The din was deafening. Even from several blocks away, it sounded like hundreds of elephants marching lockstep at some military parade: One-TWO! One-TWO! One-TWO! It was the sound of hundreds of hammers and sticks pounding on the 30 or so oil drums and security fence placed directly in front of Iceland’s Althingi, or Parliament, last night (Oct. 2) in downtown Reykjavík. It was the sound of a people rebelling, again.
Here in Iceland’s version of Tahrir Square, where protest speeches are given and revolutions made, I noticed the park was packed with people. It was a typical Icelandic protest: youths and grandparents, anarchists and businessmen, students and bikers, all gathered together, patiently standing in the chilly night air as the ring of protesters directly in front of the Parliament building banged away. One-TWO! One-TWO! One-TWO! On the other side of the fence, black-clad, burly policemen walked from side to side of the building, ever mindful of the encroachments made by those attempting to scale the fence, or stand atop it to bang on the lampposts. Looking around at the signs and fireworks, red flares and small fires, the palpable energy was rising and I smiled to myself, thinking how good it was to be out with the people one more time.
Just a few years ago, Icelanders threw out their corporate oriented, center-right government, and, after demanding new elections through a “pots and pans revolution” (so named for the items folks brought with them here to make noise with) they installed a center-left government that was seen as a bright harbinger of change. But, as USAmericans understand rather well nowadays, concepts like “hope and change” are often little more than an election slogans. After the government’s craven hand over of the banks to the creditors and later, appeasing the IMF gods by pushing through punishing budgetary cuts, the people are fed up yet again. But the feeling is worse now, and it’s showing. I quickly saw just how out of place my smile was tonight.
The people looked tired and not as forward looking as the last time I was out here. More and more have lost their jobs, or houses, had cars repossessed stealthily at night, seen how their politicians cower before the austerity hawkers who peddle their discredited wares all over the world, while watching as those responsible have fled the country, or hid from sight. They have watched as even hospitals are told to close, and large numbers of them (almost three thousand, in a country of just over 300,000) have left for Norway, in search of work. I looked more carefully around me and saw the former atmosphere of warm possibilities inspiring hopeful smiles reduced to Depression-era looking scowls, and faces filled with wan frustration. There was no sense of joy at some newfound solidarity anymore, nor much of the excitement that their government might finally “get it”.
No, locked away in their grey government building, the Parliamentarians gave their speeches, ignoring the rhythmic bangs which rose in intensity once word was given that the Prime Minister was giving her speech. And the banging continued for hours until the end of the legislative session, when the people drifted home afterwards, just as angry as before. In Iceland, the whole edifice of government has lost the respect of the people, with political parties splintering, alliances fracturing, and a general anger rumbling below the surface with repressed intensity, reminiscent of the geographical features which literally undergird this island nation, smack in the middle of two unstable tectonic plates, the European and the North American. And as these two geographical features drift apart about a centimeter per year, I thought that this may be another strained metaphor for European and American ways of reacting to the gangster capitalism that is eroding the quality of life everywhere one looks these days. Then again, looking at the latest news from Occupy Wall Street, maybe not.
Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland.