Fire and fury in Sweden as riots spread
Youths continue to fight police in Stockholm as unrest spreads to other cities
From the moment Henrik Sedin gathered the puck, deep inside his own half, it was destined to be a wild night in Stockholm. It was shortly before 10pm last Sunday when the team's millionaire superstar slapped the puck hard into the empty net: 5-1. For the first time in seven years, and in front of their own fans, Sweden were the ice-hockey champions of the world.
The Ericsson Dome, in the south of the city, went bananas. In the Irish pubs in trendy Södermalm, expensive pints of Guinness flew everywhere. But in Husby, a largely immigrant populated suburb to the far north, an altogether different conflagration was taking hold. A shopping centre had been vandalised, and a garage set on fire, causing the evacuation of an apartment block. When police arrived they were pelted with stones by masked youths, injuring two of them. In a video that has shocked the country, a third policeman was filmed being repeatedly kicked while lying hurt on the floor, his attackers entirely unperturbed by the gun in his belt.
By morning more than a hundred cars had been torched, and by the time the triumphant sportsmen had met King Carl XVI Gustaf in the Kungsträdgården to raise the trophy in front of 20,000 fans, the country had already crossed the tipping point into a week, and counting, of the worst rioting in its modern history.
Hundreds of cars and dozens of buildings have been burnt, and almost 100 people arrested. The pictures of injured officers and burning buildings in rich, peaceful, egalitarian Sweden have surprised a watching world, but many here feel that it shouldn’t have done. For years the country’s social workers, political scientists, rappers and rising number of right wing extremists have been telling the Tale of Two Stockholms, societies existing side by side in a divided, unintegrated city. But never before had it been laid out in such pointed contrast as on that first night of fire and ice-hockey.
For anyone in London two years ago in particular, the events that led up to it are eerily familiar. 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. When the police knocked on the door, the wife told the brother-in-law, the elderly man mistook the knocks for further harassment, shouted at them, probably a little threateningly, and was shot dead.
The left wing activists who police are now actively pursuing for their role in the rioting, say that when that version of events hit the streets it summoned forth years of resentment against police brutality - an all too consistent complaint in the suburbs where not many white Swedish people live anymore - and against high unemployment, growing inequality, dwindling opportunities. But now the unrest has spread to the western and the southern suburbs, and to other cities - Malmö, Gothenburg, Örebro - where schools, restaurants, and police stations have been set on fire, it is decidedly dubious whether any of the original motivations remain, having been overtaken by the simple criminality of deindividuated men in masks, who enjoy it and think they can get away with it.
So is there something rotten in the state of Sweden? The scale of the riots cannot be compared to Paris in 2005 or to London two years ago, which eventually took hold far outside the capital. No one has been killed, and almost no one injured. The little suburb of Husby is a pretty place, built for rich white Swedes who have almost all left. It is incomparable to Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate, the ground zero of the London riots.
But even so, 80 per cent of the population are immigrants, who have for the most part fled from the troubled corners of the world - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kurdistan and more recently Syria - lured by Sweden’s traditionally welcoming attitude towards asylum seekers. But youth unemployment is high, at least by Swedish standards - 6 per cent.
“People are saying it’s because of that man that was killed,” said Sadiya, a 13 year old Somali girl at an arts and crafts lesson in central Husby. “I think they want attention from police. The kids that are doing it, they are barely any older than me. Why do they care about unemployment? They’re kids.” Outside the centre where the lesson is taking place, during the daytime lull at the peak of the rioting, the florists in the tranquil precinct is open for business, rows of pretty pot plants lined up outside. The nearby low rise apartment buildings are all set round peaceful, tended gardens. But the windows of the subway station are all smashed. A public phone box is completely destroyed, to the point that it has no exterior structure left, just a phone on a pole, poking out from a mound of broken glass. In the street, an articulated lorry has exploded and burned out, leaving debris everywhere. The cars have been diligently taken away by the authorities, but this thing is too big. Sadiya’s friend, Sagal, says she hasn’t slept for three nights.
All the children in the class, around 25, were born in Sweden, but only one has Swedish parents. The others are all east African or middle eastern.
“It’s difficult for us,” says Ann-Sofie Ericson, who is head of the City of Stockholm’s School of Arts that oversees the area. “19 per cent of our children leave every year. I live a quarter of an hour drive from here. My neighbours are Iraqi. When people come, they will come to somewhere like Husby. Some will get jobs, get education, and then they move out. Some cannot get out.”
Absolute poverty is almost non-existent, but it is not absolute poverty that drives city riots. Sweden’s famously egalitarian society, with exceptional welfare provision, was built by forty years of social democratic government from the 1930s to the 1970s, but an economic crash in the early 90s, and centre-right government in power since 2006 has placed restrictions on it, despite relatively benign economic conditions. A recent OECD report that revealed the country to have the fastest growing rate of inequality of any of the 34 countries in the group caused much surprise, and has been regularly cited over the last week. As was widely pointed out at the time, London’s riots came at the end of thirty years of Thatcherite trickle-down economics, and New Labour’s Third Way, where wild financial deregulation was justified by the idea that it shouldn’t matter if a society’s income gap was widening, as long as the absolute conditions at the bottom were improving. In fact it is the widening disparity itself that engenders rage.
When darkness arrives in Husby - which in late May lasts scarcely four hours - the young people congregate again in the centre, wearing hoodies and tracksuit bottoms. “So maybe I am lucky to be in Europe,” says Baraar Mohamed, a 15 year old with Somali parents who maintains he hasn’t been throwing rocks or starting fires. “Compared to people in Somalia, maybe I am lucky. But I have hardly ever even met them, and this is where I live, and I have to live with police brutality, and I don’t have the same chance as the Swedish kids. I am Swedish. I am Swedish.”
Ken Ring, a Swedish rapper of Kenyan origin, who grew up and still lives in the western suburb of Valingby, where youths pelted passing subway trains with rocks and set fire to cars on Thursday night, agrees.
“I’ve never gone to a place in the world where people know what’s going on in Sweden,” he says. “When they see pictures of our neighbourhoods they say, ‘No, this is not stockholm. this is London, this is Marseilles.’ Stockholm is a crazy place nowadays.”
34 year old Ring achieved more than a little notoriety in the late 90s, when he was arrested after releasing a song in which he rapped about rushing the Royal Castle and raping Princess Madeleine, the third in line to the throne, whose wedding is in two weeks time, for which extra police provision has already been put in place, but he has since rehabilitated his reputation. “Where I live I see kids of 14 and 15 taking heroin. My son is twelve years old. He had his first gun in his head when he was 10. Another kid put it in my son’s head and said, ‘Look. You’re not so tough now.’ This is Sweden. It is not supposed to be like this .”
It certainly isn’t. The hero to emerge from it all is a firefighter called Mattias Lassen, who was hit by rocks while he tried to douse fires near Husby, and wrote an open letter to his attackers on Facebook.
“I'm here if your dad needs help if he crashes his car; I'll help your sister if a fire starts in her kitchen. I'll swim through icy waters to help your little brother if he falls from a boat,” he wrote. “I'll help your grandmother if she has a heart attack and I'll even help YOU if you fall through the ice on a sunny day in March.”
The tide of dissatisfaction flows both ways. In the general election in 2010, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party, regularly described as far right, crossed the four per cent voting threshold for the first time, and returned 20 MPs to the 349 seat parliament.
On Friday night, with extra police having been called in to Stockholm where events were comparatively quiet, the worst of the trouble broke out in Örebro, 120 miles to the west, and Tumba to the south. For the first time, right wing vigilante groups took to the streets, posting pictures of themselves in masks on Facebook beforehand. In Tumba, police arrested 18 of them. They are also looking for ”a small clique of professional, left wing activists”, who they believe are travelling from place to place, by car, using tactics familiar to them, like breaking up paving stones, and stirring up trouble.
The vast majority of those arrested in the early days of the rioting have since been released. The first to appear in court was a quiveringly apologetic 18 year old, who said, “I should never have joined in”, and that he had wanted to be a fireman, “but I doubt that will be possible now.”
In Åkersberga, 40 miles north of central Stockholm, cars were still being set on fire in broad daylight yesterday morning, with police pursuing the protagonists by helicopter. Ken Ring, while steadfastly condemning the illegality of it all, still hopes, “The attention that this thing has got, the media exposure, will backfire, and will have an impact in government.” When the fires are out, eventually, and left wing activists, right wing extremists, and angry immigrants are all before the courts, it will certainly have revealed to the world what most Swedes in fact already knew - that things have long not been as they seem.
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