This is the first in a series of guest blogs from geographers around Europe. Edward Huijbens is a geographer based at the University of Akureyri in Iceland.

On the Friday before the big weekend in October 2008, when the whole finance sector in Iceland came tumbling down, there was tension in the air. During lunch time news a revered economist at the University of Iceland had stated that the banks were bankrupt with unforeseeable consequences for the nation at large. The was obvious panic in his voice and I rushed back to the office, where we gathered round the computer and listened to a replay on the internet of the news. We had not much to say – we were just numb and awestruck. On the Monday after the weekend big news were afoot and the PM was to address the nation on TV at 4pm. The nation came to a stand-still and we watched as the PM announced that the finance sector had capsized and might suck the whole nation in. He ended with the famous Bushian “God bless Iceland”.

Immediately it was clear that this collapse manifested regional disparities within the country. Around the small villages and towns around the cost people shrugged and said; we have had recession here for 30 years, this will not change much. Whilst in the capital region Reykjavík and bigger towns namely Akureyri and Reykjanesbær, the effect was felt more, but also the need to invest all the bubble capital accumulating was mainly manifest there, in highrises, roadworks, big building projects and new boroughs. Now these are all half-done and on hold.

Mostly people were at first numb, did not know what had happened and how. In August 2008 the nation was on the top of the world, with a booming economy and just having won a silver medal in the Olympics in handball. When the handball team returned home tens of thousands filled the streets in Reykjavík as they received a royal welcome – national pride was rampant and all of a sudden it was all gone. Overnight we became equated with Zimbabwe and the likes in international media.

Then it began to dawn on some that the system we had built was fundamentally corrupt, through nepotism, and the ideological dogma of neo-liberalism was flawed. This was of course obvious to many beforehand, but the debate could never be sustained in the face of the amazing wealth that seemed to be pouring into the country. The only political party (the left green) that raised concern was absolutely ridiculed. As one left green parliamentarian suggested that the banks should just leave the country and set up HQ in London, the media uproar was immense.

As it dawned on the general public, various groups started to emerge and talk on various issues: general mis-trust at the political establishment was rampant so new ones formed. The most prominent one started the first Saturday after the collapse in October to rally people at 3 pm on the centre square in Reykjavík in front of the parliament house. There for 30 minutes 3-4 people would give short speeches on their take on the situation and the organiser, the well known civil liberties activist Hörður Torfason, would talk to people reminding them to come next Saturday. His aim was simple, to come every Saturday until three of his demands would be met: 1) That the director of the Central Bank would be ousted, 2) the government resigns and 3) that a general elections will be called.

The firm use of public space to voice simple clear demands became the platform for the change that would in the end occur. People held on to these meetings, and the media made more and more of them as people started coming in their thousands. What at first was a handful of people had by January 2009 become at least 10,000 people (bear in mind in Iceland the population is 320,000 in total). This mass of people simply could not be ignored and when the parliament reconvened after Christmas mid-January, Hörður urged all to come to the square and bring anything that could make noise – this time they will listen. People grabbed pots and pans mostly and filled the central square banging them along with percussionists and blaring horns. Inside the parliament people needed to shout to be heard, but still the parliament members and PM pretended as if nothing was going on. This so infuriated people that they came back the next day and the day thereafter and what unfolded was what later was called the “Kitchenware” Revolution and the government resigned. An interim government took over and general elections were called. There was change and a left government gained clear majority – but now, almost a year on, we are in the interesting situation that this new government seems to be doing all it can to resurrect the former system that collapsed in all its nepotistic and corrupt glory. We are a bit confused up here now and what next we do not know, except it seems clear that it is the tax-payer who will pay.

The lesson in this for me is that clear demands have to be set, with a clear structure and platform for the voicing of these demands: where come hell or high water, the demands will be voiced, and if not heard accompanied by pots and pans. For me the pivotal role that public space plays in the strategic locations, such as ours in Reykjavík, cannot be underestimated.

A hammer and a thick steel frying pan  can sever eardrums!

Eddie from Iceland

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