Sweden's Inexplicable Riots, Explained

For the fifth straight night, rioters have broken windows and set fire to cars in neighborhoods around Stockholm, Sweden. The violence is drawing renewed attention to the interplay of immigration, economics, and government in Europe.

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For the fifth straight night, rioters have broken windows and set fire to cars in neighborhoods around Stockholm, Sweden. The violence fits the pattern, if not the scale, of other recent incidents in European cities, drawing renewed attention to the interplay of immigration, economics, and government.

How'd the violence start?

The galvanizing event seems to have been the shooting of an elderly man by police the Monday before last (according to the BBC). The Independent describes what happened.

[According to his brother-in-law, the man] had been eating in a restaurant, and when he returned home, he was confronted by a gang of youths, who he threatened with a knife.

When the police knocked on his door, he mistook them for the youths and didn't respond. Believing the woman in the apartment - his wife - to be in danger, the police, his brother-in-law maintains, shot him.

The man, whose name still has not been made public, was a Portuguese immigrant who'd lived in the country for 30 years. According to The Local, a Swedish English-language newspaper, the protests began on Sunday night in Husby, the same neighborhood north of the city center where he was shot.

Witnesses claim at least 100 vehicles in the area were in flames. Another fire was lit in a nearby garage, resulting in the evacuation of the apartment block. Around 50 residents were taken care of and sheltered in buses that were on hand.

The local shopping centre was also vandalized, and three police officers were injured in the fracas. Police estimate that the riots involved somewhere between 50 and 60 youths.

Why the protests began on Sunday in particular isn't clear. But over the next four nights, they spread into nearby neighborhoods and other suburbs around the city. Rinkeby, just southwest of Husby, saw two nights of rioting in 2010 as well.

How bad is the rioting?

It was inevitable that the violence would be compared to the 2005 riots in France or the 2011 unrest in Britain. The three share several common factors which are explored more thoroughly below: they began after interactions with the police that resulted in deaths; they began in low-income areas; they were reactions from members of an immigrant or ethnic minority group. Stockholm's Husby clearly fits that latter characteristic, as the BBC reports:

In Husby, more than 80% of the 12,000 or so inhabitants are from an immigrant background, and most are from Turkey, the Middle East and Somalia.

Rami al-Khamisi, a law student and founder of the youth organisation Megafonen, told the Swedish edition of online newspaper The Local this week that he had been insulted racially by police. Teenagers, he said, had been called "monkeys", fuelling resentment.

But in another important respect, the violence is not comparable. The Local's Oliver Gee, who's been covering the riots from Stockholm, writes:

Fifteen cars burned in the latest night of rioting, rocks thrown, the odd school or police station vandalized or burnt. The most emergency call-outs in a night sits at around 90. Witnesses estimated 100 vehicles were burnt on the first night, but that seems to have been the worst of it.

Another foreign reporter asked me if there has been looting as with the English riots, and there hasn't been, as far as I know. I heard one report of youths stealing a few cans of soft drink from a pizzeria, but that was the extent of it.

In the 2011 UK riots, by comparison, hundreds were arrested and five people were killed.

Why's it happening?

In part because of Sweden's reputation as an equitable society, news of the protests has come as something of a surprise. That reputation, however, is out of date. In recent years, the country's economics and demographics have shifted to be more in line with the rest of Europe.

Among the factors that have been cited in the violence:

Rising income inequality

In part because of the proximity of the riots to new analysis of income inequality by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released this month, the difference in incomes among economic classes has been cited regularly. (See, for example, the Associated Press.)

PressEurop translates a story from the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet about the findings.

Sweden is the country where the level of relative poverty has increased the most since 1995 [from 4 per cent of the population to 9 per cent], which is why it has slid from first place to 14th position in the rankings, although it still remains over the OECD average of (11 per cent of the population in relative poverty).

The OECD has graphs showing that change.

As many are quick to note, Sweden still has a better ratio of incomes between economic classes than most European countries. That the difference is changing faster than anywhere else, however, suggests an economy in flux.

Immigration and political engagement

Nearly half of those seeking asylum in Sweden last year came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, according to an April Reuters report. They were part of an unprecedented influx of immigration, as shown by government data.

Sweden allows immigrants who've lived in the country for three years to vote in elections. Over recent years, the number choosing to do so has declined significantly. Again, from government data:


Unemployment in Sweden continues to be relatively high, as seen in this TradingEconomics graph.

It's not evenly distributed, however. Reuters notes that 15 percent of the population of Sweden is foreign-born, and experiences unemployment at 15 percent. Unemployment for natives of Sweden is at 6 percent. Worse still, as the Washington Post reports, "Swedish youth unemployment stands at 25.1 percent, about triple the level of overall joblessness. And much of that youth unemployment is concentrated among immigrants…"

The growth in unemployment nationally has also prompted political backlash against immigrant communities. Again, Reuters:

As unemployment has grown, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party has risen to third in polls ahead of a general election due next year, reflecting many voters' worries that immigrants may be partly to blame.

Social spending changes

While unemployment and inequality have grown alongside a disenfranchised immigrant population, the government has slowed its spending on social programs. Reuters notes that the country "has been reducing the role of the state since the 1990s," which in turn has helped spur that inequality. Not that the government is slashing programs too dramatically; data from the OECD shows a drop in government spending, but not a draconian one.

None of these factors is the answer in itself. For what it's worth, the cause isn't clear among Swedes, either. The Local asked five regional leaders to answer the question and got five different answers. The closest thing we have to an answer may be simply be: economic and political distance from society can spur a violent reaction to perceived injustice. As it has many times before.

Photo: Cars burn in the suburb of Rinkeby. (Reuters)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.