Photo: Riot from Joachim Pedersen Flickr Photostream

In Gottsunda, an outlying suburb of Uppsala, a University town in Sweden, unrest marked the end of July. About 30-40 youths, all men, burned bins, tyres and more than 70 cars. The main street was blockaded with boulders and burning rubbish bins, and buses were prevented from entering the area. Clouds of smoke hung in the air and reports stated ‘Molotov-cocktails’ had been used. A man died in his apartment due to delays in an ambulance reaching him through the ongoing unrest. Although the man’s death was not a direct result of the violence, the delay to the ambulance certainly contributed to his death.

A key reason for these events were the (disputed) circumstances surrounding the arrest of a 20-year old Swede of immigrant background. The man allegedly stole a motorcycle, and chased by the police. He fell and was arrested outside a popular pizzeria in the neighbourhood. However, according to the youths who witnessed the arrest, the 20-year old was hurt during the process of being arrested. Witnesses claim that the police used excessive force and that they should have called an ambulance. The young men who saw the arrest considered this type of treatment to be driven by racism, which the police deny. It was this chain of events that led to the subsequent riots.

Contra to these allegations of structural racism, Sweden has long been viewed as an inclusive welfare paradise. With about 15.4% of its population foreign born, Sweden has been credited for its generous migration policies and emphasis on equality and integration. However, recent reports by the OECD show that growth in income inequality in the country has been the largest among all OECD countries. The unemployment rate among foreign born people is substantially higher compared to the unemployment among native born people and higher than the OECD average.

With the increase in income inequalities and poverty rates, especially among people of immigrant background, the Swedish model of integration appears to be failing. This is particularly visible in the Swedish suburbs, where a majority of residents are of migrant background and where the unemployment rate is high. Many Swedish suburbs have experienced periods of social unrest and antisocial crimes. In 2013, riots in Husby, a suburb of Stockholm, received international media attention. The riots, which started after the fatal shooting of a 69-year-old immigrant, continued for a week and spread to other suburbs across the country.

Suburbs in Sweden, which are generally immigrant-dense, are represented as uncivilized and non-Swedish spaces, and are therefore stigmatized both ethnically and socioeconomically. In turn, this creates mistrust between the youth (in places like Gottsunda) and the authorities, especially the police. Youth in Gottsunda declare that they are treated differently due to their ethnicity and that they are being harassed by the police.

Racism in the police force has been reported previously, and racial slurs such as ‘Arab bastard’ (Arabjävel), ‘Damned monkey’ (Apajäveln) and the N word have sometimes been used. A recent video shows a police officer screaming at a refugee and saying “go back to your fucking country” (åk hem till ditt jävla land). In 2013, the police in Skåne, in the south of Sweden, were found to be keeping separate register, marked ‘travellers’, for Roma people including children. Many of those registered were not suspected of any crime. The maintenance of such a list, based on ethnicity is illegal in Sweden and the Swedish Commission on Security and Integrity ordered financial compensation to be paid to everyone named on the list.

The municipal authorities in Uppsala have issued a statement stating that they will continue with their previous policies of increasing security and of trying to create a dialogue with the community through various groups. Effekto, an association created by young men in Gottsunda, some of whom were past felons, was called in for assistance. The municipal authorities stated that they will also ensure the availability of summer activities in the neighbourhood, as a way to keep youth active and out of trouble.

These solutions, offered by the municipal authorities and the police, are not new. Although it is important to ensure the safety of residents in the area through increasing security and creating a constructive dialogue, those measures alone cannot stop (and have not stopped) the unrest. While peace has now been restored in the area, unrest in Gottsunda and other suburbs in Sweden is not merely a product of inactive youth but a result of structural problems where issues of increased inequality and racism are inherent. The United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has criticized Sweden and concluded that structural racism and hate crimes against minorities remain a serious problem in the country. Therefore, there is a pressing need to move away from partial solutions, which only address part of the problem, to a more in-depth analysis of the situation.

The representation of suburbs as uncivilized, non-Swedish spaces needs to be recognized and addressed. However, what we see happening is the opposite of this, as politicians and the media stigmatise these areas and their residents. For example, the Christian Democrats called for even firmer measures to be enforced such as stricter sentencing for young men committing antisocial crimes. They also criticized heavily the use of dialogue as a strategy, which they consider a soft and unbeneficial measure, between what they term ‘leading criminals’ (ledande kriminella) and the police. One editorial writer in a Swedish newspaper referred to ‘violence -hungry-youth’ (våldskåta kids). Another stated that Uppsala is facing a ‘system collapse’ or anarchy (systemkollaps), a statement that has often been used as a response to increased migration to the country.

The fact that most of the perpetrators of vandalism, are men is absent from both the reporting and the analysis of the problem. Although issues of inequality and racism are real, they cannot be solved with a patriarchal mentality, which reinforces violence through arson and other types of violence. Nor can they be addressed with more patriarchal responses such as firmer punishments and a fear mentality advocating the superiority of one culture over the other.

So how can this problem be solved? How should anger towards structural problems be turned into a constructive and positive societal change? Is the Swedish mentality of colour blindness, refusal to talk about race only provoking the young men further? Isn’t it time to hold policy makers responsible for structural barriers instead of merely focusing on blaming the immigrants? Is it time for a peacefully united movement to combat those growing problems especially in the face of rising right-wing populist politics?

The inability to understand the various sides of the problem of social unrest in the Swedish suburbs have created a vicious circle in which immigrant youth feel ignored. The insistence on employing the same type of solutions may lead to an increased feeling of despair among those youth, creating more unrest. With the unprecedented number of new arrivals, seeking asylum in Sweden in 2015, there is an urgency to issues of integration and equity. The death of the man in Gottsunda, due to the delayed arrival of an ambulance is a harsh illustration of how these problems affect us all.

About the author: Sarah Hamed is a dentist with a masters in international Health. She works currently as a researcher at the Sociology Department in Uppsala University researching healthcare in superdiverse neighbourhoods in Sweden.