The Stormy End of Youth House

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Lars Helsinghof / EPA

Young people react when the youth house Ungdomshuset is torn down under police protection, in Copenhagen, on Monday, 05 March 2007. Days of violent clashes broke out when the police evicted the young squatters last Thursday.

Flowers and candles left on the sidewalk normally signify the mourning of sudden death by violence or accident. But in Copenhagen's Norrebro district, this week, they marked the passing of a controversial, 25-year old refuge for rebellious young malcontents that has improbably become a cause celebre across Europe.

Just a day after the Danish capital's neighborhoods were illuminated by burning cars and Molotov cocktails amid fierce battles between activists and police, only rubble remains of the Youth House, the citadel that the young rebels had fought so hard to preserve. Monday morning, under police protection, masked demolition crews and unmarked bulldozers began to systematically eat into the red-brick, four-story former labor-movement community hall, which had more recently served as a refuge for young people from a society they detested, a place where they could spend hours and days listening to music, drinking beer, smoking dope and planning occasional political protests in pursuit of a revolution that never materialized.

A few hundred yards away, the closest that police would allow them to venture, small groups of youngsters dressed in baggy jeans and hooded tops watch apathetically, occasionally rearranging the flowers — the rage of last weekend's riots deflated now that the battle is so obviously lost.

"It's one of the saddest days of my life," says a pierced, tearful 18-year old Emilie, one of the regulars at Youth House.

"We all have a lump in our throats," concurs Bjarne, who has come from Copenhagen's famed hippie area Christiania to show his sympathy.

Amid their tearful resignation, it was hard to imagine the ferocity of the confrontations that, only days earlier, had turned Norrebro and other Copenhagen neighborhoods into a battleground between police and young anarchists, reinforced by supporters from all over northern Europe. The unrest began early last Thursday morning when helicopter-borne Danish counterterror police raided the building, evicting and detaining its sleepy occupants. They were acting on a court order obtained by a Christian group that had purchased the building from the local authorities in 2000 — but could not occupy it when left-wing activists, who had squatted there since the 1980s, denounced the sale and refused to leave.

Following the police raid, activists armed with stones and Molotov cocktails clashed with police, setting cars on fire and sacking a high school. Some 650 arrests were made, including 140 foreign activists who had raced from neighboring countries to answer the distress calls of the protestors.

Many Copenhageners had initially sympathized with the youngsters' struggle to preserve their house, but many more were antagonized by the violence that turned their pretty, peaceful city into a dangerous war zone.

"The users of the Youth House had a just cause, but I have lost all sympathy for them when they resort to such methods," says Kevin Rasmussen, 40, a builder trying to maneuver his bicycle past the police line blocking the street to where Youth House stood. "In fact what they need is a hard kick where the sun doesn't shine."

Despite its very local character, the confrontation over Youth House appears to have resonated beyond Denmark's borders. Besides the hundreds of foreign youths who turned up in Copenhagen to join the protests, others launched demonstrations in sympathy with their Danish comrades in Sweden, Norway and in several cities in Germany. And on Tuesday, some 50 Italian activists occupied the Danish consulate in Venice as a protest against the eviction of Youth House.

According to the Danish Foreign Ministry, the activists peacefully left the building after the consul promised to convey their protest to the Danish government. Even as the young and the restless around Europe took up the lost cause of Youth House, the tired young Danish lefties seemed to be letting it go, retreating — in many cases to their parents' homes — to lick their wounds.