Government mum on crisis in the US

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Norwegian government officials have been accused of staying strangely silent this week about all the recent violence and mayhem in the US, normally referred to as Norway’s closest ally. Large demonstrations that were planned in Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen, meanwhile, have been discouraged, officially because of Corona infection concerns.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited US President Donald Trump at the White House shortly after he was elected in 2016. Her government has tried to stay on good terms with his administration, and has been mostly silent during the current turmoil in the US. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservative Party tried to call a halt to the demonstrations against racism, police brutality and US President Donald Trump’s failure to address both issues. More than 15,000 Norwegians had indicated they’d take part in a demonstration in front of the US Embassy in Oslo on Friday afternoon, but Høie made it clear on Thursday that it would violate the state’s guidelines against gatherings of any more than 50 people in one place.

Høie claimed he had “great understanding” for those who want to demonstrate against issues “that affect and engage many.” He nonetheless felt obliged to advise against the demonstrations, because they would raise the danger of Corona virus infection that otherwise has come under control in Norway.

“I’m also afraid that if the demonstrations lead to large gatherings of people, there will be more attention around the risk of infection than around the important issues,” Høie stated in a message to newspaper VG.

That didn’t placate Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament and leader of the Reds party. “The constitution is crystal clear that we have rights of freedom of speech and assembly in Norway,” Moxnes told VG Thursday afternoon. He demanded that the government evaluate in principle whether their Corona containment measures are more important than constitutional rights.

“We do need to hinder the spread of infection,” Moxnes stated, “but that doesn’t necessarily have to limit people’s rights to express and assembly.” Police, meanwhile, told state broadcaster NRK that they wouldn’t halt demonstrations, and would only step in if necessary. It thus remained unclear what might happen around the US Embassy late Friday afternoon.

Solberg’s Health Minister Bent Høie was the first to officially refer to all the uproar in the US, but he also managed to ward off what was expected to be a large new demonstration in front of the US Embassy in Oslo. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Høie’s reference to the “important issues” raised in the US this week are the first from a Norwegian government that otherwise has mostly refrained from commenting on the racism, police brutality that led to another death of an African-American man in the US, and subsequent police attacks on demonstrators, journalists, health care workers and passersby. Nor have either Prime Minister Erna Solberg or Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, usually quick to comment on such offenses abroad, issued any statements. “They’ve been strangely silent,” wrote Marie Sørhaug, leader of the Reds’ international division, in newspaper Klassekampen on Thursday. “No press releases, no tweets, no comments to find in the media.”

Apart, however, from what Sørhaug called an “embarrassing” comment from Solberg that police can tend “to react more harshly to minority groups than others because they’re more often involved in crime.” Solberg later tried to moderate her comment, and no sign of it can be found on the government’s own website.

Trump’s ‘tyranny’
Plenty of others in Norway, however, are expressing everything from disgust to horror over all the uproar in the US and how Trump has been most concerned with cracking down harshly on the demonstrators instead of addressing the cause of pent-up fury. “What has happened to America?” queried Geir Stenseth, a law professor at the University of Oslo, in a commentary published in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday. He wasn’t the only one astonished by how Trump seems to prefer pitting military forces against the US’ own citizens.

“The US must come to grips with racism,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten, while DN editorialized that the “USA is in a political crisis … poisoned by conflict, lack of confidence and sheer exhaustion” after three years of Donald Trump’s presidency. “As one of the very, very few presidents in the USA’s history, it looks like his (Trump’s) goal is to increase the level of conflict and lower the limits for irrelevancy, personal attacks and political rhetoric below the belt.” DN, which specializes in covering business, finance and the economy, referred to Trump’s “tendency towards tyranny,” and noted how Trump even managed to further split his country during the Corona crisis, which has pulled together political factions in most other countries around the world.

‘The opposite of leadership’
Frank Rossavik, political commentator in Aftenposten, wrote earlier this week that Trump has exhibited “the opposite of leadership” by splitting the country, failing to “do his job” in tackling the Corona crisis and then taking none of the blame for far more deaths than in the Vietnam War. When his former Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, decried Trump’s lack of leadership this week, Trump characteristically responded by claiming he was glad he’d fired Mattis.

Now the US president’s “divide and conquer” strategy, which he’s also applied internationally, should be seriously alarming Norwegian government leaders, suggests NRK’s former US correspondent and now commentator Bjørn Hansen. He wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen this week that American democracy “is in danger under Trump.” Freedom of expression is put to the test, Hansen noted, when the president “day after day” brands serious media organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post and major broadcast networks as “false” and dismisses any journalist who poses critical questions. “This is an American president out of control over everything but his own ego,” Hansen wrote, and that’s not good for any of the US’ allies.

‘A threat to democracy’
Elin Floberghagen, leader of Norway’s national press federation (Norsk Presseforbund) referred to police attacks on journalists this week as “a threat to democracy” as well, adding that “it’s terrible to watch.” She called the attacks “a consequence of all the expressions of hatred towards  journalists for a long time from Donald Trump.”

Others in Norway including Markus Slettholm, responsible for debate in newspaper Morgenbladet, wrote that the US is “becoming unglued,” and wondered whether “we may become the first generation” after America loses whatever greatness it has left and is no longer the world’s super power.

“The empire is crumbling,” wrote Ketil Raknes, doctoral candidate at Christiania College in Oslo. He pointed to the US’ “dysfunctional political system that can’t manage to take care of its own people.” After three years of splitting his country, Trump’s federal response to the Corona crisis was, in Raknes’ view, “amateurish” and almost comical with his “bizarre press conferences,” at which Trump lashes out at the media, the World Health Organization and his own country’s governors. He thinks Trump’s fumbling over the Corona crisis will stand as a national humiliation in the years to come.

Young Norwegians’ gesture of ‘solidarity’
And then came the past week of uproar that’s spread from coast to coast and sparked reaction around the world. Even as Norwegian groups organized the now-cancelled or postponed demonstrations, 19-year-old Sara Iden of the Oslo group stressed that police brutality is not a big problem in Norway. Solberg’s government and party also continue to attract widespread public support for their handling of the Corona crisis and efforts to revive the economy,

The demonstrations, rather, were aimed at “sending a clear message to our brothers and sisters who are fighting on the streets of the USA that those of us here in Norway stand in solidarity with them,” Babu Katembo, spokesman for the African Student Association , told Klassekampen.

“We also want to send a clear message so the Norwegian government, police and population understand that intitutional racism is a fundamental problem, also here in Norway,” Katembo said.

The demonstration on Trondheim, organized by the youth organizations for the Reds, was postponed until June 15, but several hundred were already out demonstrating Wednesday evening. Demonstrations organized by the Socialist Left party’s youth organization in Bergen, and another in Stord, were still due to proceed as planned. In Oslo, the demonstration that looked set to attract 15,000, was to be dramatically scaled down to a march of 50 people starting at 4pm from the US Embassy to the Parliament building downtown. NRK reported, however, that many more may turn up.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund