Benjamin, from Hebrew Binyamin, a masculine proper name referring to Jacob’s youngest son in Genesis, literally “son of the South” though interpreted in Genesis as “son of the right hand”, from ben “son of” + yamin “right hand” also “south”.
Introduction: At Åsbråten
In a small corner facing a roundabout and blocks of flats at Åsbråten in the suburb of Holmlia, in the eastern part of the Norwegian capital of Oslo, stands a small statue. The statue shows the head and torso of a handsome young man. At the base of the statue, a small inscription reads “Never Forget. 26.01.2001” in Norwegian. The statue has been standing at this very place since 1 November 2002.
Every year since then, on 26 January, locals have flocked to the statue to place candles and flowers at its base. Residents passing by on that day tend to do so in solemn silence. The small statue at Åsbråten commemorates a 15-year-old boy from Holmlia. Benjamin Hermansen, who lived from 1985 to 2001, bled to death close to the spot where the memorial now stands near midnight on 26 January 2001.
Benjamin, known as “Baloo” or “Benny” to his many friends, was the first and only son of a woman from Norway and a man born in Ghana. He died at the hands of two Norwegian neo-Nazis who attacked him brutally with knives for no other reason than the colour of his skin. On 21 January 2021, Norway will mark 20 years since the most well-known racist murder in Norwegian history. But as Gary Younge notes in a recent essay on the NYR Daily website, “the story of Benjamin Hermansen … is rarely told beyond Norway”.
And true enough, the story has been told in Norway. But even if searches for “Benjamin Hermansen” in the digital archives of the National Library in Oslo throw up more than 7 000 hits over the 20 years that have now passed, the public memorialisation of the boy that was Benjamin has been fickle and fractured, even in Norway.
His murder in 2001 was described as a “watershed event” and pledges aplenty about “never again” widely made. But it took influential right-wing Norwegian academics less than a year after the murder to cite the racism-reversalist “antiracists are the real racists” with approval in print. And 20 years on, Norway still has politicians in positions of power who declare that structural racism “does not exist” in the country, senior academics who actively partake in exorcising the memory of racist murders such as Benjamin’s from the historical record and a continued challenge from right-wing extremist terror.
There is nothing new in any nation declaring its “white innocence” in the face of racism by locating racist behaviour in other times and places. In a Norway in which national figures are heavily invested in the notion that Norway and Norwegians are living embodiments of virtue in the world, notions that the international news media generally do little to discourage, many will instinctively refer to the United States’ Jim Crow laws or apartheid South Africa when asked where and when to locate racism. This is what Alana Lentin has poignantly referred to as the idea of a “frozen racism”.
International news media covering the Hermansen case in 2001 and 2002 inadvertently contributed to the notion of Norwegian exceptionalism. Andrew Osborn characterised the neo-Nazi murderers in The Guardian newspaper as “the first racist killers in Norwegian history”. He could not have plucked that notion out of thin air. For even the Borgarting Court of Appeals made the assertion in December 2002 that it “was unaware of any prior murder motivated by racism in Norway”.
The contention that Benjamin’s murder in 2001 was the “first racist murder” in Norwegian history is both nonsensical and ahistorical. Among the thousands of Norwegian recruits to the notorious Division Wiking of the Nazi German Waffen SS – to which the notorious doctor Josef Mengele was also assigned – there were no doubt also Norwegians who took an active part in the indiscriminate murders of Jewish men, women and children in the bloodlands of the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and 1942.
Few Norwegians of any generation will have heard of the Norwegian-Pakistani brothers Ali Ghazanfar Shah and Nawaz Mohammed. They were in their 20s when they were knifed and killed in a racist murder on the main avenue of Oslo, Karl Johan Street, in front of Shah’s pregnant Norwegian girlfriend on the warm summer evening of 29 July 1989.
And if the truth be told, it has to a large extent been left to local people from Holmlia, Norwegian-African activists, Norwegian anti-racists, writers and authors from racial minority backgrounds to preserve the public memory of Benjamin. They have done so through hip-hop, graffiti, books, poetry, videos, films and essays.
Public memories are never – and can probably never be – stable and pure. And so these memories of Benjamin came at a cost that, more than anything, was borne by Benjamin’s late mother Marit Hermansen, who lived from 1955 to 2019. She witnessed the transition of her son’s image from a personal to a public memory.
When I first met her in 2018 to ask for her approval of my writing a monograph about her son’s case, Hermansen was concerned that her first and only child not be turned into a saint-like and exceptional figure because of the circumstances of his death. In her memory, Benjamin was an easy-going, regular kid from one of Oslo’s poorer and most multicultural suburbs, who loved football, watching movies, hanging out with friends and flirting with girls. She spoke openly about the raw pain of revisiting her son’s death at the time of the yearly commemoration, and how challenging it had been to relate to her son in the form of his public memorialisation by people she knew had never known him personally.
The impurities of public memories
The public memories relating to Benjamin and his murder carry their own silences and evasions. Great emphasis is often placed on the idea that Benjamin’s neo-Nazi murderers were “outsiders to Holmlia”.
In the imagined spatial geography of this part of Oslo at the time, Holmlia is more often than not rendered as a friendly multicultural place. Informants in Benjamin’s age cohort – in other words, now in their 30s and from a multicultural background themselves – do at times admit to having experienced racist attitudes and abuse from ageing white Norwegian neighbours in Holmlia as children. But these experiences are presented as exceptions, rather than the rule.
For the story that they want to tell about Holmlia is a story in which many of them are personally invested. That story is in itself a counter-memory, practised and rehearsed in the face of the long-standing stigmatisation of the suburb and its residents in the wider public imagination, generated by the coverage of Holmlia and Oslo East in Norway’s national news media. Holmlia is often presented as an “unsafe”, “immigrant-dominated” and “gang-infested” suburban space.
In the story they would like to tell, the Holmlia that came after the death of Benjamin was a place of multicultural conviviality, solidarity and pride. But the neo-Nazis of which they speak in the context of Benjamin’s murder are always and inevitably from “elsewhere”. And that “elsewhere” is the nearby suburbs of Bøler and Nordstrand, which were widely identified in the 1990s as strongholds for Oslo’s white, neo-Nazi skinhead subculture and a group known as the Boot Boys.
It is not coincidental to this narrative that Benjamin’s killers, Joe Erling Jahr and Ole Nikolai Kvisler, who were 19 and 21 years old at the time of the murder, set out in Kvisler’s battered old blue Ford Granada from a small apartment in Bøler with Kvisler’s girlfriend, Veronica Andreassen, who was then 17, on the night of the murder.
But the notion that the neo-Nazis who killed Benjamin were from “outside of Holmlia” is made problematic and unsettling by the fact that Kvisler had grown up in Holmlia, in close proximity to Benjamin’s family, and that Jahr had an apartment in Sloråsen at Holmlia at the time of the murder.
A son of the south
In 1983, Marit Hermansen, then a 28-year-old secretary working for the Oslo City Council, married a man who would only be known as Bobby in the public record in Norway. Little is known about Bobby, but he appears to have arrived in Norway as a student from Ghana.
Among the small group of students from that country who arrived in the early 1980s, there were those opposed to the socialist and military dictatorship of Jerry Rawlings, which ran from 1979 to 1992. In Norway, they found something of a safe haven. But we do not as yet know if Bobby had been involved in any form of student activism in Ghana prior to his arrival in Norway, or what his views about the Rawlings regime may have been. Sources suggest that Bobby’s father had multiple wives in Ghana and that his mother was from Mali.
Marit and Bobby settled in Holmlia, which at the time was a rapidly expanding suburb of Oslo that attracted many Norwegians from working-class backgrounds because of the affordable cost of housing, as well as immigrants.
Labour migration to Norway started in earnest in the late 1960s with the arrival of male labourers from countries such as Pakistan, India, Turkey and Morocco. By 1975, cross-political alarm over labour migration to Norway had reached such high levels that the then social democratic Labour Party government introduced measures in Parliament aimed at curbing all forms of immigration to Norway. This was publicly billed by the government as an “immigration stop”, but did not and could not stop further immigration to Norway through family reunification processes and the asylum and humanitarian protections afforded to refugees in the decades to follow.
As the late Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad never tired of pointing out, Norwegians had – in spite of the presence of the indigenous Saami population and minorities with immigrant backgrounds such as Jews, Catholics, Kvens, and Roma and Romani-speaking peoples for centuries – up until the advent of mass migration in the late 1960s widely imagined themselves to be ethnically homogeneous.
The fact that Norway had experienced a five-year-long Nazi German occupation during World War II, from 1940 to 1945, meant that neo-Nazism was and remains widely discredited in Norway.
Norwegian neo-Nazis in the 1970s were relatively few, and proved to be most dangerous for Norwegian trade unionists and far-left activists. But the 1980s would see the emergence of a plethora of far-right organisations whose only unifying factor was opposition to immigration.
The far-right Popular Movement Against Immigration, or FMI, established in Haugesund in 1987, was involved in attacks on asylum seekers and anti-racist activists, as well as the torching of asylum reception centres in Norway. It openly allied itself with Norwegian and Swedish neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazis placed bombs at mosques in Oslo.
On the more moderate and democratic side of the far-right spectrum, the Norwegian Progress Party made its first electoral breakthrough in 1987 on an anti-immigrant platform and ominous warnings about a supposed future “Muslim takeover” of Norway.
In 1985, Marit and Bobby Hermansen’s first and only child Benjamin was born. When Benjamin was four years old, his father died. Under considerable mental and financial strain as a single mother, Marit Hermansen retrained as a school teacher. She would remain a much-loved primary school teacher at a school in Holmlia for the rest of her life.
Benjamin would grow up to be a popular and handsome young man. His friends nicknamed him “Baloo” after one of the characters in Disney’s The Jungle Book. As his mother recounted in a podcast for Norwegian state broadcaster NRK many years later, though raised very much as a regular Norwegian kid, Benjamin grew up with an acute awareness that he was different because of the colour of his skin. She recalled incidents in which bus drivers could not fathom that she was his mother. There also appears to have been a nascent anti-racist consciousness in Benjamin.
In the only available television clip of Benjamin, which featured in the main news broadcast at NRK TV in the late summer of 2000, we see him speaking about an attack on him and fellow players at Holmlia Football Club. Danish neo-Nazis attacked them during a summer sports tournament known as the Dana Cup in Frederikshavn in Denmark earlier that summer.
In the footage, Benjamin looks straight into the camera with remarkably confident poise for his age. Viewing it again almost 20 years later, it is as if Benjamin was asserting his claim to being a man and a human “in spite of the violent efforts at making him think that he was not” that he and his Holmlia teammates had experienced in Denmark earlier that summer.
The murder of Benjamin on 26 January 2001 turned out to be a critical event for the wider anti-racist movement in Norway. It led to the largest anti-racist mobilisations in modern Norwegian history, with an estimated 40 000 people marching in a torchlight procession through the streets of Oslo on 1 February 2001. They were joined by public figures such as Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon Magnus VII, then Labour Party prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and the Lutheran bishop of Oslo at the time, Gunnar Stålsett.
Anti-racist demonstrations organised in response to Benjamin’s murder were also reported in Copenhagen, Denmark, and in Stockholm, Sweden.
A meeting of eight Nordic cabinet ministers at a meeting of the Nordic Council of Ministers in Copenhagen on 1 February adopted a resolution condemning Benjamin’s murder. The Norwegian anti-racist movement received an unprecedented infusion of funds and new activists. And internal fractures caused by the killing of Benjamin, combined with sustained efforts on the part of the Norwegian police, led to the dissolution of the neo-Nazi presence on the streets of Norway in the years that followed.
However, writing racism through racist murders presents several conundrums. The first relates to the tricky question of how one centres the victims rather than the perpetrators, when public memories are so saturated with and tainted by the accounts of the lives of the perpetrators and their deeds.
Secondly, as noted by anthropologist Nitzan Shoshan in his incisive ethnographic study of neo-Nazis in Berlin, the very category “right-wing extremism” in Germany, as in Norway, “operates as a constitutive outside” whereby the “liberal” “good nationalist” gets to define themself against “its own internal negativity”, the “right-wing extremist” “bad nationalist”.
The stakes involved for a society trying to deal with right-wing extremism could not be higher. According to Sara Ahmed, “the reduction to racism to the figure of ‘the racist’ allows structural or institutional forms to recede from view, by projecting racism on to a figure that is easily discarded”.
For once the trial against the three Norwegian neo-Nazis involved in Benjamin’s murder opened in the Oslo magistrate’s court in December 2001, this was more or less what transpired.
Both the magistrate’s court – which in January 2002 sentenced Jahr and Kvisler to 16 and 15 years imprisonment for the murder, and Andreassen to three years imprisonment as an accomplice to the murder – and the Borgarting Court of Appeals – which in December 2002 increased the prison term for Jahr to 18 years and for Kvisler to 17 years – acknowledged that Benjamin’s neo-Nazi murderers had acted on racist motivations and that this constituted aggravating circumstances.
But in a harbinger of the ways in which Norwegian society has chosen to relate to right-wing extremist violence and terrorism since then, the neo-Nazi ideology of Benjamin’s killers was downplayed in favour of a societal narrative about “troubled childhoods” and a “history of conflictual relations” with people from immigrant backgrounds.
Benjamin was Norwegian, born and raised in Norway, but the story of his life and death was inserted into a superficial media narrative about right-wing extremist violence and terror as a “response” to “immigration”, in which Norwegians born to mixed couples are conflated with immigrants. Benjamin’s killers were no longer “some of us” but socially and psychologically damaged individuals. And while this may have been true about Jahr and Andreassen, who would eventually renounce both their neo-Nazi past and their actions, it was never true of Kvisler.
Kvisler had come from a reasonably stable and well-functioning, working-class family in Holmlia. He had been something of a leader figure in the neo-Nazi milieu at Bøler for years prior to the murder. He had an apartment decorated with Nazi and Southern Confederate regalia and enjoyed listening to speeches by Adolf Hitler on his computer. According to the toxicology reports, he was only slightly intoxicated on the night of the murder. Furthermore, Kvisler would remain a neo-Nazi throughout his prison term and has, since his release in 2013, remained in active contact with Swedish and Norwegian neo-Nazis.
As the case of later Norwegian neo-Nazi murderers and terrorists such as Breivik in 2011 and Manshaus in 2019 indicate, close to 20 years on from the murder of Benjamin, Norway still has a significant challenge in dealing with the threat of right-wing extremism, and in taking right-wing extremist ideologies seriously.