Thousands protest racism, brutality

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Several thousand Norwegians turned out Friday afternoon to take part in demonstrations in Oslo and elsewhere around Norway. Crowds gathered in front of the US Embassy and the Parliament, to mark their disgust over police brutality and racism in the US, and over how the latter is a problem in Norway, too.

The US Embassy in Oslo was targeted after the past week of violence and even more police brutality in the US since George Floyd, an African-American, was killed by arresting police officers in Minneapolis who held him down and literally choked him with a knee in his neck. That, along with the lack of any compassion or sympathetic response from US President Donald Trump, set off massive demonstrations in the US that have spread around the world.

Oslo police fenced off the US Embassy’s relatively new compound north of the downtown area before demonstrators arrived, and closed off the main road running alongside the embassy. Staffers at the embassy seemed well-prepared as well, after sending email warnings of demonstrations both last weekend and on Friday to US citizens and embassy employees working from home. All were urged to “consider avoiding the embassy and Storting (Parliament) areas around the time of the demonstration,” which was set at between 2pm and 8pm.

Confusion had swirled over whether the planned demonstrations would actually be held. Health Minister Bent Høie had tried to block them because of Corona virus infection concerns, and because the government’s Corona containment measures don’t allow gatherings of more than 50 people. Nearly 20,000, however, had responded to social media proposals for demonstrations organized by the African Students Association at the University of Oslo and other organizations also in Trondheim, Bergen, Kristiansand, Stord, Skien and several other cities around the country.

Organizers in Oslo ultimately opted for what was supposed to be a demonstration by only 50 people in front of the US Embassy followed by a march to downtown and creation of a human chain around the Parliament area, with at least a meter between all involved. By the start time of 4pm, however, several hundred people had already gathered outside the embassy and crowds swelled as thousands began heading for the area in front of the Parliament. They carried signs with slogans such as “Stop racism,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Silence is complicity,” a reference also to how the Norwegian government had mostly remained silent about the violence in the US and how Trump, who threatened to unleash the military against demonstrators, reacted to it. The US has long been considered Norway’s closest ally.

The march into downtown was estimated at several kilometers long as it wound from the embassy area at Huseby, through Majorstuen and finally downtown, with police monitoring it from a distance.  Oslo police made it clear they would intervene only if violence broke out. “We are not a police force for infection control,” a police spokesman had told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday evening, adding that allowing freedom of expression is a police priority.

Once downtown, thousands of demonstrators knelt in the streets, while march leaders read off Floyd’s last words. The plan was for demonstrators to remain quiet for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same time Floyd was held down even as he made it clear he couldn’t breathe.

State health officials expressed concern that the huge gathering could set off a “super-spreader situation” even though Covid-19 infection is low in Norway. Many marchers and demonstrators also wore face masks, which have not been common or encouraged in Norway.

Justice Minister Monica Mæland of the Conservative party told state broadcaster NRK that she, too, was concerned about the potential for Corona infection to spread. “We don’t recommend that so many people assemble, we don’t want to risk infection,” Mæland said. “I have great understanding that many want to demonstrate in this case, but the most important thing is for people to keep at a distance from one another. We hope police will contribute to that.”

Mæland added that she thinks “most people just want to show their disgust for the incident in the USA, and we hope (the demonstration) won’t invite those with bad intentions, who aren’t concerned with the issues (of police brutality and racism) but who just want to cause trouble.”

Large groups of demonstrators also braved cold rain not only in Oslo Friday afternoon but in Bergen as well, where several hundred met up at the city’s Festplassen. A demonstration in Kristiansand also attracted several hundred, while a quiet indoor demonstration in Skien was limited to 50 people representing political parties and various organizations and religious faiths who knelt together and raised their arms against systematic racism. A demonstration in Trondheim has been scheduled for June 15, when restrictions on the numbers of people allowed to gather will be eased.

ALL PHOTOS: NewsInEnglish.no/Morten Møst

TEXT: NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund