BY: M. TOMOSKI
Founded in September 2015 by Mika Ranta, a self-described neo-Nazi and ex-convict, the Soldiers of Odin (SOO) is a vigilante group that has spread across Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark, the UK, Canada, the United States and as far as Australia in a matter of months. The group emerged with the purpose of patrolling the streets in anticipation of foreigners who might commit crimes in their new hometowns, in response to reports of sexual assault across Europe.
Finland, a country of 5.4 million, accepted 32,000 migrants out of a quarter million who were welcomed by their Baltic neighbors during last year’s crisis.
When the patrols first began in Kemi, Finland, a local paper interviewed Ranta, who said “We woke up to a situation where many different cultures met. It caused fear and concern in the community.”
“The biggest issue,” Ranta claimed, “was when we learned from Facebook that new asylum seekers were peering through the gates of primary schools, looking at young girls.”
In fact, Facebook seems to be the group’s main form of communication, with over 42,000 supporters on the social network claiming there are 600 active street patrollers in Finland alone.
The Norse imagery adopted by the group and the black bomber jackets emblazoned with their Viking head logo have earned SOO a reputation of everything from fascist mobs to white supremacists to a European version of the Hell’s Angels. The group has repeatedly denied the labels, saying in an official statement that “We Soldiers of Odin are starting to get tired of misrepresentation in the media.”
“Soldiers of Odin is not: a racist group, a National Socialist movement, a drug related gang, a motorcycle club, or a criminal organization,” the group said in a frustrated attempt to clarify their purpose while also posting questionable memes and images on social media. “It is true that the club’s founder holds Nazi beliefs,” they admitted, while also insisting that these are his own personal beliefs, which do not affect the way SOO operates.
According to the statement, members are discouraged from provoking violence and “must follow the rules, and if the rules are not followed, that member will be expelled from the club.”
Since the group first emerged, only one incident of violence has been reported, in which members of SOO in Gothenburg, Sweden were assaulted and hospitalized.
“We want to get the right people, but we do not want to get into right-wing guys who think they can go out and fight in the streets,” Swedish spokesman Mikael Johansson told the newspaper Avesta Tidning.
The soldiers’ anti-immigrant message has inspired other groups to form in opposition. Some are light-hearted in nature, like the group of clowns who mockingly call themselves the Loldiers of Odin and are devoted to trolling their neo-Nazi counterparts both online and in the real world. Others like the Soldiers of Allah emerged as direct opponents to SOO, calling the vigilante group, “infidels” after their appearance in Norway.
“It’s not acceptable that groups act or give the impression of being some kind of citizen self-defense group,” Norwegian police told the French news organization AFP, “Only the police are authorized to carry out policing duties.”
Though not everyone in the small towns that the SOO have taken to patrolling are opposed to the group. Europe’s complicated history has understandably left authorities skeptical about leather-clad mobs marching against immigrants, but reports of sexual assault across the continent are causing locals to consider street gangs an acceptable alternative.
After the Gothenburg attack, a Swedish reporter expected to find outrage among his fellow citizens that a neo-Nazi street gang had taken over their town. Instead, he found that Gothenburgers welcomed SOO and felt that their presence made them feel safe:
“Many people, especially girls, I talked to thought that what they do is good.” He reported, “Girls are terrified when they go out in the evenings. Soldiers of Odin may not be the right people to provide security, but some think it is good that someone is doing something.”
Even law enforcement initially welcomed SOO as an encouraging sign of civic engagement:
“This kind of community voluntary work is to be supported,” Finnish National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen said in a press release, “It’s really good that citizens are interested in security questions in their own districts and want to improve the security and comfort of their environment,” he said, before apologizing for the statement and clarifying that only the police have the power to perform police duties and the best thing that citizens can do is to report illegal behavior.
Europe’s relatively brief history of being a destination for immigrants, rather than ‘the old world’ from which immigrants flee, has caused a sense of confusion that opened the door to re-inviting the most undesirable parts of European history back onto its streets. Reports that German police have been receiving thousands of assault complaints, after the infamous case of mass sexual assault in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, have branded migrants as potential criminals unwilling to accept European values and are fueling the rise of right-wing politicians.
German citizens have even created a Google map to mark the location of crimes allegedly committed by migrants, along with whether or not the pattern can actually be linked to the Europe’s newest residents. The reports have clearly had an effect on the public’s opinion of immigrants and what, or who, their willing to accept as a solution.