In 2013 the world was taken by surprise by the series of uprisings that took place in the high-rise suburbs of Stockholm and around Sweden--for a week Swedish youth were hitting the global headlines. The country had not seen unrest on this scale since the hunger riots that raged in Swedish cities during the first world war. But for anyone aware of the impact of the rapid neoliberalisation of the economy on Swedish society and people's expectations for the future, this rebellion, and suburban conflicts in general, had been expected for some time. (1)
The events began on 13 May, when the police were called to Husby, a suburb in northern Stockholm, to arrest a 69-year old man whose behaviour appeared threatening. During the process of arresting the man, in his own apartment, one of the officers shot him dead. Neighbours, together with local organisation the Megaphone, immediately arranged a meeting at which they demanded an explanation and called for an independent inquest. Furthermore, the version of events originally put out by the police turned out to be mendacious. According to their story, the man had been brought to the hospital but his life could not be saved --they claimed that he had died later that night in a hospital bed.
But the inhabitants of Husby knew for a fact that the police statement did not correspond with what had actually happened. They had taken pictures that proved that the body had left the apartment as a corpse several hours after the fatal shot. Many local people stated that they saw the behaviour of the police as an officially sanctioned offensive act, in line with the harassments that they experienced more or less daily. During the course of the following week tensions grew day by day, and one evening six days later, when emotions were boiling over, a group of youngsters ignited a large number of cars in the neighbourhood, in effect luring the police, local fire-fighters and the rescue service into their home suburb. In the course of their subsequent work of protecting the fire-fighters, the police were then exposed to stone throwing, and incendiary bombs were also thrown.
What followed was a ferocious battle, fought out in the streets and market-places of Husby. Several cars, apartment buildings and schools were set on fire. And by the next day the riots had already extended to other districts in Stockholm's urban periphery. (2) The volume of attention these events received in the media throughout the week of turmoil then itself contributed to their spreading to a number of smaller municipalities around Sweden. International media perceived what happened as particularly disturbing and shocking given that it did not chime in with the usual image of Sweden.
These May events were exceptionally widespread, but they were far from unique. On the contrary, the Swedish public has begun to accustom itself to news reports of cars being set alight and police charges against young people in the suburbs. At the end of 2008 Rosengard in Malmo and Tensta in Stockholm experienced similar tumultuous scenes, and during the summer of 2009 Gottsunda in Uppsala had its turn, as did three segregated suburbs in Gothenburg--Biskopsgarden, Angered and Backa. Indeed, during summer 2009 many other suburbs also became showcases for all the social tensions that are embedded in Swedish society. These disturbances gradually subsided, but permanent grievances continued to simmer below the surface--with the ever present possibility that things could get out of control and explode anew.
Causes of rebellion
Relationships with the law that are brimming with tension remain pervasive, and there is always a chance that these may then trigger the unfolding of similar events. However, blaming everything on police behaviour, even if there is a shoot-to-kill incident, is not a satisfactory response. Some of the underlying causes become apparent when we scrutinise the now fairly comprehensive research on similar occurrences in countries such as France and the UK. …