Fear and loathing on the streets: the Soldiers of Odin and the rise of anti-refugee vigilantes
In 2016, hate travels fast. News that the Soldiers of Odin were conducting vigilante patrols in Melbourne’s CBD coincided with reports of renewed activity by the group in Canada, a widening presence in the United States, as well as ongoing incidents at their point of origin, in Europe.
The group was founded in Finland in late 2015 by Mika Ranta, who has a long history as a white supremacist activist. Members of the group in Finland are allegedly responsible for the murder of a young anti-racist activist. This year the group has exploded, in Europe and internationally. It’s growth in the United States has been so rapid that the Anti Defamation League was moved to issue a special report on the group, which it described as an “anti-refugee vigilante group”.
The ADL noted that the group had thousands of Facebook supporters, an increasing presence on the streets throughout the country, and had been instrumental in activism opposed to the settlement of refugees in states like Montana.
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The central idea the Soldiers push is an association between Muslims – both refugees and immigrants – and crime. Alexander Reid Ross, a US-based anti-fascist researcher and author of the upcoming book, Against the Fascist Creep, says they are part of a “radicalisation of the right that is grounded in the reaction to the spectre of ‘refugees’ and ‘immigrants’.”
Their offer of protection is explicitly pitched at white fears about Arabs and other migrant groups. Their name and iconography refer directly to Norse mythology, which they interpret in racial terms. As Reid Ross puts it, “they explicitly present themselves as preservers and defenders of the white race in spiritual terms”.
In this context, one thing that sets them apart from other groups is their street patrols – an idea they’ve brought to Melbourne. Alan Dutton works for the Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society (CAERS). He says that in that country, patrols are one way that the Soldiers are “trying to appear to support civil responsibility. But that seems to be a strategy to gain social license to raise money and recruit members”.
He added that while the Soldiers discourage open, public racism in their online communities, and try to disavow the unapologetic white supremacism of European chapters, they “have been unable to explain why, if they disavow racist violence, they assume the name of a racist and violent group”.
The same question could be asked of the Melbourne chapter, which similarly plays down the racist associations of their name and group. Indeed, the Age’s reporting on the group has been criticised in some quarters for similarly backgrounding the group’s far right associations.
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Kieran Bennett, an Australian political blogger and antifascist researcher, faulted the Age for not seeing that the Soldiers “are implementing a tried and tested racist strategy”. Like many far right groups, they offer security that they say the state has failed to provide.
“Fascist rhetoric centres around the idea that the state has failed the ‘nation’ in some way … they are purporting to react to this failure.”
In the US context, Reid Ross says that “they thrive off the anti-government movement, and its attempts at replacing the federal government with localised systems of right-wing, sovereign power”, and there is a lot of crossover with so-called patriot groups and other right wing militia.
In Melbourne, some of the members of the Soldiers of Odin have been drifting around the far right for a while. Long standing blogger and researcher on the far right in Australia, Andy Fleming, says the Soldiers’ leader, Jay B Moore (who featured in the Age’s report), was previously a member of the Patriots Defence League of Australia.
“They’re drawn from an already-existing milieu,” he says, “and you could argue for some of them it’s a rebadging – they’ve taken off they’re PDLA gear and put on Soldiers of Odin gear instead.”
Given that the PDLA was itself a splinter group from the Australian Defence League, and that he estimates that the Soldiers in Melbourne number no more than 20, they need to be understood in the context of the fractious history of the far right.
So far they have attended far right rallies and intermittently clashed with other far right groups like the True Blue Crew. According to their Facebook page, they are planning to attend the “Battle of Eltham” rally this weekend, where a number of far right groups will be protesting the decision to re-settle Syrian and Iraqi refugees in St Vincent’s care facility in Eltham, in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne.
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Their numbers may be small in Australia so far and that may, in part, indicate a fragmentation of the local far right. The uptake of Odinist branding may be a matter of convenience – window dressing for personality conflicts in a movement stacked with big egos.
But what’s undeniable is that the common currency of international far right groups is Islamophobia, and that social media allows far right activists to make common cause across national boundaries.
If such groups are gaining more of a foothold throughout advanced democracies, it may be because they echo mainstream political discourse, which for a generation has shrunk the political horizon to issues of border paranoia, terror, and security.
The best way to defeat them, long term, will be to build real alternatives to the politics of fear and resentment.