NEWS ANALYSIS: Atle Antonsen was long one of Norway’s most high-profile comedians, but few are laughing after it emerged that he’d fired off a barrage of racist comments against a well-known Norwegian-Somalian woman in a bar in Oslo. Now, a month later, Antonsen has been publicly disgraced and withdrawn from a new season of a comedy series on TVNorge but prosecutors have dropped charges against him. Norway’s Antiracism Center is appealing.
A lot has happened since the 25-year-old poet, author and feminist Sumaya Jirde Ali revealed last week what happened at a bar in Oslo’s popular Grünerløkka neighbourhood on October 23. She’d been out with a friend when Antonsen, who was also at the bar, started speaking English to her. According to Ali, the 53-year-old Antonsen became aggressive when she told him that she speaks Norwegian.
“Within seconds, Antonsen changed character,” Ali wrote in a social media post that instantly went viral. “He went from being a smiling man to one who screamed ‘Shut the (expletive deleted) up’ in a manner that sprayed his spit in my face.” She was taken aback and claims she tried to calm him down, but he allegedly reacted by grabbing her arm and, ultimately, “staring right in my eyes and saying with contempt that ‘you’re too dark-skinned to be here.’ I couldn’t hardly believe what I heard.”
Several others at the bar could also hear what Antonsen said, but no one reacted. Three days later Antonsen sent Ali an apology in the form of a text message in which, according to Ali, he described himself as a komidust (comic idiot) for having joked about “such inherited things.” Three weeks later, deeply troubled by the incident, Ali decided to file police charges against him, for hateful remarks and reckless behaviour.
“This is a story I have borne for three weeks,” Ali wrote on her own Facebook page. “I’ve been in doubt whether I should tell it, and I still am. But I’m doing that now.”
It didn’t take long for the incident to hit the front pages and top newscasts, and police confirmed that charges had been filed in connection with an incident at the Bar Boca in Oslo on October 23. Police also confirmed to newspaper Aftenposten and other media that police had taken statements from those involved and witnesses, while media commentators and even several of Antonsen’s colleagues roundly condemned him and accused him of blatant racism, also on national TV. Aftenposten’s commentator Frank Rossavik wrote that Antonsen’s apology was inadequate, and that he had “clearly offended Ali’s human dignity.”
At the same time, however, Ali herself became a target of vicious and openly racist “net trolls” who sent hateful messages to Ali and littered media comment boxes with their vitriol. Several accused her of “misunderstanding” how some Norwegians speak without allegedly meaning to be racist. Others claimed she was being too sensitive and that they didn’t think Antonsen was a racist. Antonsen himself, meanwhile, had claimed he was drunk at the time of his offense and would “re-evaluate” his use of alcohol and issued a statement saying he was sorry Ali had become a target of such abuse.
Then came news during the weekend that even though police wanted to prosecute Antonsen, the public prosecutors themselves dropped the case. They claimed the incident wouldn’t hold up in court as a “qualified case of hatred or defamation.” Legal experts claimed it would be too difficult to prove that Antonsen deliberately meant to be racist, hateful, disdainful, threatening or bothersome towards Ali. Antonsen had apparently tried to laugh it all off in the bar, and attempted to get Ali to stay when she got up to leave. He had also sent her a message of support four years earlier for her anti-racism efforts and calls for Norwegian society to be more inclusive.
Norway’s Antiracism Center claims it’s “shocked” by the prosecutors’ decision to drop the case, announcing on Monday that it will file a formal complaint. Its director cited “matters of principle” and that Antonsen’s remarks were undeniably racist in nature.
“The center as an organization has an independent interest in filing a complaint,” director Hatem Ben Mansour told state broadcaster NRK. He fears that the decision to drop the case “can have long-term consequences beyond this single incident.”
It remains unclear whether the complaint can proceed. John Christian Elden, one of Norway’s most prominent defense attorneys, told NRK that the Antiracism Center has no legal right to file a complaint “in a case like this.” Others agreed, arguing that the case doesn’t directly affect the center.
Both Antonsen and Ali have since resorted to declining comment beyond sending a few written follow-up statements. Ali, editor of the feminist magazine Fett and usually active in public debate, also cancelled a speaking engagement in Bergen late last week. Meanwhile, another young man confined to a wheelchair has come forth claiming that Antonsen also berated him a few years ago. Johannes Hellemo Loftsgård, who was born with cerebral palsy, told Aftenposten that he’d wanted to have his picture taken with Antonsen during an awards ceremony in 2016, but Antonsen initially rebuffed him.
“Why are you sitting in that chair, you (expletive deleted) vegetable,” Antonsen allegedly asked Loftsgård, and then threatened to push his chair down a flight of stairs before suddenly laughing and dismissing it all as a joke. “Given the situation, I didn’t manage to do anything but laugh along,” Loftsgård told Aftenposten. Antonsen has since apologized for that incident, too.
Behind all the headlines this week is the ongoing issue of racism and bullying in Norway, which is still trying to come to grips with having become a multi-cultural society over the last few decades. Lars Gule, a Norwegian philosopher and assistant professor at OsloMet university, wrote on his own Facebook page last week that the time for downplaying or excusing racism in Norway is over and that witnesses to the incident at Bar Boca are guilty of not reacting themselves and coming to Ali’s defense.
Gule and many others are most concerned about the unconscious racism expressed by Norwegians who otherwise view themselves as open-minded, tolerant and liberal. Two researchers picked up on that issue in a commentary in Aftenposten on Monday, suggesting there are many others who would never consider themselves racists yet resort to stereotypes or use terminology that can be offensive. Norwegians routinely refer to people from Poland as “polakker,” for example, yet that’s a deregatory term in several other countries.
“We can’t ignore the consequences of what we say and do,” wrote Christopher R Fardan of the University of Manchester and Uzair Ahmed of the University of Oslo, both connected to the center for research on extremism, C-REX. Racism “has a destructive power” over the freedom and lives of people subjected to it, they wrote, and can have destructive consequences for liberal democracies. “It’s important that we take a collective responsibility and work to prevent racism, no matter where it turns up.”