Why world’s 'most liberal country' needs to tackle racism

Sweden is trying desperately to put behind it last week’s four days of riots that made international headlines. But the questions raised by the unrest in the wealthiest Nordic country have stubbornly refused to go away.

The riots began following the police killing of a Portugese man in his late sixties. Reports initially suggesting he had a machete, a woman hostage, and had threatened police. Swedish newspapers screamed “Machetemannen” (The Machete Man), the implications being obvious. The papers, without checking to independently verify the fact, carried the police account that the man had died in hospital after attempts to save him had failed…but, it appears this was far from the truth.

The UK’s Independent newspaper reported: “Two weeks ago, news emerged of the death of a 68-year-old Portuguese immigrant man, who had been shot in his Husby [Stockholm] 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, an activist 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.  It later emerged 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.”

Paloma Winneth, 28, a Cuban who lives in Stockholm and works with young migrants, told The-Latest.Com: “There’s been lots of condemnation of the riots from the Swedish public. But the issue is not about the burning of cars or even the killing by police of an elderly migrant that sparked the unrest. It’s about the years of harassment by the police of the young people. They just had enough of being stopped and searched by police because of the colour of their skin."

She added: "Sweden needs to come out of its comfort zone where everyone pats themselves on the back for being so liberal by letting foreigners into their country. They must acknowledge how some of those migrants have been badly treated by the authorities, including the police, and not be surprised that it pushed them [young migrants] to breaking point. There are those people who consider themselves to be anti-racist who say why did the rioters burn cars in their own neighbourhoods rather than going and doing it in the neighbourhoods where white racists live.“

Winneth said a very popular youth club had been closed down because the government said it couldn’t afford to pay for it. She responded: “The harsh reality is, the car burning got them [the migrant young people] the national attention they never had before. The message from the young people, who have faced rejection by society, is that if you take everything away from them you’ll pay the price.”

The government has been keen to portray the riots as the work of a few hundred “hooligans”, and underlined its belief that it was a law-and-order problem by sending the justice rather than integration minister to a parliamentary debate on the subject last week. But the opposition Social Democrats have been keen to stress what the centre-left sees as the root causes of the unrest: higher-than-average unemployment among the young people in the suburbs and the need for better training or education for the largely migrant population there. Fifteen per cent of Sweden's population is foreign-born.

Social Democrat Morgan Johansson told parliament that the image of the Swedish welfare state had been damaged abroad. He insisted: “This is not a question of immigration; it is a question of class.”

Lars Ostby, a senior research fellow at Statistics Norway, said: “What’s happening now is perhaps a result of [Sweden] not wanting to see what is going on. In the unstable suburbs of Stockholm [and Malmo and Gothenburg] I think poverty and unemployment, marginalisation and integration, resembles the situation in Marseille and Paris.”

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, have had a trigger factor in common – police brutality. In Sweden, the rioting seems to have subsided following news that the officer responsible for the elderly Portugese man’s death had been held on “suspicion of manslaughter”. 

According to comment on the police on the 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.”

Paul Lappalainen, a senior Swedish civil servant of Finnish migrant descent, 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 migrants into a nation’s workforce, emphasising that the Canadians “have equality as the key to immigration”.

Unrest that started in the Stockholm suburb of Husby spread to big towns such as Uppsala, Linköping, Örebro, Malmö, and Dalarna.

Ritt Goldstein, an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden, noted: “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.” He added: “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”.

"We see a society that is becoming increasingly divided and where the gaps, both socially and economically, are becoming larger," said Rami Al-khamisi, co-founder of Megafonen, "And the people out here are being hit the hardest…we have institutional racism."

He added: "The reason is very simple. Unemployment, the housing situation, disrespect from police," said Rouzbeh Djalaie, editor of Norra Sidan newspaper. "It just takes something to start a riot, and that was the shooting."

Djalaie said youths were often stopped by police in the streets for identity checks. During the riots, he said some police called local youths "apes".

The TV pictures of blazing cars has shocked a country proud of its reputation for social justice as well as its hospitality towards refugees from war and repression.

"I understand why many people who live in these suburbs and in Husby are worried, upset, angry and concerned," said the justice minister, Beatrice Ask. "Social exclusion is a very serious cause of many problems, we understand that."

After decades of practising the Swedish model of generous welfare benefits, Stockholm has reduced the role of the state since the 1990s, spurring the fastest growth in inequality of any advanced OECD economy. Policing in Stockholm has already been the focus of controversy this year, with allegations that officers (whom are armed in Sweden) were picking out dark-skinned immigrants for identity checks on subway trains. The left-leaning tabloid Aftonbladet said the riots represented a "gigantic failure" of government policies, which had underpinned the rise of ghettos in the suburbs.

As unemployment has grown, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party has risen to third place in the polls ahead of a general election due next year, by scapegoating migrants as the cause of the country's social and economic problems But, the reality is, while average living standards are still among the highest in Europe, successive governments have failed to substantially reduce long-term youth unemployment and poverty, which have affected migrant communities the worst.

* See the UK Media and the Riots report produced by the-latest.com.