Can Europe Make It?

Why did the Stockholm riots occur?

How could this occur in a country known for its developed democracy, egalitarianism, and well-functioning integration policy model? The police are important.

Per Adman
21 August 2013

The Swedish debate surrounding the recent disturbances in Husby and other suburbs of Stockholm has followed a familiar pattern. Some voices claim that the violence was caused by criminal gangs, that the problem has to do with keeping law and order, and that the solution simply is to strengthen police resources. Others argue that it is a kind of violent political protest – caused by unemployment, political marginalization, socioeconomic inequality, and lack of hope for the future – and that these conditions must be addressed in order to prevent similar incidents in the future.

These very different views were evident as early as the 1960s, during the large number of riots in the United States. They have since then been repeated frequently, with the English debate on the London Riots in 2011 as a recent example. The similarities between the debates are striking, despite their origins being traceable to different countries and decades. 

In the Swedish debate, voices have been raised demanding a thorough investigation of the recent violence and its causes. Indeed, it seems vital that a thorough investigation – in the form of a governmental commission, for example – is conducted. Until such an investigation has been undertaken, it is far too early to draw any definitive conclusions concerning the reasons for the violence.

The disturbances in Stockholm were not as extensive as for example in London 2011 and Paris 2005, either in terms of the number of dead and injured – or in the case of material destruction. Still, an established research discourse exists on the causes of riots, and it is enlightening to consider the events in Stockholm in the light of investigations based on other countries and cities.  

Existing research converges on one finding in particular: these spontaneous and unorganized outbreaks of violence occur almost exclusively in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods with high unemployment especially among young people. The residents have few hopes of improved life chances, distrust in politicians is widespread and politics is perceived as more or less impossible to influence. Furthermore, the violence tends to happen in the participants' own neighborhoods. It is also relatively common that the unrest spreads to other disadvantaged parts of the same or even of other cities.

Socio-economic difficulties and political marginalization is, however, not the entire explanation. Harsh conditions are more or less a permanent feature of life in many city areas but riots are nevertheless uncommon events. Research shows that it is usually a confrontation with the police that turns some residents’ feelings of hopelessness and frustration into violent acts. Often individuals belonging to ethnic minorities clash with police after an incident which is perceived as deeply unfair and typical of the treatment that many inhabitants in the area regularly perceive themselves as exposed to.

When several incidents occur close in time to each other the risk of a riot is further increased. This applies for example to London 2011: according to a preliminary research study, the police actions (passivity and lack of engagement) after the killing of Mark Duggan contributed to the outbreak of violence. The police beating of Rodney King, and the fiercely disputed judicial process that followed, is similarly said to have triggered the very violent riots in Los Angeles in 1992. 

Should riots then be considered as violent political protests against difficult socio-economic circumstances, lack of political influence and perceived discrimination by the police? According to the research, it is not quite so simple. Initially, the violence is often mainly protest-oriented and directed against the police, combined with vandalism. At later stages instead looting of shops and others’ property tend to dominate, as in London in 2011. Then it is also frequent that criminal gangs join in with their own theiving, as the police have less control than usual over the situation. Individual riot participants appear to have different motives, an observation that also is valid when it comes to participation in non-violent demonstrations for example.  

As for the Swedish case, at first glance the conditions and preceding events appear to fit with the international research observations. The riots took place in disadvantaged neighborhoods with high unemployment, especially among young people, and spread to other similar areas. As for the residents’ view on politics and politicians, it is something that still needs to be researched. We would like to know whether media reports, and several other voices in the debate, were correct in claiming that many of the areas' residents, especially young individuals, lack confidence both in the future and in politics. The relationship with the police seemed to be tense, and a week before the riots an incident occurred in which the police shot and killed a 69-year old man in his apartment. The man was armed with a knife and was said to have been showing threatening behaviour. Rumours spread that the police later tried to conceal certain facts surrounding the death.  

What conclusions can then be drawn about how to avoid riots? As already said, future research investigations and commissions should be awaited before any definitive conclusions can be drawn about the causes of the riots, and the extent to which it may have been sparked by the police conduct. Some tentative conclusions may however be drawn.

The relationship with the police is important. The likelihood of violence decreases if the residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods are treated in ways they perceive as respectful. According to research, the use of social and racial markers to detect potential criminals – such as skin colour, gender, age, clothing, language and behaviour in general – should be avoided (cf. the ‘Reva project’, heavily debated in Sweden this winter, during which the police in Stockholm carried out identity checks in the subway to find undocumented migrants). Investigations show that it is more appropriate to recruit police officers belonging to various ethnic minorities and to cooperate closely with residents in different ways. For instance, during the Stockholm disturbances, many residents walked around the neighborhoods during nighttime – encouraged by the police –in order to talk with the riot participants and to calm things down. According to the police this had a positive effect on reducing the violence. 

The police are, however, sometimes exposed to threatening situations in which it is not easy to act respectfully. There is always a risk that provocative incidents will take place. The main implication of the research on riot therefore is rather evident: the long-term remedy for avoiding riots is to improve the situation in disadvantaged neighborhoods. With less economically deprived, frustrated and discontented residents, there is little potential for minor clashes with the police developing into more large-scale violence.

Of course this not an easy task, especially as the situation has changed for the worse; Stockholm during recent decades has seen a steady increase in income differentials between different city areas, with differences now being bigger than in many other larger European cities. Individuals often end up living in disadvantaged areas not because they want to but because they have no other options. Reversing the trend will evidently take time.

However research findings showing that government-sponsored programmes may improve the overall situation and have a politically empowering effect on the residents (see e.g., Strömblad 2003) are promising. Such programmes should furthermore include all groups in these areas. If political marginalization and socio-economic disadvantage primarily concern young individuals, the risk is probably small for extremely extensive riots with a large part of the local community involved (as in Los Angeles in 1992); more limited outbreaks of violence like in Stockholm may however still occur. 

The events in Stockholm have received considerable attention in the international media. It has been noted with surprise that riots occur in Swedish suburbs. If, as expected, future studies find that political marginalization and socio-economic disadvantages are strongly linked to the violence, the natural conclusion is not to question the value of an open and tolerant multicultural society. On the contrary, it is more important than ever before to find ways to reduce political marginalization and socio-economic disadvantages in these city areas.  


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