Skip to content Skip to footer

Who Started the Fires in Sweden?

(Photo: Telefonkiosk / Wikimedia)

One evening in May, a modest Scandinavian suburb caught on fire. Images streaming out of Husby, just outside Stockholm, overlaid the Nordic socialist wonderland with a scene straight out of Watts circa 1965 – sidewalks strewn with charred cars, shattered glass and angry kids. For days, the riots bled across the region and jarred international observers who tend to associate Sweden with modular furniture rather than youth mobs. But the most shocked might have been Husby’s own neighbors, who had been resolutely ignoring the social fissures roiling next door before they exploded in the headlines.

The “disturbance” was sparked by a police confrontation on May 14 that led to the shooting death of a 69-year old immigrant man, reportedly armed with a knife.

A local youth activist group, Megafonen, staged a peaceful rally demanding an independent investigation. Soon, the police cracked down, and according to activists, hurled racial slurs and brutalized local youth. The clash spiraled into riots that lasted six days, streaking flames across Husby and soon spreading to several other Stockholm suburbs. The sensational media images of youth roaming the streets ruptured cultural, racial and generational fault lines of the increasingly polarized city.

Megafonen posted a statement on the riots that read like both a lament and a manifesto:

It is tragic that public transportation, emergency services and police are attacked. Sad that cars burn, that homes and commercial buildings are damaged. We share the despair with everyone else witnessing the devastation in our own neighborhoods. It is this desperation that forces us to look for structural explanations that attack the causes of this devastation.

So far, Parliament has discussed launching an independent inquiry into the uprising. Yet activists remain wary that politicians have continually failed to address, or simply ignored, the social ills simmering below the surface.

“This is the other side of prosperous Stockholm,” writes University of Gothenburg researcher Catharina Thörn in the New Left Project, “beyond the seductive theater of consumption that characterizes the central city, people fight for a decent life, or just to get by, while common resources are continually being snatched away and privatized.”

Tinderbox of Alienation

The fires in Husby were kindled well before the first car was set alight. Sweden’s rough working-class enclaves are a world apart from the bourgeois tranquility often associated with Scandinavia’s pristine cities and extensive welfare state. Places like Husby are home to immigrant families with roots in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Many of them came as refugees from war-torn regions like Somalia; they entered under the country’s relatively liberal immigration and asylum policies, and sometimes still carry with them the scars of past traumas.

In these neighborhoods, activists say, chronic joblessness and limited educational opportunities intertwine with racial and ethnic divides. Many immigrants, and even “second generation” children of immigrants, face discrimination from white “native-born” Swedes, and their isolated neighborhoods keep many locked into a cycle of chronic economic and social segregation.

Unemployment among immigrants is about 16 percent, more than double the rate for native-born Swedes. Youth unemployment has climbed in recent years to about 24 percent. In Husby, a large proportion of residents never finished high school, a sharp break with the national rate and a constraint on social mobility in a highly professionalized labor market.

Yet economic polarization overall has been intensifying in Sweden. While still relatively egalitarian compared to other wealthy countries, its ranking in the social-equality index has dropped in recent years, and the expansion of the income gap is outpacing more than 30 other nations. While the wealthiest 10 percent of the population has grown richer under “free market” policies, working-class youth see their prospects sinking fast.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s famous social safety net is unraveling through policies that drive privatization and social disinvestment. According to reporters with the leftist paper Offensiv, Husby had for years been “under attack from neoliberal policies in all areas – unemployment, cuts of unemployment benefits, housing shortages, school privatizations and constant cuts in local services.” Residents were outraged by the shuttering of a community health center and youth center programs that had supported out-of-school and jobless young people. Megafonen, the group that staged the nonviolent protest before the riots, has roots in a neighborhood advocacy movement and now encompasses various youth-led campaigns to resist police racism and to protect housing and public services.

Arne Johannsen, coordinator of the community group Järvas Framtid, tells Truthout, “These problems would not have arisen if there had not been this neoliberal politics that has been carried out to the extreme in Sweden.” The government’s withdrawal of essential social supports has pushed vulnerable communities into even deeper instability, he argues: “It’s not primarily an immigration problem or an integration problem. It’s a problem of conscious and very bad social politics.”

Nonetheless, immigration – and anti-immigrant sentiment – is ingrained in the tensions that exploded last month in Husby. The foreign-born share of the population has more than doubled since the 1970s to an estimated 15 percent.

Husby was just the latest flashpoint on Sweden’s fractious demographic landscape. In December of 2008, riots broke out in a suburb of the city of Malmo, with a large population of working-class Muslim families. The violence followed a protest against the closure of an Islamic cultural center, which had prompted police to crack down on activists seeking to occupy the building.The troubles in Stockholm again prompted public shock and deepened a sense of a festering crisis that is both intractable and, to many “mainstream” Swedes, beyond comprehension.

Rising Right

Sweden’s color line has hardened in recent years, and many immigrants still feel a deep sense of alienation from the white majority. While vocal right-wing factions have gained political influence, activists contend that structural racism and discrimination have simmered in the absence of open public dialogue, racial inequality and Swedish “national identity.”

Some white Swedes have expressed outright resentment at current immigration policies and the ideal of “multiculturalism.” The brewing frustration came to light in the 2010 elections with surprising gains in Parliament won by the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat Party, which has advocated bans on headscarves and Islamic architecture.

The movement of racist parties into the political mainstream parallels the rise of xenophobic reaction across Europe, including in the political arenas of France, Denmark and the Netherlands. While openly white-supremacist groups remain a small (if vocal) fringe, right-wing politicians have broken into the mainstream by exploiting economic frustrations and cultural anxiety about the “browning” of Europe.

Undergirding the Husby riots was the structural violence of the state. Like other immigration-heavy communities, Husby had a history of racially charged police-community tensions. Earlier this year, Stockholm residents protested police harassment and racial profiling, apparently part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants. The May 14 shooting fit a pattern of impunity; activists say they had actually repeatedly approached authorities about rising public outrage in earlier campaigns, but their demands were ignored.

Apichai Shipper, a Georgetown University researcher who has studied Sweden’s immigrant communities, says that although the Husby riots reflect deep social frictions, “This is less a story about economic inequality, but more about ineffective integration policies.” Sweden’s poorer neighborhoods, he argues, enjoy more government welfare supports than impoverished communities in the United States. In his view, Husby reveals how an imbalance of political power is primarily driving immigrants’ social marginalization. Though there are some established immigrant associations financed through the state, they lack the clout to exert much influence on public policy in their communities.

Immigrant rights advocates say Sweden’s various “integration” programs, such as language instruction and anti-discrimination policies, have failed to directly tackle issues of social exclusion or promote open public dialogue on race issues. “Official rhetoric does not necessarily correspond to the reality of migrants’ lives,” Shipper says, “and tension exists between formal policies of the government and the racial strife on the community level.”

Miguel Benito of the Immigrant Institute, a Swedish research organization, tells Truthout that the distress in Husby “is not so much about race relations, but a matter of social and labor exclusion.” Though Sweden has been spared the worst of the Eurozone crisis, Benito points to a generation now growing up amid high youth unemployment and inadequate schooling. Though unemployment is not a new problem among immigrant youth, he says, in earlier years, “they still had the hope to get a job. This hope is less today.” Despite Sweden’s famously “generous” welfare state, he adds, “still, people do not want to be dependent on charity. To be unemployed for a while is okay, but when people search for a job more than 1,000 times, and they don’t get any answer, then the economic help they can get is not well received.”

Ultimately, both race and class work in tandem, reinforcing the interlocking barriers of discrimination, segregated neighborhoods, and the hollowing of Sweden’s promise of social democracy. Feeling under siege from the police, ignored by the state, and economically stranded, Husby youth lashed out in the streets to grasp for some kind of power, even if the moment of defiance lasted for only a night.

Looking Forward

In the wake of the riots, Husby youth have held gatherings to focus on recovery and discuss grassroots responses to social and economic marginalization. Activists have planned to set up community councils to channel public frustration into a political program. Residents are working to establish a different kind of security – not the “law and order” imposed by police, but peace built from the ground up through volunteer night patrols organized by activists and parents. “Most people are reacting very hard against the destruction, and they have come out in big numbers on the streets,” Johanssen says. Even amidst the unrest last month, “It was not the police that stopped the vandalism, it was the people who came out on the streets and stopped it.”

Activists now need to “educate the local community,” says Rolf Fransén, an activist with the leftist group Revolutionary Front, “and try to get people to realize that destroying your own community is not the progressive way to go.”

David Quintanilla of Megafonen says that for Husby, the clashes “are not productive in any way, because it doesn’t leave anything but shredded glass and burnt cars… We are the people who have to wake up the next morning and [smell] the smell of a burnt car.” Yet for disenfranchised, frustrated youth, he continues, “what alternative have the politicians and the authorities, the institutions, given the people in this area? There hasn’t been a dialogue; there hasn’t been any kind of support for the community to address this problem.” The media attention to the riots needs to be followed up by sustained political pressure, he adds, “so in the long term we have to organize ourselves and organize the young people, and use this frustration to channel it into organized work.”

The burst of chaos that convulsed the community last month might yet be redeemed – if it compels Swedish society to finally recognize a youth crisis it has long allowed to metastasize beneath the surface. But in the long run, if it takes a riot to force public consciousness, it will take a movement to bring justice to the streets.

Countdown is on: We have 2 days to raise $28,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.