Stockholm has been the scene of riots this week, to much of the world’s surprise, with the unrest flaring up in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods on the city’s periphery. The Stockholm media reports cars burning in at least fifteen suburbs, stone-throwing against police, firefighters and ambulance personnel, injured police and protesters, and dozens of people arrested.
The capital city of Sweden had been basking in the still-warm glow of the nation’s World Hockey Championship win over Switzerland and the well-staged Eurovision music contest in the southern city of Malmö, which was until now perhaps best known abroad for its immigrant unrest. Most citizens were preoccupied with plans for upcoming Midsommar celebrations and summer vacations. The ABBA museum next door to Gröna Lund amusement park had just opened. Riots and unrest are not items usually found on the tranquil Swedish smörgåsbord.
The fire was sparked literally and figuratively on Sunday night, May 19, in the northwestern suburb of Husby, about 12 kilometers from the city center. A 69-year-old man was seen waving a knife and machete and threatening other people, then went into an apartment after police arrived. One woman, identified as the man’s wife, was known to be in the apartment. After two hours of negotiations, a police SWAT team stormed the residence and shot and killed the man after a distraction grenade failed to do its job. Determined people, these immigrants.
The situation exploded after that, with groups of mostly young men in Husby burning cars and confronting police, who moved into the neighborhood in force. Shades of Paris in the autumn of 2005–a similarity that did not go unnoticed in some media accounts of the current Stockholm troubles. The anger spread to other immigrant-dominated suburbs that ring the city, and soon reports flared up of burning cars, stone-throwing and police-‘gang’ confrontations. This morning, the main headline in the online daily Dagens Nyheter (DN) blared, “Yet another night with fires and stones”, including a police station set afire and stones thrown at ambulance personnel. This did not likely go down well with the breakfast of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Hard-cooked eggs to swallow
Reinfeldt likes nothing better than to blend termite-like into the knotty-pine camouflage image of a Sweden that takes care of its people while still enabling capitalists and entrepreneurs to thrive. His tenure has been distinguished by a Coolidge-like silence behind the humming machinery of Sweden’s prosperity compared to the dire economic news from other parts of Europe and the world. Now the fires are forcing him out of the woodwork.
At a press conference at the Swedish Parliament after a visit to Husby, Reinfeldt (whose five-o-clock shadow and tv demeanor tend toward the Nixonesque) said, “Sweden as a democracy believes in law that applies equally for all, over all of Sweden.” He went on: “This strides against those who believe in violence as a method. They have the idea that you can do what you want.” And, “If we give in there, then we’re on the way to changing the social model.” He also used the occasion to plug the entrepreneur-driven educational policies of the ruling center-right Alliance, which has championed private for-profit schools over traditional public schools–to the detriment of the latter. “We want to make more efforts to achieve better school results, especially when aimed at schools and the sort of outsider-environment we are now discussing,” said the Prime Minister.
Ethnic slurs aren’t just for Finns any more
The outsiders in Stockholm and Sweden are immigrant and immigrant-descent families who have come to Sweden for economic and political (asylum) reasons. The world’s image of a Sweden filled with blond, blue-eyed, Nordic folk is a stale dish: as many as two million Swedes (out of a population of 9.2 million) have immigrant backgrounds. Immigrants have been part of Sweden for nearly as long as the thousand-year history of the nation: Germans, Walloons and Finns came here in significant numbers from medieval times into the modern age, while the mid-late 1900s saw immigrants from Italy, Greece and other (mostly) European regions coming to fill the worker ranks in Sweden’s highly developed industries. The story changes after that, marked by tens of thousands from former Yugoslavia, notably Bosnia, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, successive waves of immigrants and refugees have come from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Poland and other countries.
Rami Al-Khamsi is a leader of Megaphone, an organization that bills itself as working to end social injustice and has an influential presence in the suburbs. In a DN interview on Tuesday, he put a different spin on the Stockholm fires than Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s. Instead of “law” and “societal model”, the words that resonate from Al-Khamsi are “racism” and societal “structural problems” that politicians have not addressed. Racism and ethnic slurs are part of the everyday Swedish menu, even if they are not advertised as daily specials.
Al-Khamsi zeroed in on this subject in his interview when he was asked if the police at Husby used insulting language: “Yes, we were surprised how the police acted toward people, using dogs and batons against children and parents and expressing themselves with words such as ‘nigger’, ‘blackheads’ and ‘monkeys'”. (The ethnic slur “svartskallar” or “blackheads” is directed often at dark-haired people who are perceived as having Middle Eastern backgrounds).
Al-Khamsi said, “The government chooses to solve social problems by increasing the police presence and militarizing the suburbs. As long as this continues people will rise up and choose something else. It doesn’t create change, but for many people the only way to meet power is with violence.”
Right-wing groups such as the Sweden Democrats political party are accusing Megaphone of inciting violent uprisings. Al-Khamsi demurs: “It doesn’t help to either defend or take a position on what is happening, we can only understand it. Megaphone works for social reparation and has a constructive and peaceful role. It’s the not first time unrest has happened in Husby. …As the (social) gaps become greater, there will unfortunately be people who take out their frustration in this way.”
Flames attract more than moths
The Sweden Democrats (SD), like other political parties, have been quick to seize the unrest as a channel to further their own agenda. The party has its roots in a neo-Nazi movement that did a not-so-extreme makeover into a recognized political entity in the 1990s. SD now gathers almost 9% support in the latest national opinion polls (higher in southern Sweden) and has 20 members seated in the 349-seat Riksdag (Parliament). There, SD can be a deciding bloc playing off the almost evenly-matched Alliance and its opponets from the Social Democrat, Green and Left parties.
An SD leader has now called for martial law, rubber bullets, teargas, and water cannon to deal with unruly elements, along with deportation hearings for immigrants who have not yet obtained citizenship, and police are to be granted the right to “use the tougher measures that are required”. In the long run, SD wants an end to the mass immigration and multi-culturalism policies that have transformed Sweden during the past decades. In the short run, the spokesman added, SD’s proposals for police to take hard-line measures will “make the rioters realize quickly who it is that decides things in this country”.
A sinister tinkle of Kristallnacht 1938 in Germany is easy to discern here, but in this land of Orrefors-KostaBoda art glass and crystal such outright persecution might be difficult to mobilize. Nevertheless, oppression in Sweden exists, whether real (according to many immigrants) or exaggerated (SD and others). One of its forms can be expressed in high unemployment rates for young people as a whole and young immigrant-background men in particular. Unemployment among all Swedes under the age of 25 is over 24% (UN figures, 2013). Among young Swedes who have immigrant backgrounds, estimates range as high as 40% or more.
The paper ceiling
Many of the jobs that people with immigrant backgrounds do have would be classified as “menial” by some. Swedish employment has a “paper ceiling” instead of a glass one: in general, someone born in Sweden, with a Swedish last name, stands a much better chance of landing a job than someone who is darker and whose name is not Svensson. If you live in Sweden, the odds are high that the people cleaning your home or office, baking your pizza, dry-cleaning and pressing your clothes, driving your taxi, or running your kebab-and-hot dog stand have immigrated to Sweden or have recent roots in other lands. It’s not unknown for people with non-Swedish names, especially from non-western regions, to change their last names via marriage or legal process: this, they hope and believe, will help them to get a foot in the employment door.
A broader picture of employment and society in general would show that many immigrants and their descendants have succeeded in building good lives for themselves in Sweden, and it would be unfair to exclude this image.
Real integration of immigrants and their descendants into Swedish society is still out on the horizon. Sweden is a country that prides itself, and rightfully so, on its willingness to take in refugees. It is also justly proud of its past efforts to instill equality regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race and other qualities–the multi-culturalism that SD so earnestly opposes.
But legislation cannot force minds and hearts to comply, and many Swedes are reluctant to exchange the enduring values of their traditions for a newer version of Sweden that accommodates non-western elements. Kebabs, pizza and Thai food have become highly appreciated additions to Swedish cuisine, but underneath this acceptance runs a deeper reluctance to embrace more than superficial values from non-Swedish societies. For their part, many immigrants show the same reluctance to embrace Swedish culture and live in ersatz versions of Baghdads or Mogadishu set in the housing projects of outer Stockholm. Both sides exhibit what the other side interprets as indifference, or intolerance, or worse. A synthesis arising from mutual acceptance and tolerance is likely to evolve, but this will likely take several generations or longer.
In the meantime, many young people in this country, particularly those with immigrant backgrounds, live with hopelessness as the staple item of their existential diets. As long as that is the case, there will be smoke and probably fire.
S. C. Hahn lives and writes in Stockholm and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org