Husby and territorial stigma in Sweden

This statement appeared at the beginning of June in the Swedish broadsheet SVD, calling for a public investigation into the recent uprisings in Swedish suburbs.

Paul Gilroy Les Back
10 June 2013

Demotix/Rikard Stadler. All rights reserved.


Demotix/Rikard Stadler. All rights reserved.

The uprising in the poor high-rise suburbs in Stockholm and other Swedish cities in May took the world by surprise.  Sweden had not seen such unrest since the bread riots in 1917, 15 years before the Social Democrats launched ’the Swedish Model’. For those of us aware of the rapid neo-liberalization of Swedish society since the 1990s the unrest and conflict has been anticipated for some time.

The events started in Husby, after police killed a 69-year old man. The police reported that he died from injuries in a hospital, but Husby residents had photographed the police removing the dead body from the apartment in the middle of the night. As cars were set on fire in Husby and other suburbs, our thoughts immediately went to similar events in Paris (2005), Athens (2008) and London (2011). In all of these cases, the igniting spark was a police killing.  But there are also other and more important similarities between these cases, providing a more thorough explanation to events that have been called both ‘uprisings’ and ‘riots’.

In all cases we are dealing with deeply segregated cities. Crucially, urbanization in its current European form is deeply racialised - and Sweden is no longer an exception.  Its city centers have become thoroughly gentrified enclaves for the white middle/upper-class, whilst its poorest suburbs are increasingly non-white. Since the 1990s, when liberalizations in Sweden started, Swedish big cities now belong to the most segregated in Europe. According to a government report, more that 40% of young people aged between 20-25 in the poor suburbs neither study nor work, and more than 50% of children grow up in poverty.  A recent OECD report shows that Sweden has the fastest growing income gap of all of the 34 countries surveyed. Swedish housing policies, that once regulated the housing market, have been dismantled.  Non-profit municipal housing companies, created in the 1940s as part of the program ‘Good Housing for All’, have been privatized, and those that remain public are, according to a 2011 law, forced to be profit-making.

In addition to this, the welfare state has more or less abandoned the high-rise suburbs. These areas are the ones most severely hit by cutbacks in the public sector. In the case of the schools, a combination of cutbacks and a free-school reform has had disastrous effects, with Swedish pupils’ school results dropping from the top to the bottom of OECD ranking. In the suburbs, less than 50% make it to upper secondary school.  While social workers and youth centers have more or less disappeared, police presence has increased.

French urban sociologist Loìc Wacquant has analysed this as a political shift from Keynesian ’welfare’ to ’neoliberal ’workfare’. On the one hand this means more freedom for those who belong to the privileged in the city’s gentrified (however isolated and security obsessed) centres. On the other hand it means less freedom for those in the periphery, who become subjected to new disciplinary measures and lowered subsidies. In Sweden the liberal-conservative government has named this policy ‘the work line’.

In addition to this, there is structural discrimination. Research in Sweden has established that with equal merits for ”Erik” and ”Mohammed”, the latter always has lesser chance of getting a job or an apartment (outside the poor suburbs). The stigma of place and racism also contributes to this discrimination. The recent debate on everyday racism raging in Sweden has been a wakeup call for many white Swedes living in the bubbles of their gentrified enclaves. In Husby and other Swedish suburbs, youth have testified that they have been called ‘monkeys’ by police.

Wacquant calls this place-related discrimination ‘territorial stigmatization’. This social psychological dimension of segregation can also shed some light on the event that triggered the uprisings. When the police shoot an inhabitant in a stigmatized area, it can easily be experienced as an officially sanctioned violation that also symbolizes all of the violations that the inhabitants have suffered for years and in silence. 

In the Swedish case there is yet another triggering factor. As the 1 million flats in the high rise suburbs, built in the 1960s and 1970s to resolve the housing shortage at that time, has been subjected to systematic disinvestment, they are now in need of extensive renovations. So far it is tenants who have to pay for these renovations, with over 50% rent increases.  A nation-wide urban movement is now emerging to protest against this, and Husby was the place where it started a few years ago. The local government’s dialogue with the residents, and its ‘development program’ for the area, has however left the residents even more frustrated.

There is a clear pattern emerging from the experiences of urban unrest in Paris, Athens, London and now Stockholm. First and foremost urban segregation cannot be dealt with without profound political change, reversing the neo-liberalization that has only brought increasing social inequality and unemployment.  We can also learn that increasing police presence in poor urban areas is provocative and counter-productive.  Further, it is absolutely necessary for governments to initiate a dialogue with existing self-organisation in the poor urban areas.  Husby however also tells us that if such dialogue does not address structural problems, it will only lead to more social frustration.

Finally, we have demanded that the Swedish government appoints a public investigation into the events in Husby, including the death of the Husby resident and police action before and during the uprising in the suburbs. However, considering the complete failure of the present national government’s programme to address segregation, as well as the failure of local government programmes such as the one in Husby, the investigation should also engage in a thorough analysis of the causes behind the precarious social situation of the population in the Swedish high rise suburbs. 

Les Back, Sociology, Goldsmith’s College, University of London

Mustafa Dikec, Human Geography, University of London

Paul Gilroy, Professor of Sociology, King’s College

Carina Listerborn, Professor of Built Environment, Malmö University

Irene Molina, Professor of Human Geography, University of Uppsala

Ove Sernhede, Professor, Centre for Urban Studies, University of Gotenburg

Tom Slater, Human Geography, University of Edinburgh

Catharina Thörn, Cultural Science University of Gotenburg

Håkan Thörn, Professor of Sociology, University of Gotenburg

Antonis Vradis, Human Geography, London School of Economics

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