Copenhagen’s ‘racial’ gang wars

Al Jazeera examines how ethnic tensions may be fuelling crime in Denmark.

Denmark drug violence

More police were deployed on the streets amid fears that the gang-related violence could spread

Police sirens wailed as patrol cars started to arrive at the scene of a fatal shooting already lit by the camera flashes of eager reporters. Officers began to collect forensic evidence and question a crowd of onlookers for witnesses.

This crime scene did not take place on the streets of New York City or Chicago but Copenhagen, the Danish capital, where such incidents have been occurring with increasing frequency.

Al Jazeera was filming nearby when we received a tip about the shooting, the latest in more than 60 that have taken place on Copenhagen’s streets in recent months.

In Video

Al Jazeera’s Awad Joumaa reports on the increasing violence afflicting the Danish capital

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Like many of the other shootings, this one happened in Norrebro, an ethnically-mixed part of the capital where a violent gang war has recently raged.

The scene was tense as young immigrants watched police reinforcements descend on the area; three young men were arrested. They had allegedly shot a man in his car, believing him to be a member of a rival gang.

The word on the street about the gang violence mirrors that on the front pages of Denmark’s newspapers. They say a war between groups of bikers and ethnic minority youths is being fought out on Copenhagen’s streets.

Some say the shootings are part of a turf war over the lucrative hashish trade in the city. Others say it has been inflamed by feelings of alienation and marginalisation among ethnic minority youngsters.

While few seem to know just who is shooting whom or why, the sense of danger has become so severe that the National Night Owls Association, a voluntary public safety group that patrols the streets, has decided to pull out of the area.

“This is the first time the organisation has had to give up on an area,” Erik Thorsted, from the association, said.

Proposed legislation

Al Jazeera was in Norrebro looking for members of the Blaagaards gang – a group of ethnic minority youths associated with some of the recent violence.

In the week we were there, at least two people were killed in drive-by shootings but as we wrapped up our visit, the situation seemed to take a dramatic turn at the ministry of justice.

A proposed anti-gang bill aims to double and triple jail terms for some offences, such as weapon possession, gang violence and witness intimidation, among others.

“If you are a criminal with a foreign background then there is only one way – that is out of Denmark and back to the country where you came from”

Brian Mikkelsen, the Danish justice minister

“We’ll give police almost anything they ask for. We need extraordinary steps. We won’t give the gangs a moment’s rest. We want these criminals off the streets,” Brian Mikkelsen, Denmark’s justice minister, told a packed news conference.

“We have to come down hard on the obtuseness and brutality of the gang environment. If you are a criminal with a foreign background then there is only one way – that is out of Denmark and back to the country where you came from. I think these measures will have an effect on the gang members. It will make them think twice,” Mikkelsen said.

If passed, it will be some of the most sweeping anti-crime legislation Denmark has ever seen.

Most contentiously, the legislation would make it easier to expel gang members of ‘non-Danish’ descent and to strip ‘New Danes’ of their citizenship.

Until the proposed bill, the thorny issues of racism and discrimination were largely absent from the debate over gang violence. But the government’s call to deport immigrants involved in gang-related crime is seen by many as, if not clearly taking sides, draconian.

Leading criminologists and experts have warned against treating the gang war as a solely criminal affair and argued that the focus should be on the social and economic circumstances of those involved.


On the streets of Norrebro, people monitored Al Jazeera’s movements as we searched for gang members.

Many of the immigrant youth in Norrebo are angry with the police

Every corner is manned and sports cars cruise slowly past our crew; we were stopped several times and asked why we were in this part of the city.

The newly-deployed police are also out in force. They, too, stop us to ask why we are filming.

But many of the young people in this part of the city are angry, alleging the police are helping the bikers.

“They come to raid and confiscate weapons so the bikers can come and shoot us,” one young man, who refused to provide his name, said.

“We are constantly a target for police discrimination and harassment. The police stop us just because of the way we look. If you have black hair you stick out. You are automatically a criminal.”

‘Defending our people’

“We are defending our people, our area. The Danish rockers [Hell’s Angels bikers] send their dogs out here to shoot at us and hurt innocent people,” another man told Al Jazeera.

He uses the word ‘dogs’ to refer to members of AK81 (Altid Klar or ‘Always Ready’), a Hells Angels support group who are accused of being behind several of the drive-by shootings.

An older Arab man tells us that the police are unfairly targeting the area because of the large number of immigrants living there.

The situation came to a head last year when a young Turkish man was beaten to death.

“It’s the AK81 who killed him,” he says.

“We’re not going to let that happen, we will protect our community,” somebody shouts from a crowd which had gathered to watch Al Jazeera filming.

“That’s why we are here patrolling.”

Cultural conflict

Jørn Jønke Nielsen, a spokesman for the Hells Angels in Denmark, admits that there may be some rogue elements among the AK81, but says: “We are not fighting a war. We, like all Danish people, are involved in a cultural conflict with people who are not well-integrated with our society.”

At the Copenhagen police headquarters, Kim Kliver, the man in charge of investigating the gang violence, denies that race is an issue.

“This is about control of the drugs market, of prostitution, of people smuggling. It isn’t racist, it’s criminal,” he says.

Karen Elleman, a spokeswoman for the ruling Venstre party, agrees and says independent surveys indicate that most immigrants feel well-integrated.

In Video

Filmmaker and journalist Khaled Ramadan shares his views on Denmark’s gang war debate

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However, others say that these gang tensions have been simmering for years and that the authorities have been too slow to react.

Morten Frich, a journalist with the daily Berlingske, says: “The police only recently tried to get on top of this. We have seen this coming for about 10 years.”

A 2007 police report was the first official attempt to gauge the extent of the problem.

It concluded that what the Danish media had for years referred to as ‘street groups’ were actually fully-fledged gangs and that 14 of them, with about 1,000 members between them, existed.

Khaled Ramadan, an academic based in Copenhagen, says race and integration are at the root of the problem.

“Unfortunately, Denmark didn’t learn from other Western countries’ immigration experience. Immigrants have become the politician’s and media’s scapegoat,” he said.

Since Denmark’s centre-right opposition won its biggest victory in 80 years in November 2001 following a campaign that focused largely on immigration, relations between immigrants and the Danish authorities have grown increasingly tense.

They were further strained when Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in September 2005, which the Muslim community said were offensive and insensitive.

Ritt Bjerregaard, the mayor of Copenhagen, recently said he believes the conflict carries an ethnic dimension. He told local media that there are fears Copenhagen may become polarised as a large group of citizens are made to feel alienated.

Now gang violence threatens to escalate these tensions further.

Source: Al Jazeera