We All Protest!
Words by Jelena Ćirić
Photography by Golli
At the heart of downtown Reykjavík lies the small, sheltered Austurvöllur square, criss-crossed by walking paths and lined with lilac trees. In the middle of the square, facing the unassuming two-storey structure that houses Iceland’s parliament, is a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, leader of Iceland’s 19th century campaign for independence from Denmark. At a national meeting called by the Danish government in 1851, Jón led Icelandic representatives in opposing a new constitution which would limit Icelanders’ rights. “We all protest!” they famously called out. “Vér mótmælum allir!”
The statue of this celebrated Icelandic protester has since fittingly looked down upon many other activists who have occupied Austurvöllur, which has since become the gathering place for locals who want to speak out on any issue. While many are familiar with Iceland’s mass protests following the 2008 banking collapse, the country’s history of protest in the modern era is much longer and more complex, spurred by issues ranging from women’s liberation and nuclear disarmament to, most recently, action on climate change and asylum seekers’ rights.
Yet by many measures, Icelanders are among the happiest people on earth, and Iceland one of the best places to live. So, what is it that drives locals of a wealthy, peaceful country to protest in the streets? And have these protests, minuscule on a global scale, spurred any tangible changes?
If you follow Icelandic news these days, you may feel as if there are daily protests in the country. This spring, low-wage workers took to the streets following a breakdown in wage negotiations. Since February, a youth-led climate strike has been taking place weekly to urge the government to act on climate change. Asylum seekers have also been protesting for weeks, demanding work permits, due revision of asylum cases, and equal healthcare access. The fact that so many diverse groups are taking to the streets, may suggest there is something connecting their disparate causes.
I met with Professor of Philosophy Björn Þorsteinsson to try to understand what’s behind the sudden surge of dissent. Though protesters’ issues may be different, Björn says, they’re not unrelated. “I think it’s very important to look at the big picture,” he observes. “These issues are all connected. For instance, the stream of people from abroad is connected to both climate change and economic inequality. We are experiencing a hangover of globalism right now.”
Björn believes the growing protest movement in Iceland is a sign that democracy is in trouble, not only in Iceland but around the world. “Protests are one manifestation of the fact that democracy, more specifically representative democracy, is in a difficult spot. People distrust the government and their elected representatives, but also political authority in general.” He adds, however, that “there can be very differing reasons behind why people protest. A general feeling of injustice, anger caused by inequality, or even negative feelings such as envy of those who are better off, fear of those who are foreign or different, or fear of the future or of societal change.”
What drives Icelanders to protest is really not so different from what drives activists all around the world, according to historian Stefán Pálsson. A lifelong activist, Stefán served as chairman of Iceland’s Anti-War Association (Samtök hernaðarandstæðinga) for 15 years. The Icelandic Peace Movement, Stefán tells me, has always been closely connected to its international counterparts. “The peace movement has always been international. It’s always very closely followed what’s happening abroad and used the same tools, methods, and discourse. We always see the same movements in Iceland as we see in Europe and the US, they just sometimes happen a bit later.”
The protest methodology of Icelandic anti-war organisations founded in the late 1950s were directly inspired by the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). While the CND organised marches from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston to London, Icelanders marched from the US Army base in Keflavík to Reykjavík to protest the army’s occupation of the country. Other Icelandic protests have been closely tied to international movements, not least the current youth-led climate strike, an initiative that originated with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and has spread across the globe.
Perhaps the best-known protests in Iceland are those that erupted following the banking collapse. Known as the Pots and Pans Revolution, the series of protests played a role in bringing down the ruling government. Thousands took to the streets in the largest protests the country had ever seen. For life-long activists like Stefán, it was a strange experience. “It was a bit like when the underground band that you’ve been a fan of for years suddenly becomes mainstream and everyone is listening to them.”
While many leftist politicians were optimistic that the sudden momentum would lead to radical, structural changes, that didn’t turn out to be the case. “It’s not like everyone suddenly became communists after the banking collapse,” Stefán quips. “Many people went out to protest because they were really rich in 2007 and they just wanted their money back. You really have to have broader support to create social change.”
Although the Pots and Pans Revolution may not have had the profound effect that is often attributed to it by foreign journalists, it nevertheless marked a shift in Icelandic protest culture. While previously, protests in Iceland were largely peopled by dedicated activists, suddenly those taking to the streets belonged to many diverse groups.
When the US Army finally made the decision to leave Iceland in 2006, it did so unilaterally – without consulting the locals. After decades of activism, it would have been easy for the Peace Movement to take the event as a personal blow. Yet, Stefán says, he doesn’t doubt the movement’s efforts played a role in the army’s eventual departure, as well as Icelanders’ attitudes towards war.
“Because there was always strong opposition to the army here in Iceland and the Americans always knew that a government could come into power which would decide to expel them, they hesitated to build up the army base here. The other thing is that opinion polls repeatedly show that Icelanders are more opposed to military intervention than most other European nations. And that doesn’t happen on its own. I give the Peace Movement a lot of credit for that.” At the end of the day, the organisation’s persistence has been the key to its influence. Stefán quotes Lucretius: “‘The drops of rain make a hole in the stone. Not by violence, but by oft falling.’”
There are advantages and disadvantages to protesting in a country of few, says Stefán. On the bright side, “You feel like you can make a difference as an individual. With enough endurance, you have an impact. But, of course, you matter very little in the global context. Your actions are largely symbolic.”
Yet that’s largely the nature of activism, says Stefán. “It’s very rarely the case that in the grassroots struggle you can find a ‘moment of victory.’ Much more often the impacts are indirect and it’s difficult to measure them.”
Björn says it’s significant that the public has chosen, time and again, to protest at Austurvöllur in front of Iceland’s Parliament. “It’s the oldest and most respected institution of the nation, founded in 930, and by protesting there, people are saying that they are absolutely not indifferent about it. People are both expressing distrust in the Parliament and encouraging it at the same time.”
“There are many reasons to worry about democracy today. But what is positive is that there is a growing number of people in the country, not just in universities or government institutions, who are reflecting on how democracy should be.” But, Björn says: “We have to do more than protest. We need to put people in power or change the system so that it reflects this demand, this necessity to change society.”
“I have no particular belief that Iceland has a special role in the history of the world, nevertheless we saw after the banking collapse that many looked to Iceland and followed its reactions closely.” Finally, he says, radical change “is no horrible fate, rather quite the opposite; it could lead to a better life for everyone.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.