The time of innocence is over
Two young activists lament recent events at railway warehouses
By Merituuli Ahola
Oh no, they burned, right after the events of the previous weekend. No matter what caused the fire at the railway warehouses, the May Eve demonstration which escalated into a clash, and the evening party in the centre of Helsinki will always be linked with the fire at the warehouses - with or without justification.
In the view of two young people who were there, the events on the night of April 30th have been misunderstood so many times that it is impossible to fix the misconceptions. Not everyone even feels that it is necessary.
Expressions repeated in the media, such as night of terror, riot, or rebellion get repeated in comments by those who were there. Just pronouncing the words is followed by a somewhat incredulous, and slightly disheartened shake of the head.
According to the activists themselves, this was not a rebellion, not a riot, or a planned attack against those in power. Also, the bonfire that was lit in the yard of the warehouses had nothing to do with globalisation or the increase in short-term employment. They were the last party at the warehouses - a party that was first spoiled by the police, and later by a small group of young people who started to pelt the police with stones after drinking too much.
It was not easy to get anyone to agree to this interview. After the fire young activists are increasingly afraid of being labelled, losing a job, or being singled out by police. However, two long-term activists, Johanna Nuorteva and Jukka Huhta, who were on the spot at the time describe their feelings.
"It's bad. I was sitting in a park in the centre of Helsinki on Friday. When I saw smoke rising from the warehouses, I tried to turn my head away", says Nuorteva, a 26-year-old student of theology.
Ever since she was a young girl, Johanna had seen the warehouses as a place in the centre of Helsinki, where one did not always know what to expect from an evening, but where it has always been fun. Information technology student Jukka Huhta, 25, agrees. Last week he had taken photographs of the empty spaces in the warehouses.
"Now when I look at the pictures, it felt like there had been a body in the pictures, which no longer exists."
Nuorteva and Huhta have campaigned for various causes, opposing the increased inequality in society, and the negative sides of globalisation. Neither of the two have had time to ponder how the fire at the railway storehouses will affect the way demonstrations are held in Finland, or Finnish attitudes toward activism. However, it is certain that there will be some impact.
"First of all, people will certainly add two and two together over last week's events and this fire. I would like to say, please don't be so naive", Nuorteva says. She believes that the person who lit the fire was an outsider - not an activist, for whom the warehouses are an important place.
"The police probably have no such suspicions, but the media might", Jukka Huhta believes.
Pro-warehouse activist Tuomas Rantanen, who serves on the Helsinki City Council as a representative of the Green League, is worried about the consequences of the fire. "Now this is getting out of hand."
When the fire at the warehouses is linked with civic activism, the net around civic action becomes tighter. "Who will organise demonstrations, if agents provocateurs show up and this kind of thing is the result? At the same time, those doing the provocation are rewarded with publicity", Rantanen says.
Rantanen, Huhta, and Nuorteva do not approve of arbitrary hell-raising. They note, however, that even if the purpose was to organise a peaceful demonstration, it is not possible to control everybody. They concede that demonstrations have become more hostile in recent years.
"A Ghandian ideal of peace used to be in the background. Now it is more aggressive", explains Niklas, who is in his thirties. He does not want to reveal his real name. He was at the warehouses on the night of May Eve, but just for a few hours.
Clashes between activists and officials are not unusual any more. Why have activists started using rougher tactics?
"Civil disobedience increases, when it seems like the message does not get through", Niklas says.
According to Tuomas Rantanen, demonstrations nowadays can serve to vent social tensions that have nothing to do with the topic of the demonstration itself.
It would seem that this may have happened on the night of April 30th. Many young people feel that one source of tension affecting young Helsinki residents in particular found its release at the warehouse, and at the preceding EuroMayDay demonstration. Some young people rebelled against the anti-graffiti campaign of the City of Helsinki - by writing graffiti on walls.
"Considerably more tags were painted than ever before", Niklas says.
Tags - signatures usually written on walls with felt-tip markers - were left behind by both the demonstrators and those who celebrated at the warehouses. Young graffiti producers usually do not take part in demonstrations focusing on social issues.
Although unauthorised graffiti is illegal, Niklas says that young people are angered by the severe measures imposed by the campaign. For instance, that guards enforcing the ban wear civilian clothes. "One friend was beaten by a club, and another was taken to the police station in chains", one activist says.
Niklas feels that the worst part of the campaign is that it can marginalise and impose blame on all young people with a hip-hop style appearance.
The rebellion against the anti-graffiti campaign reflects a change in activism - or at least is one factor that officials and the media paid attention to in the rioting: the tendency by some activists to look askance at anyone in uniform.
The brawlers at the warehouses attacked police and firefighters. It would appear that some activists vent their anger at uniforms instead of actual social problems.
The newest, youngest generation of activists is more frustrated than before, says Johanna Nuorteva. She has worked for seven years as a substitute teacher at various schools in Helsinki.
"We felt that it is possible to make our voices heard. There was even hope for a degree of progress. Now young people apparently feel that nobody listens to them. Politics has become harder", she says.
Activists feel that the police have also taken a tougher line.
Stories circulate about illegal fines, wiretapping, and arrests on trumped-up charges.
"A fine summons that a friend of mine got reads Taking part in a demonstration where a flag of Finland was burned. Flag burning is illegal, but taking part in a demonstration is not."
Photographers of the Security Police (SUPO) are a familiar sight among demonstrators.
"Men in black with a funny cap and a fancy camera", one activist laughs. "When you ask them what newspaper they are from, they grunt and leave."
One person claims to have received a letter from the Security Police, which states: "We have stopped listening to your telephone".
A third person recalls the recent "gate-crashers' party" on Independence Day at the Senate Square, where activists protested the Independence Day celebration in the Presidential Palace. "After the event, we sat on the steps of the cathedral thinking about where to go to eat. Suddenly two carloads of men in woolen caps showed up. We were frightened, because we had heard that there were neo-Nazis on the move in the centre of the city."
The men detained two of the youths. The others intervened and asked if the men were police. "Let's just wait here" was the answer.
"Later one of us was charged with violently resisting an official."
The charge did not hold up in court.
The experiences of veteran activists on the behaviour of Finnish police are mainly positive.
"The police show consideration: they do not provoke, and are not easily provoked", Niklas explains.
"For instance, the police did not react to the breaking of windows during the demonstration on April 30th, because they probably felt that it would aggravate a large number of people."
On the other hand, there is fear that the events of May Day and the fire at the warehouses could increase the amount of control imposed on demonstrations and civic activism. Tuomas Rantanen shares this view.
"When the head of SUPO says that they need to keep closer watch on the activities of Greenpeace, it sounds ominous."
Rantanen feels that officials are too eager to link civic activism, demonstrations, and the Finnish turn at the EU Presidency with each other. "They are being used as an excuse to increase surveillance, and impose tougher measures. That does not bode well for the civic society."
However, one activist concedes that no matter how much consideration is shown by the police, it is difficult to put down a disturbance once it has begun.
The events of the week will continue to smoulder for a long time. The activists do not believe that there are any real winners.
"The worst thing is that these kinds of disturbances are used as an excuse for tougher action on the part of officials, which target a certain section of young people, who start to rebel. And it certainly will not reduce the number of new disagreements.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.5.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Criminal police hear several people over arson of railway warehouses (9.5.2006)
Police say main perpetrators of May Eve rioting still at large (9.5.2006)
Police make progress in railway warehouse arson investigations (8.5.2006)
Police wish to remand two men over May Day Eve riots (4.5.2006)
Police searching for "organised core group" in Sunday night´s melee at storehouses (3.5.2006)
Riot police battle crowds throwing stones and lighting fires on May Day Eve (2.5.2006)
MERITUULI AHOLA / Helsingin Sanomat