Nights of rioting test Sweden’s reputation for tolerance

People watch as Swedish firemen extinguish burning cars in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby after youths rioted in several suburbs around Stockholm for a fourth consecutive night on Thursday.
(Jonathan Nackstrand / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)
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LONDON -- Residents of Stockholm braced for more violence Friday after five consecutive nights of rioting that have rocked the Swedish capital and shaken the Scandinavian country’s self-image as a tolerant, liberal place.

Since Sunday, sections of northwestern and southern Stockholm have lighted up with the glow of fires started by rock-throwing rioters apparently protesting a fatal shooting by police last week. Schools, shops, a library and about 150 vehicles have been set ablaze during the nightly rampages, which some commentators say are rooted in feelings of despair and disenfranchisement among the city’s poor and its growing immigrant population.

Nearly 30 people have been arrested, and a few officers have received minor injuries, said Kjell Lindgren, a spokesman for Stockholm police.


He said police would more than double their deployment in riot-torn areas to about 350 officers Friday night, including reinforcements from other parts of the country. Lindgren added that the violence appeared to be waning after peaking earlier in the week, when the situation had grown “rather wild.”

Swedes have been shocked by the images of destruction and by the convulsion of anger and fear in their usually easygoing capital. Television footage showed smoking husks of cars on otherwise ordinary-looking streets.

The unrest has raised uncomfortable questions in a once-homogeneous society now dealing with a relatively recent influx of immigrants, many of them from war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise and has become a political force in the far-right Swedish Democrats party.

The proximate cause of the rioting was the May 13 death of a man in his late 60s in the Husby district of Stockholm, a predominantly immigrant community where unemployment runs higher than the national average. Police say the man had threatened people on the street with a machete-like weapon and then continued to pose a danger after going inside an apartment building, where officers shot him.

But the incident roused anger in an area whose residents have complained of police abuse and racism and of institutional neglect. Violence erupted Sunday and escalated the following two or three nights.

Witnesses told Swedish media that some officers who responded to the unrest used racial slurs and called residents “monkeys” and “rats.” Lindgren said there would be an independent investigation of the accusations.


“We see a government whose answer to social problems is more police. We see police brutality and harassment in our areas,” Megafonen, a local activist organization, said in an editorial published in the Aftonbladet newspaper Friday. “We call on everyone in the area to organize themselves for justice. Then our cars shall not burn; then stones shall not be thrown.”

Media reports said that firefighters responded to 70 separate incidents Thursday night, down from 90 the previous night.

Of the 29 arrests made as of Friday afternoon, all but one were of young men ages 16 to 26, said Lindgren, who warned that more arrests were likely.

During the first couple of nights of rioting, “there was no possibility to make arrests, because it was rather wild,” Lindgren said. “But we also have identified criminals that are going to be questioned in the near future. ... We got a quite good picture of who they are.”

About 15% of Sweden’s 9.5 million people are foreign-born, many of them drawn to the Scandinavian country because of its liberal asylum policies for refugees from armed conflict. But absorption and integration have not always been smooth, and critics say that social inequalities across Swedish society as a whole have grown rapidly in recent years, breeding resentment.

Still, few Swedes expected this week’s eruption of violence.

In an open letter on Facebook that has received widespread attention, Stockholm firefighter Mattias Lassen asked those who hurled rocks at him and his colleagues why they were doing so.


“Luckily I had my helmet on so the stone only left a large scar in my helmet. ... Luckily no one was hurt physically by the stones you threw at us,” Lassen wrote. “But you have affected my and my friends’ work life forever. ... I also have a family that wants to see me again, just like you.”


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Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Washington contributed to this report.