It might be said Longyearbyen’s most solid citizen is a black man who’s frequently a rallying point for gatherings of protest, activism and unity by locals. But considering the landmark “miner’s statue” occupies a community with residents from more than 50 countries, de facto “open borders” and an abnormally low crime rate where accusations of police brutality only seem to involve polar bears, it might be an odd place to proclaim “I feel your pain” to those taking part in the massive outbreak of Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and elsewhere.
But Elizabeth Bourne, who moved to the world’s northernmost town from Seattle last year, is planning to take at least a lone stand to object from afar on behalf of those literally being hit by the violence in her former hometown.
“A general strike has been called by Black Lives Matter for my home town of Seattle to protest not only George Floyd’s murder, but also the ongoing violence of the Seattle Police Department in response to legal protests,” she wrote in a Longyearbyen community Facebook message announcing she will be protesting at the statute in the town center from 5-6 p.m. Friday. “A 9-year-old girl was tear gassed. Reporters have been beaten. Medical aid stands have been destroyed, and medical workers tear gassed and beaten.”
Bourne, in an online interview, said she isn’t necessarily seeking a huge local response – “I would not be surprised if I just hung out for an hour and nothing happened at all” – and her plan to stand at the statue with a Black Lives Matter sign is primarily meant as a message for those back in the U.S.
“This is not about people of color in Svalbard,” she stated. “This is me showing support for people in the U.S. I am willing to talk with people here about racism and police brutality as I know it in the U.S. But it has to be with the understanding that it comes from my place as a white woman of privilege. I am doing this from my position as an American citizen who is horrified at what is happening in her country.”
Kelsey Camacho, a dogsledding guide who moved to Longyearbyen from Portland, Ore., several years ago, stated in a post on Saturday the widespread protests have revived memories from years ago when her Mexican-American father, a U.S.-born citizen, was visited at home by police declaring ““it doesn’t look like you’re from around here.”
“Hours later, the same (armed) cops stormed into our house with a warrant while we were sleeping and had us crawl on hands and knees down the stairs (easier said than done),” she wrote. “After all 10 of them realized they had no reason to be standing in a living room surrounding a family in their pajamas, they left around 5 in the morning.”
Camacho stated in an interview she’s planning to show up during Bourne’s protest.
“I’m still on Svalbard, but my heart has been in the U.S. all week,” she wrote in her post. “I wish I could be there to join the protests.”
There are few black residents in Svalbard, despite the population’s wide range of nationalities, although some issues involving racism persist on a largely “beneath the surface” level. For instance, Dina Brode-Roger, who is conducting a long-term sociological research project in Longyearbyen, stated she’s heard negative comments by Norwegians about Chinese people (who are typically visitors rather than residents). Also, local Thai and Filipino residents, who represent the largest “minority” communities in Longyearbyen, have at times expressed concerns about perceived slights – although some such as “discrimination” in terms of salary and social benefit are shared with many other foreigners.
And in a somewhat quirky controversy involving the “n” word in Svalbard that attracted news coverage on the mainland, Svalbardposten questioned if three locations named by British sailors in the early 1600s due the high content of black rocks – Negerfjellet, Negerdalen and Negerpynten – were perhaps racist.
Brode-Roger, who most recently lived in the U.S. during the 1990s, stated a Black Lives Matter protest in Longyearbyen can raise local awareness beyond the hardships being experienced by those protesting overseas.
“It is also about (as a white person) thinking about my own position of privilege (growing up between the U.S. and France and now in a Norwegian place) and looking for my own blinders/ways of seeing the world that may be stopping me from acknowledging or seeing racism be it on a personal, systemic or institutionalized level,” she noted.