Denmark is the perfect place to live if you’re either a) a young child, or parents of one, or b) an elderly person. Other than that, I’m not so sure.
In a country that is a combination of nursery and a nursing home, with all rough edges concealed by hedgerows, in a city where even the anarcho-syndicalist hippie commune is nice, pretty, clean and famous for its design, the pent-up potential for rebellion among the youth is enormous. Add to that the fact that Denmark, uniquely among the Nordic Countries is ruled by a hard-line right-wing government, and you have a recipe for chaos.
When I started googling the recent Copenhagen riots, I discovered that simply putting “Copenhagen riots” into Google doesn’t work: there’s just too many of them. The city’s melting pot bubbles merrily under the Georg Jensen silver lid, and boils over once every five to ten years, for various reasons. The 2007 Norrebro riots, which I was trying to research, were just the latest and most violent.
The riots were presented in the media outside Denmark as “ethnic”, neatly fitting into the widespread narrative of “migrants stirring trouble in the suburbs”. It was nothing of the sort. Norrebro is Copenhagen’s Croydon, a former worker district outside the city centre, now inhabited by a dense mix of immigrants, working class Danes and anarchist squatters. It was the squatters who started the riot, incised by the senseless destruction of an important local landmark: the Ungdomshuset Squat. The local migrants joined them later, seeing a common cause in their fight against the right-wing government and police.
The riots spread throughout the city, reaching Christiania; this same government, at the time, was looking to destroy Christiania and turn the area into (what else) luxurious business development. Luckily, since we last visited the commune, the inhabitants managed to buy the land outright, and are now at last safe from the machinations of the city council. The result is a massive wave of refurbishment: everywhere we went we’ve seen timber sawed, nails hammered, scaffolding put up. Christiania is building up and about, and it’s looking greater than ever.
Norrebro is also regenerating after the riots. We went to see the famous Norrebro urban renewal project, keeping in mind what the projects like this look like in London. Now in London, “urban renewal” usually means building several new expensive apartment blocks, a big shopping mall and a smattering of faux-hipster cafes and art galleries around it thrown as decoration. In short, it means trying to bring rich – white – people into the area, rather than paying any attention to the needs of the people who are already there.
The Norrebro regeneration area – one of seven such areas in Copenhagen selected for testing new trends in urbanization – forms an enormous, colourful playground, skate park, bike park and garden, with nods to the local population like a Moorish-style fountain. Even on a slightly rainy and cold day it was full of people of all colours and ages.
Rioting is not the only way to vent pressure for young Danes. Copenhagen in the summer seems to be Europe’s second party capital after Berlin: on the day we arrived, one festival was ending, and another just beginning, culminating in a crazy street party in Norrebro. And all this before even the summer festival season proper began – whole weeks before the massive Roskilde rock-fest.
Christiania and Norrebro seem safe for now, and well worth visiting when you’re finished with the main, more traditional attractions of the city – at least until another government decides it needs to “normalize” the situation.