Gangs of 'Youths' Overrun Stockholm

Rioting continues to spiral as authorities refuse to name those responsible.

k-bigpicHusby is a neighborhood in western Stockholm which in 2007 had just over 11,000 inhabitants, fully 81.9% of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants. The other interesting fact in the brief Wikipedia entry on Husby is that the area contains “many runestones...remnants from when Vikings used to live here.”

There are, alas, few other signs of the area's Viking heritage.

The story begins on May 14, when Stockholm police were forced to shoot a man who was wielding a machete at them. He died. The cops were immediately accused of police brutality. A “community group” called Megafonen urged locals to demonstrate “for social justice and again st police violence.”

Last Sunday evening, apparently acting upon this suggestion, Husby erupted in the kind of wide-scale “youth” violence that has plagued suburbs in France and elsewhere for years. A school, a garage, and almost 100 cars were set on fire. And a gang attacked a cop.

On Monday evening, in further accordance with the Gallic precedent, things got even worse. Chaos reigned. Different reports provided different details, some of them sketchy. There were explosions. As of 9:36 PM Monday, Stockholm time, it was being reported that police officers were “running for their lives from youth gangs.” Twenty or so masked “youths” threw rocks at police officers and firefighters.  A reporter for the newspaper Expressen narrowly missed being hit by a metal pipe. One report mentioned “youths” stealing fire hoses. When “youths” set fire to a parking garage, police had to evacuate fifty people from a nearby apartment house. Four or five “youths” beat up a cop on a bridge before he managed to flee. As he ran off, a girl could be heard laughing and shouting “Allah akbar!”

In Husby, at least three police cars were reported to have been vandalized. Meanwhile reports began to come in of cars on fire in other parts of western Stockholm. “The situation is escalating constantly,”  a police spokesperson said on Monday evening. Late that night, The Local reported that over 100 cars had been set on fire in Husby and that a local shopping center had been vandalized, causing injury to three police officers.

Although Megafonen had itself urged its readers to demonstrate against police violence, it “explained” the rioting, in one statement, as an expression of frustration over high unemployment. “There is a great deal of hopelessness and powerlessness among the young people here,” read a comment by the organization, which added that it was important to “understand” the root causes of the rioting “and to find out what we can do” to make things better. In what seemed to be a contradiction, Megafonen spokesperson Rami Al-Kamisi called the rioting a “reaction to police brutality against citizens, our neighbors,” and said: “We understand that people react like this.”

In Norway, Ragnhild Bjørnebekk, who works at the Oslo Police College as a “violence researcher” (in the otherwise stagnant European economy, there's a growth field if I ever heard of one) said that the rioting in Husby is only the latest of several “youth disturbances” in Europe sparked by “suspicions of police violence.” (Yes, you know those trigger-happy Scandinavian police.) Mentioning riots that had taken place in recent years in Greece, Gothenberg, Malmö, Copenhagen, and various French cities, Bjørnebekk attributed them all to anger over police conduct. (“Allah akbar,” of course, is Arabic for “Down with police brutality.”) Still, Bjørnebekk found it important to mention that this kind of rioting is a relatively new phenomenon in northern Europe. “Setting fire to cars and trash containers during riots is typical of countries like France and Greece, but unusual in the Nordic countries,” Bjørnebekk said. (As if differences between Scandinavian and Mediterranean cultures had the slightest thing to do with any of this!)

To be sure, Bjørnebekk was right in suggesting that nightly car-burnings and the like are still not a fixed part of the cultural landscape in the Nordic countries as they are on the outskirts of Paris, Marseilles, and so on. Yes, there are stabbings, rapes, gay-bashings, Jew-bashings, acts of vandalism, and other gang activity aplenty; non-Muslims who live in certain parts of Stockholm, Malmö, Copenhagen, and (increasingly) Oslo are systematically tormented in schools and on the streets by “youths” who seem to grow bolder and more aggressive by the year. And yes, there have been “youth” riots in Scandinavia: on a couple of nights in January 2009, a violent mob of “youths” descended on downtown Oslo and smashed in the front windows of businesses in an area of several square blocks, effectively paralyzing the very heart of the city. The rioting, which was supposedly a response to Israeli actions in Gaza (and which has pretty much been dropped down the memory hole), stretched police resources to the limit. But no, I guess it's fair to say, as Bjørnebekk does, that so far regular car-burnings haven't been a major element of the Nordic mix.

As is usual, of course, in such cases, Swedish media reports on Monday night were almost uniformly careful to avoid using any word other than “youths” (or some equally innocuous term) to characterize the perpetrators of the violence. Although here and there between the lines it was clear enough what was going on, there was nothing you could really put your finger on until Dagbladet – the Norwegian one, note, not the Swedish one – dared to mention that girl shouting “Allah akbar!” By Tuesday morning, the Swedish media, while providing reasonably extensive coverage of the night's events, seemed to be making an effort to suggest that it hadn't really been all that bad and to emphasize that,  in any event, things had now quieted down. I did a pretty thorough online search of the major Swedish media, but couldn't find any report on the rioting that included the word Islam or Muslim or any reference to the girl who shouted “Allah akbar!”

The emphasis was, shall we say, on other matters. One article in Expressen, for example, focused on the fact that a policeman had actually – gasp – dared to draw his weapon during the hubbub. (The paper actually had a video of this horrible act.) The cop put his gun back after being informed that the rioter he was aiming at was only thirteen years old. (Police later told VG that several of the participants in the evening's festivities were as young as twelve.) On Tuesday morning, Megafon held a “well-attended” press conference the obvious intention of which was to turn the criminals into victims and the police into villains. The organization accused the police of deploying “excessive force” against the rioters; one speaker added the charge that cops, during the rampage, had used offensive language to describe immigrant-group members. Another speaker asked: “Who should you call when it's the police who attack? I have no idea.” The meme that it had all been the fault of police overreach quickly established itself, with Norway's Aftenposten stressing laments by Stockholm “youth” that the police are never punished for their abuse of power, while the “youth” are always blamed.

Meanwhile, a police officer who has worked for many years in western Stockholm (and who apparently preferred not to be identified) told Aftonbladet that the rioting, though horrible, amounted to “a typical day on the job.” He added: “People generally have no idea how serious it is, but there have been so many incidents in the past year that I'm sure it'll end up with a police officer being killed.”

The latest reports, at this writing, confirm that all this is plainly only the beginnning. The early hours of Wednesday morning saw a new round of stories in the Scandinavian papers announcing that Stockholm was being beset by riots for the third night in a row. Among much else, stones had been thrown at a police station and a school had been set on fire. The rioting, moreover, had spread even further, to several other parts of the city that had been previously unaffected. Brief video here. Stay tuned. There will certainly be more developments on this front in the days to come.

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