Anti-social crimes in Gottsunda: A vicious circle?

By Sarah Hamed, Uppsala University, Sweden

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 trashcans, tires and more than 70 cars. The main street was blockaded with burning trashcans and stones, and buses were prevented from entering the area. Smoke covered parts of the neighbourhood and ‘Molotov-cocktails’ were  reported. A man died in his apartment since the ambulance was not able to reach him on time as they waited for the police to clear the area before driving in. Although the man’s death was not a direct result of the violence, the delay to the ambulance due to the street blockade contributed to his death.

The reason for the recent disruptive events in Gottsunda, was the disputed circumstances surrounding the arrest of a 20-year old Swede of immigrant background in the neighbourhood. The man allegedly stole a motorcycle, was chased by the police and later fell and was arrested outside a popular pizzeria situated in one of the busiest streets in the neighbourhood. However, according to the youths who witnessed the arrest, the 20-year old got hurt badly as he fell on the asphalt when being arrested. Witnesses claim that the police handled the man brutally and should have called an ambulance. The young men who witnessed the arrest considered this poor treatment to be due to racism, which the police deny. The subsequent anger and riots are in response to police 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. Tax reforms in the 1990s decreased the tax burden among the wealthiest households. The unemployment rate among foreign-born people is substantially higher compared to the unemployment rate 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 is 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. Swedish suburbs, including Gottsunda, have experienced periods of social unrest and antisocial crimes. In 2013, riots in Husby, a suburb of Stockholm, received international media coverage. The riots, which started after the fatal shooting of a 69-year-old man of immigrant background in Husby, continued for a week and quickly spread to other suburbs across the country.

Research has shown that suburbs in Sweden, which are generally immigrant dense, are constructed as uncivilized and non-Swedish. Suburbs are considered to be outside mainstream Swedish society; different and are therefore stigmatized both ethnically and socioeconomically. This seems to have created a mistrust between youth in 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. After the latest event, around 15 youths have registered an official complaint against the police for the use of excessive force. They have also responded to the high presence of police in the area by mooning at the police, showing their finger and throwing stones.

Racism in the police force has been reported previously and racial slurs such as ‘Arab bastard’ (arabjävel), ‘Damned monkey’ (Apajäveln) and n***** have sometimes been used. A recent video shows a police officer screaming at a refugee and saying “go back to your f****** country” (åk hem till jävla land). In 2013, the police in Skåne, south of Sweden, were reported to maintain a separate register, marked ‘travellers’, for Roma people including children. Many of those registered were not suspected of any crime. The maintenance of an official list selected by ethnicity is illegal in Sweden, a fact that was later confirmed after an investigation by the Swedish Commission on Security and Integrity, which also ordered financial compensation to be paid to each person on the list.

The municipal authorities in Uppsala have issued a statement concerning the recent events in Gottsunda, stating that they will continue with their previous policies of increasing security and of trying to create a dialogue with the community through various societal actors. There was no mention in their statement concerning the nature of the dialogue. However, it has been reported that Effekto, an association created by young men in Gottsunda, some of whom were past felons, was called in to assist the police. 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, to solve social unrest have not differed substantially through the years. 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 remain a serious problem in the country especially against Muslims, Afro-Swedes and asylum seekers. Therefore, moving away from a reductionist approach, which only looks at part of the problem, to a more in depth analysis of the situation, is becoming necessary.

The construction of suburbs as uncivilized, needs to be recognized and taken into account, which is not the case now. As noted from some of the unconstructive heated responses to the latest events from residents of Uppsala and local politicians, the depth of the problem is often ignored. The Christian Democrats called for even firmer measures to be enforced such as harder punishments of the young men committing antisocial crimes. The Christian Democrats criticized heavily the use of any dialogue as a strategy, which they consider a soft and unbeneficial measure, between what they term ‘leading criminals’ (ledande kriminella) and the police. The editorial writer in a Swedish newspaper referred to ‘violence -hungry-youth’ (våldskåta kids) and another stated that Uppsala is facing a ‘system collapse’ or anarchy (systemkollaps), a statement that has been often used as a response to the recent increased migration to the country thereby reducing the problems facing Sweden to a crude clash of civilizations.

The fact that most, if not all, of the perpetrators of vandalism are men is absent from both the reporting and the analysis of the problem. Issues of inequality and racism are real. However, they cannot be solved with a patriarchal mentality, which reinforces violence through stone throwing, arson and other types of violence. Nor can they be solved with more patriarchal responses such as longer and harder punishments and a fear mentality advocating the superiority of one culture over the other.

So how can this problem be solved? How should this anger towards structural problems be turned into something constructive and positive in order to create real 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 creating structural barriers instead of merely focusing on blaming the immigrants? Is it time for a peaceful united movement in the suburbs to combat those growing problems especially in the face of rising right wing populist politics?

The questions remain. However, the inability to understand the various sides of the problem of social unrest in the Swedish suburbs seem to have created a vicious circle in which immigrant youth feel ignored and not taken seriously. The insistence on employing the same type of solutions may lead to an increased feeling of despair among those youth, thus creating more unrest. With the unprecedented number of new arrivals, seeking asylum in Sweden in 2015, the uncertainty of their prospects of remaining, there is an urgency to issues of integration and equity in everyday life. 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.

Posted on Monday 22nd August 2016