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Swedish Riots: An Exclusionary Economy, "Daily Racism," and Politics of the 1930s?

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Falun, Sweden - Cars burned in Dalarna too. by Ritt Goldstein

Dateline Dalarna, Sweden -- In places like the US's Deep South of another era, or the European fascist states of the 1930s and '40s, not everyone was "equal," the term "subhuman" first being coined in the nightmarish maelstrom that was 1930s Germany. In November, 2012, a Swedish government report spoke of the casual "daily racism" many here face and the country's xenophobia. And, just a couple of months ago, this journalist was warned that rioting was likely.

It was May 26, with unrest going strong in Stockholm's suburbs and far beyond, when Sweden's major conservative paper, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), had a front-page headline that read: "The truth is that you received a surge of setting the powers that be in their place" ("Sanningen ar att du far en kick av att satta makten pa plats"). The words were delivered by one of those involved in the unrest, amply highlighting the feelings of frustration and anger that were being widely expressed. The ever-spreading reports of burning cars further emphasized the point, and long-smoldering tensions had begun to burn.

Over the very weekend that the SvD piece was published, reports emerged of a "Citizen's Guard" comprising neo-Nazis and football hooligans that was reported to be spreading "terror in the suburbs of Stockholm." The report appeared in deceased author Stieg Larsson's old magazine, Expo, and put the number of people in the "citizen's group" at over 800.

When I heard of this, I recalled the street battles once fought in Germany between Nazis and Leftists. I thought too of a party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats (SD), that has been in Parliament since 2010--subsequent to which, at least to my eyes, the mainstream parties have shifted rightward.

The Swedish riots have ended (though, arguably, the main reasons for them have not), and while most of the media is trying to explain what happened, the answers do seem to have been provided on March 12, over two months before the unrest began. At that time I interviewed Paul Lappalainen, a senior Swedish civil servant who had run the Government's 2005 inquiry into "structural discrimination." It was a most prescient moment when he said, "I prefer not seeing riots," but warned that it "seems that policymakers are not trying to avoid the conditions within which riots occur."

A Question of Borders

Contrary to what many believe Sweden to be, while the country's borders may indeed be open, certain "cultural borders" within it are another matter, and assorted reports document the prejudice minorities and immigrants daily live with. The fellow quoted above in the May 26 SvD article observed that, regardless "if you try, there is no escape from here" ("om man forsoker finns det ingen utvag harifran"), no way out of the "dead-end" so many have been led into. He also bitterly spoke of the lack of results dialog and political efforts have brought.

In reading the SvD piece, one can feel the frustration and anger of those "on the streets."  

In April 2012, I wrote:
"What's occurring around me could be taking place in the Mississippi of the 1960s. The 'good ol boy' corruption, the Ku Klux Klan, and the 'genuinely proper and decent' people that live in the midst of this. But for most of those in Mississippi (or rather, most of those that were white), it wasn't until much later that they came to appreciate how very wrong so much was, with the majority seeing nothing wrong with it at the time, especially abuse directed at a black or an 'outsider.'

In November, an English-language version of an article from Aftonbladet was published in The Local, its title alone suggesting aspects of what's occurring:
"Swedish society forces 'immigrants' to emigrate" -- The Local. Emphasizing the point, a February, 2012 report by Statistics Sweden, the government's statistics bureau, found more Swedish emigrants in 2011 than at any other time in the nation's history, including during the peak of the country's 19th century mass exodus. The Local's headline was: 'Most Swedish emigrants ever in 2011: report.' [end-quote.]

The work I just excerpted is titled "Living as a 'Sub-Human' in Sweden." OpEdNews published the link over a year ago. I'll add that the work also highlights a number of horrors that even this journalist personally experienced while living in Dalarna's city of Falun, horrors done quite casually, horrors that remain with this journalist still.

Swedish discrimination against minorities and immigrants is well-documented, as are now the feelings about it held by many of discrimination's victims. In my own case, the acts I endure include some that are life-threatening.

What the truly courageous civil servant Lappalainen emphasized was a "structure" of pervasive and disenfranchising discrimination, which was discussed in the report his 2005 inquiry provided: "Det blagula glashuset - strukturell diskriminering i Sverige" (The blue/yellow glass house -- structural discrimination in Swethden). That discrimination was also discussed in a 2007 report by the UN's International Labour Organization: "Discrimination against Native Swedes of Immigrant Origin in Access to Employment"; in a 2008 report by the government's Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Bra): "Discrimination in the criminal justice process in Sweden ... The direct and indirect discrimination of individuals from a non-Swedish or other minority background"; and in a November, 2012 government report "Framlingsfienden inom oss" (The enemy of strangers within us--my own translation).

Significantly, while much of the media is blaming disenfranchised immigrants, the poor, and their allies for the recent violence, the government's November, 2012 report noted that its title was justified by the significant threat posed to vulnerable groups by the "many different forms of everyday racism" which ordinary Swedes can embrace and the xenophobia many harbor. Tellingly, the report's summary ends by observing that Swedes "must begin with ourselves" (maste borja med oss sjalva) in addressing this.

The Fuse Gets Lit

Unfortunately, while there's long been much discussion about discrimination and prejudice, there's a Swedish expression--"mycket snack och lite verkstad." It means "a lot of talk and little action."   However, if a powder keg sits around long enough, sooner or later the fuse gets lit.

The start of the 2011 riots in the suburbs of Paris, the Brixton riots in the UK, and virtually all of the US's major strife dating from the 1960s, do have one factor in common: perceived police wrongdoing triggered the unrest. In Sweden, the riots began following the police killing of a man in his late sixties, reports initially suggesting he had a machete and a woman hostage, and had threatened police. Swedish papers screamed "Machetemannen" (The Machete Man), the implications being obvious. They reported that the fellow had died in hospital, after attempts to save him had failed. It appears, however, that this wasn't quite right.

As noted in an article by the UK's Independent, "Fire and fury in Sweden as riots spread": "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 achete 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."

To my eyes, the rioting seems to have subsided following news that the officer responsible for the man's death was "suspected of manslaughter." The Local (Sweden's major English-language media site) headlined "Stockholm cop probed over pre-riot killing." But, key here is understanding how the killing was seen, how some viewed it, including the activist group "Megafonen."

An "Underclass"

According to an excerpt on the police action from Megafonen's website: "The police are in our areas to protect the political and economic elite: scaring 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." (translated) 

Such feelings of oppression are palpable, and when I reached Lappalainen after the riots began, one of the first things he observed was: "The underclass has reacted."

Later, in an email to this journalist, Lappalainen 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 regard to inclusion, integration, democracy and human rights."

As to what a sea-change on such issues might mean, Lappalainen noted that the OECD highlighted Canada as the most successful country at integrating immigrants into a nation's workforce, emphasizing that the Canadians "have equality as the key to immigration."  

I got a contrasting view when I interviewed one of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's press secretaries, Markus Friberg, on May 24, while the rioting was still spreading. What had started in the Stockholm suburb of Husby was reported far more widely by the week's end, the media noting incidents in towns such as Uppsala, Linkoping, Orebro, Malmo, and even Dalarna. I raised the issue of 'structural discrimination' with Friberg.

"It's not been proven that we have structural forms of discrimination and racism," he emphasized, though readily acknowledging that, like most countries, Sweden did have some questions of discrimination and racism to address. Of course, the reports cited above speak for themselves, but, as I see things, one of the key issues they point to is a cultural one. It was an issue the US confronted following its riots of the 1960s, which were motivated at least in part by the economic hardship resulting from  discrimination.

One Society, Differing Perspectives

"An underclass has been created that is growing while its hope in the future is increasingly undermined." That is what civil servant Lappalainen sees, but the Government has a different vision.

According to Friberg, this Government has "not been cutting on welfare since we took office in 2006. We improved the resources for both schools and to combat unemployment, and for health services." He noted further other "reforms" with which the Government had sought improvements.   However, a May, 2012 parliamentary report on Sweden's social welfare programs made news.

"Sweden drifting from Swedish model: report" is what The Local headlined, the article's summary reading: "Sweden's historically generous social safety net isn't as robust as it once was, according to a new report, which reveals Sweden has fallen below the average for many other developed countries when it comes to various types of social insurance." The article goes on to note that an author of the document, Joakim Palme (a son of late Prime Minister Olof Palme), observed "that Sweden was in the process of abandoning the famed 'Swedish model.'"   And, a member of the Parliament's Finance Committee had a few words for this journalist as well.

MP Ulla Andersson of the Left Party charged, "If you look at the statistics, there are more children in the pre-school groups; it's less teachers in the schools than before, and it's less employment--nurses and so on--in the elderly care." Andersson then pointedly added, "It's less, less, less. Now 26 billion (krona) less to people who have been sick...they have destroyed the insurance for the sick, for the unemployed, to pay for tax deductions."

A Culture of Discrimination

In 1967, US President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to look into the causes of the rioting which then plagued America. The '60s media termed the unrest "race riots," the same term some media have currently used to describe Sweden's upheaval. According to Wikipedia, the Kerner 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 a finding that the police force was "institutionally racist."

On June 1 a group of ten academics called for a commission to investigate Sweden's unrest, issuing an appeal that was widely reported on the national news. Unfortunately, those I have since spoken with here feel the Government isn't yet ready for such a step. In the US, it took two years of rioting before the Kerner Commission was appointed.

While the rioting was yet ongoing, I spoke with a local Dalarna leader from the region's Left Party--Leif Lindstrom. We discussed the then ongoing and expanding unrest, and I soon asked him what advice he would give to the government here, if he could. He thought for several moments, then replied: "Save the country...with justice."

At the moment, all I can think of is a quote--one from the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King: "Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless."

Copyright June 2013


 

I am an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden, and have lived in Sweden since July 1997. My work has appeared fairly widely, including in America's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Sweden's Aftonbladet, Austria's (more...)
 

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... school system (what exactly they study, their ... by Ad Du on Thursday, Jun 13, 2013 at 9:01:10 PM
It's on my list, especially given the academic def... by Ritt Goldstein on Friday, Jun 14, 2013 at 7:24:56 PM