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Riot!

Nicelanders are notorious for their apathy in the face of injustice, particularly if it involves political transgressions. Typically a minor fury will erupt in the immediate wake of a blatant offense but in a few days it subsides and within a couple of weeks most people can’t even remember what the commotion was all about, they just vaguely remember that something was rotten in the State of Denmark, but hey, we’ve moved on. Hence politicians rarely resign in this country, even when their compatriots in neighbouring countries would have been tarred and feathered for a lesser offense, and in the rare cases when they are forced to resign and even incarcerated for their crimes, they are quickly pardoned and reinstated by their buddies in the party.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen an example of something we rarely see here – demonstrations in which those who consider themselves slighted take their discontentment to the streets. More specifically I am talking about Iceland’s truck drivers, who have been protesting the high cost of gas and demanding that the government lower taxes on petrol.* In the past three weeks or so they have repeatedly closed off major traffic arteries by parking their trucks in the middle of the streets, with the resulting discomfort – not to mention safety risk – for their fellow citizens. They’ve also repeatedly turned up en masse in various locations and honked their horns incessantly for about half an hour. Make no mistake: Icelandic truck drivers are pissed as hell.

Until now, law enforcement officials have dealt with these demonstrations with a curious mixture of forbearance and good humor. Typically they’ve showed up, had a chat with the drivers, hung around until they’d blown off some steam, and then everybody went home [or to work]. There was even a famous media clip a couple of weeks ago where the chief of police showed up to talk to the leader of the truck drivers and jovially offered him some snuff.

The truck drivers initially met with considerable public sympathy but as time went on most people have became increasingly annoyed and finally just plain angry – not just at the perpetrators but also the impotence of police officials. An increasing number have pointed out the comparison between these protests and those over the past couple of years by a group called Saving Iceland, who were mostly young people demonstrating against the destruction of our beautiful countryside to serve the interests of evil multinational corporations. In contrast to the truck drivers, the Saving Iceland people were treated as terrorists by the police, arrested, shackled, deported, tried, and whathaveyou. Whereas the drivers, with their loud and belligerent demonstrations, get offered snuff and are given a pat on the back.

Until yesterday, that is, when they decided to block the Suðurlandsvegur highway [the one that leads to Hurdygurdy** and Selfoss], on the outskirts of town. This time the cops showed up in full force and demanded they move their trucks. Of course they refused. They were told they’d be arrested, which only incited them more. The conflict escalated, the Viking Squad was called out and within minutes we had a [Iceland-sized] riot happening with rocks and stuff flying and police using clubs and pepper spray to disseminate the crowds. The whole thing was even sent out live, courtesy of RÚV.

This sort of unrest is something we’re not used to here and seriously, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I watched the news last night. Laugh because it seems so ludicrous to see something like this happening in our tiny country [I can never quite shake the feeling that it’s like we’re play-acting, pretending to be all grown-up and tough] and cry because, well, it was quite shocking. What I found most disturbing was not the clubs or the mace or the shouting or flying rocks, but rather all the teenagers and other ‘spectators’ that showed up and started pelting the cops with eggs and other items that they’d bought at the nearby gas station for that purpose. Probably because it’s so indicative of the widespread disregard for authority that we see here – in the schools, on the streets, wherever. It really bothered me. I think it’s a bad sign and it does not bode well for the future.

Meanwhile, Reykjavík’s finest are getting flack for their ‘overly harsh’ actions. [Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.] And the truck drivers are on fire and say they will step up their measures. Guess we’re in for more excitement, then.

IT’S THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER TODAY
And it does not look very summery outside, although thankfully we’re not confronted with flurries or any such thing, it’s just very overcast and grey. Winter and summer did not freeze together last night so according to ancient popular belief we’re in for a bad summer – but hey, who believes that stuff, anyway? Not me. At the moment we have a balmy 11°C [52F] and the sun came up this morning at 5.23 am, will set at 9.30.

* We’ve seen prices skyrocket from ISK 110 to 150 per litre in just a few weeks – that’s equivalent to EUR 1.27 or GBP 1.02 per litre, or USD 7.40 per gallon – but then again so has everyone else, and as it turns out our taxes are not higher than, for instance, those in the other Nordic countries.
** Or Hveragerði, if you prefer.

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  • Andri April 24, 2008, 7:18 pm

    “What I found most disturbing was not the clubs or the mace or the shouting or flying rocks, but rather all the teenagers [..] pelting the cops with eggs”

    Yea, thous can be mighty dangerous, I once killed a men with an egg, true story.

    Police brutality has no place in Iceland, someone should resign, but as you have pointed out, no one will, no one ever does.

  • Colin April 24, 2008, 8:13 pm

    My first reaction was that Quizno’s has left me wanting to throw some rocks as well.

    Beyond that, I was thinking that was one of the more orderly “riots” I’ve seen in some time, but then I was at university about 2 miles from where the Rodney King Riots started in Los Angeles in 1992, so my sense of scale may be a little off.

    It may also have distorted my scale of what constitutes police brutality as well. With all due respect to Andri, I have to think that if you show up to a minor flap between truckers and the police, and you throw some eggs or a rock, then you can’t be entirely surprised by getting a knock from a truncheon or a face full of pepper spray. You don’t get a pass on being an idiot just because it was towards the pigs.

    As for the truckers, you can’t fault their persistence. We had a minor protest near my office in DC the other day – about 120 large trucks driving around with horns honking etc., all to protest diesel at USD4.50 a gallon. I think this country would have ground to a halt if diesel was as expensive as in Iceland.

  • hildigunnur April 24, 2008, 8:26 pm

    As it happens, the truckers mainly seem to want to be exempt from the regulations saying they have to take 45 minutes rest after 4 hours driving (which they can even split down into 15 min bits), the gas price thing being the front they show to the public. That’s probably why they don’t really get much compassion any more.

    See the links I point to here if you read Icelandic. Excellent articles on the situation.

  • JoeInVegas April 25, 2008, 3:43 am

    I don’t picture violence in Iceland either. I understand the truckers but not the bystanders. Oh.

  • mary April 25, 2008, 11:15 am

    I am quite shocked that teenagers were throwing rocks at the police.
    I mean in Iceland of course, it’s not what one would expect there.
    And I don’t really approve of calling the police ‘pigs’ whether we respect them or not.
    How are our children going to learn?

  • alda April 25, 2008, 12:15 pm

    Personally I don’t see much instance of police brutality – I see police trying to deal with a very difficult situation that seldom arises in this country and they have my full sympathy. The actions of the bystanders are to me a perfect example of what law enforcement officials have to deal with constantly. It’s a tough job being a cop and I’m very grateful that someone actually wants to do it – I know I wouldn’t, and yet I want to have a safe environment in which to live. Perhaps they didn’t deal ‘perfectly’ with this situation, but the hysteria and finger-pointing on behalf of the truckers isn’t exactly model behaviour. I say cut them some slack.

  • luigi silvio April 25, 2008, 12:56 pm

    è chiaramente impressionante che anche in un paese come l’islanda ci siano problemi…. io provo un profondo senso d’impaccio…un senso d’insicurezza che non mi dà scampo…avrei detto , in caso di problemi , scappo… vado a vivere in bolivia , in messico , in islanda , ….
    ma i problemi sempra siano ovunque…mi verrebbe voglia di diventare un criminale cosi da essere quello che i problemi li crea e non li subisce…purtroppo ( o per fortuna , dipende dai punti di vista , come al solito… ) ) per me sono nato panteista ed accetto tutto, forse anche troppo fatalisticamente…comunque sia se trovate che in islanda ci siano dei problemi grossi provate a pensare che solo oggi in italia tra : i rifiuti di napoli , gli stupri fatti da extracomunitari , la gente che nei giorni di festa corre schiantandosi in macchina a 200 orari , bambine che vengono seviziate , prezzo del petrolio alle stelle , carenza di cereali ed invito alle scorte fatto niente di meno che dal new york times…qui sembrerebbe sia tutto un disastro….ma voi no ! almeno voi in quell’isola fuori dal mondo cercarte di prendervela comoda…

  • gary April 25, 2008, 1:17 pm

    At least the riot over there has some political/fiscal purpose; not that I condone rioting or excessive use of force on the part of the police. However, when weighed against an act of senseless violence ostensibly because a hockey game was won, over on this side of the pond, in Montreal, a couple of nights ago, it seems less ludicrous then our nonsense. However one slices it, overly emotional people are boneheads! They let passions overwhelm reason. I say heads should roll on both sides of the divide. Rock throwers and pepper sprayers should be censured by the law.

  • gary April 25, 2008, 1:37 pm

    Geez…Next time I comment I will wait until after I have watched the video clip. I don’t speak Icelandic and, therefore, can’t comment on the commentary in the news clip. However, based on the footage, that “riot” looked more like closing time in July on Yonge St. in Toronto or Rue St. Catherine in Montreal. I can see how this sort of thing could disconcert a pacific nation but when you wrote riot what came to my mind is not what was reflected in the news cast. I guess it just goes to show that words are relative.

  • alda April 25, 2008, 1:46 pm

    Heheh. Yes, well, the title was supposed to be a little facetious. Guess that wasn’t quite clear.

  • Colin April 25, 2008, 4:41 pm

    @Mary – My use of “pigs” was semi-facetious. As for teaching children, my wife has put me under strict instructions that I am to confine my remarks to our five and three year olds to “if you need help, find a police officer.” My sentiments about state-sanctioned extra-judicial murder and the privateer mentality created by “war on drugs” asset forfeiture laws remain under wraps. Not least because they not fair to the police officers who actually do their jobs, and not appropriate for small children.

  • tk April 25, 2008, 5:16 pm

    From an article on Daily News from Iceland:

    “I am very sorry that this happened,” Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde told Fréttabladid. “It is not in consistency with Icelandic traditions to solve disputes with violence…”

    So, does this mean the PM has never read the Sagas? 😉

  • Angelique April 26, 2008, 7:02 pm

    I can understand the truckingcompanies. But I don’t understand the people … why don’t they join the truckdrivers?
    At the end it is the customer that will pay the bill; you know you buy everything you need in a store near home and because of the higher cost of truck-fuel those things will be more expesive also. The higher cost of fuel will be ‘transported on the cost of all products you can buy’

    So the cost of living will get higher with the fuel-prices…

    Everybody WILL pay.
    But now people find the truckdrivers anoying? Do they not understand that if the truckdrivers won’t complain they are the ones who have to spend more money on everything they buy?

  • Angelique April 26, 2008, 7:09 pm

    @hildigunnur { 04.24.08 at 8:26 pm }
    You say that truckdrivers should obey the law. But the new regulations are very different than before. BEFORE you could split up that minimum of 45 min rest into 3 x 15
    NOW you have to take 45 min after 4.5 hours of driving OR 1 x 15 min AND 1 x 30 min AND NOT 30 + 15 !!!

    Also things have changed in daily rest period.
    But that would be … might be a bit to much to explain.

    Did you know as a truckdriver you can get a fine of over 250 euros for just driving 3 min to much?
    So I’d drive 4hours-and-33 min … that’s 3 min to long as I could not get to a free parking because of a road-accident and traffic jam!!! The police did not care about that and wanted tot have 250 euro’s … !!!
    That has nothing to do with road safety anymore but it’s just another way to make money.

    In what occupation you – as an employee / so not as owner of the truck – do you have such high risk’s in gettin’ a fine .. and sometimes for small offences of several thousands of euro’s ???

    15 min to much on my daily driving time has cost me in germany 500 euro’s because all the parkingspaces were FULL. So id driven that day a total of 10 hours and 15 min.
    15 min to much in order to find me a parkingspace!!!

    That’s what truckdrivers are angry about.

  • maja April 27, 2008, 1:13 am

    Unleaded petrol costs $1.50 australian in Perth at the moment, which is the most expensive it’s ever been here. It gets taxed a fair bit here as well, but I think the government has to tax it to try to prevent people from using too much. People get wasteful if products are too cheap.

    It doesn’t sound like the truck drivers road blocking protests are really having much of an effect on the price of fuel or the levels it is taxed at. It’s just annoying other people. They should stop and try something else.

    As for those people who went and bought eggs and stuff to throw on the cops, they are part of the 10% dickhead population. There are always going to be dickheads…

  • Rose May 8, 2008, 12:22 am

    Yay, tk! A most excellent point that was overlooked by the rest of us! The sagas put (almost) everything into perspective.