Interior minister Maria Ohisalo (Green) has said that she is currently reviewing an initial report on police actions during a climate demonstration that took place in downtown Helsinki on Saturday. The report centred on police use of force — including the use of pepper spray — to disperse protesters who had blocked a street in the capital.
“Was police use of force during the Extinction Rebellion [Elokapina] today proportionate? We have received an initial report on the matter and it is being reviewed. The use of force must always be a last resort and there must be compelling reasons for it,” Ohisalo tweeted on Saturday evening.
“These actions must be evaluated and guidelines must be updated if needed. It is also always good to explain the reasons for the use of force. Ultimately, police actions are supervised by the Parliamentary Ombudsman,” she added in a follow-up tweet.
The minister’s intervention via Twitter followed a situation in which police said that they dispersed dozens of Extinction Rebellion climate protesters who had blocked a street in downtown Helsinki early Saturday evening.
The demonstration took place at the intersection of Kaisaniemenkatu and Unionkatu. Several police patrols responded to the protest, which called for action on climate change.
MPs weigh in on incident
Some of the demonstrators had reportedly been removed from their posts on Kaisaniemenkatu and taken to police vehicles. Police also confirmed that they used pepper spray to break up the protest. However the use of force sparked heated commentary on social media, with several lawmakers weighing in on the discussion.
MPs from the Greens, Left Alliance and Centre parties expressed concern over the actions of police. Former Left Alliance chair Paavo Arhinmäki called on Ohisalo to reach out to police over the matter.
Police said in a tweet that they had resorted to the mildest possible use of force to reopen the busy city street.
“Protesters in the street did not obey several commands from police to stop blocking the street and preventing the movement of traffic. Because of this police resorted to use of force, deploying pepper spray to disperse the crowd,” police tweeted.
Video recorded at the scene indicated that despite being subjected to the spray several times, demonstrators did not leave the scene. Police then physically carried protesters away.
Later on Saturday evening police confirmed that dozens of people had been held and said that all of the protesters who had been detained had been released.
Helsinki Regional Transport (HSL) said on Saturday that the demonstration had caused some disruption to bus and tram traffic, but that the situation returned to normal later in the evening.
Violent reactions from spray
Organisers of the demonstration said that police had detained 51 people out of a total of a few hundred protesters.
The climate protesters blocked Kaisaniemenkatu by sitting in the street while in some instances attached to each other.
“With relatively little warming police used something like pepper spray on people at close range,” Extinction Rebellion Emergency Brake demonstration spokesperson Lauri Autere said.
According to Autere the spray caused symptoms similar to a powerful allergic reaction among people who were targetted in the face.
“Redness, difficulty breathing and irritation of the eyes,” he added.
Story continues after photo
Ville Saarinen was one of the protesters on the receiving end of the police use of force. He speculated that the officers who used the pepper spray acted on the orders of their superiors.
“They had earpieces in their ears and as far as I could see they carried out the orders that came from on high. Their actions in the situation were very uniform. Maybe it was a case of a panic reaction from police leadership or then it was an intimidation attempt that went wrong,” Saarinen conjectured.
The protester said that police sprayed him directly in the face. “After the second or third spraying I could no longer open my eyes because the pain was so intense,” he said, adding that police did not offer any kind of pain relief.
“It was only an hour and a half later when we got to the station that I got to the bathroom to wash my eyes,” he added.
The international Extinction Rebellion movement has said that it is planning another major demonstration in Berlin later in October.