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How Iceland Fell

A Hundred Days of (Muted) Rage

by Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO

Activists of the world can take heart. Yesterday, Morgunbladid, the largest newspaper in Iceland announced the end of the coalition government responsible for the huge financial crisis which has rocked this North Atlantic island to its volcanic core. This event is relevant for a number of reasons, not least of which is the non-violent resistance which has now succeeded in forcing the downfall of a government whose leaders have been copying the American example in banking for years.

Icelanders, beginning shortly after the government intervened and nationalized the three largest banks upon their collapse, signaled their displeasure with the government and week after week were demanding that the entire cabinet step down, en masse. Well, they now have and it is a victory for democracy lovers everywhere.

Icelanders did it in their own peculiar way, though. While daily reports of violence in the Greek streets dominated foreign news coverage here, I sat in bemused fascination as the travails of one single rock was being debated with the intensity of a grainy JFK assassination video and the moral indignation of a soul-searching nation stunned at its new-found loss of conscience. What a contrast! It seems that in mid-December one police officer had allegedly been scratched by a rock tossed by an angry protestor. Home videos were scrutinized as to whom might have been the attacker and talk show hosts wondered aloud at the moral state of the nation, fearing the direction protests might be turning, and what that might mean for their people who are not known as a violent sort.

While Iceland has had more than its share of a violent past (can anyone say, Vikings?) it seems that the insularity and isolation of the country (and the occasional intervention of its Scandinavian neighbors over the years) has tempered the Icelandic temperament. This has forced typical tension releasing into arenas such as skiing, regular gym workouts and, for the insistent, drunken revelry from Friday to Sunday.

But even the latter rarely descends into more than early morning shouting matches as displays of violence are rarely countenanced. In fact, in a recent conversation with Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, she asked this writer to consider if Iceland had in fact, made the remarkable transition from a dominator mode of social relationship to a partnership mode. I will leave that discussion for another time, but the results are stunning. In just over three months, Icelanders have stopped cooperating, withdrawing their support for a coalition government seen as more concerned with holding onto power than working in the people’s legitimate interests. So the people took to the streets. Tentatively, of course, and with an Icelanders typical reserve, holding protests in front of the Parliament building on Saturdays, promptly and peacefully at 3pm. But the people came together.

While Athens burned into a maelstrom of ungovernable chaos, Icelanders, in roughly the same time period, politely listened to long speeches and, as the weeks progressed, increased their venting with the occasional egg toss and curse word. (One newly coined expression of their frustrated rage was “Fokking fokk!” laughable perhaps at first listen, but as near a violent expression as I’ve heard hear in nearly 7 years). A couple of times small bonfires were lit and, as reported later, appeared to be evidence of violence against the Parliament.

No such violence occurred, though. And as the recent tensions came to a head and the frustration boiled over even more, many protestors took to wearing orange ribbons signifying their “legitimate” protestor status, as opposed to the occasional drunken lout eager to fight or create mayhem at will, something most Icelanders, pro or against the government loathe. Still the protests continued onward and Icelanders, oblivious to the cold and rain soldiered on bravely until, last week, on January 20, as the Parliament resumed meeting, the protests culminated in between 7-8000 people gathering (the US equivalent of 7-8 million). (This was the second time such a large gathering had happened in the course of this crisis.)

Apparently, the die was cast: within a few days, the Business Minister resigned and the political blogging hit a fevered pitch, letting the politicians know their time was up. It has now precipitated the collapse of the government and the frenzied assembling of a caretaker government to lead until elections are held in May.

Where this will go in the next few months is uncertain, (the Left-Green Alliance is certainly to be a major player in the new government) but the Icelandic example provides powerful instruction that, when a people reject violence and take up a struggle together, they can still actually win.

Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland.