Several top city politicians were threatened by a member of the public earlier this autumn, during a meeting of the Oslo City Council’s committee for cultural issues. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported this week that committee members from various political parties were badly frightened, while the man scaring them was ultimately allowed to just walk away.
The disturbing incident at Oslo City Hall, which has not been previously reported, was revealed just as Prime Minister Erna Solberg was admitting in Parliament to her government’s failue to secure public buildings from terrorist attack. City Hall is not under state jurisdiction and the incident did not involve terrorism, but it did involve frightening and racist behaviour by a member of the public, and committee members felt threatened. “I was really scared,” Geir Kvarme of Solberg’s own Conservative Party told Dagsavisen. “It was a terribly uncomfortable situation and I even thought, ‘now I’m finished.'”
The incident took place after the City Council’s culture committee had agreed to what’s called deputasjon in Norwegian: a request to meet with a member of the public, in this case a Norwegian man, who’s supposed to be representing others. He arrived several hours early for the meeting at City Hall and immediately exhibited what Dagsavisen described as “aggressive” behaviour in the City Hall’s entry area. The man, who has not been publicly identified, made obscene gestures to security guards and started yelling “satan” in the City Hall’s lobby. He was told to leave the building, which he did.
When he returned at the appointed meeting time, he was let in despite the disturbance he’d created earlier in the day, and sent to the city’s “Committee Meeting Room” on the third floor of City Hall. Committee members were not informed about his earlier disturbance.
‘I’m going to die’
City council members in attendance told Dagsavisen that the man started behaving “strangely” from the beginning of the meeting, and soon began making racist comments directed at Abdullah Alsabeehg, a 32-year-old member of the City Council for the Labour Party who came to Norway as a child when his family fled Bahrain for political reasons. Alsabeehg grew up in Oslo’s Holmlia district and was first elected to the City Council in 2011, shortly after the terrorist attacks in Oslo by an ultra right-wing extremist who accused Labour of allowing too much immigration over the years.
The man who’d asked to meet with the committee quickly intensified his racist rhetoric, referring to the annual Mela Festival that celebrates cultural diversity in Oslo as “the negro festival” and, according to Kvarme, appearing to be obsessed with food like pork and bacon, “and then he began to talk about cultivating Norwegian culture.” Kvarme told Dagsavisen that “then he began to shield himself from looking at Abdullah by holding up a laptop (computer) between them.” Several others at the meeting confirmed what Dagsavisen called the “bizarre” gesture, which all interpreted as “racially motivated.”
Things got worse, and after it appeared the man was about to throw a glass at Alsabeehg, meeting leader Eivor Evenrud of the Socialist Left party (SV) tried to end the meeting with him. Dagsavisen reported that the man then suddenly reached into the backpack he’d brought with him into the room, scaring everyone at the meeting because they thought he was about to pull out a weapon. When he then began to run around the meeting table, Alsabeehg managed to leave the room and summon security guards, who eventually escorted the man out of the building.
‘Today I’m going to die’
Dagsavisen reported that security officials at City Hall did not want to discuss the incident. Lars Arne Ryssdal director of the City Council’s secretariat, stressed that the city “wants its meetings to be open, that’s also our duty under the law. We don’t want to tighten them up, even in situations when a member of the public wants to demonstrate.”
Asked what happened to the man, Dagsavisen was told he was simply “asked to leave the building.” There were no reports of any charges being filed, even though City Council members said they felt threatened, and Evenrud’s minutes from the meeting confirmed the same. “I had a wild fantasy that he had a weapon in his bag and was going to shoot me,” Kvarme told Dagsavisen. “It went so far that I thought, ‘today I’m going to die.'”
Kvarme wasn’t happy with how the incident was handled, and contends that the committee should have been informed about the man’s aggressive behaviour earlier in the day. He thinks City Hall’s security staff also should have sat in on the meeting, given the man’s earlier disturbance. “I felt that our security was put to the test,” Kvarme told Dagsavisen. “It was a very uncomfortable incident. It’s important that City Hall’s management conducts an evaluation of how it handled this.”
‘Racist’ and ‘threatening,’ but doors staying open
Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen told Dagsavisen on Thursday, after its first report had been published, that she and City Hall staff “have really taken the incident seriously” and that “we have sharpened our routines.” She declined to say what that involves, but she stressed that she has spoken with all committee members present, read reports of the incident and taken it up with the city’s administration.
“I have sat on the City Council since 1996, and this is the only episode I have come close to that’s been viewed as so terribly uncomfortable,” Borgen told Dagsavisen. “We’re used to being criticized and yelled at, but this was more than that. This involved quite racist statements and threatening behaviour.”
She stressed that City Hall’s administration is responsible and that she otherwise feels secure in the building. She noted that the man did not become physically violent: “No one was knocked to the floor.” Borgen also stressed that while the incident was “sad and unfortunate,” she and her city government colleagues “want to have openness and open doors in to politicians. That’s part of a democracy.” Other politicians, especially from Labour, have long claimed they are not “naive,” but also want to maintain as open a society in Norway as possible.
Alsabeehg didn’t want to go into more detail about the incident but admitted that “no elected officials should feel threatened.” Asked whether he had been scared, he simply replied: “Yes.”