I was in a bar in the meatpacking district on August 19, 2009, when my friends around me started to receive a chain text message. The police had arrived to deport the Iraqi asylum seekers that had sought refuge in Brorsons Kirke in Nørrebro after their claims were rejected.
Many of my friends belonged to the left-wing community that had supported the Iraqis since they moved into the church in May. Tonight was the final showdown, and we got on our bikes and made our way to the church, which had been cordoned off by police.
Several hundred sympathisers showed up over the ensuing hours, sitting themselves in rows across Rantzausgade to prevent the police busses from departing. The police lost patience and pulled out their batons, pummelling through lines and lines of protestors.
By the time it was my turn, they were clearly tired and instead resorted to pepper spray. I remember it coating my face, my eyes seizing up, snot flowing out my nose. I was incapacitated and slumped against a wall for a few hours, waiting to regain my vision. The police succeeded in removing the Iraqis and I cycled home and slept with a fan directed at my face to cool the burning sensation.
I’m not an activist, and I doubt I would have been outside the church unless I was with my friends that night. But in that moment, sitting on the tarmac in the late summer, while above me towered the state’s enforcers of power, I had no doubt that it was the right thing to do.
What happened on Rantzausgade takes place across the world, when the state and the people cannot reach a compromise on the right course of action. During the 2009 climate conference, activists staged daring and high-profile demonstrations to encourage world leaders to take action. The police responded by locking down the city and detaining almost 2,000 people in preventative arrests that were later deemed illegal.
When police and protesters clash, an existential conflict emerges. Both sides must do what they are there to do. The protesters know they must make visible their discontent with leaders, while the police’s role is to subdue violence and maintain the peace.
Finding a balance between our right to protest and the police’s duty to maintain order isn’t easy. But as it stands in Denmark now, the state clearly has the upper hand. The police have repeatedly been found to have exceeded their powers through the use of preventative arrest, paying out millions in compensation, but the government refuses to do anything about it. The compensation is simply another cost the police have to shoulder.
I knew what was in for that night outside Bronsons Kirke but I don’t hold a grudge against the police. We put ourselves in their way, and they reacted in the only way they knew how. Some officers crossed the line, battering people with their backs turned as they stood up to leave. For the most part, though, I just think they were doing their job.
But rounding up thousands of peaceful climate protestors, or swathes of football fans, simply because a tiny minority have misbehaved, is wrong. It’s shameful that the government refuses to change the police law and restrict when preventative arrests can be used.
No-one should be afraid of getting locked up for peacefullyprotesting. Until the government changes the preventative arrest law, it’s a risk we face.