In this Q&A, I discuss the prospects for ‘unfreezing’ the draft new constitution with Hordur Torfason, the award-winning human rights activist credited with starting Iceland’s ‘pots and pans revolution’.
You’re credited as the person who started the “pots and pans revolution” in Iceland. How did the protests start?
I’m 70 years old this year. I started becoming an activist around 20 years old. Not that I wanted to become an activist, not at all. But I’m gay and it tells you a story that I’m the first gay man in the history of Iceland who steps forward. When I was 30 years old I was very famous. Everybody knew my song. I was on television, radio, doing concerts, LPs. I was doing everything that a young man can dream of. I was close to be a star or something like that in Iceland, in this small community. Except I was never happy because people were always trying to stop me being gay. I was not allowed to talk about it. It was like living in a dark cave.
One day I just decided to step out and say, “I’m gay and that’s it.” And everything went upside down, I had to go into exile and so on. That made me more determined to start fighting using my talent. I’m educated as an actor in the national theatre. I could play, I could sing, I could dance, I could write songs, I could write stories. This was how I started to become an activist, mixing activism and art. My main thing for all these years was to create awareness. Not only with myself but also travelling around talking to people through songs and stories.
So in the crash in October 2008, I had already done things like this. I’ve learned a lot of what I would call facts or methods through my years of dealing with people. So what I simply did is what Socrates did in the old days, I went around asking people questions. I just placed myself in front of the parliament building and I asked people, ‘Can you tell me what has happened in this country?’ and ‘Do you have any idea what we can do?’ I stood there every day during the lunch-hour and it didn’t take me long to understand the seriousness of the situation, the anger among people and how scared people were.
So I decided to put up a big outdoor protest meeting. I just called friends, artists and intellectuals and asked them to clarify the situation with a speech, because the government wasn’t doing that. I thought what I will try to do is to inform people about what is happening. The first meeting was like a week later, the 17th October and that’s how it started. And I remember looking over those thousands of people who were there. I had been talking to many of them. That’s what I do usually, I go among people I know and I don’t know, I just ask them questions, have a conversation with them about the situation. But what struck me there was the anger and the confusion. Nobody seemed to know what had happened and the government, the prime minister was telling us we should just relax he would take care of it. And in my heart I would never believe that. A person who has led us into this confusion, this terrible situation, I didn’t trust him to lead us out of it. Not at all. And it’s my constitutional right to stand up and protest so I simply asked people to stick together, talk together. We were all in this together. And I simply asked them, ‘do you want another meeting in the same time, the same place next week?’ And thousands said ‘yes’ and that was enough for me. And I simply started working on this very seriously.
And those weekly protests continued for about five months?
Yes. I didn’t know how long it would take of course, but my experience is you do the same things, repeat things systematically. It saves us a lot of money, advertising and things like that. I did the meetings like no more than 45 minutes as it was cold. Same place, same time. What I also did, reaching out to people, saying ‘look, I cannot do this alone, I need your help.’ But then again I had problems with that because you can never trust people. You can never know who’s in disguise for police or whatever people want. So I had to be very careful and I had my own methods in working. Let’s put it this way: I use everyone, trust no-one. That’s the only way to do things like this.
And this went on, of course, for five months, and in 1st December I found a person who I wouldn’t say I could trust 100% but he promised to be my right-hand and assist me in every possible way whenever I needed. And he did – like many other people – and he was with me for three months and he was really a saviour for my work.
What I usually do – because I’ve done this before on a smaller scale – is go around talking to the scholars, the intellectuals, the artists, I seek their opinion and know-how on matters.
Were people feeling the direct impacts of the crash at this time or were they just worried – seeing the banks fail and being nationalised, seeing the stock market crash – about what might happen to the country?
Yes. We did not know what was going to happen. We heard all kinds of stories. We began to see the stores lacked some types of food and we were fed with rumours that we were bankrupt and within a few days or months we wouldn’t even have food in our stores. People were very scared, yes.
As a knock-on were companies affected? I understand there was quite a rise in unemployment as well.
Well that was hard to trust. I was more concerned more about how people felt. Unemployment – I don’t recall looking into that. I found that maybe more as a natural result it would come. I wasn’t worried about that. I remember there was a story about the minister of finance trying to save some money and save some food. There was a lot of confusion and stories that made people scared. My main concern in the first months in October and November was trying to inform people with something the government did not.
I’m very interested that you had a set of clear demands. How important do you think that is to the success of a protest movement?
That is the clue. That is the glue. I went around for the first three weeks and asked people ‘what we do we want?’ From the very first week I kept a diary and I noticed what people were demanding. And my conclusion was that they wanted the government to resign, they wanted the board of the national bank to resign and they wanted the board of the money supervisory authority to resign. Of course the list was endless but my experience told me that social changes happen very slowly and three things would be sufficient. So I think it was on the third big meeting when I asked the crowd ‘do you want this?’ and I mentioned those three demands. And thousands of people said ‘yes.’ This was the glue that kept us together. This was the aim and I read this aloud every meeting. And in a way this made our meetings legal. This is simply what we are asking for. At the same of course we were totally ignored by the government, the ministers. So what I did in December was to start writing letters to the ministers or people in power asking for a meeting so that they knew what they were doing out there because we only got silence from their side. They pretended we didn’t exist and they called us names. So what I did was to ask for meetings. I went there. I read the letter out loud, which was in a way ‘I want you to resign for these reasons.’ I asked them ‘do you understand the letter’ and they said ‘yes’. Sometimes the meetings were up to one or two hours, very interesting meetings with some of them. Others were very blunt, very short and polite. They accepted the letter and that was it. I did my best to make these people aware of the situation.
I’ve read in a different account, that one of the demands was for a new constitution, but you didn’t mention that.
We spoke of it all the time. Many of the people who were making speeches spoke about a new constitution because that’s been a promise of the political elite since 1944 but I could not put it forward as demand number four because of the nature of it. That’s going to take years to do. But the underlying demand of all these protests was and still is ‘we want a new constitution.’ We haven’t given up. I haven’t given up. I’m on the sideline following what’s happening in this country. And we will get a new constitution. That’s what I aim for.
In terms of the demands you were iterating at every meeting, you were successful in achieving those.
The government stepped down and took the board of the financial supervisory authority with it. Then it took the head of the central bank another month to step down. But the board of the central bank refused to resign so that meant our protests took longer than needed. But I had a meeting with the new prime minister in February and said I would stay there with the protests until they resigned. And she said ‘don’t worry we are passing a law through the parliament to make them leave.’ And they did at the end of February 2009 or the middle of March.
With the new government you had what I think was a unique situation in terms of the European financial crash context, where the government created a special commission to prosecute top bankers and senior officials. Presumably it was popular pressure which provided the incoming government with the political space to do that? And perhaps the Citizens Movement which had four MPs in the new government also played a role in this?
Well the way I work is, at the end of February or the beginning of March 2009 I back out of the situation. People wanted me to go to the parliament and join a political party but I’ve never been involved in politics in a political party. I know from personal experience, when one person starts something, other people will follow. I’ve been going around for the past years with my speech. I’ve been invited to talk about my ideas and my speech is called “When I becomes we.” That is my purpose. I start things, I activate some people and they take off. I leave.
That’s on the personal level. But there was a lot of activity. There was the Citizens Movement that was a political party. But I haven’t been involved in these activities. I started but the people will take over.
You said you haven’t given up on getting a new constitution but the process is currently effectively frozen. The right-wing parties that caused the crash in the first place are back in power. At the same time the Pirate Party are now polling as the most popular party in Iceland. What do you think is the best hope for “unfreezing” the constitutional process?
OK. I’ll tell you one thing. The Pirate Party is very popular today. Good. And I believe in that. I’ll tell you a personal experience. In 1975 when I was stepping out as the first gay man in my county, it was right by law to be gay. But the church and the attitude towards gay people in Iceland, if anyone found out you were gay you lost your job, you lost your house, you lost everything. It was very tough. There was no information about being gay. There were very few words and they were all very negative, humiliating. I stood up as a young man, everybody in this country knew who I was, people loved my music and overnight I became persona non grata and I had to go into exile to protect my life. People tried to kill me actually.
I moved to Denmark but I kept visiting Iceland, finding and talking to gay people. I managed on 9th May 1978 to establish a gay organisation to fight for our rights and that was a very tough job because people always thought I wanted to open a sex club, or something like that. That tells you how ignorant people were. We worked hard for the next decades. It took a lot of sacrifice through the AIDS epidemic and finally in 2006 there were new laws which secured every individual to be equal to law. It doesn’t matter your gender, sexuality, the colour of your skin or your religion, everyone has equal rights in this country. It took us 30 years.
So what I’m pointing out is that to change society takes time. But in modern times – and this was one of the first things I pointed out in the big meetings – today with the internet it takes seconds to reach people. Whereas in 1975 I had to write letters, try to follow people in the street, calling them and so on. It took a lot. Today it’s very easy.
So what happened after the cutlery revolution – people call it a revolution, personally I don’t – was that the nation, or at least one third of it, woke up. Now, six years later, the awareness among people of the political situation is fantastic. People are beginning to understand how desperately we need the new constitution. And we have seen young people coming into the parliament: the Pirate Party. And they are to most people very honest and frank. They are not trying to lie and use Machiavellian tricks.
There was a protest [in May] here in Reykjavik. There were thousands of people downtown. I went there. I was just checking on things. I think the majority of people today are saying that now is our chance: we have to make the government we have today resign, get the pirates to go into the parliament, take the new constitution that is ready, give them six months to go through it and then have new elections based on the new constitution. This is our position today the way I see it.
And the protest was about what specifically?
It wasn’t about anything. It was very confusing. It tells you a lot. There’s a lot of angry people out there. There have been protests again and again these past years. They are desperate. They are trying to improve the situation. But it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to run good protests. I am a professional actor and director. I have had 40 or 50 years battling for my rights as a human in this society. Like I told them [at the protest], when I had a short meeting with the Pirates and explained my attitude. I said, ‘This is our only hope today. Are you ready?’ ‘Ah we will be ready.’ [Because now it’s summer] You can’t get people to come out and protest. Finally we get out of our caves and we like to stay in the sun. September, October – yes, we will.
Is that where you step back in? It sounds like you need a clear set of demands again. For the constitution, for the government to resign and new elections maybe?
Like I said to Birgitta, the leader of the Pirate Party, I will be ready in September, October because we have to do this. This is our only chance that has been created today. It’s taken us six, seven years but that’s how it goes. We have to be ready when the opportunity arrives.
And how important would you say the new constitution was? How radical a change could that bring about in the country?
Well that’s a huge question. The new constitution was created by people we trusted. It’s a modern constitution. The constitution we have now was written in 1873 by the King of Denmark. We need a modern constitution and we need to restart our system. The system has become corrupt. And I believe we need to restart our system every 20 years. And I think our only hope today is to restart our system and do our best. We are, after all, dealing with human nature, which is interesting, as always.
Is Iceland unique or can these things happen elsewhere? What are the lessons people should be taking away from what’s happened in Iceland?
Well, this slogan, ‘Act local, think global,’ that’s one of my mottos. You can learn from this of course. I’ve been visiting 15 countries, many of them more than once, talking to activists. I’ve been invited to make speeches and share my experience as a very successful activist because – it’s sounds very over the top, but this is a fact – every time I’ve stepped out and done my thing with protests it’s been 100% results. My theory is to simply use the system we live in. I work in the spirit of the society I want to live in. Many of the activists I speak to, especially those in the Spanish M15 movement, they were the first ones to call me, are telling me, ‘in many ways you were right and we started following your ideas.’ I don’t believe in violence for example, because that doesn’t lead us anywhere. Violence just creates more violence.
This post is part of our Great Charter Convention series, hosted in collaboration with Open Democracy, IPPR and the University of Southampton.