The night lasted a lifetime

Tuesday, March 13, 2007
People gathered to view the flowers that were placed as a mark of respect for the youths who fought for their youth hostel Friday at the empty lot in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the famous youth hostel once stood. Police forced the residents of the hostel to evacuate the building, sparking many days of clashes with police. (Jens Panduro ~ Associated Press)

Someone yelled over a loudspeaker, "There are going to be cops where we are going. Tell them to go to hell!"

This was one of the messages I heard in Copenhagen, Denmark, that sent a crowd of about 2,000 people into riot mode. I was in the middle of the riot and had no idea what to expect.

I am studying journalism in Arhus, the second largest city in Denmark. Three other journalism students and I made the trip to Copenhagen March 2 to witness the riots.

The riot was centered on a demonstration by left-leaning youth, who have recently been kicked out of their youth meeting house, the Ungdomshuset or "youth house," in Copenhagen.

In 1982, the youth house at Jagtvej 69, Norrebro, was assigned to a group of youths who gave the building its current name, but still did not own the house. After a 1996 fire ravaged the house, authorities planned to sell it, despite protests from the youth. In 2000, the house was sold to a Christian group and ever since, the city has been negotiating with the youths to peacefully leave the house in exchange for a house of their own. They refused.

Police stopped demonstrators last week near the Danish Embassy in Oslo. Demonstrators were showing their support for the disputed youth center in Copenhagen, Denmark. Oslo police fired tear gas at about 150 people in the demonstration. (Kyrre Lien ~ Associated Press)

"There are a lot of feelings connected with the old house," said Tonto Ching, a middle-aged former visitor of the house. "The old house had the history."

Denmark has quite a large welfare state, where taxes run from 50 to 60 percent for all citizens. By some, the house was considered a symbolic gathering place for people who didn't want to see the world become more globalized and capitalistic.

The riots are a big deal for Denmark, a country where many of its citizens have never held a gun and think they aren't necessary. The riot crowd didn't have guns, but they did arm themselves with dug-up cobblestones and beer bottles, which they bought at convenience stores near where the riot broke out.

All day my friend, a photojournalism student, received text messages about when the demonstration would start. We were told to meet in the city square at 10 p.m. We arrived to the sight of about 500 people -- all wearing black.

In less than an hour, the crowd had grown to more than 1,000 people, and a DJ booth had been set-up on the back of an open-bed truck that took off for the final destination. When we arrived there, it was 11:30 p.m. and the demonstrators were almost 2,000 strong.

No Global activists hold a banner which reads, "From Venice to Copenhagen, trouble for those who touch us", as they occupy the Danish consulate, in Venice, Italy, Tuesday March 6, 2007, to protest against the demolition of a disputed youth center that was at the heart of recent street riots in Copenhagen. (AP Photo/Luigi Costantini)

So far, the demonstrators were peaceful. Along the way the people in the DJ booth would yell, "it's our house, don't let them take it." The chanting would start, and then die down after several minutes.

After talking to several people, it seemed the situation would break into a riot.

"They won't get another house without this fight," Ching said. "In this society you get something with money and with power, because politicians respect both of those things."

At 12:30 a.m., a man in the DJ booth announced over the loud speaker that he no longer had control of the demonstration and they were moving. The verbal statement was to release him from any responsibility if the demonstration broke into a riot.

Shortly after, youths pulled masks over their faces and gathered dug-up cobblestones in piles to use as weapons. Nobody put their face masks on before the riot because it is illegal in Denmark to demonstrate with one. The mask was an incitement for the police, and they advanced.

A demolition machine last week started tearing down a disputed youth center that was at the heart of recent street riots in Copenhagen. A police anti-terror squad evicted squatters from the building, triggering three nights of clashes with leftist youth that turned parts of the city into a battle zone. (Jens Panduro ~ Associated Press)

I walked away from the crowd and got out in the open, so that I could run when it all started.

The riot began when a Molotov cocktail was thrown against a police van and burst into flames. Stones were thrown, and someone shouted "gas!" All at once, tear gas filled the air and the crowd scattered. Many people were crying from the smoke, and it burned my throat, tongue and nose.

The police came charging in my direction, and rioters started moving cars into the streets. Throughout the night the rioters brought carnage. If they were left-leaning before, then they weren't expressing their political sentiments anymore because it was anarchy in the streets.

People smashed windows out of cars and set them on fire. Pieces of wood and trash barrels were brought into the road and set on fire. The fire department was nowhere to be seen, just the anti-terrorist police brought into disperse and arrest the crowd.

A few of the people I was with had press passes -- I didn't have one so I stuck with those who did. It was exhilarating to run from the police, but I was in danger of being arrested, and possibly being shipped back to Missouri.

Aaron Dohogne

After the night was over, about 100 people had been arrested. The riot police used up all their vans, and had to borrow police vans from Sweden to carry off those who had been arrested.

Police in the hostel

Before I left for Copenhagen, I remember thinking back to what my mom had told me.

"Don't get involved with political demonstrations, because you're a foreigner, and you don't know what they'll do to you," my mom said.

In a sense, mom was right. After the riots ended early Saturday morning, I woke up and was alerted police were talking to people at the hostel where I was staying. They had already taken my friend's camera, which had footage from the riots. Being in another country, we didn't know our rights and were scared.

The police loosely searched all our rooms and took pictures of us holding white sheets of paper with our name and nationality on it. Later we were told the pictures of us would be destroyed, because nobody at our hostel had explosive materials and nobody was arrested. The police were actually friendly, and asked us questions about our country.

The night in Copenhagen was wild. Just to be considered a rioter and potentially arrested was the biggest adrenaline rush I've ever experienced.

Aaron Dohogne is a 2003 graduate of Central High School and is journalism student at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He's currently studying in Denmark.

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