The heated debate in Denmark on freedom of expression has escalated again and this time taken to the streets, with unrest in the centre of Copenhagen on Sunday, April 14th, when 23 arrests were made in Nørrebro, Copenhagen’s most multicultural neighbourhood. 30 cars, several containers and bicycles were also burnt. Most of those held were arrested for arson and violence against the local police. Several press members and photographers were also attacked in the district and had their equipment smashed.
The riots erupted when the ultra-right nationalist leader, Rasmus Paludan, fronted a demonstration at Blågårds Plads in Nørrebro. Paludan is known for his recent outspoken statements against the Muslim presence in Denmark. He has occasionally burned the Muslim’s holy book, the Quran, in public places in the city during the past few months, actions which resulted in several minor clashes between the police and anti-Paludan demonstrators.
Paludan’s party, Hard Line, was founded on July 15th, 2017, in a public statement during the Stop Islamisation of Denmark organization’s demonstration in the city of Roskilde. Since then, the party, led by the ultra-right-wing lawyer, has been circulating their political views with their ambition of having a Denmark free from Muslims.
Not only does Hard Line want Islam to be banned in the country, it also seeks a total stoppage to all non-Western immigration, combined with massive repatriation of non-Western migrants already living in Denmark, who would have their citizenship revoked.
This statement has provoked several politicians and human rights activists in the country. The Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen issued a statement on his Twitter account on the day of the riots saying “I strongly disagree with Paludan’s meaningless provocations that have no other purpose than sow disunity. Meet him with arguments - not with violence. Defend democracy and freedom of expression. Do not let derogatory actions aimed at specific groups in DK [Denmark] ruin our unity”. Paludan has previously received a suspended prison sentence under Denmark's racism laws for making derogatory or degrading remarks about black South Africans that were published on YouTube.
Steen Kristiansen, a Danish teacher and a resident from the neighbourhood argued that Paludan “uses freedom of expression as a means to carry out his very provocative demonstrations.” He believes that “there is a vivid double-standard in the right of freedom of expression in the country, especially against those of Muslim origins. If a Muslim advocate would stand in front of a church or a synagogue and scream similar statements, it won’t be considered as freedom of expression, but he will be detained for several charges, such as anti-Semitism.” He believes that due to the “lack of communication between the residents of this area, Danes or not, and the continuous strict policies against immigrants by the current right-wing government the situation escalates the tensions in the neighbourhood.”
A local bar owner from the area where the riots took place and who gave his name only as AM said that “usually such incidents don’t have such reactions.” He said that on the day after the incident, several bar owners, residents of the neighbourhood and himself discussed the issue and agreed “that we shall do our best to not give such personas the attention they are seeking. He and his statements will vanish very quickly.”
However, AM believes that there is another important problem, as “there is no one that makes an effort in this neighbourhood to talk with the young and enlighten them about controlling their emotions when such personas come here and provoke them.” Regardless of the fact that the residents of this neighbourhood live side-by-side without any mentionable tensions, “when such a campaigner comes here and provokes the feelings of the people by burning the Quran and shouting racist statements, while being protected by the police, this antagonizes the youth and they feel directly attacked by both this ultra-right spokesman and the Danish police at the same time.”
On Tuesday, April 16th, a group of local citizens organized a small festival and hundreds of people gathered with music and dance. During the event, several speeches were made calling for a peaceful neighbourhood and for everyone to ignore “idiots and racists such as Paludan.” Simultaneously, the Danish Police issued statements on their Twitter account asserting that they had banned five other Paludan marches on that same day, as they believe that “his demonstrations will pose a threat to public peace.”