Authored by Tobias Hübinette and L. Janelle Dance
Since May 20, 2013, mass vandalism, material damage and outbursts of rioting in the poor and non-white suburbs of Greater Stockholm have dominated Swedish and international news media. This civil unrest was sparked when, on May 12, the police shot and killed a 69-year-old man from Husby, one of the marginalized suburban communities of metropolitan Stockholm. The shooting is still under investigation. The burning of cars, other types of arsons, and attacks on the police erupted in Husby on the evening of May 19th and quickly spread to many other similar suburbs of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen and Skogås. As we write this post, after six nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Gothenburg, Örebro and Linköping. Although the US and UK embassy warnings to keep out from such districts are clearly exaggerated—the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to similar previous waves of riots in for example the US, the UK or France—a feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining ground in the political debate as leading government officials and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urge a stop to the material damage.
This is not the first time that Sweden is experiencing a series of riots; the last time was between 2008-09. However, it is arguably the first time when voices from the suburbs are entering the public debate as a new nascent social movement. At the helm of this movement, which has gained the spotlight in recent years, are teens and young adults who are also usually born and raised in Sweden (the so-called second generation). More than ever before, these youth are denouncing police harassment, the declining social welfare services in the suburbs and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor—a development which is heavily racialized as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5% while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers around 35-45%. Representatives from this movement have, for example, alerted the media to the use of racial slurs among the police who patrol the suburbs, and above all they have been able to express an unprecedented analysis of a New Sweden, which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.
For decades Sweden has proudly viewed itself as the most progressive country in the world, as “the conscience of the world”. Furthermore, Sweden’s antiracist image and radical anti-discrimination, migration and integration legislation are well known all over the world. However, recently Sweden has also become the OECD country showing the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born Swedes, while its big- and mid-size cities are characterized by one of the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation patterns in the Western world. Thus, it is not in the context of the old Sweden of exceptionalism but in the wake of the New Sweden of exclusion that we must understand the frustration, the desperation and the rage that can be found particularly among young people in the suburbs. This second generation has grown up in Sweden but due to stigmatized postal addresses and “non-Swedish” appearances they are not accepted within the majority society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.
There are also other political groups that are exploiting the current suburban unrest. A fact overlooked by the media is that these other groups do not live in the suburbs yet exacerbate the unrest. While ignoring these instigators, the media focuses on spectacular videos and photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. Firstly, there are indications that white Swedish leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something that also happened in 2008-09. Their sole political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism at the expense of an even stronger stigmatization of the poor and non-white suburbs among the white majority population. Furthermore, Swedish 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”, a popular yet loaded discourse that the media all too often buy into. Saturday night for example, around 200 Nazi activists more or less invaded Tumba in Southern Botkyrka in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and started to hunt down and beat up any youngster who was deemed to be a “rioter”.
However for ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the suburbs are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats (a former Nazi party which has transformed itself into a populist anti-immigration party and which, according to opinion polls, is the fourth or the third largest party in Sweden) will maybe become the biggest political winner due to the suburban unrest. Now, the Sweden Democrats will most probably gain even more support among the voters. Of course, representatives from the party have already made use of the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state of emergency measures in certain urban districts.
Once “exceptional” Sweden is no longer the exception to the general Western rule of blaming the racialized victim. On the contrary, white Swedes are remarkably unexceptional as they behave like racist and conservative white Americans. Ordinary white Swedes, who claim to embrace antiracism, equality and social democracy, look at the riots in Stockholm and blame marginalized youths for the institutional discrimination, political marginalization, and structural racism that have become common place in the former “conscience of the world”.
Tobias Hübinette is an Associate Professor and researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, Sweden. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Dance is currently living in Sweden.