In the Realm of the Danish Punitive “Ghetto” Policy


On March 1st, 2018, the Danish social housing area Mjølnerparken in Copenhagen provided the setting for a press conference and a new political initiative proposing, amongst other things, a new punitive policy, in which crimes committed in specially appointed areas will be double punishable. The initiative has since been met with heavy criticism and has been called out for contradicting legal regulations and fundamental democratic values. Accompanied by no less than seven ministers, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen unveiled the details of a new strategy to “rid Denmark of” what the government has officially designated as “ghettos.”

As the ministers unrolled their plan entitled “A Denmark without Parallel Societies: No Ghettos in 2030,” a peaceful demonstration conducted by the residents of Mjølnerparken took place. Carrying signs proclaiming, “Where Else Should We Live, Lars?” and “The Parallel Society is Christiansborg [the Danish Parliament], Not the Mjølnerpark” the demonstrators sought out to voice their frustrations with the changes that may soon occur.

A question that has since been put forward by opposing movements and critics of the plan, that, however, remains unanswered is, in the existing and future framework of strong levels of social control, who are then the ones producing this parallel society?

“A Denmark Without Parallel Society” in Brief ///

The notion of ghettos has for several years been part of the common Danish political terminology. In 2010, the previous right-wing government introduced a yearly revised “ghetto-list” for the first time in history as a means to categorize a selection of social housing areas across the country. The common denominator for these residential areas is based on demographics and socio-economic conditions such as ethnicity, age, average income, and level of education. In this definition, the main measurement tools have been inextricably linked to the criminal backgrounds of residents, adding criminal records as part of the equation that constitutes the social dynamics of these areas.

In brief, to make it on the list, a district has to meet three out of the five following criteria: 1) the share of inhabitants aged 18 – 64 with no connection to the labor market nor to the education system, higher than 40%; 2) the share of immigrants and their descendants from non-Western countries, higher than 50%; 3) the share of inhabitants aged 18 and above convicted for infractions against the penal laws, weapons laws or the drug laws, greater than 2.7%, as an average over the span of 2 years; 4) the share of inhabitants aged 30 – 59 with only primary education or less, greater than 50%; 5) the average income for inhabitants aged 18 – 64 excluding those in education, less than 55% of the average income for the region in question.

As for 2018, a total amount of 25 districts appear on the latest revision. Out of the 25, 16 of these have been classified as “hard ghetto-areas.” The new political initiative, also nicknamed the “bulldozer list,” suggests an action plan to completely dissolve the imagery of a parallel society. In this context, the changes that may become reality encompass 22 initiatives all anchored in these specially appointed areas where some of the most criticized changes concern 1) a double punishment policy on certain crimes committed in special penalty zones; 2) less aid to residents on cash benefits if they choose to move into an area on the list; 3) children residing here to redo their first year of preschool if they do not pass one of three exams in Danish; 4) mandatory day care of a minimum 25 weekly hours for children residing in the specially appointed areas.

Black Holes on the Map of Denmark ///

Taking the spatial structures of the majority of these socially, marginalized districts into account, the neighborhoods constitute the heritage of post-war modernist planning. Built during the golden era of the Danish welfare system in the 1960s and 1970s as a means to create affordable housing, they have over the years been attached to a negative symbolic capital turning them into engines for social pathologies.

The very same neighborhoods, in which a majority of the units are privately owned by social housing associations to avoid them being subject to market speculations and regulations, and eventually, provide decent housing for all; the same neighborhoods that originally sought to represent a visionary ideal of the good life with all necessary institutional and recreational focal points at a proximity; these have now paradoxically been reduced drastically in the political discourse to epicenters for socio-economic issues and frequent crimes.

This predominant and diminishing narrative has been heavily defined, especially by the national media landscape. Less than a decade after the construction of one of the most well-known districts, Gellerupparken in the city of Aarhus, a single televised episode on national TV from 1978 triggered the changing image by framing the housing project as a concrete slum (Høghøj & Holmqvist, 2018). This stigma shows an on-going, self-perpetuating tendency, which seems to justify the punitive policies and reinforce a collective, national recognition of the districts as “black holes on the map of Denmark” as put by the Prime Minister in his new year’s speech from 2017.

The Emergence of a Public Opposition ///

Yet today, we see an emergence of a changing landscape with the uprising of opposing movements and networks. One of the most recently established examples is Almen Modstand; a network consisting of residents from various social housing associations; and founded as a direct response to the government’s Ghetto Plan. On September 29, Almen Modstand arranged a large-scale, national demonstration that simultaneously took place in three of the largest cities. The event attracted heavy public attention, and thousands of demonstrators walked the streets to voice their frustrations with the systemic discrimination at stake.

One of the organizations that joined the demonstration to show their support with the many Danes living in social housing was the National Organization of Social Education. The organization opposes the government’s demand for families residing in areas on the “ghetto list” to have preschool children attend mandatory public day care services for a minimum of 25 weekly hours.

A notion repeated throughout the plan’s proposals is the importance of the youth in the marginalized areas to acquire an intimate knowledge and relationship with Danish “norms and traditions.” The plan dictates: if a young person is not enrolled in a mandatory “learning offer,” if the young person doesn’t contribute sufficiently in the learning process or if the parents themselves do not participate in planned activities, the family can be punished by having their state-sponsored child support taken away.

“The plan is a heinous breach with Danish values. We oppose the limitation of rights for citizens who happens to reside in the ‘wrong address.’ It’s a good thing that children have the option to attend day care, but the goodness of this disappears when the prerequisite for it is forcement and punishment, and that’s what the government wants.” Forewoman for the National Organization of Social Education, Britt Pedersen, spoke out on stage and continued, “from the government’s side, there’s a wish to teach Danish norms to the youth, but with regulations like these, what kind of norms is it then exactly, that we wish to pass on to the next generation?”

A Bulldozing, Coherent Denmark ///

The discrepancy in the opening paragraph of the new strategy is rather controversial when stating that the government aims for a coherent Denmark based on democratic values such as freedom, tolerance and equal legal rights. The reality, however, seems different from this, when the political discourse instead argues that the social capital of most citizens of non-western origin represents fundamentally different values from, apparently, the democratic ones characterizing Danish society. As a result, they become a threat to domestic, social coherence.

Some of the tools proposed in the government’s plan to tackle this threat deal with a bulldozer strategy which aims to physically rid building mass and rebuild with private investors, turning the existing model into an ownership-based one to map out aggravated penalty zones, intensify the presence of police forces and implement a double punitive policy for penalties such as vandalism, theft, and threats. In addition, other types of crimes with high penalties will rise by one third, and violations punishable by fines may result in imprisonment if committed in these certain districts. In the realm of a controversial and punitive strategy, one may ask whether the policies will have the intended effect or contradict the fundamentals of a constitutional state and core values of the welfare society.