Riots in Stockholm: Symptom of unjust and racist society we call Sweden
Over the 18/19 May, and subsequently the following week, riots in a suburb in Stockholm caused world attention in the media. Cars where set on fire, and groups of young people clashed with the police in scenes that reminded of the riots on the continent (France in 2005, Greece in 2008 and across Britain in 2011).
The background was, as so often before in the prelude to rioting, a civilian death at the hands of the police. A man, aged 69, was shot to death in Husby on the 13th of May. He had been in an argument with other locals, being seen walking around with a kitchen knife in his hand, causing somebody to call the police. The police then arrived and wanted to get into the man’s apartment. After finally forcing their way in, witnesses heard several shots from the apartment. Some time afterwards, a car for exporting bodies came and transported the man away from the scene according to witnesses.
The brutality of the situation was of course a cause for concern. Why weren’t the police capable of dealing with an old man armed with a knife in any different way? Would the same kind of intervention have taken place had the man have been white and living in a posh city area? Fuel was thrown on the flames as police originally reported that they had tried to save the man’s life, calling for an ambulance, and also that the man had died from his wounds on his way to the hospital. This was seen as an attempt at a cover up for a badly failed action, saving the reputation of racist coppers who are all too happy to pull the trigger.
Where truth lays in all of this is probably never going to be revealed. As is the routine in Sweden (in fact in quite a few countries), the investigation of any apparent wrongdoing is considered an internal affair for the police. Statistics indicate that all police involved will be exonerated. In fact in 100 cases where police are the focus of criminal investigation, 99 of them results in this outcome.
I was a much needed statement when the local youth organisation Megafonen (“The Megaphone”) called for a demonstration against police violence and for an independent investigation a couple of days later. The demonstration was largely ignored, and its demands where ridiculed as unserious for “questioning democratic institutions” by the Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask, from the ruling right wing party of the millionaires, The Moderates.
This was the prelude to the riots, which started the following weekend and grew in strength after an initialover the top intervention from the police.
But there is of course a context to the events which goes deeper. Husby is a suburb largely populated by working class people, many poor and largely of immigrant background. Youth employment is very high (among the highest in the country): some 38-40% of young people aged 20-24 in Husby can’t find a job. The community has also seen many setbacks in the last years on the social and economic field: Local cuts in welfare, the cutting down on public space, removal of services to the richer neighbouring area called Kista, increased housing costs, the closing of a couple of schools, etc.
The situation in Husby tells a lot about the backside of neoliberalism in Sweden, the country which recently came out on top in the list of OECD-countries with the most rapid development of inequality. It is also very much a result of widespread segregation and poverty developing in Stockholm, the city which has been turned into a city for neoliberal experiment on nearly all fields: housing, public welfare, collective transportation, education, the job market and so on.
Husby is however also an area known for local resistance to cuts and privatisation. In the last few years, Husby has been a spot for community mobilisations fighting back, and these mobilisations have been successful on more than one occasion: the movements against increases in housing prices have been partially successful, and the attempt to closing down the local swimming facility as well as the plans to destroy/replace the local architecture which progressively separates heavy traffic from the walking roads for pedestrians have seen victories for the people in Husby. Last year also saw a radical occupation in a public place called Husby Träff – a cultural centre open for everyone – against attempts to close it by the local government due to “lack of funding”.
This tradition of standing up for each other might at least partly explain why the riots were from early on heavily criticised by many local people, feeling a sense of pride over their community, naturally not sympathising with acts of vandalism that were seen as an attack not as much on the police as on the community and its tradition of democratic organising itself.
At a demonstration organised in the local centre only a few days after the riots errupted, many local people spoke out against this form of protest as completely counterproductive, only giving fuel to the racists who like to portray what’s going on as a result of “the multi-cultural experiment”, or of “Islamist activity” (sic!). But most were nevertheless generally focused on condemning the lack of political will from the right wing government to support poor communities like Husby, and putting the main responsibility on those in power, criticising racism and discrimination of the people in the community. The racism of the police force, the attacks on housing and, essentially, on a sense of community by the right wing government has many opponents in Husby.
The spread of the riots has seen protests take place in a number of other Stockholm suburbs, and also in some other parts of the country (generally, on a very limited scale with fewer participants). Though media in the main has been quick to write off the rioters as “thugs” and “criminals”, it has been rather clear that many of those participating in them see them as a form of revenge, and as a way to make a statement along the lines “this is what happens when the political leaders don’t give a damn about us”.
As such, the riots are an expression of the both the militant will to stand up against governments which carry out policies targeting the poor working class and immigrant communities that don’t fit in the plastic culture of the neoliberal gentrification project, but also a sign of the remaining weakness of progressive political opposition. As Megafonen(who have been heavily criticised by many right-wingers, as well as by some on the left for not taking “a clear stance against the violence/vandalism”) stated in one of its communiques:
“We call on everybody in the hood to organise themselves for justice. Then, our cars won’t be burning, and stones won’t be thrown. We will develop our work against police brutality, for education, and for our unity, take care of our streets and show that there is a way forward for our hood.”
One would like to add, that when the organised resistance is strong enough, we should not only raise ourselves in our local areas, but also link up and unify the forces against injustice to march on the capitalist government and the system it defends, and in doing so attack not the symptom as such, but the root of violence, racism and oppression.