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.