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Trouble in Paradise? What the Riots Mean for Sweden

Since May 20, the media, both in and out of Sweden, has been dominated by the riots in certain suburbs of Stockholm. Reports have focused on outbursts of violence which include large-scale vandalism and damage to cars and shops in the poorer areas of Greater Stockholm with large concentrations of ethnic minorities. Following the fatal shooting on May 12 of an elderly man by the police in the northwest neighborhood of Husby, Greater Stockholm, violence erupted with the burning of cars, arson, and attacks on police on May 19. It soon spread to many other similar suburbs in the periphery of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen, and Skogås.

At the time of writing, after eight nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Göteborg, Örebro, and Linköping. Although the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to the riots in the nothern cities of the UK in 2001, or even in the banlieues in France in 2005, the feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining a foothold in the political debate, with several statements from Swedish Ministers and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urging a stop to the violence.

This is not the first time that Sweden has experienced riots—the last time was between 2008 and 2009. However, it is arguably the first time when disenfranchised voices from the poorer suburbs are making themselves heard in the public debate. This is a new nascent social movement among youth and young adults, born and raised in Sweden, who are voicing their alienation and speaking up against experiences of police harassment, declining social welfare service provision in the worst off suburbs, and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor. This development can be viewed as heavily racialized, as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5 percent while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers between 35 to 45 percent. Representatives from civil society groups have, for example, alerted the media of reports of racist language used by certain police officers on active duty in these suburbs, and have offered analysis describing a new Sweden which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.

Sweden has for decades prided itself on its reputation as the most progressive country in the world. However, Sweden recently also became the OECD country with the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born residents. Its large- and mid-sized cities are characterized by probably the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation pattern in the Western world. It is not possible to understand the frustration and rage that can be found among young people, particularly those who are born and brought up or have spent most of their lives in Sweden, but who, due to their undesirable postal address and their “non-Swedish” appearance, are not accepted by society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.

Some political groups and others not living in these poverty-stricken suburbs are exploiting the current unrest—a fact which is not widely reported in the media, whose focus is on spectacular photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. There are allegations that white leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something which happened also in 2008 and 2009. Their political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism to create an even stronger stigmatization of the poor areas with high levels of ethnic minorities among the white majority population. Furthermore, extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards,” something which the media unfortunately is buying into. On May 24, for example, around 100 Nazi activists were in the area of Tumba, in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and reported to have beaten young people deemed to be “rioters.” In practice this meant anyone below 30 of non-white appearance.

Beneath the surface of the dramatic media reporting of riots in the suburbs, there are also other groups operating according to their own agendas. For ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the violence-stricken areas are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats, a populist, anti-immigration party which in the opinion polls is the fourth- or third-largest party in Sweden, will probably be the biggest political winner. Representatives from the party have gained political mileage from the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state-of-emergency measures in certain urban districts. This brings to mind the events in south east London and the atrocious acts of two individuals which have led to an exponential rise of the British anti-Muslim platform called the English Defence League. In trying times like this, the media and politicians have to guard against words which collectivize a whole set of people and groups. This is the time to ask why it happened and what can be done to ensure it does not happen again.   

Tobias Hubinette is a researcher with the Multicultural Centre in Stockholm. He is currently working on At Home in Europe Project’s forthcoming pan-European series, Engaging Marginalized Majority Populations and Communities.

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