Burning cars in the banlieues as acts of citizenship

The worlds of concrete, the car and masculinity are ways to delve into acts which have only so far attracted attention for their violence and destructive capability. 

Burning cars and youth rioting in the streets, followed by demonizing images in the media; the scene is becoming increasingly common, France in 2005, Greece in 2008 or the UK in 2011.

In Sweden, in the city of Gothenburg, cars in several urban peripheries were set alight on an unprecedented scale in the late summer of 2009. Sweden is a country more associated with inclusive welfare and gender equality. So the chaos created was also incomprehensible and frightening. Some Swedes made direct links to the burning of cars in the French banlieues at the end of 2005, immediately calling for increased police presence, and blaming failures of immigration and integration policies. The mainstream media were quick to frame the youngsters setting cars alight as either villains or victims; either dangerous perpetrators, or young people excluded, trapped and imprisoned in these areas. I propose instead to explore the burning of cars in the banlieues of Gothenburg as acts of citizenship in which the youth enact their own equality.

Burnt out car during the French suburb riots, 2005. Wikimedia/Francois Schnell. Some rights reserved.

The fading allure of concrete

How does the burning of cars introduce a rupture in the given and everyday? How do these events break away from the expected, from routine and habitual ways of performing a script and in turn, what new scripts are set in motion? These are not always conscious acts with intentional outcomes, nor always founded on prevailing notions of law and responsibility. What if the burning of cars is not a question of gaining entry and being included; not asking for equal treatment or equal distribution of entitlements, but something else entirely?

The burning of cars in 2009 took place in particular areas; förorten, the peripheries of Gothenburg, or the banlieue. Förorten is often framed as without a history; as constantly immature and in need of intervention and discipline. It is also often associated with being a concrete jungle, symbolizing stigma and deprivation. However, this was not always the case. Simply put, concrete has gone from symbolizing the future to signifying failure and disappointment. How did this happen and how did concrete lose its allure? To understand this better, and to explore the banlieue as a site of political contestation, we need to turn to history.

Postwar Gothenburg, along with the rest of Sweden and many parts of the world, experienced an industrial boom in the postwar period, which is often referred to as the ‘record years’ (rekordåren). This is also the period in which the Swedish welfare state, with its ideal of Folkhemmet[1], materializes and becomes part of a renowned image around the world of the Swedish Model or Swedish Exceptionalism. Some locate the record years between 1945 and 1974. Others suggest 1950 to 1970. But what is interesting in this expansive period is what expectations were aroused that ended up by indelibly associating the banlieue with disappointment and failure as it drew to an end.

In Gothenburg, at the beginning of this period, the port and the shipyards are at the fore, but are gradually surpassed by Volvo, the car manufacturer, as the dominant employer. Until the mid 1960s, the south side of the harbour is the node of commerce with several ferry lines and ship-building agencies. However, with the introduction of containers, the growth in railway infrastructure and oil refineries, the focus shifts almost exclusively to the north side, to the island of Hisingen. Here, in 1964, signifying the peak of industrial production in Gothenburg, Götaverken (shipyard), Torslandaverken (Volvo), and Skandiahamnen (container port) are all established, shifting widespread industrial production across the city to fewer, more concentrated locations.

This was also the time when the banlieue in a sense comes into existence, physically at least. In part as a result of the industrial demand for workers’ housing to meet the expanding need and speed of production. But the story also goes further back, to the 1930s and the onset of Folkhemmet and to the development of a national housing policy in the 1940s with the overall goal of a “respectable home for all”. The Swedish notion of the banlieue has a range of connections to the so-called Miljonprogrammet (the Million Home Programme). This was a national endeavour, little short of utopian, to build one million homes in a ten year period – from 1965 to 1974. Förorten and Miljonprogrammet are not synonymous, but many of the concrete high-rises that stereotypically portray the banlieue were built through this programme. Although, there was also a range of low-rise and single-household dwellings built at the time. Still, the image of the concrete high-rise has in many ways become the demonized norm, despite the fact it was not the only shape or size of building constructed.

Miljonprogrammet and its utopian ambition can probably best be understood against the setting of the record years; the general belief in a constant and rapid industrial expansion, and the currents of welfare state heyday at play in Sweden during this era. The story goes that the old, cramped, grim and unhygienic living conditions of the past were to be replaced by a future of light, space, balconies, fridges and laundry rooms; all in all, to be replaced by modernity as idealized through Folkhemmet. In this way, Miljonprogrammet represents the dream of modernity, as the new dwellings would help embody modern social democratic welfare society with a high standard of living and good life for each and every one. Almost at least.

Despite all the planning, good intentions and grand visions, a dominant discourse of failure nonetheless prevailed from the onset. Many of the areas populated through Miljonprogrammet turned out to be disappointments even before they were half complete, or perhaps rather because they were never fully completed, due to the considerable delays in the rapid industrial expansion. This is where several scholars locate the beginning of a downward spiral; from dreams of utopia to territorial stigmatization. Many who enthusiastically moved into these areas to get away from over-crowded and deprived residential areas, and to live the dream of modernity, ended up in construction sites which quickly developed a permanent air or stigma of the unfinished. In the 1970s this was largely replaced by a focus on crime and social problems in these areas, and in the 1980s gradually dominated by the Other; the immigrant, as both dangerous and exoticized.

Stigma, fear and criminality have since become recurring themes attached to the banlieue, but these perceptions are not at all specific to Sweden. French banlieues have been the “Badlands of the Republic”, not only by the media but also in public policy, evoking images of alterity, insecurity and deprivation. These images have in addition become closely connected to a fear of immigration. Other studies have compared the construction of “neighbourhoods in exile” as French banlieues and American “ghettos” are both singled out, feared and deprecated through processes of urban restructuring. Parallels are drawn between France and Sweden, suggesting that despite differences in scale, similar processes of territorial stigmatization, stereotypical demonization and social stratification can be found in several Swedish urban peripheries. It can be shown that ideas regarding the danger of “threatening banlieue youth” in the banlieues of Gothenburg have over the years become normalized and naturalized.

By burning these cars, the youth in a way draw attention to the limits, gaps and boundaries of this normalizing and naturalizing framing of the banlieue and its youth population. They create a rupture in the given that reaches far beyond the banlieue. It reaches across the city and further away through mediatized images, policy responses, along with public consciousness and selective memory. And each time it moves a common question is posed.

Athens, 2008. Demotix/Valentina Perniciaro. All rights reserved.

Why are they burning their neighbours’ cars?

Why, if this is anything but senseless violence, are the youth stupid enough to burn the cars of their equally deprived neighbours and not the cars of the wealthy people across the city? Would that not make more sense, if these events are supposed to be political, was a frequent question in the late summer of 2009. Several of my interviewees asked themselves the same. This question can be explored from multiple angles. Answers ranging from the youth being trapped in their neighbourhoods, to insurance scams, or the importance of location in political protest, are amongst those that have been mentioned to me. When cars were burned out in over 300 French banlieues in November 2005, attention was also drawn to the importance of the car; its symbolic value of physical mobility. Was the violence and destruction of setting a car alight directed towards a symbol of what is denied the youth: and is the car a symbol of the lack of mobility the youngsters experience in the French banlieues?

All these explanations might have varying degrees of validity to them, but what most of them have in common is that they assume calculable and intentional actors making conscious decisions before they act. As Engin Isin suggests; if an act is interpreted within already existing concepts, assuming intentional and responsible actors, the act is in advance already predetermined by existing categories and standards. If we want to break with that order, we need to think differently. What if instead a myriad decisions are continuously made and remade? The emphasis then becomes less focused on finding a moment of critical decision-making or choice, but rather to trace a series of banal, little connections. Perhaps what we are dealing with is a multiplicity of dispersed and diffuse moments and actions that invest insecurity in everyday life rather than exceptional practices and rational decisions.

So let us begin to understand this series of little connections by returning to Miljonprogrammet and how the banlieue is very much constructed with the car in focus. The car was an important or rather essential component in the postwar housing boom. The increased affordability of the car radically changed the conditions and possibilities for where and how to build. The car accordingly transformed modes of transport and infrastructure in an unprecedented way. Not only did it allow Gothenburg to expand and incorporate neighbouring municipalities such as Frölunda, Torslanda, Angered, Bergum and Tuve, but it also transformed the planning and structure of the city in substantial ways. For instance, the major thoroughfare of Oscarsleden in Majorna cut the city off from much of the south side of the river, while the junction of E6 and E20 at Olskroken cut off previously accessible connections between the east parts of the city and the city centre. The impact and legacy of these infrastructural transformations are not to be underestimated in contemporary Gothenburg, not least in the peripheries.

Many of the areas populated through Miljonprogrammet in the northeast of Gothenburg were intended to house workers employed at the car manufacturer Volvo. The bridge connecting Angered with the island of Hisingen, opened in 1978, along with the thoroughfare leading right up to Torslandaverken, are both indications of these aspirations and the growing importance of Volvo at the time. However, several more connections can be made between Volvo and the banlieue. For instance, the crisis in 2008, when around 3000 employees in the Gothenburg region were laid off from Volvo, contributed to a very dire situation for the youth in the banlieue as youth unemployment in Gothenburg rapidly increased, particularly in the banlieues as indicated in the report Fokus 08 (Ungdomsstyrelsen 2009). Regardless if the youth themselves were employed at Volvo at the time or not, many were affected both in real and symbolic terms.

The car in this sense has multiple meanings and images attached to it, but it is perhaps not as a symbol the car is significant, but rather as a mediating device between these multiple worlds and connections enacted. Using the car in this way, as an entry point to opening up new worlds to be further explored, challenges the dichotomous reading of these events, but also the dichotomous reading of the city itself.

Through the act of burning cars in the banlieue multiple worlds are enacted, be it in relation to infrastructural transformations or the growing importance of Volvo as suggested above, or entirely different, small little nothings that take this analysis beyond the familiar and entrenched divisions and connections. The “why burn your neighbour’s car” question somewhat loses its capacity to explain, and instead focus shifts to connections, consequences and multiple realities. More important to ask then is what are we are not seeing, what are the limits of our vision and understandings when using already established frames and categories? For instance, where are the women in the dominant narratives of the banlieue and youth burning cars?

Banlieue youth, Goa Gubbar and the absence of women

The youth associated with burning cars in the banlieues are almost exclusively young men, often of migrant origin. Masculinity and the banlieue are frequently studied either in connection to youth gangs, hiphop, or the colonial Other. Yet these studies rarely mention women. Should they be so entirely missing from the prevailing storyline about youth burning cars? When I asked about this, many of my interviewees raised the local preoccupation with Goa Gubbar.

Rioting in Hackney, London, 2011. Demotix/Matthew Aslett. All rights reserved.

There is no way to exactly translate this expression. Gubbar are old men and the phrase can be used pejoratively, but not necessarily so. Also the age is not fixed. Goa is a colloquial Gothenburg expression for good or great, in plural. However, great old men is not what the expression means. Instead the meanings personify the political and economic leaders who actually, but not always officially, make policy decisions in Gothenburg. It is a loaded expression and depending on who uses it the meaning shifts between positive and negative connotations. It also relates to how Gothenburg is often referred to as a blue collar working-class city (arbetarstad) alluding to its industrial past. Most of the shipyards and industrial production are long gone and what remains are efforts to reinvent the city, to make a new image of entrepreneurial knowledge production and event promotion prosper.

It has been suggested that the image of a masculine working-class Gothenburg have over the years of industrial development come to be dominated by the western parts of the city, by the harbour, rather than the industrial production to the east, not least due to the many (invisible) women working in the textile industries in Gårda and Gamlestaden. In the eighteenth century the political and economic elite of Gothenburg were rich merchants and traders, men of course, who have been referred to as “richesse obligé”, thanks to their strong culture of charitable giving. Sahlgrenska hospital, Chalmers University of Technology, Keiller park, and the Dickson foundation for housing the poor, are only a few contemporary institutions originating from these donations. Several of these merchants had English and Scottish origin, hence the unofficial epithet of Gothenburg as ‘Little London’ and the unusual frequency of male names such as Glenn and Morgan.

Göran Johansson was a member of the Gothenburg City Council for 37 years and chairman of the City Council Executive Board between 1993 and 2008. In many ways he can be said to personify the notion of Goa Gubbar. What became evident through my interviews is that his name and legacy is still very present in Gothenburg. In relation to Goa Gubbar another recurring theme emerges in this connection; the fear of standing out within the municipality. This fear is explained to be self-disciplining and very much in accordance with the dominant, masculine, partnership-oriented culture of consensus building, from which women are almost entirely absent. Drawing on these different yet connected themes of masculinity, an industrial blue-collar past, a normalizing consensus of not standing out, the events which led to burning cars in the banlieue could not fit the picture less. There is a rupture; this time in the normalizing consensus of Goa Gubbar. And it is important that women are not only missing in the dominant narratives about youth burning cars in the banlieue, but they are also totally absent from narratives of the city, both its past and present.

What I would like to propose is that the burning of cars in the banlieues of Gothenburg in 2009 were acts that created a rupture with a city discourse that is divided, challenging the ascribed positions and framings of the banlieue and forcing its contradictions out into the open. They are furthermore a provocation, which asks what we mean by politics. The rejection of the positions and framings on offer is not attempted for the sake of replacing them with others, but as an equality claim. The status quo is challenged in the name of equality, not only as a demand directed at others but also as a proof to themselves, verifying their own equal status as makers of meaning. They do not intend to sit quiet and wait for equality to arrive or be distributed, but instead they act. Through this act, the youth demonstrate their political capacity, thereby beginning to alter the relations of the possible.

The most political characteristic of these acts lies in its creative aspect where the actor neither arrives at a scene nor flees from it, but engages in its creation and thus helps to write new scripts. I suggest that the burning of cars is not simply impulsive or just a violent reaction to a scene already created, but rather a creative rupture - a challenge calling the dominant script of victims and villains into question, while also presupposing their own equality and making an intervention in this dominant framing as equals. As such it is an act of citizenship.

[1] Folkhemmet is a political concept originating in the 1930s and played an important role in the development of the Swedish Social Democratic party and its emphasis on universal health care and unemployment benefits.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

About the author


Helen Arfvidsson is a PhD research student in the department of politics and international studies, The Open University.

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