The Swedish Riots


Dalarna, Sweden.

The Swedish riots appear to have ended, but while most of the media fumbles about to understand what happened, the answers arguably seem to have been provided 12 March, over two months before the unrest began.  At that time I interviewed Paul Lappalainen, a senior Swedish civil servant who had run the Government’s 2005 inquiry into ‘structural discrimination’.  It was a most prescient moment when he said “I prefer not seeing riots”, but warned it “seems that policymakers are not trying to avoid the conditions within which riots occur.”

Contrary to what many believe Sweden to be, while the country’s borders may indeed be open, certain ‘cultural borders’ within it are another matter, assorted reports documenting the prejudice minorities and immigrants daily live with.

What Lappalainen emphasized was a ‘structure’ of pervasive and disenfranchising discrimination, discrimination discussed in the report his 2005 inquiry provided, ‘Det blågula glashuset – strukturell diskriminering i Sverige’ (The blue/yellow glass house – structural discrimination in Sweden); by a 2007 report by the UN’s International Labour Organization, ‘Discrimination against Native Swedes of Immigrant Origin in Access to Employment’; by a 2008 report by the government’s Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), ‘Discrimination in the criminal justice process in Sweden…The direct and indirect discrimination of individuals from a non-Swedish or other minority background’; and, in a November 2012 government report, ‘Främlingsfienden inom oss’ (The enemy of strangers within us – my own translation).  Significantly, while much media is blaming disenfranchised immigrants, the poor, and their allies for the recent violence, the government’s November 2012 report noted its title was justified by the significant threat posed to vulnerable groups by the ‘many different forms of everyday racism’ which ordinary Swedes can embrace, the xenophobia many harbor.  Tellingly, the report’s summary ends by observing that Swedes “must begin with ourselves” (måste börja med oss själva) in addressing this.

The fuse gets lit

Unfortunately, while there’s long been much discussion about discrimination and prejudice, there’s a Swedish expression – ‘mycket snack och lite verkstad’.  It means ‘a lot of talk and little action’. However, if a powder keg sits around long enough, sooner or later the fuse gets lit.

The start of the 2011 riots in Paris’ suburbs, the Brixton riots in the UK, and virtually all of the US’s major strife dating from the 1960s, do have one factor in common – perceived police wrongdoing triggered the unrest.  In Sweden, the riots began following the police killing of a man in his late sixties, reports initially suggesting he had a machete, a woman hostage, and had threatened police.  Swedish papers screamed “Machetemannen” (The Machete Man), the implications being obvious, printing that the fellow had died in hospital, attempts to save him failing…but, it appears this isn’t quite right.

As noted in an article by the UK’s Independent, ‘Fire and fury in Sweden as riots spread’:

“Two weeks ago, news emerged of the death of a 68 year old Portuguese immigrant man, who had been shot in his Husby apartment by police, then taken to hospital, where he died. He had taken a woman hostage, so the story went, and had been waving a machete at police. But Megafonen, a group that campaigns for social change in the suburbs, published pictures of a body bag being removed from the man’s apartment, and driven away in a car. Not an ambulance, a car.  It would later emerge that the so-called hostage was in fact the dead man’s wife of 30 years, and according to his brother-in-law, he had been waving a kitchen knife, not a machete, to ward off a gang of youths who had been harassing him and his wife.”

To my eyes, the rioting seems to have subsided following news that the officer responsible for the man’s death is “suspected of manslaughter”, The Local (Sweden’s major English-language media site) headlining ‘Stockholm cop probed over pre-riot killing’.  But, key here is understanding how the killing was seen, how some viewed it, including the activist group ‘Megafonen’.

An ‘underclass’

According to an excerpt on the police action from Megafonen’s website…” The police are in our areas to protect the political and economic elite: scare us, disciplining us … The police teach us in practice what the school teaches in theory: that as poor workers and non-whites you are inferior and of less worth, in Sweden and around the world.” (translated)  Such feelings of oppression are palpable, and upon reaching Lappalainen after the riots began, one of the first things he observed was: ”The underclass has reacted.”

Later, in an email to this journalist, Lappalainen pointedly noted: “This government has exacerbated the pattern set by previous governments. An underclass has been created that is growing while its hope in the future is increasingly undermined. They have been subjected to disempowerment and disregard combined with public officials who have little to say other than that a job, any job is the key to integration. Blaming the victim is the rule even among the so-called established parties…they are unwilling to deal with equal rights and opportunities/anti-discrimination as the key element in regards to inclusion, integration, democracy and human rights.”  As to what a sea-change on such issues might mean, he noted that the OECD highlighted Canada as the most successful country at integrating immigrants into a nation’s workforce, emphasizing that the Canadians “have equality as the key to immigration”.

In contrast, I interviewed one of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s press secretaries, Markus Friberg, on 24 May, the rioting yet spreading at that time.  What had started in the Stockholm suburb of Husby was reported far more widely by the week’s end, media noting incidents in towns such as Uppsala, Linköping, Örebro, Malmö, and even in Dalarna,  I raised the issue of ‘structural discrimination’ with Friberg.

“It’s not been proven that we have structural forms of discrimination and racism”, he emphasized; though, readily acknowledging that, like most countries, Sweden did have some questions of discrimination and racism to address.  Of course, the reports cited above speak for themselves, but, to my eyes, one of the key issues they point to is a cultural one, one which the US confronted following its riots of the 1960s.

A culture of discrimination

In 1967, US President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to look into the causes of  the rioting which then plagued America, unrest which the 1960s media termed ‘race riots’, with some media having currently used the same term to describe Sweden’s upheaval.  According to Wikipedia, the Commission’s findings “suggested that one main cause of urban violence was white racism and suggested that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. It called to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de facto segregation in order to wipe out the destructive ghetto environment.”  Similar findings of structural discrimination and racism came out of inquiries into the UK’s Brixton riots and the turmoil following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, including that the police force was “institutionally racist”.

Some days ago I spoke with a local, Dalarna leader from the region’s Left Party.  We discussed the then ongoing and expanding unrest, with my soon asking him what he would advise the government here, if he could.  He thought for several moments, then replied: “Save the country…with justice.”

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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