Malmo and the fault lines of Swedish racism

November 1, 2010 — Comment

Written by Liz Fekete

What are the wider issues behind the shootings in Malmö?

On 19 October, a man the police describe as a 28-year-old ‘man of colour’, was shot from behind near a bus stop in an isolated area in the southern Swedish port city of Malmö. When the bullet was removed, it was found to have missed his spine by just five centimetres. There were more shootings on 21 October – this time of two eastern European migrant women who were shot at through their kitchen window. Forensic evidence suggests that the same high-calibre handgun was used in several recent shootings, all of which follow the same pattern; they take place at night and those targeted are from an immigrant background. Swedish police are now so convinced that the shootings are linked, and that individuals from a minority background are being targeted, that they have advised those who come from such groups to take extra precautions when going out at night. A criminal profiling unit within Sweden’s National Investigation Department (Rikskriminalen) has been drafted into Malmö to support local police (bolstered by fifty police officers from neighbouring districts) to track down what is believed to be a lone gunman targeting ethnic minorities. At the moment it seems that at least fifteen shootings are being investigated as linked. Eight people have been injured as a result of these shootings and one woman, 20-year-old Trez Persson, killed. Trez Persson is described in the press as the only ‘ethnic Swede’ victim of the shootings. She was seated with a friend, a man of immigrant origin, in a car parked close to Malmö’s main mosque when someone fired numerous shots into the car, killing her and seriously injuring her male friend. This is believed to be the first of the linked shootings.

The background to the shootings

Some Malmö local government officials do not accept the attacks are racially motivated, saying that these are simply criminal acts and are critical of the media circus that has sprung up around Malmö’s main police station. Anti-racists too – mindful of a racist backlash – are wary about being drawn into speculation about the sniper’s motives, and are battling instead to ensure that wider issues of growing racism and intolerance, particularly Islamophobia, are discussed. For the shootings are occurring at a time when the fault lines in Swedish racism are widening.

Hordes of Swedish, but also Norwegian and Danish journalists are camped out at the police station, awaiting daily updates. The Swedish media seem to be fixated with second-guessing the profile of the gunman, with ‘expert’ opinion being drafted in to suggest that this is the action of a lone mentally-ill racist. Is this, they ask, a re-run of the laser man phenomenon? (a reference to the lone gunman who terrorised Stockholm and Uppsala in the early 1990s). Should the finger point at the extreme-Right Sweden Democrats who made an amazing breakthrough in the September general election and scored particularly well across the whole of southern Sweden (Skåne) – a region with a history of support for fascism, dating to the 1930s? Or are these unrelated individual acts of violence linked to wider issues of societal and structured racism in Sweden?

Integration debate – inspiration?

The shootings, then, are being presented as a psychological drama, the work of ‘the second laser man’. Between August 1991 and January 1992, at a time of heated debate about immigrants, John Ausonious (now serving a life sentence) killed one man and seriously injured ten others, most of them immigrants – in shootings which occurred in and around Stockholm and Uppsala. He was dubbed the laser man because he used a rifle equipped with laser sight (which the current gunman does not). Some journalists are attempting to broaden the media debate, by pointing to lessons from this bleak period in Swedish history. Gellert Tamas is one such. While Tamas was researching his book, Lasermannen, which was eventually translated into several European languages, he interviewed Ausonious in prison. ‘There are clear parallels between the events of 1991 and 1992 and the shootings of today’, Tamas has told the media. ‘John Ausonious has been very clear in the interviews that I have conducted with him that he was inspired by the debate about immigrants which was conducted in the beginning of the 1990s’. Not only that but Ausonious ‘felt that he had moral support and that the people were behind him’.[1]

So what are the parallels? Back in the 1990s, the populist anti-immigrant party, New Democracy, was active, and members were elected to parliament. Today, the Sweden Democrats (an avowedly neo-Nazi party in the 1990s but now, following a makeover, presenting themselves as the Swedish version of the Danish People’s Party) have just won twenty seats in the Swedish parliament. In the 1990s, there was growing societal hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers with the view of the far-Right affecting national immigration and asylum policies – all set against a backcloth of racist violence against refugees and arson attacks on asylum hostels. But, today, in Sweden, the hostility is increasingly being targeted at Muslims – while the mainstream debate also tends to blame Muslims for failing to integrate into Swedish society.

Stigmatising ‘the ghetto’

The linked shootings have taken place in a number of districts around central Malmö where the sniper can hide or in more working-class areas where dense housing estates provide camouflage. Areas range from the multi-racial area of Vendelfridsgatan, and the working-class district of Lönngaten (where the Sweden Democrats are strong) to the more up-market district of Köpenhamnsvägen. Lisa Bjurwald is an investigative reporter on the anti-fascist magazine Expo. ‘What we do know,’ she explains ‘is that the climate is similar to that of 1991-92’. And today we ‘have a debate on integration that is increasingly crossing the line into Islamophobia and anti-immigration views’.

Bjurwald’s view is backed up by University of Linköping sociologists Carl-Ulrik Schierup and Aleksandra Ålund. Their ongoing research shows that over the last two decades media and politicians have exploited the ‘immigrant problem’ and that a long-term Swedish anti-racist consensus, spanning the left-right political spectrum, is being undermined.[2] The neo-liberal policies of the ruling centre-right coalition have, on the one hand, exacerbated a racialised exclusion, while, on the other hand, poor people from a migrant background are blamed for failing to integrate. Thus today nearly any time social or economic problems are considered, it is through a cultural lens. Skyrocketing unemployment amongst second-and third-generation youth is attributed to cultural factors , particularly religion, i.e. Islam, these two sociologists argue.

In fact Malmö, which used to be one of Sweden’s foremost industrial-cities, has been at the centre of a one-sided integration debate. It is a city which has raced to redefine itself as a post-modern city where middle-class consumers are welcome. But as shipbuilding and manufacturing declined, deprived multicultural neighbourhoods and satellite towns sprung up, so that like so many post-industrial cities, great wealth sits alongside poverty and deprivation. One area that is often demonised in the media is the Malmö suburb of Rosengård, sometimes referred to as ‘the ghetto’. Populated by 20,000 immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, and half of whom are jobless, it is very close to the working-class neighbourhood of Almgården, where an astonishing one in three voted for the Sweden Democrats.

In 2009 there was a youth rebellion in Malmö, with unrest also in poor neighbourhoods in other large cities. Schierup and Ålund’s research describes how, during these rebellions, poor racialised neighbourhoods came to be compared in the media to war-zones in Iraq, Afghanistan or Gaza. Such neighbourhoods are largely populated by immigrants and are increasingly portrayed as areas that pose a threat to democracy and Swedish values. Such stigmatising is also reflected in current political terminology which refers to multiracial neighbourhoods like Rosengård as ‘exposed city districts’ (utsatta stadsedelar) . These neighbourhoods are seen as potential seedbeds for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism – ‘failed neighbourhoods’ that call for an integration policy based on assimilation alongside counter-insurgency measures. The ‘global war on terrorism’ has, as Schierup and Ålund conclude, come to be reflected in the policing of Sweden’s contemporary political crisis.

No other inner-city neighbourhood has been more associated as a ‘failed city’ than Rosengård. Things came to a head there at the end of December 2008 when there were repeated clashes between police and youths during which explosives and stones were thrown at the police after the authorities moved in to evict young people who, for three weeks, had occupied a basement used as a mosque. Following this, and in response to a government-initiated piece of research led by counter-terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp from the Centre for Assymetric Threat and Terrorism Studies at the National Defence College ( an educational establishment that caters inter alia for the military), the then integration Minister Nyamko Sabuni said that the situation in Rosengård was ‘completely unacceptable’ and that the government would initiate coordinated measures from schools, social services and the police, to tackle radicalisation.[3]

But since then, as evidence of police racism mounts, the authorities have lost some ground. In February 2009, the police were forced to make a public statement promising to investigate allegations of police racism after a previously unseen video of the clashes in Rosengård showed several police officers shouting racist and abusive language at young people. (One word used was blattejavler, that roughly translates as ‘damned coloured people’ or ‘damn immigrants’.) Soon after, an investigation by a national newspaper exposed high levels of racism within the Swedish National Police Academy.

In this scenario, could it be that the gunman who has been randomly sniping at ethnic minorities, sees it as his duty to take control? Lisa Bjurwald explains that ‘both the idea of a lone ranger who hunts down non-whites, and the idea of a racial holy war, are integral parts of the white power ideology, as exemplified by the influential white supremacy novel Hunter by William Luther Pierce, founder of the white separatist National Alliance in the U.S.

The Expo journalist also contextualises the shootings in the increased tensions that have arisen due to the racist election campaign of the Sweden Democrats (SD). For the first time since 1994 an extreme-right wing party has entered parliament, and with no less than twenty seats. The Sweden Democrats doubled its share of the votes. More than 339,000 people voted for the SD (5.7 per cent of the vote) with the SD scoring double-digit results across the south west.

And the SD’s election campaign ratcheted up the hate against Muslims. ‘If the SD’s ‘main target was Muslims’ , Lisa Bjurwald explains,’ their main electoral weapon was conspiracy theories about Islamisation’. The SD’s television election broadcast was particularly chilling, with its hate-filled visual techniques worthy of Hitler’s minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. An old lady with a zimmer frame is seen struggling towards a desk to get her pension when she is overtaking by a gang of aggressive and marauding Islamic women dressed in burqas who almost run her over with their prams. A speaker says voters now have the choice to put the brakes on immigration, or on pensions.

Asking the wrong questions

What is particularly disturbing in the Swedish context, is why so few questions are being asked of the police, the government and society. The fixation of the profile of the gunman overlooks the fact that racism in Malmö did not start with the shootings, nor will it end when the shootings are over. Malmö’s main mosque – the oldest and biggest in Sweden – has suffered 300 attacks since it was built in 1983. A pig was once placed in the prayer hall. And in 2003 it was burnt down. In 2010, a bullet perforated the reinforced glass with the bullet shaving the neck of an official and lodging itself in a desk.

There are so many unanswered questions. Why did the police wait for so long before informing the public or a possible serial killer? Was it because for all these months they were investigating the victims and their families to see if they came from a criminal background? If the targets had been blue-eyed and blonde would the police response have been the same?

What seems to be totally missing from the Swedish debate over these crimes is the victim’s perspective. Shahram Khosravi, a refugee who fled Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, is now a professor of anthropology at the University of Stockholm. In 1991, he was shot in the face by the laser man and testified against him at his trial. ‘It is horrible to see we now are where we were two decades ago’, Shahram told IRR News. We asked him to explain how he felt now and he referred us to his recently-published auto-ethnographic study ‘”Illegal” Traveller’ in which he wrote:

‘More than ten years after he shot me, I received a letter from the Laser Man. He wrote that “you should not take it personally” and that what he did was a critique of Swedish immigration policy … Did I take it personally? Being shot was obviously a personal and private experience for the simple reason that the very rationale for my being shot was my black hair … The Laser Man, in his letter from prison, asked me not to take his bullet to my face personally, and I have to admit that I had not taken it personally. Everything, from being shot, to the police, the legal process and the media, was surreal. From the outset, it was as if I was experiencing all the violence from the outside, as if it was someone else who had been shot. When I had been shot and was lying in my blood, an image appeared in my head of a young black man on his knees, surrounded by several white men with baseball bats in their hands. The image was probably from a movie I had just seen, Mississippi Burning. I did not take the bullet personally for the simple reason that I had been shot for the same reason the young black man had been killed in that Mississippi town in the 1960s. It was the same reason that sent millions of Jews to the death chambers, that triggered the Tutsi massacre in Rwanda in 1994, the killing of thousands of Bosnians in 1995 in the Srebrenica region, or the hundreds of Palestinian minors in Gaza in January 2009. My history is only a fragment of a longer history of racism and hatred … So how could I take it personally?[4]

Liz Fekete is the author of They Are Children Too: A study of Europe's deportation policies.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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