Husby Riots: The Other Face of Swedish Social Democracy Exposed

Ba Karang

The recent rioting in Stockholm over the police killing of a Portuguese immigrant was a manifestation of the growing inequalities in Sweden, a society once seen as synonymous with social democracy – Editors

Megaphone – The Swedish Suburban Migrant

Megaphone – The Swedish Suburban Migrant

On 19 May 2013 youths in the Stockholm suburb of Husby rioted in response to the shooting and killing by police of Lenine Relvas-Martins, an elderly Portuguese immigrant, who allegedly confronted police who were breaking into his apartment. According to relatives, Relvas-Martins had been reportedly standing on his balcony and waving a knife at some youths who had confronted him and his wife earlier that evening, when they were returning home from a local restaurant.  When the police arrived, the couple refused to open the door because they believed they were the gang of youths from the earlier confrontation.

The hostility displayed to the police during the three days if rioting, which spread to the neighboring suburb of Rinkeby and Tensta, appears to be underpinned by growing inequalities in a country once renowned for its social democratic system of government and economy.

Husby is a suburban area of Stockholm developed in the 1970s as part of the national project to address the acute housing problem in the Stockholm area. Husby’s population is 12,000, 80 per cent of which are immigrants, mostly from the Middle East. Its development into an immigrant suburb began as a gradual process. Lying in an area within the high tech IT industry, immigrants have occupied only the low wage sector of the industry.  According to the Swedish newspaper Aftenbladet, 38 percent of youths between the ages of 20 and 25 in Husby are unemployed and have no educational programme to occupy them. Although nothing like on the same scale as in Paris riots in 2005, parallels have been drawn, between the problems facing immigrants in both countries. Five years after the Paris riots it was reported:

“…….Despite an outcry about the urban riots, some racially diverse estates in Clichy-sous-Bois still face over 40% unemployment for the under-25s.  A recent study of French citizens with immigrant parents found that they suffered higher unemployment, fared worse at school and faced more discrimination than other French people. Over a third felt society did not accept them as being French. They were stigmatised because of their race, religion and roots…..” [Angelique Chrisafis, “Immigration: France sees tensions rise five years on from Paris riots.” (Guardian, 16 November 2010]

In France in 2005, rioting began after two teenage boys died through electrocution while hiding from police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The London riots of August 2011 were sparked by police shooting dead Mark Duggan in Tottenham in circumstances have yet to investigated by an inquest. But looking deeply into the causes of these events, one finds that the rioters have simply utilized the only option left to them in refusing to be subdued and refusing to accept the mainstream narrative of youth criminality and moral decline as the subject and cause of their uprising.

The rapidly growing gap between the rich and poor has become one of the most visible aspects of liberal economic policies, even in the advanced welfare state of Sweden. Young immigrants living in immigrant areas in Stockholm have been living with the realities of exclusion from the mainstream society, without any chance of living their dreams as youths in a society that respects them and recognizes their potentials.

Another thing shown clearly here is the failure of the Swedish integration policy. This failure, accelerated by liberal economic policies that have driven low-income earners into more poverty, has also been used by liberal politicians to deepen the racial divide. Accusing immigrants of, among other things, not wanting to integrate into the mainstream culture of their new home and being responsible for the rising youth crimes in the city, politicians have refused to discuss the cause of these problems and have based their narrative on the  “backward” culture of the immigrant as the source of all of society’s problems — all for opportunist political consumption, to win votes and sympathy. The fact is that this works very well for right-wing politicians. The rise of the far right party, Sweden Democrats, is not due to economic issues alone; it has also to do with the insecurity of the Swedish people in general, who have seen rising crime within the immigrant society. The irony is that, according to the Swedish newspaper Aftenbladet, 14 per cent of the membership of this party is of people with immigrant backgrounds, mostly from the Middle East. In 2010 the anti-immigrant wind blowing through Europe reached the liberal Swedish society and in the election of that same year the Sweden Democrats entered parliament with 20 representatives.

The Husby riot, which replicated the Rinkeby riot of 2010, was also an expression of the frustration the young immigrants have been going through in the Swedish liberal society, especially their experience with law enforcement. However, the Husby riot challenged the narratives of liberalism with regard to human values and dignity as it exposed the true nature of a class divided  society. Swedish society might, at face value, appear to have limited the divide between the different classes. However, according to  Fredrik Liljeros, professor at the institution for Sociology at Stockholm University: “Class as a concept was invisible and not very interesting for quite a long time. Now it is obviously back again….” ( )

According to OECD figures for 2007, the top 1 percent of Swedish households controlled 29 per cent of the country’s wealth, and the top 10 percent of households controlled 72 per cent.

The degeneration of Husby and other immigrant areas, which have been heavily impacted by spending cuts to balance the national budget, will obviously have its ramifications. Swedish liberal politicians refused to recognize this in their interpretations of the incident, acting as if it is a moral issue. The liberal Swedish prime minister said people in Husby had responsibility “to take care of the situation. It is they who have to put an end to it and we have to show that we (Sweden) do not accept it…..”  And in response to this statement Social Democrat leader Sfefan Lofven said, “He puts the responsibility in the hands of the victims of the unrest, of the large majority who behave in Husby as the ones who should take responsibility for the crimes which only a few commit.”

It seems that for these political leaders, Husby is not the consequence of their social and economic policies but of how much parents have been able to allow their children to become so “criminal.” Such an attitude will certainly continue to encourage the marginalization of these youths and tends to confirm the fact that the European social democrats have more in common with capital than the working class they claim to represent. For the Youth, it is not a question of compromise. The future is not bright and there is no reason to believe that they will continue to accept their present status.


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1 Comment

  1. J E

    Thanks for the good summary of the situation in Husby. Another important factor relating to the development in Husby is the high degree of social mobilisation and activism in that suburb, i.e. the mature political environment. Here’s a text describing some of the social struggles against gentrification etc that has been going on there: