Remembering Benjamin

The duty to remember the brutal murder of 15-year old Ghanaian-Norwegian, Benjamin Hermansen, and to intensify the battle against racism in Norway.

Image credit Benjamin Memorial Fund.

Today, friends and family, local residents, and Norwegian anti-racists will once more gather at a small memorial at Åsbråten at Holmlia in Oslo East. They will be lighting candles and placing flowers at the base of the memorial. To the extent that they will be speaking among themselves, they will be speaking softly and pensively. They will be there to honor the memory of a life that could have been, and the ways in which the memory of that life continues to reverberate for many Black Norwegians facing contemporary circumstances which twenty years on for all too many of them have not changed all that much.

For it was a few minutes before midnight on January 26, 2001 that fifteen year-old Benjamin Hermansen was chased by two Norwegian neo-Nazis aligned with the Norwegian neo-Nazi skinhead group Boot Boys, and brutally knifed to death. Benjamin fell to the ground and expired on the wet and icy asphalt a few hundred meters from his home, very close to where the memorial statue now stands. It was only minutes after he been permitted to go outside for a brief late evening meeting with his best friend Hadi in front of a local shop that the two teenage boys were attacked by the neo-Nazis, who had traveled up from the suburb of Bøler earlier that evening.

The January 26, 2001 murder of Benjamin Hermansen is to date the most well-known racist murder in modern Norwegian history. As a proverbial critical event, it remains a central reference point not only for people in his own generation from Holmlia and the wider Oslo East, but also to a new and emergent generation of Norwegian anti-racists of multicultural background. One realizes as much from the many references to Benjamin in the posters seen at the Norwegian demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and in protest against racism and police violence in the US which saw an estimated 10,000 Norwegians gathered in front of the Norwegian Parliament in Oslo in June 2020.

One sees it too in the ways in which Benjamin has been memorialized in any number of Norwegian prose works by Norwegian authors of multicultural background such as Camara Lundestad Joof, Zeshan Shakar, Yohan Shanmugaratnam, and Sumaya Jirde Ali in recent years. And last, but not least, in the references to Benjamin in the work of popular Norwegian hip-hop bands and artists such as Karpe Diem and Pumba.

In writing about the victims of racist terror, it is a constant temptation to write of them in a manner that reduces them and their lives to respectable exemplars of martyrdom. Benjamin Labaran Hermansen, “Benny” or “Baloo,” had been born to Habibu Labaran from Ghana, believed to be a Mfantsi and known as “Bobby,” and Marit Hermansen from Norway. His parents appear to have met on a night out in downtown Oslo in the early 1980s, near a club called The Leopard. The Leopard was known for playing reggae, and for being one of few clubs in Oslo that had patrons of African and Caribbean backgrounds. Habibu, who appears to have had something of an elite background in Ghana and to have come from family circumstances that enabled him to seek adventures in Europe, worked as an industrial painter. He was something of an African cosmopolitan, having lived in Greece and Germany before he ended up in Norway, and was described by Norwegians who knew him as both friendly, “keen to integrate,” and tolerant towards gays. He was also very proud of his first-born son, and was known as a good father.

Benjamin’s mother Marit had a working-class background and came from a close-knit family of four which had struggled with the early and premature death of their mother. Trained as a secretary, she would later become a primary school teacher. Benjamin was born in 1985, by which time the family had moved to Holmlia and Åsbråten. Holmlia was then a new housing development and part of the social democratic engineering that had been a fixture since 1945. It promised closeness to both the sea and the woods at affordable rates. Åsbråten and Holmlia would soon have some of the most multicultural population in Oslo and in Norway. Against the public and media representation of Holmlia and Åsbråten as dangerous urban spaces dominated by immigrants and immigrant gangs—a representation that remains unchanged until this day—people who grew up often provide a counter-memory in the form of a representation of Holmlia and Åsbråten as a convivial and safe place.

Benjamin’s father Habibu died in 1989 when Benjamin was only four. People who knew Benjamin describe him as handsome, popular, and a bit of a joker. He was no saint, sometimes inventing the wildest and funniest excuses for skipping his homework (such as alleging that his Labrador dog, Amba, had eaten his homework), pulling mild jokes on friends and schoolmates, eying girls, and getting involved in the occasional fight. He was also a keen and modestly good football player who dreamed of becoming a lawyer as an adult.

It is only on rare and exceptional occasions that news from Norway breaks through and into international news media. But the 2001 murder of Benjamin Hermansen and the 2002 trial against his racist and neo-Nazi murderers was extensively covered by The New York Times, the BBC World Service and The Guardian. In reading these news items 20 years after, one is struck by the extent to which the correspondents of these international news media outlets bought into a narrative of Norwegian exceptionalism in the face of racism and white supremacy. For to anyone familiar with modern Norwegian history and the dark racist undercurrents reverberating through that history,  it certainly comes as puzzling news that the 2001 murder of Benjamin should have been the “first racist murder” in modern Norwegian history. Especially given that it was in 2001 only 11 years since the last recorded racist murder on a public street in Oslo had happened, when Ali Ghazanfar Shah (29), a Norwegian-Pakistani worker and father-to-be, was knifed to death in Oslo’s City Center in 1989.

The murder of Benjamin led to the largest anti-racist mobilizations in Norwegian history, with an estimated 40,000 people marching in a torchlight procession against racism in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, and thousands in other major Norwegian cities.

Gathered in Copenhagen for a meeting, cabinet ministers from the Nordic Council of Ministers adopted a statement condemning the murder and calling for action against racism. In a commemorative speech, the then-Norwegian Labor Party Prime Minister and now NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, called the murder a “watershed moment” in Norwegian history and pledged “never again.” It would take ten years before he would use the very same rhetorical terms in response to the right-wing extremist terrorist attacks at Government Headquarters and at Utøya in 2011.

At Åsbråten, Holmlia, hordes of media reporters descended on school children and even on the shattered and bereaved Hermansen family. There were teenage friends of Benjamin’s who in the days and weeks after the murder had to cope not only with their own grief, fears, and terror relating to potential new neo-Nazi attacks in their neighborhood, but also with Norwegian media reporters hiding in the bushes on their way to school and intruding on local school yards in search of interviewees.

The active will to remember Benjamin now as ever stands against strong countervailing social and political currents in Norway. A central part of Norwegian political and intellectual elites’ long-standing mythologizing of Norway and Norwegians has long been to “exceptionalize” racism and right-wing extremism in Norway. That “exceptionalizing” has the practical effect of safe-guarding an idea of white innocence in which colonialism was, in the face of mounting historical evidence to the contrary, all about other Europeans and never about Norwegians, and racism and white supremacist phenomena pertained only to the far-right fringes in Norway. The idea of Norwegian exceptionalism and white innocence saw  significant challenges in the 2001 murder of Benjamin, the July 22, 2011 terrorist attacks on Oslo and Utøya, and the August 10, 2019 terrorist attack on a mosque in Bærum outside of Oslo, but it still lingers on. One also sees it in the active historical erasure of colonialism, racism, and right-wing extremism in Norway in the best-selling work of certain Norwegian nationalist-populist historians, who in recent best-selling titles attempt to erase racist and right-wing extremist murders such as the murder of Benjamin from the Norwegian historical record.

“The very serious function of racism is distraction,” Toni Morrison once said.

As in the US, the UK, and France in the Spring of 2020, the anti-racist mobilizations in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the intense focus on anti-racism in Norway was met by a strong backlash in the form of fierce and often scurrilous attacks on anti-racism and anti-racist theory, both by liberal-conservative elites in academia and the media. Much of this was of course designed to distract and exasperate racialized minorities in the country. They, once more, were forced to ask what the point of bearing witness about racism and discrimination was, when a basic commitment to an ethics of listening is still so demonstrably absent among many Norwegians.

As people gather once more to commemorate the racist murder of Benjamin Hermansen at Åsbråten in Holmlia, they do so fully aware of the fact that racism remains a persistent challenge faced by Black Norwegians to this date, and that the anti-racist struggle in Norway is likely to be unending. This January has also brought news of years of demeaning racist harassment of some school children of Norwegian-African background at schools in Lillesand in Southern Norway and in Bergen in Western Norway. Empirical research on the experiences with self-reported racism and discrimination in Oslo schools indicate that one out of four minority children have experienced it.

In the public reading of the murder of Benjamin that would become dominant in the years that followed, and not the least through the 2002 trial against his neo-Nazi murderers in the Oslo Magistrate’s Court, these racist murderers would, much like in the case of Breivik merely ten years after, be portrayed as socially marginal and psychologically troubled characters coming from difficult family circumstances. But the main architect of Benjamin’s brutal murder, Ole Nikolai Kvisler, did in fact come from a stable and reportedly well-functioning family at Åsbråten, Holmlia, and in fact knew Benjamin very well from his childhood years. He had at the time of the murder been a thoroughly committed and ideologically motivated neo-Nazi for years. The toxicology reports in the police files relating to the murder of Benjamin reveal that Kvisler was only very lightly intoxicated at the time of the murder. It took Kvisler very few hours after the murder to get in touch with his far-right sympathizing lawyer, the Norwegian Supreme Court attorney Erik Gjems-Onstad (d. 2011), who was in Norway known for his long-standing support of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Ian Smith’s racist regime in Rhodesia. Nor has Kvisler ever expressed any remorse for his acts. He remained a neo-Nazi until his release in 2013, and there are many indications that he remains so even today.

One of the cardinal errors of Norwegian society after the murder of Hermansen was to believe that the threat of white supremacism and racism had all but disappeared. After all, Norwegian right-wing extremists had donned suits and abandoned the street fights that had been so central to their identity in the 1980s and 1990s and turned wage their racial war from behind PC screens. A second cardinal error was to retire the entire vocabulary of racism from the greater society. Those very errors would come to haunt Norway and Norwegians only ten years later in 2011.

Twenty years on from the brutal racist murder of fifteen-year old Benjamin Hermansen, the challenge of racism and discrimination is one which many Norwegians of similar background still face in their everyday lives. And this is exactly why the duty to remember Benjamin and his all-too-short life remains so central to many anti-racist Norwegians of all colors and creeds to this date.

Further Reading