Police, Firefighters, and Schools Targeted in Fifth Straight Night of Sweden Riots

Firefighters responding to rioting in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. Image by Scanpix.

Firefighters responding to rioting in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. Image by Scanpix.

Stockholm police have called for reinforcements as rioting in poor suburbs to the northwest and southwest of the Swedish capital have entered their fifth night. Rioters have set fire to schools and a restaurant, attacked banks and police stations, smashed shop windows, and lit cars ablaze in violence so severe the U.S. Embassy has warned Americans to stay away from the area. Police and firefighters responding to the scenes have reported being pelted by stones or blinded by laser pointers. However, according to Stockholm police spokesman Kjell Lindgren last night’s violence was somewhat less intense than that of Wednesday night. No injuries were reported last night, he said.

The riots allegedly began on Sunday night in the suburb of Husby when police shot and killed an elderly man wielding a machete. Husby, like many of the suburbs affected by the violence, is populated predominantly by immigrants and unemployed or poor youths. Locals in these neighborhoods had long complained of police brutality, and eyewitnesses claim that during the initial confrontations Sunday night police shouted racial slurs at the rioters.

Both the International Herald-Tribune and BBC News have discussed the implications of these riots on Sweden’s carefully-crafted image as an ideal society. For years, Sweden has touted its model of democratic socialism, a strong welfare state, fiscal responsibility, and a “partnership mentality” between business, unions, and the government as a model for the rest of the world to copy. Swedes enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living, best health care systems, and longest life expectancies, and it has remained largely untouched by the European Union’s economic crisis. It has even gone so far as to claim it is a classless society.

Yet one of the most common explanations for the riots has been anger over unemployment, which is higher for immigrants than native-born Swedes. Immigrants complain that, in spite of Swedish claims of being tolerant and welcoming, they face discrimination and difficulties assimilating into Swedish society. Activist Rami Al-khamisi told Reuters “We see a society that is becoming increasingly divided and where the gaps, both socially and economically, are becoming larger. And the people out here are being hit the hardest … We have institutional racism.” In a society where 15% of the population are immigrants, this is a serious problem.

However, Lindgren insists that it is wrong to characterize these rioters as “poor, unemployed immigrant youths.” He told the press that incidents have occurred not only in poor neighborhoods but also some middle-class ones, and that among the rioters police have encountered there is “a mixture of every kind of people you can think of. We have got Swedes, we have got very young people, we have got people aged 30 to 35. You can’t define them as a group. We don’t know why they are doing this. There is no answer to it.”

In addition, police chief Mats Loefving emphasized in his statement to Swedish Radio that some of the rioters have prior criminal records. “In the midst of all this there is a small group of professional criminals, who are taking advantage of the situation to commit crimes like this,” he said.

According to Reuters, there have been riots in Sweden before, but they have not lasted this long, usually being extinguished after one night. The riots have brought immigration issues back into the Swedish public consciousness, with political parties arguing over what to do about it. Meanwhile, news agencies continue to speak to locals such as Maria Petersson, a nurse who told Reuters “My daughter comes home from school and says the kids say they can’t play with her because she’s dark. I am both Ethiopian and Swedish but I will never be considered Swedish by the Swedes. To them, I am just another immigrant.”

Information from Reuters, the International Herald-Tribune, BBC News, Sky News, ITV News and the Irish Times.