Friday, 18 September 2009

The Riots 4: Vignettes

This will be a descriptive and fragmentary entry (too fragmentary to be called a montage). I'll start with a brief description of what happened in Rosengård (part of Malmö in southern Sweden)in December 2008. That will be followed by three vignettes from the riot and the aftermath, which I think will give a taste both of the atmosphere during the riots and of how the mass media reported them. The first of these is a translation of a newspaper article with a few comments added. The final two ones are shorter. They are based on newspaper articles and concern the police.

I.
The riots broke out shortly before Christmas in December 2008. They were triggered by conflict involving the refusal of a landlord to renew the contract of a basement used as a mosque by the Salafist Islamic Culture Society. For three days we saw things on the news which were reminiscent of the Paris riots 2005 or the recent riots in Greece: cars and trucks overturned and set on fire, burning telephone booths and recycling stations, vandalized gasoline stations, damaged police vehicles and clashes in the night with hordes of young people attacking the police and the fire brigade with stones, eggs, fireworks rockets and homemade bombs. Buses were cancelled and the traffic on the major road through the area was stopped as hundreds of young people started attacking cars with stones from an overpass. Thirty or so members of autonomous groups rallied to the area to participate in the clashes. No one was hurt, but seventeen young people were taken into custody. Acts of arson and attacks against the fire brigades continued for a half a year after the riots.

II.
Here is my translation of an article published in Dagens nyheter.
A meeting with power an evening without fires
As the sun sets over Rosengård the young start to gather as usual outside the drug store in Herrgården. A kilometer away the fire brigade at Jägersro fire station is waiting for the first alarm from Rosengård. But tonight there is no alarm. Yesterday evening the recycling station next to the drug store was burnt down to the ground. Nothing remains but the charred stone foundation and a container with some soot-covered remains.
“We needed to warm ourselves”, one of the youngsters outside the drug store says and holds out his hands as towards a fire. The other 10-15 youngsters laugh in agreement.
Dagens nyheter [the newspaper] has brought Ilmar Reepalu to Herrgården to hear his explanation of the constant fires and attacks on policemen and fire fighters. The reportage takes a new turn as we are stopped by youngsters, who are eager to talk.
“What’s your name”, the kid who appears to be leader in the group asks.
“My name’s Ilmar”
“What’s your job?”
“I try to run this city”
Ilmar Reepalu is the chairman of the municipal government since many years back and a social democratic politician.
“We’d need a space for leisure activities. Why not where the mosque used to be!”, the leader who introduced himself as Kalle says. “And we also need new recycling stations to warm ourselves”.
Loud laughter. The youngster are cocky but definitely not unfriendly. They don’t know who Reepalu is, no one reads Swedish newspapers here. But when he answers to one of their questions by saying that, yes, he’s met Fredrik Reinfeldt [the prime minister], they start to realize that he’s some kind of big shot. Not that they’re impressed, but they start listening.
“We need a space for leisure activities for us who are over 16 years”, Kalle continues.
“Burning down a recycling station is not the way you get a space for leisure activities. Things don’t work like that”, Reepalu answers.
”We do it our way. Nobody listens to us”, one of the youngsters says.
“You know why all this happened in Rosengård”, another says, “It’s because the police harasses us. They took my little brother who’s only fifteen and when he got home his face was all bruised up”. The youngsters return again and again to the harassments by the police and claim that this is the reason for the fires of the last weeks.
“But why do you attack the fire brigade”, Reepalu asks.
“We didn’t! We threw stones at the police”.
“It can’t be very fun for you yourselves if there are fires all the time in your own neighborhood”, Reepalu says. “It may be fun right now while it lasts, but not later. Tell me what you want to do yourselves to improve things here”.
Kalle draws his breath to start a small speech: “Ilmar, let me tell you something. We don’t have any expectations here. I don’t think things will be better. I tell you that straightaway. Do you know why? Well, we’ve talked to journalists, to the police and with the municipality. But nothing happens. Not a single stone has been changed. Look at that”, he says and points at a house behind a high fence. “Everything is just brown, brown, brown”.
“If you got some paint would you paint it and make it nicer?”
“If you can fix work to all of us here in Rosengård no one’ll destroy anything”
Suddenly the cocky tone subsides and the youngsters start listening intently.
“Are you ready to work here”, Reepalu asks.
“We all are”, they reply all at the same time.
“But not cleaning up!”
“Who’s going to do that then?”
“The municipality”
This time it’s Reepalu’s turn to laugh.
Kalle writes down his name and telephone number on a piece of paper and hands it to Reepalu. He promises to contact the local landlord to hear if they are interested in engaging the younsters.
“If I make it nice here and a kid comes and tries to burn it down, I’ll hit him”, Kalle says by way of conclusion.
As Dagens Nyheter and Reepalu leave the youngsters a middle-aged man calls out to us.
“You’ve just talked to the ones who’re destroying Rosengård! They’re idiots, raised in the forest instead of at home. Their parents haven’t taught them respect for humanity. They’re the one who plant all the fires”.
But this night there are no fires in Rosengård.
(“Möte med makten en kväll utan brand”, DN, 2009-03-26)
The tone in this reportage is carefully optimistic, almost sunny. But this carefully optimistic account should be read in a carefully pessimistic way, against the background of a massive reporting about the problems of Rosengård. Malmö as a whole has the greatest proportion of poor children in the country and in Rosengård, where more than 94% of the children are of foreign background, 76% of the children are classified as poor. This poverty reflects that of their households. In Rosengård 38% of the inhabitants work, to be compared with 78% in wealthier parts of Malmö. The proportion of children or young in Rosengård is far higher than average. According to a report published in April 2009, half of the area’s inhabitants are below 26 years, to be compared to 31% for the country as a whole (DN 2009-04-22). In school, their results are markedly below the average for the city as a whole. The reportage mentions spaces for leisure. One reason that such spaces are lacking is that far more people are living in Rosengård than the area was planned for. Living in overcrowded apartments, young kids are often forced outside where they drift around with little else to do (girls by contrast tend to stay at home and 58% of women in the age interval 20-25 years are already mothers, as compared to 10% for the country as a whole) (These statistics are gathered from various articles in DN from 2008 onwards; I’m not sure if they are wholly accurate but they will serve to give a general picture).
Another thing that strikes me in the reportage is the clarity with which the youngsters tell Reepalu what they want. They want more space for leisure activities, they want work and they’re fed up with police harassments. I found myself wondering why so many commentators persist in describing the riots as nothing but blind violence and the rioters as lacking in political self-awareness and unable to articulate their demands. A scurry of theories exist about what the rioters want. Some appear to be totally unfounded (perhaps I will have reason to return to these later). Others appear to be derived mainly from ideological standpoints – the idea of the riots as a protest against neoliberalism or as a slap in the face of “Western culture”. I’m not saying here that ideology is necessarily false, but the problem with ideologically derived formulas is that they can be constructed without much help of reality. Political views will of course always influence how one views what is happening in society, but when it comes to interpretations of people’s motivations I prefer those that listen to what the people in question are saying to those that don’t even bother to ask. The material I’ve read so far contains very little of such listening (although I’ll of course go on looking for more), but what I think this article shows is that the young rioters don’t lack any political awareness at all. As far as I can see they are very clear about their demands. Who said you must mention neoliberalism or “Western values” to have political awareness? Furthermore, the demands seem perfectly reasonable. The riddle doesn’t consist in the young rioters’ political awareness. It consists in the fact that these perfectly reasonable demands are refused or not heard and that those who put forward them are branded as extremists.

III.
Three young people are prosecuted for participating in the riot. Sequences from a film are shown in count in February 2009 as evidence against one of the youngsters. The film was made by the police during the riots from inside a police van and, unfortunately for the policemen, reveals not only the acts of some young activists but also an embarrassing conversation between the policemen, as they are talking in heavy southern Swedish accent while driving.
“I agree with the old man at Ica [a supermarket] in Vellinge: ‘you’ve come to the wrong municipality, dagos”.
“That fucking little monkey [Den lille jävla apajäveln]. Should I make him sterile when I get him?” Someone laughs and a colleague adds:
“Yeah, we’ll give him a treatment so he won’t be able to stand on his legs when we’re finished”. (Elin Fjellman Jaderup, Lugna Gatan: "Hatet blir större". Sydsvenskan, 2009-02-06)
As this was shown on the TV news, many were of course scandalized. The policemen, however, were not judged to have done anything incorrect. Some tried to excuse the policemen by pointing out that the word “monkey” (apa) referred to a particularly aggressive member of the Anti-Fascist Action (afa). In my view, this doesn’t excuse anything. The police shouldn’t make anyone sterile, not even a political activist. I was also intrigued by the fact that these policemen recorded the entire thing themselves and handed over the film to the court, obviously oblivious of the scandal that would ensue. Do we have here some variant of the Abu Ghraib-syndrome of soldiers or policemen being so brutalized by their business that they start filming or photographing their own violations in the belief that they are something fully normal and acceptable? Or were they simply stupid?

IV.
Let me add by a piece of news which I think is significative of the restoration of order. In August 2009, the Malmö police had been patrolling Herrgården in Rosengård for four months, 24 hours a day, at foot, by car and on horseback, and a local headquarters has been set up in a van. “We are tremendously grateful”, a fire fighter at the nearby fire station says. As a result of the surveillance, the number of arsons has declined rapidly. “Above all we haven’t been victims of violence or threats a single time since the surveillance started”, the fire fighter adds, “That grown-ups in the area now have the courage to show their support for us is perhaps even more important. As late as yesterday I was out fixing a water leakage and people came up to me and thanked me and in general showed their appreciation. That is something they wouldn’t have done half a year ago”. The article adds that the support of local residents for the police was demonstrated a week ago, when a group of autonomous activists planned a street party in Herrgården under the slogan “Reclaim Herrgården”. “The residents went out and told the black-dressed hooligans ‘Get away, we don’t want any trouble in our neighborhood’”. (“Polisinsats har gjort Rosengård lugnare”, DN, 2009-08-28).

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