Riots – similar to those in Britain in the summer of 2011 – have broken out recently in Stockholm, Sweden. A country that is normally regarded as a model of “responsible capitalism” has been rocked by this outburst of anger from a generation of youth that have been let down by this economic system. We publish here an article by Stefan Kangas of the Swedish Marxists “Avanti”, who outlines the underlying social tensions in Sweden and the causes behind the Stockholm riots.
Sweden’s suburbs are burning again: Husby, Kista, Tensta, Rinkeby Fittja, Vårby, Norsborg Jakobsbergsgatan, Flemingsberg and Skärholmen. Cars have been set on fire, police stations have had their windows smashed and groups of youngsters have thrown stones at the police. This is a symptom of the impasse of the capitalist system, but also a taste of coming revolutionary events. A long suppressed anger has found a desperate outlet when capitalism can no longer offer young people hope of a future.
“Destroyed property! Burned cars! Stone throwing! … shouts the media. Who speaks about destroyed childhoods, burnt dreams and politics with a heart of stone? “- Özz Nûjen, famous Swedish comedian
Nothing would now be more useless than a “condemnation” of the methods of the stone throwers. Stone throwing happens regardless of what we think of it, because these are people that don’t see any alternative. We need to explain the nature of our society, and offer a better way: these youths need revolutionary politics more than anything. Capitalism as a system has, as Özz Nûjens says, only ruined childhoods and burnt dreams to offer.
No future under capitalism
The origin of the riots was the shooting by the police of an elderly man in Husby, a suburb of Stockholm. After a week of attempts by the community to get an explanation from the police, on Sunday night the riots began and the unrest has in recent days spread to several other areas. There have been reports of unrest in Kista, Tensta, Rinkeby, Fittja, Vårby, Norsborg Jakobsbergsgatan, Flemingsberg and Skärholmen. Almost 50 cars has been burned and the rioters has set fire to both a school and a police station.
It is not the first time that police violence becomes the spark that lights an eruption of this type. The same happened in Paris in 2005, Athens in 2008 and London in 2011. In Paris, police chased two young boys who died when they hid in a power substation, in Greece they shot dead a young guy in a café and in London they shot and killed 29-year-old Mark Duggan.
These patterns have been repeated in Husby. At a press conference with the organization “Megaphone” on Monday, youth worker Daniel Ghirmai, employee of the municipality, told about the situation on Sunday night. When him and his colleagues tried to mediate and get the young people to calm down, they were attacked by police. The police called them “rats”, “bums” and “niggers.” Two of them also received physical blows from the police. Quena Soruco, active in “Megaphone”, who organises youth in the suburbs to fight for political change, said at the press conference: “Who should you call when it’s the police who attack? I have no idea. […] They attacked all that came in their way.”
On the page “Revolutionary Poetry” on Facebook Soruco wrote during the night:
“Riots in Husby right now, the police are chasing people with dogs, hitting people who are completely unarmed and defenceless with batons and threatening people standing in the way that they will be beaten if they don’t move. Minors, children, old people who were only standing and wondering what happened were chased away by masked police with helmets.”
Behind the violence lies a deep desperation and anger built up over a long time, which is fundamentally an expression of the failure of the capitalist system, and that the labour movement for a long time has not offered any alternative. Many workers and youth are without any hope of a future. Youth unemployment is now at 25 percent. In Husby, unemployment between the ages of 20-25 years was 38 percent in 2008. Many struggle with insecure jobs or are denied jobs because of their skin colour. Due to the severe shortage of housing, many are forced to live with their parents even if they have got a job. Overcrowding and poor housing is a big problem.
It is no wonder that the contradictions explode. Some have simply had enough.
The racism and harassment of the police
This also takes place against the background of the so-called REVA project, where police in the Stockholm metro have forced people to identify themselves, if they did not look sufficiently white. This, they claim, is in order to find “illegal immigrants”. But the result is actually a completely open and racially motivated harassment of many young people, born and bred in Sweden, only because they did not have blond hair or the right skin colour. The police has also entered a wedding, and even put pressure on the child and youth psychiatry to give them information. This led to a huge debate this spring and a series of protest demonstrations, which actually managed to stop them from doing these “checks”.
Immigrants are being exploited by capitalists to depress wages. It is well known that even large restaurant chains like McDonald’s has been using undocumented immigrants, who clean at night without regular employment rights and at a very low wage. Yet at the same time the ruling class exploits and exacerbate racist beliefs in the mass media, movies, and political propaganda. They use racism to justify imperialist wars of aggression and intervention in the exploited countries of the south. Ultimately, it is about divide and rule – to divide the working class along secondary lines such as ethnicity or nationality. Racism can only be defeated by a struggle along class lines. Under capitalism, racism will always prevail, as its breeding ground is class society itself. Only under socialism, will we once and for all to put an end to racism.
The police as an institution is more racist than the rest of society. In 2009, there was a major scandal when police brought a film as evidence in a trial, in which one could clearly hear a police officer say about a young immigrant boy: “the little fucking monkey, I’m going to sterilize him if I get hold of him” . That they did not cut the film or edited the sound this time, as they have done many times before, was perhaps the most surprising of it all. It shows something about how accustomed they are to those kind of racist statements. They did not think anyone would react to that you call a young man a “fucking monkey”.
The police walk free
No police will obviously be tried for their actions in Husby. Of the 6872 complaints against police officers last year, only 62 led to convictions. Most of those involved drunk driving and data intrusion. Despite this, we read about, and experience, harassment and assault from the police force all the time. What happens to all these? When will all these offences be prosecuted? The answer is that the law is the law of the ruling class, and the state is the extended arm of the ruling class. And although the law applies to them as well, it just doesn’t apply in the same way as it applies to us workers and youth.
In Husby Megaphone demanded an independent investigation into what happened to the older man who was shot to death last week. This is a reasonable demand.
Sanna Ryman who writes on Svenska Dagbladet’s editorial page is one of the many bourgeois writers who incite against youth:
“Is it reasonable that the adult world and society as a whole pander to the childish and irresponsible ‘why-explanations’ in the way that we often do? That we accept and nod with concern when someone who claims to be one [social] measure short sets fire to a neighbour’s car and attack ordinary municipal workers who come to put out the fire?”
“One measure short”! She understands nothing about the real problems in Husby or any other suburbs. About the police’s racist and violent attacks against municipal worker Daniel Ghirmai, Megafonens activists and other ordinary and peaceful Husby inhabitants she has nothing to say. That the police is attacking people who are trying to calm the situation down is obviously expected. She apparently puts higher demands on confused and desperate young people than on the police. It says a lot about how the representatives of the bourgeoisie themselves perceive their police force. They obviously know what’s going on, but don’t care. In their world, the riff-raff has to be cleaned up, the mob has to be taken care of and that’s it.
Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask, said in an interview on Swedish television this week: “Everyone has a responsibility to use democratic methods to discuss and to ensure that children and young people can live their lives in peace and quiet.” It is nothing but a mockery. The capitalist system has made it impossible to live “in peace.” After years of social injustice, broken schools and a harsh environment, unemployment and overcrowding, naturally the result will be crime and drug abuse. Years of harassment and humiliation by the police, have for some simply crossed the line. They have had enough of their “quiet life” and are desperately seeking a way out.
Is stone-throwing the right approach?
We Marxists don’t support rioting. But we don’t join in the chorus of condemnation, or moralizing of the right-wing. It is easy to condemn but it does not solve the fundamental problem. We need to understand the disease in order to cure it.
We are opposed to the riots, firstly because they are completely useless. They will not solve any of the problems that affect youth. In fact, it gets worse. Not a single job is created by smashing up a barber shop or a cinema run by a local club. They also affect the poorest the most. The rich does not live in Husby. They can safely watch from their extravagant villas, assured that the police will protect them. Riots will not reach them. That many ordinary workers are losing their cars and have to be evacuated from their homes because of the fire hazard is definitely a crime.
But we are particularly opposed to the riots because they split the struggle. It is a minority who participate in riots. Several demonstrations have been organized against the violence that attracted hundreds of participants. Many are angry at those they perceive to be destroying their area. It has been about the police brutality. But for many, it is just as much about the young people whose violence is equally indiscriminate as the police’s batons.
It is not just racist police officers that are being attacked. Firefighters, paramedics and other ordinary workers are also the targets of these stones. This shows exactly how alienated this youth feels from the system, attacking anything they feel somehow represents the state.
The riots make it easier to discredit all us who fight for a better world, for a real way out of this system. The media latches on to this and uses every possibility to paint rioting youth as a bunch of wild revolutionaries, as though rioting was somehow the logical conclusion of wanting to change society. SVT [Swedish public broadcasting] walk around with yellow reflective vests, and English text: “PRESS – Swedish Television”. As if it were a war zone.
Riots play into the hands of reactionaries who call on tougher measures. Not only the established right, but also Jimmie Åkesson and his anti-worker, racist thugs decide to seize the opportunity. They have called on rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons; weapons they call for after incidents like this one and then of course, are easy to use, if necessary, also against a trade union demonstration.
Police operations and the right-wing war rhetoric is in fact an obstacle to a de-escalation of violence. They only add to the image of suburbia as a problem and widen the splits. During the protests in Rosengård 2008 two hundred adults from the area managed to calm youngsters by talking to them and their parents. This is a different way, but not in line with the image that politicians and journalists will do anything to maintain.
But we are not pacifists. During special periods, a measure of violence can be absolutely necessary to defend the broader movement. It is just that this is not such a situation. What we see instead is aimless violence that only affects Husby residents’ own cars and homes.
Is it only criminals from outside?
Many have focused on the fact that half of the eight arrested as of Thursday were not themselves from Husby. They had travelled there; they came from “outside”. But is one really to be considered an outsider if one has travelled two stops by metro? In reality, most of Järvafältet [area in the North-West of Stockholm] is in a situation similar to that in Husby.
But obviously criminal or semi-criminal elements show up under these circumstances. Crime is a permanent phenomenon in capitalist society. But if these protests were only caused by “criminals” or “hooligans”, why are they occurring just now? If there are hooligans today, surely they existed also one, two or five years ago?
The answer is simple. If one has a decent job with a decent wage one is simply not as inclined to go out and throw stones at the police. Capitalism is a rotten society that can not even give people the minimum required in order to be able to live a decent life in safety. This is the real cause of the riots, and it can not be resolved with more police.
But the capitalist system is a sick system. It is full of small and big crooks. Reinfeldt howls of “hooliganism” but in his own government sits Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, an individual who, by sitting on the board of Lundin Petroleum 1997-2003, is now being investigated by the War Crimes Commission. The Board he sat on is suspected of crimes against humanity in Sudan. The truth is that the big crooks almost always get away. If a young guy in Husby smashes up a storefront, he goes to prison, but if a banker destroys an entire country’s economy he is awarded billions. This has happened in the U.S. as well as in Spain. And if a Swedish foreign minister is suspected of crimes against humanity, then precisely nothing happens.
The crisis of capitalism
These riots are symptomatic of the deepening crisis of capitalism. They show that capitalism can no longer offer a way out. But we must recognise that there is immense wealth accumulated at the top of our society. It has been created by workers and piled up by the capitalists. In the world’s tax havens alone is an estimated $30,000 billion, more than the GDP of Japan, Germany and the U.S. put together. Half of this money is controlled by 92,000 people. Sweden is no exception to this! While unemployment is rising, wages are squeezed and the welfare state is slowly ground down, the large Swedish companies set new records in the size of dividends to their shareholders. The money exists.
In fact, Sweden is the country in the OECD where inequality has increased most over the past three decades. Recently, a documentary revealed that Sweden has reached the highest level of inequality since the beginning of the 20th century.
In the media we are fed with television programs about rich and successful people. But their consumerism is not ours. For many young people, especially in Sweden’s poor suburbs, dreams of material riches are bordering on open provocations. Our society is based on competition and exclusion, which is something that these youths feel more than any others. In the schools around Järvafälten only half finished primary school with a pass in all grades, compared to 90 percent for the whole country. That they now respond with the same harsh methods that life has taught them can hardly surprise anyone.
The events of the last few days have shocked a Swedish society that has grown accustomed to being peaceful, polite and quiet. The bourgeoisie and the reformists have spent the last 50 years trying to convince the Swedish workers that there was something special about Swedish capitalism. That somehow in Sweden, capitalism meant stability, prosperity and equality. This has now been exposed as a big lie. In the sense that the Swedish workers experienced a humane capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, these riots show conclusively that we have entered into a new period.
It is also significant that this takes place while new youth organisations has been built by the youth in the suburbs themselves. Many of the most advanced youth will be found in organisations like “Megaphone”, fighting for justice in the Stockholm suburbs or their counter-parts “Pantrarna” [The Panthers] in Gothenburg. These organisations did not exist a couple of years ago, and their presence is another sign of the molecular process of radicalisation taking place in Sweden.
The desperate situation of the Arab world’s young people, particularly the youth unemployment, was one of the main causes of the Arab revolution. Young people are now also in the forefront of the struggle that workers and young people in Southern Europe are forced into on the back of the crisis. There is no reason to suspect that it would be in any other way in Sweden, also here the young are in the frontline.
The real violence comes not from below. It is organized from above. It is administered for the capitalists by the state through the police and the military, and these young people respond to it with the only method they know. As Martin Luther King said: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” More than anything else rioting is an expression of weakness. Sure you can get cheap kicks, be “kings for a day” as Petter Larsson writes in the Aftonbladet [Swedish Newspaper] culture pages. One can understand that it can certainly be exciting to play cat and mouse with the police. But when the smoke settles, the night turns into day and everything goes back to everyday life, the question is simple: What have we achieved?
Take the struggle forward!
This is neither the first nor the last time that the suburbs are burning. Similar events took place in Malmö 2008 and Gothenburg 2012. They can be, and usually are, provoked by completely secondary things. But as long as the social conditions remain, these events will be repeated. The riots have shown that there is a lot of pent-up frustration and dissatisfaction in the suburbs as well as among the youth in general. These moods have to be organised. The fight must be moved on to a general struggle for the regeneration of the suburb. Young people need jobs, housing, good schools and a leisure activities. Police harassment must stop.
All this must be linked to the broader working class movement. The challenge is to build ties between the youth of the suburbs and the working class. The task of linking such bands rests on the left and the labour movement.
Unfortunately, the labour movement’s leadership has not taken any serious steps in that direction. They are light years away from ordinary people’s everyday lives, they have lost touch with our reality. But they have been put there to give a lead. They must mobilise for a serious defence of the welfare state and a regeneration of the suburb and the whole country. If they don’t, they have to be prepared to be set aside or replaced by more militant leaders.
The bourgeoisie and their representatives are right to be afraid. What they witnessed now is only the beginning, a taste of what’s to come. The anger and discontent, which is now only partially being let out, will not go away. Sooner or later it will have a serious and organized expression. This is a reminder to the bourgeoisie that their palace is built on sand.
The organisation of youth in the suburbs around Megaphone and The Panthers are a step in the right direction. They have given the youth in these areas more of a political platform, and are arguing for political struggle instead of rioting. They are completely correct in this, and to place demands on politicians. Yet we must also understand that the real rulers under capitalism are the bankers and the owners of the big monopolies. Only with socialist demands can we change the situation.
As Marxists, we therefore do not condemn the riots. Our job is to connect with these young people and offer them a true way out: a revolutionary way out. Throwing pebbles on the police will not help. We can not be satisfied with demanding crumbs from the rulers table. The youth and the working class must fight together against the common enemy – against the bankers and capitalists running our country, and indeed the entire world. This is the only way out. We must take power and begin the path towards socialism.
- No to racism and police brutality!
- Police abuse must be investigated! For independent investigations under union control!
- Joint struggle against capitalism! No division between “Swedes” and “immigrants”!
- Regenerate the suburbs! Fight for socialist policies!
Originally published on In Defence of Marxism and Avanti