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The Thursday morning of Finland’s 101st Independence Day was celebrated in clear sunshine in Helsinki as soldiers laid wreaths at the Cross of Heroes at the Hietaniemi cemetery and the national flag was hoisted at the Observatory Hill. Politicians wore dark suits and elegant dresses as they attended the ecumenical jubilee service at the Helsinki Cathedral.
Then, when the sun started setting in the late afternoon, the Presidential Palace started preparing to receive guests. That’s also when people waving swastikas came out.
Kaisaniemi Park gathered about 200-300 people carrying ideologies of nationalism and Nazism in their hearts. And in some of the flags, they were waving.
At the same time, some citizens of Kallio started strolling in the streets and taking over the Hakaniemi Square with a one-track-mind. They were to shout as loud as they could to the neo-Nazis that they were not welcome in their turf.
And so the neo-Nazis began their march, which they had titled “Toward Freedom.” They were to march through Kallio to Töölö district.
Before the march could reach the Hakaniemi Square in the blue lights of the police escort, the law enforcement made a tactical decision: the swastika flags would have to be put away. But the four men leading the march and waving the flags didn’t want to. So, they started wrestling with the police but lost. Needless to say, they were apprehended.
“The flags were removed to protect public peace and safety,” said Chief Inspector Seppo Kujala from the Helsinki Police Department later in a bulletin.
In addition, the police started a pre-trial investigation on Volksverhetzung: Incitement of the People.
According to Finnish law, it’s allowed to carry flags with swastika symbols (Unlike in many other countries). In fact, it’s hard to come up with any banned symbols. Historical or contemporary. However, in this case, as the counter-protesters were lurking in the shadows and in the street lights—ready to release hell and fury upon supporters of Nazism—one doesn’t need the imagination of Picasso to figure out what could have happened had they seen such provoking symbols. Like my chess computer tends to say: Good move!
The march continued, passing the Hakaniemi Square. There were many people, some holding rainbow flags, many shouting profanities and putting up their middle fingers.
“Natsit vittuun!” was one of the uniting slogans. Loosely translated that means: “Fuck off, Nazis!”
But the neo-Nazis kept marching and marching. “Free Nordic radical!” they chanted. They also shouted names of Finnish politicians, calling them national traitors. Among the traitors was Jussi Halla-Aho, the leader of national-minded Finns Party and an adversary of multiculturalism.
The march moved along narrow narrow streets until one of the main roads—Sturenkatu—was blocked from traffic as if it was a police escort in 1939. A witness of the march was in a constant crossfire of loud profanities against the neo-Nazis and the chanting of a free radical movement, but I kept hearing the late Mr. Miyagi’s words: “Must stay focused!”
At the road turning to Töölö Sports Hall, I was awakened from the cacophony to the wild barks of German Shepherds. I could see it in their eyes that they were ready to bite anything that moves. Or doesn’t.
The parking space and the surrounding area of Töölö Sports Hall offer plenty of space to go for a picnic, preaching or holding speeches. The police quickly sealed the area. Some counter-protesters were standing at the opposite side. The neo-Nazis began holding speeches. Something about rainbows, Africa, brainwashing and biased media.
It wasn’t too long after when fellow nationalist-minded people started gathering at the Töölö Square just a few blocks away.
The 612 torchlight procession has been a tradition since 2014. According to the organizers, it welcomes anyone who respects the Finnish flag and the sacrifices of the past generations. This year, about 1,800 people joined the march, which started at the Töölö Square and proceeded to the Hietaniemi cemetery, where the torches were put out.
But the march wasn’t going to proceed without disruptions.
Hours before a protest called “Helsinki Without Nazis” started at the Narinkkatori and gathered 2,000 people. They marched to Väinämöisenkenttä in Töölö. There they listened to rap music, burned distress flares, drank beer and smoked cigarettes.
When the torchlight procession started strolling past them, a few of the protesters took it to the streets.
One of the banners said: “If you are not a Nazi then what the F are you doing at a Nazi march?” Behind the big banner, they screamed: “Suck shit!”
“Oooh! I am shaking and shivering to the bones when I am listening to the screaming of bitches!” exclaimed one young man in the torchlight procession.
It was, however, because of the professionalism of the police that they were able to stop any confrontations. Later, the police said that they had arrested two people for disturbing the 612 march.
After arriving at the cemetery, which was surrounded by a stone wall, most of the marchers went inside the gates where the torches were put out in peace and quiet.
Then, somewhere in the darkness of the cemetery, a female voice could be heard. It was one of the voices I’d heard expressing profanities before. “I’ve got a bowl here for you where you can put out the torch!”
Outside the gates, some of the counter-protesters appeared shouting provoking words and sentences. The police started running after them, and soon they disappeared somewhere in the darkness.
A drunken man carrying a torch and a beer can had a problem. The torch had almost burnt out but he needed advice.
“Where can I put out this torch?” he asked from a policeman protecting the street.
“They have a dedicated spot for that at the cemetery,” he said with a soothing baritone while pointing at the gates.
“But I really need to pee!” the man screamed.
“Could I not just put out the torch here in the street?”
“Just go inside. It will be alright,” the police whispered.
Someone screamed insults at the cemetery.
“I can see a flashlight!” exclaimed one of the photographers while climbing on the wall.
“Now it’s gone,” he said sadly and came down.
The man with the torch and the beer can was gone.
People started coming out from the cemetery.
“Where’s my car?” asked a man wearing a loose-fitted bomber jacket and khaki pants.
“It’s about two kilometers away. We better get walking!” his friend with similar clothes advised.
It became clear that the show was about to be over. The last flame had been put out.
Further away the man with the torch and the beer was standing against the stone wall.
There were no visible signs of the torch. He looked around.
And unzipped his pants.