whereas the average Icelander has nobody right now they can trust. It sounds like a total controversy and everyone except the exceptionally rich are being affected. Very sad…

    Happy New Year Alda and thanks for a great blog *applaud* 🙂

  • Doug Simonton January 3, 2009, 10:41 am

    I was in the square at the time of the protest working on my 4th trip to R’vik over new year’s. It was fascinating to me to see such heated passion in such a tight group while moms calmly pushed strollers and families ambled by quite normally while less than 50 feet away gas was being used, bricks and eggs were being thrown, etc.

    The other visual that’s stayed with me was that of a mother trying to calm a crying 3 year old on the other side of the square after she edged too close to the action (she wanted to join the thrill seekers, apparently). In any event, she seemed stunned by her child’s reaction — what the hell do you expect from a 3 year old who sees a lot of people yelling and dispearsing from smoke and tear gas? Nice work, mom.

  • alda January 3, 2009, 12:35 pm

    Jessie – thanks for your first-hand description. Very interesting. – Yes, apparently one of the Central Bank’s economists was there harassing the protesters. There’s a video of him pushing a couple of demonstrators and his buddy calling one of them “communist scum”. Yet another accolade for the Central Bank. Yay.

    SirB – no apology needed, glad you enjoyed the film, and great to hear a different viewpoint. Personally I thought the script was awful and the film couldn’t decide what it wanted to be – a comedy, a deep meaningful treatise on the human condition, or tourism promotion. It was also filled with all the cliches that you normally see in Icelandic films – drunk Icelanders, insane women walking into the sea, and of course the scenery. To me, none of the characters was interesting or likable enough to evoke any sympathy. Bleh.
    However, I completely agree with your second paragraph. 🙂

  • alda January 3, 2009, 12:48 pm

    OK, I’ve just watched a video of the protests on mbl.is and they were pretty harsh. Most shocking, however, is the conduct of the two guys who walk around threatening people, one of whim is the Central Bank economist, who appears around 1.40 minutes in. He’s the older guy in the down jacket who comes and shoves one of the demonstrators. Jeezus, with these kinds of people [plus Doddsson] in our Central Bank, is it any wonder we’re f*cked??

  • Jessie January 3, 2009, 7:02 pm

    There’s a video at the blog below as well, which focuses more on the people who forged their way into the back of the hotel. There were still a lot of people still peacefully protesting across the street in the square while all of this happened.

    http://einarolafsson.blog.is/blog/einarolafsson/

  • rb January 3, 2009, 9:03 pm

    This story was in the newspaper here in kansas city. after seeing the visir footage, especially the end , it gives the impression that many suffered for the drastic actions of a few. 🙁

    happy new year alda!!!

  • Muriel Volestrangler January 3, 2009, 9:22 pm

    Apparently there were only 1500-2000 at the Saturday demo. Not so good. Better to have a handful of committed protesters than thousands of peaceful strollers. Iceland needs more blowtorches, bricks, and Molotov cocktails, and less handwaving and Gandhi platitudes.
    The “Small Consolation of the Day” is Björgólfur Guðmundsson’s appearance at #4 position on Forbes’ list of “Billionaire Blowups”.
    His assets were valued at $1.1 billion in March but today they are worth — zero. (Although I’m sure he has some secret Cayman Islands money.) Others have lost many more billions but percentage-wise Björgólfur is the clear leader.
    Congratulations, Björgólfur! Why don’t come back home to celebrate with the several hundred thousand you have taken down the path of ruin with you?

  • James January 3, 2009, 9:25 pm

    I’m genuinely stunned to hear that Central Bank employees go to the demonstrations to intimidate protestors. There’s a whiff of Oddsson building his own Secret State Police…

  • alda January 3, 2009, 9:47 pm

    Oops! Sorry everyone, I forgot the link in my earlier comment:

    http://mbl.is/mm/frettir/innlent/2009/01/02/motmaelendum_ognad_a_gamlarsdag/

  • Ljósmynd DE January 3, 2009, 11:13 pm

    Reading about bricks being thrown against policemen is certainly bad news. This is discrediting the well justified motives of the peaceful protesters and is contrary to their interests. But I’m increasingly wondering, which part the Central Bank intends to play in the future. Are they staging some secret service masquerade to cover up their complete failure? If this is their self-imposed role, I wouldn’t be surprised, if somebody of them starts acting as agent provocateur next time.

    On the Icelandic film topic: I am always somehow biased in favour of Icelandic films and try to watch them, whenever I get the oportunity, at the cinema or on TV/DVD/film festivals. But I have to admit that their plots are often pretty chaotic with many repetitive elements and stereotypes when it comes to the depiction of Icelanders and Icelandic live. I wonder if there is a competition running for the most absurd script. But maybe those are just the films which make it abroad and there are a lot more which I don’t know.

  • Ann January 4, 2009, 1:23 am

    Thank you for your voices Alda and SirB. Likely we will try to see the film if possible. We have seen some really tough sits in the “Foreign Film” categories, and I can’t imagine it could be as difficult as some of those! But I will go with expectations lowered and be entertained by the scenery at least. I am missing Iceland, and really appreciate all your news, cultural, social and political that you are giving us Alda.

  • jpeeps January 4, 2009, 6:11 am

    Just watched the mbl vid and Mr 1.40 and his sidekick are nasty pieces of work. With this evidence can’t the woman who got shoved bring charges??

  • Dave Hambidge January 4, 2009, 12:20 pm

    As a fairly keen viewer of all things Nicelandic, albeit from behind rosy tinted specs in UK, I am VERY surprised that public violence has not yet erupted on a grander scale in Iceland.

    From what we glean, ably supplemented by alda’s analysis, I would guess that in rest of Europe, ( and USofA?) the street protests would have been soon, violent and probably succesful.

    Just look at our ‘poll tax riots’ in mid-1980’s and how they do things in France and Greece in last few months.

    When it all kicks off in Iceland, and surely it has to be when, not if, keep your head down, Alda, EPI, AAH et al.

    dave

  • alda January 4, 2009, 12:43 pm

    Ann – let me know what you think!

    jpeeps – quite. That CB economist is totally threatening. I wonder if that’s what the morale up there is like these days. It certainly reminds me slightly of the tone of that phone call I received at the beginning of December.

    Dave – we’re such well-behaved little children up here!

    And yes, we’ll make sure we duck. 🙂