On the Fires in the Stockholm Peripheries

The last week, Stockholm suburbs have been ablaze with fires. Cars have been torched in suburbs around the city and when the fire-fighters and police arrive they have been met by youths throwing stones. Why this? Why now? How come in Sweden?

Submitted by altemark on May 29, 2013

Seen from the outside, Sweden can still seem like the promised land of welfare, the balanced third way between socialism and capitalism. But inside during the last ten to twenty years, neoliberal policies have been eating away like termites consuming the welfare state foundations from within, leaving it as an empty shell - ready to fall apart by the slightest gust of wind. And Stockholm, where the riots started and were centered, is the testing facility for neoliberal reforms large and small.

Sure, the hospitals are still there, the housing estates in the suburbs have new facades and most students still go to school. But the healthcare is collapsing from within, the medical staff is on their knees with overwork because of the cuts while private alternatives make huge profits that are shipped off to tax havens, the high-rise buildings in the suburbs are in urgent need of renovation, school segregation is at an all time high with brain drain from immigrant neighbourhoods leaving some schools in disarray.
The welfare state has been emptied of material wealth with communal housing and public sector institutions sold at bargain prices to private corporations, profits are being made in both healthcare and schools (with Sweden now having the dubious distinction of being the only country besides Pinochet’s Chile to allow commercial corporations to run schools).

But on paper everything is still there and parties from left to right render lip service to the Swedish model, an expansive welfare state and an equal and just society.
The changes are not visible at the first glance, which is what has left many foreign correspondents wondering why the Swedish suburbian youth is so malcontent.

Stockholm’s suburbs, the so-called Million Programme (the goal was to build a million affordable apartments), were constructed in the 60 - and 70's to house the increased labour force needed for fordist mass production.
The first inhabitants in the newly built high-rises were Swedish and Finnish workers, and then Turkish, Iranian, Latin American and Somali started to move in. Today Stockholm continues to grow, but residential construction is at a standstill and the once state of the art modernist suburbs where some prime ministers of Sweden once lived, are now increasingly more like the banlieu-suburbs of southern Europe, worn out and in great need of renovation.

A generation whose parents immigrated, and who were born in these suburbs have now grown up. Many have remained in the suburbs, while the ones able to climb the social ladder have made names for themselves, but moved to other places.
Unlike the other Nordic countries, Sweden has a large number of Swedes with foreign-born parents who studied at the University and are now working as journalists, authors, musicians or journalists. The suburbs have their own organic intellectuals, who can share their personal experience of structural racism, discrimination and what it means to grow up in poor neighbourhoods.
To some extent this is what is new with the recent riots. Summer riots by disenfranchised people is nothing new in Sweden, and after the rise of immigration the disenfranchised have to a large extent been made up of first or second generation immigrants. But during the last riots they have had organisations in place; the panthers in Gothenburg and the megaphone in Stockholm have been articulating voices with strong ties to their neighbourhoods.
They have raised their voices in public debates, criticizing racial stereotypes in the media and demanded representation. Since the last general election in 2010, when Sweden got its first extreme right party in parliament, the number of debates about race, color and culture has increased - and it has not always been on the racist premise. Public opinionators of foreign descent bringing an anti-racist rationale have become such a loud voice that the think tank of commercial interests, Timbro, last spring declared that "the big threat from the left at this moment is post colonialism".

One explosive conflict that forms the background for the recent disturbances was centered around protests against the police and the Immigration agency’s internal border controls in the subway, the so called REVA project, in search of paperless migrants. The police used a method of racial profiling, stopping mainly all who had a "non-Swedish" appearance and asked them for their documents. This racial profiling was met with public outcry and large protests, a wave of direct actions and demonstrations during this spring. The Minister of Justice and Minister of Migration made scantily subtexted racist statements in the media that fuelled the outrage and protests even more. This in turn gave a public for literary and musical celebrities to share their personal experiences of racism. The public debate that followed left deep changes in Sweden, mostly in a progressive and anti-racist direction. The public debate in Sweden seemed ready to confront it’s colonial past and current faulty self-image as a mainly nonracist society.

The most influential text in this debate – written by author Jonas Hassan Kheimeri - was translated and printed in the NY Times.

These organic intellectuals with roots in the suburbs are just the most visible expression of a new consciousness in the suburbs. More important is the aforementioned suburban organizations that grew outside the media's attention. In Gothenburg the organization Pantrarna (Panthers) were formed in 2011 and quickly got an offshoot of Malmö. In Stockholm the organization Megafonen (The Megaphone) was founded in 2008 in the suburb Husby. The inspiration came from, as the name suggests, the Black Panthers. Suburbian organizations focused on social issues in order to establish a social program for reconstruction of the suburbs, similar to the Black Panther ten-point program. Political and social issues are mixed, they engage in volunteer homework help for school tired youth, hold physical exercise gatherings, creative writing classes, martial arts and open up new social centers. The Black Panther Party not only serves as a source of inspiration - suburban organizations have made contacts and started to collaborate with the former activists in the United States. On May 1, 2011 Bobby Seal – gave a speech on the Panther meeting in Gothenburg and at this year's first of may festival, Speak Your Mind, more representatives from the Black Panthers were present (e.g. former BPP Minister of culture Emory Douglas) alongside performances by Dead Prez and the Swedish hip hop elite.

Husby in Stockholm, where the fires began, is not the poorest or most disadvantaged suburb.

Rather, Husby stands out as one it is the suburb with the highest level of social struggles, where the movements have won the most victories. The suburb has only 11,000 inhabitants, but is situated next to Sweden's Silicon Valley, "Kista Science City." This has made the processes of gentrification and segregation so visible in the area. Stockholm politicians want Kista to expand and be "rolled out" over Husby. Therefore, they launched a special plan for Husby with demolition of large housing complexes, privatize public baths and the health center, shutting down the meeting centre Husby Träff, implemented renovations which inferred huge rent increases - all to replace the composition of the population and raise the status of the area. Megafonen successfully managed to obstruct some of these changes, alongside other local social movements they succeeded in preventing house demolitions, preventing "renovictions" (renovation with the purpose to evict the tenants) and saved the bathhouse. Last year they occupied the center Husby Träff against the closure, which led to the meeting place still being in place.

The situation in the Stockholm suburbs has also become tenser due to police practices. Besides the internal border controls REVA, a project that had been going on for many years in the suburbs before it began to be implemented in the inner city and was met with protest, the police have implemented a zero tolerance strategy in the suburb, programs against political "radicalization" and focused on harassing subcultural events. Consequently police hatred has increased year by year in the suburbs.

Five years ago a wave of suburbian protest swept through Sweden, with burning cars in Malmö and Gothenburg. But the wave never reached Stockholm. Now the Stockholm suburbs have instead become the epicenter of a new wave of burnings. The first fires occurred in April in Tensta, close to Husby, and were directed against one of the companies that were responsible for the increase in rents. The company backed off from their demands and the incident was hushed by the media.

The spark for the recent riots is instead generally considered to be the police killing of a 69 year old man in Husby on May 13th. The police version of what actually happened contained factual errors and was revised after criticism from witnesses. Megafonen had documented how the man's dead body laid for hours in the apartment before it was carried out. To protest against police abuse and demand an independent investigation Megafonen arranged a manifestation. Instead of opening a dialog with Megafonen the police have accused them of spreading hatred against the police and undermining the confidence in the police in the suburbs.[1]

On Monday 20th May the first cars were set on fire in Husby. When the police arrived they were met with stone throwing by a gang of youths. The smoke and police sirens got many Husby neighbours to go out on the square to see what was going on. The police responded by calling for backup and attack all people gathered in the square and drive them away with beatings.

“When we arrived to the square we asked the police if they needed help. But then we were met with batons, dogs, jeers and so on. We had to wait a few hours until we got a call where they asked us to come and help”, says Daniel Ghirmai, working as neighbourhood host employed by the municipality, at Megafonen's press conference held afterwards.

“They called us terrible things: rats and tramps. They attacked everyone that stood in their way, old ladies were pushed down. I myself was knocked down by police officers”, said Quena Soruco, an inhabitant of Husby and active in Megafonen.

The night the fires started – Swedish media was busy with reporting from the celebration of Sweden's World Cup victory in hockey. The night after, the fires spread from Husby to neighbouring suburbs and police besieged Husby while the press had live television from the "conflict zone". On the third night the fires had spread to fifteen suburbs in Stockholm and the fourth night they started to spread also outside Stockholm. The car burnings had now become an epidemic, the media reacted with moral panic and the political establishment competed to see who could deliver most condemnations. The political positions followed old paths; Conservatives demanded a harder line and more force from the police, the Left wanted to discuss the structural causes. The racist right wing formed vigilante patrols, and tried to portray the conflict as a race riot. The international media had the news angle that "the multicultural failure has now reached Sweden." But as events have now calmed down and only a few cars have burned the last nights, the outcome of the events is not as bad as one could have feared. Maybe the recent debates on antiracism and social conflict had left its traces and the debate was more reasonable and more quickly turned to social explanations. A recent poll show that more than 70% of the Swedish population feel social equality, education and reforms are the way to stop riots from occurring again. Only 30% feel more police and harsher punishments could be an answer.

Megafonen was singled out by police as the agitators behind the disturbances, and they replied that their role was only to observe the police and stop them from committing more offenses: "Megafonen does not start fires. We believe that these are not the right method for long-term change. Yet we know that they are a reaction to the shortcomings of society. Unemployment, inadequate schools, and structural racism are the underlying causes.” And a lot of Swedes seem to agree, it just remains to be seen if that insight is turned to progressive reforms that can break the neoliberal wave and start rebuilding a universal welfare that can remedy these issues.

[1] Today when this article is written on May 28th the police admit that the police officer responsible for the shooting has been under investigation for manslaughter and has been so since May 23d, even though this was not disclosed until today.

Translated by Petter Nilsson