Protests Are Becoming Carnivals in Finland, And It’s Really Ineffective

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Thousands of protesters in festival spirit summoned at the Hakaniemi Square in Helsinki on August 23, 2015 to protest against government’s cuts. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Festival: A day or period of celebration, typically for religious reasons.

Carnival: An annual festival, typically during the week before Lent in Roman Catholic countries, involving processions, music, dancing and the use of masquerade.

Protest: An organized public demonstration expressing strong objection to an official policy or course of action.

A few months ago, I attended a protest that was held at the Railway Square of Helsinki in support of refugees after an asylum seeker’s attempted suicide. To my surprise, the attempt was cheered (yes I repeat, cheered) on by members of an anti-immigration Neo-Nazi group. My faith in humanity is lost on a daily basis as a result of such incidents.

Then I became almost convinced that I was at the wrong place, hardly expecting to see a DJ on a stage, a crowd swaying to the music and people handing out candy at a rally for such a somber cause. Sure, it was great to see the biggest museum in Finland, in front of which the demonstration was organized, display a banner welcoming refugees. It was moving to see the refugees dance excitedly to the reggae beats spun by some DJ who was the main act at the demonstration. But for me, this is exactly the problem. That a DJ is the main act of a political rally rather than the representatives of political parties only serves to demonstrate one of the ways that entertainment has infiltrated the ranks of politics. This wasn’t a protest. It was a protestival.

We were almost convinced we were at the wrong place, hardly expecting to see a DJ on a stage, a crowd swaying to the music and people handing out candy at a rally for such a somber cause.

Refusing to party. A protester is apprehended. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

In European traditions, from ancient Greek and Roman festivities like Dionysia and Saturnalia, festivals have been occasions for inversion, escalation and transgression. The word is often used interchangeably with “carnival,” a season of festive events culminating in massive street processions with roots in Roman Catholic pre-Lenten festivities that permitted a release from the limitations and pressures of the social order, allowing relationships of comity even amongst strangers and indulgence in tabooed excesses. Neither of these words would appear to have much in common with “protests,” especially if one consults the Oxford dictionary definition for the meaning of these terms. But around the world, the carnivalization of protests or the movement of “protestivals,” to use the term coined by John Jacob, is gaining momentum.

Considered to be sites of creative resistance, protestivals are not a recent invention but come with a history dating back to the ’60s where they found expression in counter-cultural movements attempting to forge alternative lifestyles. The main commitment of the protestival was to simply come together and display an empathetic sociality, transgressing and subverting official culture. Those who endorse the idea of the protestival elevate it beyond the status of an entertaining show to a temporary autonomous breach of norms, empowering its participants to forge “a new world” while getting jiggy with it. And yes, for a temporary period, one can see how hierarchies, ranks and norms were suspended during the protestival where asylum seekers mingled with locals, both old and young, shook their legs, raised their hands and came together.

A sustained change, which is usually the goal of a protest, is hard to bring about through a protestival where the focus is all about being together in the here and now.

Yet, a sustained change, which is usually the goal of a protest, is hard to bring about through a protestival where the focus is all about being together in the here and now. The asylum seeker whose suicide attempt was cheered on deserves more than a street party held on the pretext of solidarity. He and others in his situation deserve a real and carefully considered discussion of their futures by those who control them. They deserve a guarantee not to face discrimination and xenophobia in a country like Finland that supposedly values equality. They deserve to know that after risking their lives by crossing oceans to attain peace, peace will be given to them.

Entertainment has always been used as a form of escapism. From the mundane realities of life, from work, from stress . . . . But unleashed in politics, it permits a distraction from engaging in the conversations that the public need to be part of and leaves no one accountable. After all, once we get home from our day out at the protestival, upload those sanctimonious “I attended a protest for a good cause” photos, once the good deed for the day is done, escaping with some more light entertainment, this time from the television, is an option.

Meanwhile, those whose rights were at stake in the protest go to their makeshift home and contemplate their options but it turns out, they weren’t given any.

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