Citizen activists: Baltic Herring Movement’s first public action draws modest crowd in the rain

Police estimate 800-1000 people came to support the Baltic Herring Movement event, while a counter-protest attracted several dozen far right Soldiers of Odin vigilantes.

File picture of Johannes Koski, founder of the Baltic Herring Movement, Helsinki 1st February 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

A grassroots movement that aims to unite a broad coalition against hate speech and racism; and stands up for human rights, rule of law and the fight against climate change has held its first public rally on a rainy Helsinki afternoon.

Police say between 800 and 1000 people showed up at the Silakkaliike – Baltic Herring Movement – ‘fishmob’ in the capital’s Kansalaistori.

The organisation began only at Christmas, when Helsinki-based games industry veteran Johannes Koski, who had previously been associated with the Feminist Party, witnessed a ‘perfect storm’ of online vitriol over Finnish orphans in the al-Hol refugee camp, and seeing incendiary comments from MPs in Parliament.

On Saturday Koski told News Now Finland he was pleased with the turn-out despite the inclement weather.

“I think the response was pretty great, there were many hundred people here. I was very positively surprised because the weather is bad, we have a really cold shower. But on the other hand this kind of cold wet weather is perfect for the Baltic herrings, so maybe that’s the reason why so many people came here” he said.

After six weeks of sustained media attention, and a strong social media presence as well, Koski says he thinks the most important thing the organisation has achieved is sparking a conversation about important issues in Finnish society.

“We already have 28,000 plus members and that’s only in the Facebook discussion group which is super active. People haven’t just pressed the like button, there are thousands of conversations there. Somebody told me there’s more than 100,000 comments so I would say the message is going through” he explains.

The Baltic Herring Movement has actively tried to engage with media companies to get them to pay more attention to moderating comments on their digital platforms, a place where it’s often too easy to find intolerance and abuse as tempers rise over contentious subjects.

“We already asked media to moderate their comments sections better and some medias have already responded that they will do this, so that’s something concrete” Koski says, adding that the Baltic Herring Movement had to add 20 moderators to their own Facebook channels to ensure conversations stay civil.

“But even they are having a tough time keeping track of everything” he adds.

Soldiers of Odin members stage a counter-protest in Helsinki, 1st February 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

Apolitical Herrings attract protests

The Baltic Herring Movement is trying to attract a broad church of people with different political backgrounds, although it’s inevitably been cast as “left-wing” by those on the right of Finnish politics.

On Saturday an estimated 40 people turned up to stage a counter-protest against the Baltic Herring fishmob. Many woreg jackets identifying them as members of the Soldiers of Odin organisation – a far-right, anti-immigrant vigilante group.

Some sang the national anthem and other patriotic songs while waving Finnish flags.

Their intolerance is something the Baltic Herring Movement hope to change through positive interactions.

“I think we have made a huge change already” says Lotta Ruutkanen, one of the Herring activists.

“I think people have woken up to see what is going on online and in everyday life and are standing up and defeating all these people, there is a lot of change and I hope someone on the street would stop and help if they saw another person doing something racist” she adds.

Hanna Ekman explains that there needs to be a ‘gray area’ where people can come together to discuss issues they disagree on.

“There is so much hate in Finland, so much black and white thinking, there is no more a place for dialogue” she says.

Baltic Herring activists Hanna Ekman (L) and Lotta Ruutkanen (R) at ‘Fishmob’ event in Helsinki, 1st February 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland