Cop-enhagen: Memories of the Danish police

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

Recent media reports of Danish police brutality brought back memories of my student days in “wonderful Cop-enhagen”. Some days ago, the police there arrested almost a thousand mostly peaceful and law-abiding marchers and were only able to charge a dozen with any offences. All had their hands tied and were held for four hours on a bitterly cold street and forced to wet themselves. Judging from reports in the British media, the brutality of the Danish police seems to have surprised some foreign journalists and climate activists. A lady from the Philippines was shocked that they were as bad as or worse than the police back home. I cannot say if they are better or worse than their Philippine counterparts, but it is my experience that they are far more prone to arbitrary and racially motivated harassment than London’s Metropolitan Police. Observing the streets of Copenhagen and those of London, they also generally seemed more brutal and intimidating. The expectation that the Danish police should be gentler than other police forces is testimony to the strong power of a false general image the country enjoys abroad. In spite of the mainstreaming of aggressive nationalism with racist overtones since the 2001 elections, the 2005 cartoon crisis, confrontation in the Arctic and an increasingly militaristic and pro-US foreign policy, the idea of Denmark as a small, liberal internationalist and internally egalitarian and democratic country remains strong. Parts of the successfully projected ideological myth are true, but this was never the whole story. There is democracy and egalitarianism, but the other side of this is a tyranny of the majority and intolerance of cultural diversity. Nationalism was always stronger and more arrogant and xenophobic than in many other parts of western Europe. As for imperialism, I argued in an article published earlier this year that Danish international relations discourse operates as a “cloaking device”, which mysteriously makes 97% of the state’s territory invisible in international relations. This huge land and sea mass is the still colonised remnant of a once even vaster Danish empire.*

When I lived in Copenhagen between 1989 and 1994 I was regularly stopped and questioned by the police for no apparent reason. The same happened to male Iranian exile acquaintances. My belief then and now is that it was a matter of race. Many police officers seemed to have the prejudice that young men with darker hair and pigmentation than the majority were all up to no good. They would therefore stop them, demand identification and check if the bicycle they were riding had not been reported stolen. It is of course ironic that the descendants of Vikings and Vandals should hold such views. Many policemen are from Vendsyssel in Jutland, which takes its name from the ancient Vandal tribe.

I was stopped by the police every few months, sometimes to verify the legal ownership of my bicycle, other times just to check ID. This did not happen to my “normal-looking” friends. One summer night outside my home in Oehlenschlægersgade I was threatened with a beating next time they came across me. I was guilty of nothing and completely sober coming back from the shop across the road. I may have been irritated and sounded condescending, but I was polite in my exchange with them. Another time I was stopped cycling down Tagensvej. Not only my identity but those of my immediate family were checked as was the ownership of my bicycle. I was also stopped on Frederiksberg Alle and Gammel Kongevej.

On another occasion I walked past what must have been a fight between two groups of teenagers – one “immigrant”, the other “Danish”. This was on the corner of Vesterbrogade and one of the streets leading towards Istedgade. A shop window was smashed, nobody seemed injured, and four or five youths in black bomber jackets fled the scene as the police arrived. Black jackets were the uniform of the racist gangs of the time. The police made no attempt to chase the young fascist-looking men but started questioning the others and took them away in their cars.

Outside Copenhagen I was sometimes stopped by police up to 25 kilometres from the Danish-German border. They drove in unmarked cars and seemed generally to approach foreign-looking pedestrians in border towns and villages by shouting at them in English. At night they shone powerful lights at you, and as they tended to drive in unmarked vehicles it was quite intimidating. You did not know before they shouted “Stop! Danish police!” that it was not some psychopathic killer in a Volvo. They often seemed disappointed that they had not caught an illegal migrant. Their response to being spoken to in “better” Danish than their own (more educated and middle class) was often hostility. A person who was not expected to speak Danish responding politely in a social dialect considered superior to their own may have been unsettling. Often the response to the unfamiliar and unclassifiable is aggression. Sadly, a racially “alien” person who neither speaks no Danish nor speaks with a foreign or working class accent seems to fall outside the sociological imagination of many Danish police officers. Ironically, there was probably fear on both sides because of their inability to deal with a person who fell outside their established categories. I was afraid of what they might do to me, and they were disturbed by and afraid of an unclassifiable stranger. In Britain, on the other hand, not many would be unsettled by a Gujarati or Jamaican who sounds no different from any other English lawyer or academic. It is a sad reflection of the state of Denmark and the intersections of race, ethnicity and class. Perhaps there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously said.

My most frightening border encounter was not with the Danish but the German police. It made me feel “fear and trembling”. It happened in the spring of 1989. I was walking on a street in the centre of Flensburg, some six or seven kilometres from the border. I had arrived by train from Munich via Hamburg and was going to catch a bus to Sønderborg in Denmark. An unmarked burgundy Volkswagen van drove onto the pavement, a man jumped through the side door, grabbed me and dragged me inside. The back of the van was full of electronic equipment, and the man who lifted me off the street and the driver were wearing police uniforms. They asked for my passport, which they inspected. They asked where I was going, complimented me on my German and let me go. They were polite once they were satisfied that I was Danish and going to my parents’ house across the border. Interestingly, they apologised when they had established my nationality and said something about having to do what they did because of the proximity of the border. The implicit message seemed to be that it is acceptable to bundle holders of certain other passports into vans and do who knows what to them. In other, and perhaps somewhat extreme, words Germans, Danes and some other nationalities are fully human and endowed with rights to be treated decently, but some other people do not have those rights.

Having had these experiences as a law-abiding Danish citizen who happens not to look like a Viking, I am not surprised by reports of excessive force by the Copenhagen cops. I imagine them to approach foreign demonstrators with the same prejudice as they approach their fellow citizens and permanent foreign residents who look Muslim, Greenlandic or anarchist – as fair game deserving a “røvfuld” (thrashing/beating) I was told in a North Jutland (Vandal) accent one summer night in Vesterbro.

I am aware that black men are far more likely to be targeted by London’s Metropolitan Police than any other sociological category. I am also aware that the police force has been officially described as “institutionally racist”, but this is in itself testimony to the relatively more liberal nature of British political discourse. In spite of the dominance of an increasingly unpleasant nationalism with racist elements, an unresolved colonial history and creeping illiberalism, most Danes seem to think that racism and imperialism are other people’s problems, namely countries like Britain, France and the US. My experience since 1994 in London is that I have never been stopped and questioned by police on the street. When I have had to speak to members of the police force, they have always been professional and polite, and I have not felt any hostility or suspicion due to my looks or origin outside the British Isles.

Police forces are by definition violent and repressive. They are the agency charged with exercising legitimate(d) violence within the territory of the state. The British police are no exception to this, and there are clearly also problems of abuse of power, disproportionate violence, racism and religious prejudice. Even so, at least in my experience, they are a lot more civilised than their Danish colleagues, and the British media and political system openly discuss problems with policing. These are some of the reasons I prefer life in London to Cop-enhagen.

* Steffensen, Kenn Nakata “Denmark’s invisible empire: The politics of translating the Danish constitutional order”. in Brett Epstein (ed.) Northern lights: Translation in the Nordic countries. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009


2 thoughts on “Cop-enhagen: Memories of the Danish police

  1. Hi Kenn

    Interesting comments you have on this web site. You probably don’t remember me but we met in some conference some 15 years ago. I have since graduated from Japanese studies (MA thesis Coercive Globalisation: Japanese Popular Culture in Thailand) but now I work in an environmental foundation that supports NGOs in South, here in Finland.
    Well if the cops are unreasonable in Copenhagen or Denmark they are worse here in Finland, like in 2006 ASEM meeting when some groups organized a Smash ASEM demonstration but there were some 50 demonstrators and 300 police men in full battle gear, helmets and shields and all. The cops not only arrested the demonstrators but the media reporting it also. And nobody accused the police on using excessive force.

  2. The non-governmental Danish Documentation and Advice Centre on Racial Discrimination and the Open Society Institute are launching a study into the police’s stopping and searching of young “immigrants”. It has been clear to me that at least some 20 to 15 years ago they used racial profiling. Politiken wrote on the 20th January 2010:

    “An informal and unscientific study by the Copenhagen police itselft could indicate an overrepresentation of ethnic minority youths.

    On the basis of the surnames of those searched the police concluded that 50 percent had a foreign background..

    By comparison, some 20 percent of residents of Copenhagen, Frederiksberg and Tårnby municipalities at the end of 2009 were immigrants or descendants of immigrants according to Danmarks Statistik.

    These are the three councils, which have at times been one big stop and search zone.

    The 20 percent also include for instance Norwegians and Swedes, and the figure may be higher, as Danmarks Statistik only count descendants of immigants when both parents have kept their original citizenship.”

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