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Who Started the Fires in Sweden?

12:07 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at Truthout

(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.

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In Year of Uprisings, Reporters Brave Crackdowns from Wall St. to Tahrir Square

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: shortstackblog)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

You wouldn’t think handling a notebook or a camera could be a hazardous line of work. But according to the latest global Press Freedom Index, abuse and oppression of reporters has made journalism an increasingly risky job in many countries. The past year has even left a notable taint on the U.S. press, despite the country’s mythos as a beacon of free expression.

While the United States certainly hasn’t descended into the ranks of the most oppressive regimes, the watchdog group Reporters without Borders observes that in 2011 the political barriers and outright attacks facing reporters had led to a steep drop in the rankings—27 places down, to number 47:

In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.

The most high-profile violations of press freedom took place during the Occupy protests, as reporters were abused by police and otherwise stonewalled by authorities.

Ever-faithful to his 1% cronies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved swiftly to restrict press coverage of Occupy Wall Street actions, barring journalists from Zuoccotti Park. Authorities justified the “media blackout” by insisting that the purpose was “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.” The safety assurances presumably weren’t much comfort to the many reporters who got roughed up and arrested while trying to do their jobs.

But as usual, the crackdowns only challenged activists to push back more fiercely as digital images and reports of police brutality and oppression went viral. And much of the heavy lifting was accomplished by a deft, if somewhat chaotic, grassroots media sphere.

Josh Stearns at Free Press tracked dozens of arrests across several Occupy cities through Twitter dispatches.

From cartoonist and journalist Susie Cagle (an occasional contributor to this website), who was arrested during the Occupy Oakland strike actions and “held for over 14 hours”: Read the rest of this entry →

Will Peasants and Migrant Workers Forge China’s New Political Vanguard?

10:01 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Wukan protests (Image via

Cross-posted from In These Times.

China is no longer a sleeping giant. The past few months have seen riots, strikes, and peasant clashes with police. If you lay out all these incidents on a map, you get more than a random data cloud; you see a slow seismic shift in a society of contrasts, where boundaries of class and power are being constantly redrawn.

The most high-profile uprising of recent weeks is the revolt in the Guangdong village of Wukan. Peasants began protesting to defend their land rights, accusing officials of handing over land to developers and bilking farmers out of millions of dollars worth of real estate.

By December, as with many land-rights struggles in the Global South, direct action was apparently the only leverage villagers had to push back against the local government. The death of a leading protester in police custody catalyzed their outrage, and after driving out local officials, the activists launched an ad-hoc self-governing occupation. Read the rest of this entry →

Oil Workers Rise Up in Kazakhstan, Face Brutal Crackdown

10:20 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Oil workers vote. (Image courtesy New Socialists of Kazakhstan)

Cross-posted from In These Times

Every protest movement has its slogan: Tax the rich, we are the 99%. The striking oil workers in Kazakhstan, though, put it a bit more bluntly: “Don’t Shoot the People.”

The statement of stark desperation and defiance was displayed by protesters in the western Kazakh city of Aktau on Monday. Hundreds of them gathered to defend their labor rights and confronted a hail of bullets.

The New York Times reported, “The authorities have put the death toll from those clashes at 14, though witnesses and human rights workers have said the number of dead could be many times higher. Scores more have reportedly been injured.”

The scene was replayed elsewhere in the region. The first major crackdown took place in the nearby city of Zhanaozen on Friday, where police reportedly opened fire on strikers who had been occupying a central square for months. Gunfire rang out later over demonstrators who had blocked local railroads in the neighboring city of Shepte.

The weekend of bloodshed was a stunning climax to a long-running struggle in the petrol-rich area known as Manghystau, between an elite protected by the ex-soviet state, and the state oil and gas workers left behind by the boom. It also suggests that labor conflicts are galvanizing a mass social movement. Read the rest of this entry →

Health Workers Deliver First Aid to Protest Movements

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tahrir field hospital. (Kamal El Tawil via TwitPic)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Warning: Defending your rights may be hazardous to your health. Potential side effects can include rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons wielded with impunity.

The recent uprisings around the world illustrate the physical risks involved in intense street protests. At the same time, movements are also discovering the connection between health and activism in another way, through medical workers joining the front lines to deploy their skills and their conviction.

Amid the brutal clashes with security forces at Tahrir Square, barebones field hospitals have held the line, thanks to a grassroots network of Tahrir doctors. One volunteer, Ahmed Adel, who has been aiding wounded protesters since January, told Ahram Online, “Treating the injured protesters here again makes me feel the revolution is about to be completed.”

But hospitals are by no means safe havens. Mohamed Fatouh, a leader of Tahrir Doctors, told the LA Times, “The people are refusing to go to the ambulances because they think they go to the general hospitals, and from there they go to the police.” Read the rest of this entry →

To Stop Corruption, Fight the Power, Not the People

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Protestors rally against corruption in Bangalore, India. (CC/akshaydavis)


Cross-posted from

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in a world where the gap between the powerful and powerless grows wider each day, corruption in political and economic institutions spreads much faster than shame.

Political power is abused wherever it exists—with scandals ranging from political graft in India to white collar crime on Wall Street to bribery of government regulators in China. Nonetheless, some communities seem especially vulnerable to the cycle of corruption, repression and impunity. And lately, we’ve seen many of them getting fed up with living under regimes that have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Corruption has been one of the major issues driving the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, and it has catalyzed a Gandhi-esque movement in the streets of New Delhi.

Indian activist Anna Hazare has inspired huge demonstrations in support of his hunger strike to promote a strict, controversial anti-corruption measure known as the Jan Lokpal bill. The government’s recent crackdown on Hazare only steeled protesters’ resolve under the slogan “India is Anna, Anna is India.”

Yet not all have been swept up in Hazare fever. Author and activist Arundhati Roy boldly challenged the public framing of the corruption issue, arguing it has been whitewashed by a bourgeois, nationalistic political class.In a commentary in The Hindu, she describes the obsession with the Lokpal bill, which would institute a “draconian” bureaucracy to monitor officials, as a well-managed charade, designed to absorb popular grievances into a more palatable but no less hierarchical concept of “accountability”:

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