Migrant Tales insight: This is a true account reported on the Rasmus Facebook page but written by one of the victims. One of the scariest matters about what is written is the reaction of the staff at the bar. The person writes: “…I went to ask the barman, who had seen everything, how he could have allowed my friend to be assaulted and if he could keep an eye on the situation.”
Take a guess if the barman cared to keep an eye on things.
One of the reasons why racist harassment occurs in this country is because people turn a blind eye to it.
I went for a drink late last week with a friend visiting Helsinki. He has been here before, so rather than stay in the city centre we went for a walk around the Kallio district so that he could experience something different. It certainly didn’t let us down in that regard.
We stopped in a small, quirky looking bar, ordered a drink and sat at a table near the bar. Stuck in our own conversation, it took a minute to register that the angry guy who had approached our table and was now shouting at us in Finnish was actually shouting at us. He helped us understand that it really was all about us by trying to drag my friend off his chair by the arm. The more my friend protested that he didn’t speak Finnish the louder he shouted, and the harder he gripped him. Eventually he gave up on this violent parody of ‘how to speak to foreigners’ – you know, when they don’t understand, speak slower and louder – and explained that he was going to drag my friend off to clean the toilet. ‘You made a huge mess and now you’re going to clean it. You don’t get to do that here’.
Well, we’re both from cities where trouble will happily find you if you look for it, and maybe find you anyway even when you don’t, but this was new to both of us. My friend had been for a fast ‘number one’, and as he later recalled, the toilet looked like every other over-subscribed bar toilet at 23.00. After we both declined this kind offer of work, the hygiene jihadi went to smoke, and I went to ask the barman, who had seen everything, how he could have allowed my friend to be assaulted and if he could keep an eye on the situation.
“We clean the toilet in Finland” a guy sitting at the bar advised me. “That’s just the way we are”. “Your friend can’t treat our toilet like that”, chimed another, “that kind of thing is important to us in Finland”. Shortly after that we left, with an exchange of opinions, and regrettably, an exchange of inexpert blows to speed us on our way out the door.
Our encounter with the Finnish Toilet Defence League left me angry. But it also left me wondering –what on earth was this about? Of course, on one level it was just an excuse for an angry barfly to cause a row. And, as we realized later, we were the only people not connected with this group in the bar, so some territorial pissing can’t be ruled out. But what struck me was this; the ease with which the apparent state of a toilet became a marker of national character and a question of national honour.
Now, it is easy to laugh at this, and at the time we did (which, of course, was a mistake). Finnish toilets for Finnish kakka, defending Finnish toilets from foreign shit since 2014 – this absurdity offers too perfect a metaphor for the defensive paranoia of chauvinist nationalism. But to laugh at the stupidity of it is to miss the point, as the kind of desire invested in defending Finnish toilets can’t be defused by facts (no more than the current racist nonsense of claiming that migrants receive souped-up prams in Espoo, the fact that my friend did not mess the toilet didn’t matter). It can’t be deflected by assuming that disbelieving laughter will mirror back the absurdity of privy patriotism to its hyped up activists.
Protecting the sanctity of the toilet bowl did not feel absurd to these guys because they were so fully and comfortably invested in a nationalist structure of feeling – there is us and there is you, there is our way and there is yours, when in Rome flush like the locals do. To laugh at this logic is only to confirm its validity and necessity – look at how they come over here and disregard our way of doing things, strangers in our own land, we can’t even go to the can in our own bar.
I regard it as a nationalist structure of feeling – that is, a wider shared social framework for everyday sense-making – because these weren’t overt nationalists, there wasn’t a Kiitos t-shirt or Leijona pendant in sight. Instead quite a few of them looked, as so many young men these days, like wandering lumberjacks, the kind you’d think would be happier discussing the best organic coffee you’ve never had rather than mutilating the skin on a foreigner’s arm.
While this is by no means indicative of anything wider and more patterned, it’s worth noting that the first and hopefully only time I’ve been aggressed in Finland simply for being foreign was not perpetrated by the usual suspects.. These guys did not set out to become heroes of the thunderbox, rather it provided a useful excuse for the seamless rehearsal of nationalist exclusion. What this seamless rehearsal says about the everyday power of this structure of feeling right now is open to debate.
It’s also worth noting this incident because my friend and I are white European men. How much more acute would the anger and the attack have been if it had been ‘foreign-looking’ people? The kind that are, anyway, expected to clean the toilets? The kind that, in the racial hygienist assumptions that echo through anti-immigrant racism and neo-nationalism, are already a stain on the clean bowl of the nation, and who insist on making a big multicultural mess?