Baltic Herring Movement: ‘Most Finns oppose the rise of the alt-right’

Since launching over Christmas the Baltic Herring Movement has attracted tens of thousands of followers, and sharp criticism from the right of Finnish politics.

File picture representing Silakatliike logo / Credit: Silakatliike Twitter

A grassroots Finnish movement that wants to rally people against hate speech and racism; and stands up for human rights, rule of law and the fight against climate change has attracted tens of thousands of followers online since it launched on Boxing Day 2019.

The Silakkaliike – Baltic Herring Movement – has its roots in Italy’s anti-fascist Sardines political organisation, but with a distinctly Finnish flavour.

The Sardines “have been an inspiration and we have very much the same values […] so we domesticated that into something the Finns can recognise and affiliate to” explains Katriina Valli, one of Silakat’s earliest supporters and now part of its organising committee.

The idea to start Silakat was the brainchild of Helsinki-based games industry veteran Johannes Koski, and came after witnessing a ‘perfect storm’ of online vitriol over Finnish orphans in the al-Hol refugee camp, and seeing incendiary comments from MPs in Parliament.

When he published a post on Medium, and asked who might be interested to join such a movement, Valli was one of the first to step forward.

“It all started with one tweet from Johannes, where he asked to see if there were people interested in getting involved actively in a movement that opposes racism, fascism, inequality. Basically in the terms of your basic human rights here in Finland” she tells News Now Finland, in the organisation’s first English-language interview.

“A group of active people quickly emerged. It started quite sort of viral, and we had our first meeting quite quickly after that. We started the social media channels and began to see a huge uprising of people wanting to join in and participate” she explains.

File picture of Silakat Movement graphic

Although Johannes Koski was linked with the Feminist Party, Katriina Valli says they want to be a non-political, inclusive organisation.

“I used to be the token Kokoomus [National Coalition Party] person but now we have more even in the core team because this has been labeled as a very leftist movement. Of course there are left wing party participants, but we have much much more as well” she clarifies.

While political parties have expressed an interest in what Silakat Movement stands for, there hasn’t been any official contacts so far.

“You can establish these movements that are outside the existing political system and you can make a difference bringing people together from various different party backgrounds” says Valli.

“This is a political movement in the sense that whatever you do to make the society more wholesome, that is of course political. But we’ve distanced ourselves from party politics in the sense that everyone is welcome if they sign up to the values we represent” she adds.

Where there has been outreach efforts is with other organisations working in the same space as Silakat – human rights groups, environment groups – with the realisation that it would be counterproductive for Silakat to reinvent the wheel for advocacy where established NGOs already have their boots on the ground.

“We try and bridge the gaps, bring people together and provide a platform for like-minded people across Finland and hopefully internationally eventually.”

File picture of Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho / Credit: Perussuomalaiset

Reaction from the right 

It’s perhaps naive for Silakat to think they’re going to be able to have constructive conversations with people on the right of Finnish politics who support ethno-nationalism, or espouse the politics of xenophobia and exclusion.

But they’re at least willing to try – even if their message of tolerance for sexual minorities, and fighting to combat climate change is like catnip to the Finnish right.

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho obviously sees the Silakat Movement as specifically opposed to his party, writing on his Facebook page that the “Finns Party are already a democratic party. You can therefore oppose us in the ballot box by not voting for us. We don’t question the results of the election, even if we don’t like them.”

Finns Party MP Ville Tavio writes that Silakat has been “spreading anti-Finns Party disinformation online” and suggests that the movement should “collect supporters cards and go into politics as a party.”

Katriina Valli says they’ve got no intention of becoming a political party, but instead want to provide a safe space – the Baltic herring shoal – where people feel stronger together as part of a group of like-minded people.

“We don’t want to attack any parties. But we know that the Finns Party is the main party where this is going on. We also feel it’s wrong to label a single party as evil, we absolutely do not want to do that” she says.

Another Finns Party MP Sanna Antikainen writes “where were you when girls were being raped in Oulu?” and addresses the question to Silakat – a reference to a string of sex abuse crimes committed by men of foreign backgrounds in the northern city in 2018. All of the men have been tried, convicted, and sent to jail.

And Toni Jalonen, an elected official with the Finns Party Youth Group who posted racist messages on social media earlier this year which ultimately saw his organisation lose official government funding writes that the Herring Movement is “a re-branding effort by the same old far-left and anti-Fascists. Same hateful [stuff]”

Detail from herring picture on Silakat FB page

Valli and others who are the core organising committee for Silakat are maintaining their inclusive welcoming message, despite the rhetoric.

“We know that we are under attack. We are not naive. And we know we will be under attack for some time. We haven’t crystalised our vision or mission statement so far, we’re busy working on that, but we want to show that the rise of the alternative right is not what the majority of Finnish people want” Valli explains.

“We are trying to be really careful that we’re not opposing anyone, that we’re not on the track of ‘now we want to crush these people’. We just want to establish an open discussion culture, and bring people together.”

Silakat Movement will hold their first ‘fish mob’ in Helsinki on 1st February, with events also planned for other cities on that date.