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Learning From Iceland’s ‘Kitchenware Revolution’

by Melissa García Lamarca

Hördur Torfason, the Icelandic artist and human-rights activist who was instrumental in the protests surrounding Iceland's financial crisis and "silent revolution" in 2009, paid a visit to the protest camp-outs in Madrid, Barcelona, and Palma de Mallorca a few days ago. In the latter, the visit was quite an event, since Palma’s main plaza was popularly renamed Plaça d’Islàndia over a month ago as a salute to the movement Torfason helped lead. Hundreds of people gathered in the plaza on Monday evening to hear just one of the talks Torfason was giving during his packed day-long visit to the island.

Torfason addressing the crowd in Plaça d'Islàndia in Palma de Mallorca.

Nestled in the plaza, he shared his story about starting as a human-rights activist in the early 1970s and being the first openly gay celebrity (singer, songwriter, poet) in Iceland. After 38 years of struggle, he thought that adoption of the equal rights bill by Iceland’s parliament in 2008 meant that his work was over.

However, the start of the country's massive financial crisis pushed Torfason back to action. On October 11, he began standing in front of the Reykjavik parliament with a microphone. Passersby were invited to talk about their dissatisfaction with the freefall of their country, to speak their minds.

Over the next five months, these sessions turned into open meetings and rallies every Saturday afternoon. Three claims predominated: resignation of the government, resignation of the board of the National Bank, and resignation of the board of monetary authorities. Torfason spoke about the variety of strategies and tactics used during the protests, from direct, yet respectful, letter-writing and meetings with politicians to what was dubbed the "kitchenware revolution": banging pots and pans in protest, known as cacerolazo in Argentina. This culminated in late January, 2009, with thousands of people protesting for days on end, resulting in the collapse of the Icelandic government.

Protesters in Reykjavik as parliament met for their first session in January, 2009.

What does this mean for the 15-M movement in cities across Spain? Torfason explained that, since January 2009, Icelanders have remained mobilized and refused to pay the private debt of politicians and reckless bankers who systematically robbed the country and its people. There are also 25 people driving a collaboration with thousands online to write a new constitution for the country, on track to be completed this summer. Since political groups in Iceland own the media, Torfason spoke of the critical role of the internet as a lifeline for organizing within the country and globally.

In response to a question from the audience, Torfason noted that no claims have emerged from the 15-M in Spain. “How can you speak to politicians even though you don’t like them?" he asked. "They are people we put to work for us.” He advised making a few clear claims and developing more when these are achieved. “Remind them [the politicians] of their job,” he said. “They seem to have forgotten.”

The movement’s next challenge is to determine clear claims and act collectively to achieve them. This is much more complex to coordinate in Spain (with its decentralized population of 46 million) than in Iceland, where two-thirds of its 300,000 residents live in the Greater Reykjavik Area. But Spaniards appear to be up to the challenge.

Credits: Photo of Hördur Torfason's talk in Palma de Mallorca by Ruben Ballester Lopez. Photo of protesters in Reykjavik from The Guardian.