Spaces of Insurgent Citizenship – activism and acceptability in Helsinki

Eeva Berglund & Vesa Peipinen


As European cities adapt to de-industrialization, initiatives like community gardens, DIY urban improvements, makerspaces, street art and neighbourhood festivals are presented as challenging older market or state-based practices (Bialski et al. 2015). Somewhat in contrast, activists in Finland appear as a resource for wider society (e.g. Mäenpää and Faehnle 2017). Activism is often not only acceptable, but is valued for contributing to environmental sustainability objectives and local democracy, and thanked for helping out when local government suffers liquidity problems. Citizen activism (kansalaisaktivismi) is said to herald a new, more entrepreneurial politics that is a resource for a growing Helsinki, a Good Thing that should be supported.1 The city of Helsinki has appropriated several recurring grassroots projects – cleaning day, restaurant day, pop-up sales points of all kinds, as well as countless greenish and wholesome-sounding design or technology-led ventures (Berglund 2013). Activists can contribute to consumption-oriented urban development, especially if they provide occupancy and interest in spaces that would otherwise lie empty and unattractive. As interurban competition and creativity-led economic policy have come to be seen as a “useful strategy to enhance … brand and improve … global image”, local policy has “instrumentalized dynamic local subcultures and harnessed them as a competitive advantage in the interurban rivalry” (Mayer 2013, 4-5).

In this paper we bring into view less visible, less valued projects of “self-organising” activism in Helsinki, notably squatting of under-used buildings. The case studies are based on recent fieldwork and archival2 sources. We seek to tell stories that easily go unheard, but also highlight how economic interests and cultural beliefs are entangled in both activism and research.

Inspired by the idea of the “right to the city”, we propose the notion of insurgent citizenship would help produce sharper analysis. It comes from anthropologist James Holston’s investigations of urban life and policy in Brazil (Holston 2008). Following his approach, we understand citizenship as a continuous struggle over terms of membership in the wider collective and insurgency as political action beyond the participation exercises of official planning. Where urban politics tends towards depoliticization (Swyngedouw 2011), as a concept, insurgent citizenship helps us to identify areas where politics and power are in fact at play. Miraftab even identifies insurgent planning practices that are “counter-hegemonic in that they destabilize the normalized order of things; they transgress time and place by locating historical memory and transnational consciousness at the heart of their practices. They are imaginative in promoting the concept of a different world as being … both possible and necessary” (Miraftab 2009, 33).

Such features characterise Helsinki’s young squatters. We argue that squatters also nurture new forms of political participation. We first sketch out how squatting has fared as part of Helsinki’s activist landscape. We then suggest that precisely because it does not fit a model of self-organising as fun or as a win-win strategy, it deserves more attention.

Good and Bad Activism: Squatting in Helsinki

Protest groups often appear when urban development encroaches on cherished landscapes or incurs other costs for locals, whether in Hamburg or Berlin (Novy and Colomb 2013) or in London (Lees et al. 2014), or indeed, in Helsinki (Lehtovuori 2005). They can be about survival but recently urban activism has become associated with efforts to design better futures. World-improving small-scale design-activism, such as the building of semi-legal saunas and skateboard parks, urban food gardens or running temporary restaurants is now prominent but it is not new (Kohtala and Paterson 2015). Associated with environmental causes, animal rights, anti-capitalist protests or antiracism, it often also has an antimaterialist orientation, little reliance on traditional institutional supports and resources, and even less respect for centralized leadership structures (Mayer 2013). Andresen and Van de Steen (2016) sum up the diverse movements in European cities as “youth revolts”. European and North American squatting shows huge variety (Vasudevan 2017), yet overall seeks alternatives to contemporary urbanism. Helsinki’s diverse history of squatting is thus typical (Stranius and Salasuo 2008; Peipinen 2017).

Strategically, squatting often takes two routes. First, there is the actual act of civil and social disobedience, which then allows other counter-cultural practices to take hold and pre-figurative spaces to be built. Horizontal forms of organization, counter-cultural identities and political participation are almost essential ingredients. In addition, often squatters break the law to draw attention. Sometimes they alternate between direct action and negotiating with authorities, in a kind of dual-track strategy of dividing up the political labour. In Helsinki, squatters have been able in this way to extend their squats and the infrastructures for collective living, working and political organizing. And even where squats have been evicted by force, they have often led to saving old buildings. In many European cities squats have also enhanced the political participation of vulnerable residents (Lees et al. 2014), and led to new forms of institutionalized participation that need not lead to eviction (Mayer 2013).

In Finland, there have been several waves of squatting in bigger cities. The first time squatting came into the spotlight was in 1979, when a former warehouse was occupied by mainly young activists before becoming a cultural centre. A successful facilitator of alternative cultural life in 1980s and 1990s Helsinki, Lepakko (Bat’s Cave) shifted the boundaries of what was acceptable then. In 1986-88 the Freda 42 movement, named after its central location, forced housing problems onto the public agenda, and when political and economic crisis set in in the early 1990s, a wider wave of collective squatting began. A key event took place in January 1990 when a group of young activists occupied three abandoned wooden houses on a suburban street, Intiankatu, sparking new urban activism in Helsinki and other bigger cities in Finland (Peipinen 2017). As the city changed, occupying publicly owned property put important social, economic and legal questions into the spotlight. Squatters not only questioned why houses remained abandoned, they also contested the legitimacy of ownership when it meant keeping houses empty during a housing crisis. For the young activists direct action and civil disobedience felt like the only effective means of influencing things: if housing was not otherwise forthcoming, they would squat. Activists preferred to tackle buildings owned by the city or large construction firms, left derelict to wait for demolition or dilapidation. The squatters movement was a party in significant urban conflicts (Kokos-factory in Sörnäinen, wooden houses in Tehtaankatu and the so-called Makasiinit warehouses) before eventually developing a friendly relationship with the city (Peipinen 2015).

In 2015 a new generation of squatters was focussing efforts on an old wooden house called squat Mummola or Fastholma. Owned by the city, the 100-year-old house had been rented out as shared accommodation until 2011 and it had been empty since. Young squatters made plans for developing it for public use. Others linked its fate to the lack of affordable housing in the city. In the winter of 2015, activists squatted it but were soon brutally evicted.3

Afterwards, one young activist interviewee said the following:

”We should not be forced into thinking that nothing is possible outside this capitalist system. All these rules and all kinds of controls have affected people´s minds. And if you want to do something you need to think about what it costs and is it allowed. So what we need is freedom and not to be scared. We need to believe that we are right.”

This points to how urban space is political space. It is where what it means to belong – citizenship – is established but also challenged. It points towards political discourses that are much broader and deeper in their critique than the more celebrated forms of today’s self-organising.

As elsewhere in Europe, in Finland policies have increasingly framed squatting as threat. Policies to protect property owners and give police more authority to act against squatters are widely regarded as a right-wing ploy to defend private property rights above all else (O´Mahony et al. 2015, Vasudevan 2017).  The last two decades have witnessed a massive shift of urban property – including former homes – into private ownership under the guise of “regeneration”, “development” and other positive-sounding processes of urban change. As we see it, in Helsinki urban activism is responded to in two main ways, either as “good”, worth supporting, or as “bad”, to be stamped out. Fastholma’s squatting activists received the latter treatment. Having tried to prefigure post-capitalist ways of life they found that their embrace of “active citizenship” and efforts to defend the shared environment meant they were treated almost as criminals.

Insurgent Citizenship, Self-organizing and the Right to the City

Citizenship confers some form of inalienable and basic political rights that bind a person as an individual to a collective, independently of parentage, wealth or political allegiance. Citizenship is also linked to life in the city. If in their heterogeneity and complexity cities resist exhaustive description, broadly speaking modern cities were products of an imposed, often colonially upheld, industrial capitalism. In this process, their administrations have helped create an illusion of cities as not self-organising. Probably blind to this history, urban governments have under-appreciated how much self-organising has always been part of urban life. With online connectivity, self-organisation has a new intensity and stretches the reach of political as well as practical projects (Gerbaudo 2017), but it is not new.

Squatters’ insistence on alternative framings of what can be done or thought – as in the quotation above – indicate that it is not empowerment as online users or consumers of services that drives them. Rather, the democratic values espoused by activists confer a kind of dignity and sense of self that we can also recognize in the very different context of Brazilian urbanization analyzed as insurgent citizenship by the anthropologist James Holston (2008). In Brazilian urban peripheries, the poor transformed themselves from people the state could ignore, because they were without rights to themselves (slaves) or other resources (land, literacy), into citizens with “rights to rights”. This was a case of squatting, but also a strong claim for the right to enjoy a permanent roof over their heads.

Helsinki’s squatting, we suggest, also creates spaces of insurgent citizenship. It challenges the intensifying drive for urban growth and offers alternatives to discourses that equate progress with more high-paying tax-payers, more data, tighter security and more entertainment. Helsinki’s activism rarely threatens neoliberal order. Indeed, it is mostly supported by the city. But importantly, economics has been a significant factor: squatting challenges not just a specific property owner, but the whole direction of neoliberal urbanism. Activists prefer shared and collective enjoyment of urban space rather than the neoliberal imperative to privatize.

Bringing squatting into the debate about activism would help pose the critical question: what is the city towards which the “good (activist) citizen” might aspire? In the status quo, there is one such vision, green, clean and not overly welcoming to incomers. Other attitudes are possible. After the Fastholma/Mummola eviction, Deputy Mayor Anni Sinnemäki appeared to be cracking open some new political space. She noted that squatting was a “form of citizen activism” and she intended to revisit the way authorities handle it.4 How researchers handle it may also be important.


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