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Helsinki Calling organisers refute claims of "language policing", exclusion at Trump-Putin demo

Organisers of the demonstration say they’ve worked to unite nearly 100 different NGOs under a banner that highlights threats against democracy and human rights.

Peli poikki -mielenosoitus Kansalaistorilla.
The anti-racism demonstration "Peli poikki" gathered thousands in downtown Helsinki in September 2016. Helsinki Calling is looking to duplicate that turnout. Image: Tero Koskinen / Yle

Sunday’s "Helsinki Calling" pro-human rights demonstration promises to gather thousands of protesters on the eve of a summit between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But internal divisions over messaging and vision appear to have caused rifts among some of the NGOs involved in the movement.

Helsinki University researcher and SahWira International activist Dr Faith Mkwesha, who recently took on the Finnish aid organisation Plan Finland over its casting of a pregnant 12-year-old in one of its campaigns, described what she called "the policing of language" by the Helsinki Calling organising committee as "problematic".

Mkwesha claimed that the organisation has culled terms such as "protest" and "resistance" from its communications.

"How is resistance a bad word? Should we be trying to please the people we are protesting against? The whole point of a protest is to create discomfort," she told Yle News.

She pointed out that organisers green-lighted use of the term "demonstration" only after pushback from some members of the collective.

"Only white women can use their privilege to say that you must speak nicely about the people who are oppressing you and that you should not be angry about oppression," Mkwesha added, noting that while she continues to support the Helsinki Calling demo, she is also working with another protest group, Helsinki against Trump and Putin, that will take to the city streets on Monday.

Migrant diversity underrepresented

Christian Thibault is chair of Sports for All (Liikkukaa ry) an umbrella organisation that brings together 80 different immigrant sporting groups. He also pitched his tent with Helsinki for Human Rights, the loose network organising the Helsinki Calling demo. Thibault told Yle News that in his view, one of the struggles facing the network was finding common ground on the language used.

"There have been struggles with the intensity of the language. Some voices are more radical, others less so," he told Yle News.

Thibault said he has had prior experience with similar collective NGO events, such as the anti-racism "Meillä on unelma" and "Peli poikki" protests that took over Helsinki in 2015 and 2016 respectively. He said that he is concerned that Sunday’s event may not accurately reflect the diversity among and within immigrant organisations in Finland.

"Many people don’t see themselves [reflected] in the demonstration. So while they support it, they are also backing other demonstrations that [they feel] better express their positions. I'm in that group," he added.

On Thursday, police reported that the city of Helsinki is now expecting 10 demonstrations during the Trump-Putin summit, up from four registered one week earlier.

"The organisations I work with are at different stages with respect to the issue of women's rights, for example. This is very important to me, although it might seem granular to someone else," he said, adding that he was concerned that the list of people due to deliver addresses at Sunday’s demonstration also does not appear to reflect the true diversity of the network.

Issues bigger than individuals

Nely Keinänen, a central figure involved in organising Sunday’s demonstration, acknowledged that putting together the speaker list required discussion and compromise.

"Everyone agreed we wanted a diverse program, and one of our goals was to give voice to people who have been affected by Russian and/or US military interventions. For example, we will have speakers from the Middle East, Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan," she said, adding that there were many other areas which could have been represented.

She also tackled the issue of inclusivity, saying that there was no easy way to make everyone feel welcome. "I like to think our hearts are in the right place," she commented, adding that the aim of the demonstration is to draw attention to issues larger than any individual, group or single agenda.

"This is an opportunity, despite or even because of our differences, to shout that you can’t ignore human rights, the environment, threats to democracy, reproductive rights and separating families," she declared.

Pushback against politicians

Abdirahim "Husu" Hussein, a Social Democratic Party politician who will speak at the event said that when the original group of 50 or so organisers first laid down the framework for Sunday's activism, they decided on one fundamental principle.

"We wanted to be pro-something rather than anti-something. Some people wanted to escalate things. We also wanted to raise issues, but in the right way," he told Yle News.

Hussein conceded that some in the collective had been disgruntled over what they saw as participation by politicians in what is supposed to be a grassroots effort.

"But I am involved as Husu, as the chair of one of the largest multicultural organisations in Finland, Moniheli. As someone who is affected by Trump’s travel ban because my passport says I was born in Mogadishu and Somalia is one of the countries affected by the ban. [I am] not [there] as an SDP politician," he said.

He added that there had also been some pushback against the inclusion of Green politician Heidi Hautala, but said that she had been included on the speakers’ ticket because of her background in crisis management and development issues.

"We have people from many different backgrounds and political beliefs working together. Immigrants are well-represented: people from Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Russia and the US. People are trying to divide us," he remarked.

Hussein noted that there was some disappointment over the decision to reschedule the demonstration for Sunday instead of Monday, but said that there were good reasons for the move.

"We changed the date because I figured that Trump and Putin would have left by 2 pm Monday. On Monday there would also have been more international media present and we anticipated a larger turnout on Sunday, when people don’t have to work," he explained.

Lessons for the future

It was perhaps Thibault who best summed up the sprawling network’s struggle to reach consensus on how best to make use of the opportunity presented by the Trump-Putin summit.

"Trump and Putin are such controversial figures that many people come at them from many different angles because of [their perceived] racism, sexism, homophobia and human rights abuses so it’s no wonder it has been a struggle to find compromise and balance," he said.

However he said that the friction among the many activist groups involved in the demonstration has the potential to provide lessons for the future.

"It will be important to see what happens to civil society after Sunday. We need to catch up and include migrants from the planning to execution stages, rather than just headlining well-known or popular faces at the end of the process," he concluded.

Abdirahim Hussein's comments were edited at 2:19 pm to clarify that it was own personal estimation of the leaders' schedule that prompted the decision.

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