The US Embassy had managed to warn its own citizens in Oslo of potentially violent demonstrations outside the Turkish Embassy on Saturday. Local police, however, failed to do the same, and ended up admitting on Sunday that they were not prepared for how demonstrations by two groups in conflict with one another quickly escalated into dangerous confrontations.
“We were not dimensioned for this type of violence,” Johan Fredriksen, leader of collective operations for the Oslo Police, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He blamed an “improvised” aftermath of two back-to-back demonstrations on Saturday afternoon by pro- and anti-Turkish activists, adding that it occurred “many hours after the demonstration should have been over.”
Fredriksen’s defense is at odds with information that the police themselves had provided well in advance of the demonstrations to, for example, the US Embassy in Oslo. It decided to send out a “Message for US Citizens” early Friday afternoon about “two planned demonstrations in front of the Turkish Embassy on Saturday afternoon, Oct 26.” The message provided the exact address of the embassy and went on to warn that an organization of Turkish expatriates would demonstrate “from 1300-1430 hours,” while the second group, described as “an organization supporting Kurdish nationhood,” would demonstrate “from 1530-1730 hours.”
The message provided the location of the Turkish Embassy and that the street on which it is located, Halvdan Svartes Gate, would be blocked. It went on to report that the “United States Embassy has cautioned its personnel to avoid the area from 1200-1900 hours,” read the message.
The rioting broke out already in the afternoon and long before 7pm, not “many hours” after the second demonstration “should have been over,” as Fredriksen stated. Nor did the Oslo police seem to share the US Embassy’s assessment that “even demonstrations expected to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.”
Rivals blame each other
That’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon, when the organization supporting Turkey’s recent invasion of Kurdish areas in Northern Syria had been allowed by Oslo police to demonstrate just before the Kurdish organization opposed to Turkey’s invasion was also allowed to demonstrate at exactly the same location. There was only an hour between the time the first demonstration was to end and the second would begin, with people attached to both clearly encountering one another during the interval, and after both were concluded.
The US Embassy, which has sent out warnings about various scheduled demonstrations in the past, had reason to advise its citizens of these, since the US was at least indirectly involved in them. US President Donald Trump has been widely criticized for withdrawing troops from the disputed area of Northern Syria, abandoning the US’ Kurdish allies who’ve been living there and clearing the way for Turkish troops to cross the border. That prompted Norway to halt defense material sales to Turkey, and Prime Minister Erna Solberg joined European allies in calling on Turkey to “stop the fighting.” Trump took credit later this past weekend for the subsequent death of the terrorist IS leader all of them were trying to defeat in Syria.
Oslo police clearly weren’t expecting that the various sides in the Kurdish-Turkish-Syrian conflict would clash on the streets of the Norwegian capital. By Monday, the pro- and anti-Turkish groups were blaming each other for how their demonstrations erupted into street brawls that spread from Oslo’s embassy area through the city’s fashionable Frogner neighbourhood that’s home to many embassies and ambassadors’ residences, and then downtown, with lots of fighting and vandalism along the way.
Innocent Norwegian bystanders were stunned and scared, including a family with small children whose car was suddenly surrounded by angry demonstrators. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that at least two people were arrested and two were injured in connection with rioting at Solli Plass in Frogner. The violence escalated as the crowds moved downtown, climaxing with rioting on Karl Johans Gate, Oslo’s main pedestrian boulevard through the heat of town. A small outlet of the international Body Shop chain was ravaged when a street fight between Turkish and Kurdish demonstrators moved indoors. Other alarmed merchants in the area quickly closed their doors.
“Everything seemd to change in just a minute, as folks began to run into the Body Shop,” Lika Berisha, who works at a Hugo Boss store just across the street, told NRK. “We had to hurry to lock our doors because we were afraid the same thing would happen to us. There were lots of customers in the store who were scared, in addition to tourists who didn’t understand what was happening.”
Berisha told NRK that police arrived quickly, but it was “difficult for them to get though the crowds. It was chaotic.” Seven people had been arrested or detained by Saturday evening.
Police had claimed around 5pm that they had control of the situation, but that the mood was tense among the estimated 750 demonstrators who had moved from the Turkish Embassy on Halvdan Svartes Gate to Solli Plass and then downtown, where they seem to have joined by others. Many carried flags and what police described as slagvåpen (bars or clubs). All traffic through the busy Solli Plass intersection, which also serves as a hub for tram and bus service, was halted.
The Kurdish organization had already held several demonstrations earlier in the week and they proceeded peacefully. It was only when the two opposing organizations held back-to-back demonstrations that things escalated out of control. The Oslo Police, unusually decked out in helmets and carrying shields, ultimately resorted to using tear gas and horse patrols to disperse the crowds.
Police on the defense
As finger-pointing continued on Monday over who was to blame for the weekend rioting, one of the demonstration’s organizers claimed police had been warned. “We had spoken with police since Monday and told them this (their allowance of the two back-to-back demonstrations) could become a catastrophe,” Adnam Aziz of the Kurdish group UngKurd told NRK Saturday night. “The police made an incorrect evaluation of the whole situation and should have seen what could happen.”
Fredriksen of the Oslo Police defended the decision to allow the two demonstrations so close to one another. “Groups with opposing views often want to demonstrate at the same time,” Fredriksen told NRK, claiming they were set up “two hours” apart, not just the one hour announced by the US Embassy.
“We have to have good reason to impose a stricter framework around this, as long as folks follow Norwegian law,” Fredriksen said, noting that police don’t want to be accused of limiting freedom of expression. He said police were aware of the tensions between the two groups on Saturday, but noted that “we’re careful about handling different groups differently.” He added that “most of the demonstrators were responsible people, but some operated on the fringe.”
Fredriksen further noted that police were not aware the demonstrators would march from the Turkish Embassy into town, claiming that was “improvised.” Asked whether police maintained control, he said the forces present “solved the situation without anyone being injured” seriously, claiming that was “most important.”
“But we don’t want these kinds of scenes in our city.”