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A center of contention is razed

Sobs of protests in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN -- Masked demolition workers tore down the graffiti-sprayed building yesterday that served as the makeshift cultural center for Denmark's anarchists and disaffected youth, ignoring sobs and screamed obscenities from a surrounding crowd of young people.

Four days of street riots followed the owner's decision Thursday to evict squatters from the building -- officially abandoned but used by anarchists, punk rockers, and left-wing groups since 1982. The violent demonstrations were Denmark's worst in a decade and drew like-minded young people from across northern Europe, ending with more than 650 arrests and 25 injured.

Birgitte, who like many of the young people who flocked to the building over the years offered only a first name, said the center's destruction was breaking her heart.

"I cannot stand it," said the 21-year-old, wearing a black hooded sweat shirt over her dreadlocks.

Built in 1897, it was a community theater for the labor movement and a culture and conference center; Vladimir Lenin was among its visitors. In recent years, it has hosted concerts with performers like Australian Nick Cave and Icelandic singer Bjork.

Courts ordered the squatters out by Dec. 14 after the city sold the building to a Christian congregation six years ago.

The protesters saw their fight to keep the "Youth House" as symbolic of a wider struggle against a capitalist establishment. They hurled cobblestones at riot police, set fire to cars and trash bins, and caused havoc on the usually calm Copenhagen streets.

As dust from the demolition filled the air yesterday, a surrounding crowd cursed at police who had cordoned off the building. Others hugged and cried as workers, wearing face masks to conceal their identities, cleared debris under police control.

Apparently fearing further violence, Danish police borrowed 16 lightly armored vehicles from the Netherlands in addition to an earlier loan of 20 police vans from Sweden.

Yesterday evening, riot police stopped people from approaching the demolition site. Nine people were arrested in the area on charges of trespassing or refusing to obey police orders .

Ruth Evensen, leader of the small congregation that bought the building, said the four-story structure had to be torn down because it was "a total wreck" and a fire hazard.

"It would cost us a fortune to have it fixed," she said .

Left-wing lawmakers and a construction workers union tried to halt the demolition, citing health hazards caused by dust containing carcinogenic asbestos, but a demolition company representative denied there was any danger. Work safety officials, however, approved the demolition.