We need to take the frustration seriously. Otherwise, we risk a development towards even worse turbulence, like what we saw in the suburbs of Paris. At the end of May, we saw several nights of social unrest in some relatively poor suburbs of Stockholm. Cars were set alight, and there were reports of attacks against fire services. Later, the unrest spread to other suburbs around Stockholm and other towns in Sweden. The unrest calmed down when parents and other local adults, among them myself, toured the streets at night time.
A personal story
To me, the social unrest is personal. I have been living in Husby, where the turbulence started, for 17 years. Here is where I go barbecuing with my family. Here is where I attend the mosque as often as I can.
The social unrest is the result of social cleavages that have been increasing ever since the economic crisis of the early 1990s. The predominantly immigrant suburbs, but also former industrial towns, are the areas most affected. Social cleavages create segregation and distrust between citizens. It also creates frustration among those directly affected – mostly young men, who lack employment due to school failures and discrimination.
A pattern across Europe
I condemn all violence and all damage made to private and common property. But it is clear that some citizens do not feel included in our society. Earlier this spring, I visited some areas in Paris that have been affected by riots. I met young activists who said that nothing has changed after the riots. The promises of politicians were never fulfilled. Instead, a drift towards even worse segregation is taking place – were poor people are forced to move even further away from the centre due to housing restoration that they can never afford. We risk this development in Sweden if we do not take action.
In recent years, those of us living in the suburbs have noticed a steady dismantling of the welfare state and social services at local level. We have seen the municipal services and health care disappearing from the areas, following the closure of banking and postal services. In some areas it is even not possible to find an ATM. With all customers directed to nearby commercial centres, sooner or later also private small scale operators such as food stores and restaurants are forced to close down. The result is suburbs that seem forgotten by society, with frustrated youths drawing the same conclusion.
The spirit of the suburbs
The opposite of this dark picture is seldom mentioned. In the suburbs, we find thriving life, an entrepreneurial spirit and local organisations seldom noticed by the majority. Young people have qualities widely useful in a global world – they are multilingual, with lots of cultural competence and street smartness – but these competences are discouraged rather than encouraged. This spirit needs to be captured by the Greens.
We need to recognise and work together with all good forces representing the suburban people. The Green Party has a unique possibility to involve everybody who wants social justice and freedom from discrimination. Already, the polls for the Swedish Green Party have risen in the suburbs from a traditional low level to a level significantly higher than the last election result. The percentage of people living in the suburbs having confidence for the Green party in migration and integration issues, is around 22% – much higher than among the rest of the population.
Restoration for all
We, the locals, need to be involved in the social and physical restoration of our areas. Sweden must not follow the French example where local people are pushed away from their areas due to expensive restorations and flash new buildings. Instead, unemployed people can be employed in the restoration work. Young people can be employed during summer months to develop their own areas. The municipality as well as the state must relocate social services and make large investments in the quality of local schools. With these initiatives we build a local community where everybody can work together.
We also need to restore the trust between people at the national level. For the first time in history, Sweden now has a xenophobic party in the Parliament, the Swedish Democrats. This party is trying to create distrust between Swedes with immigrant background and Swedes with Swedish background, with some success. This development can only be met by more democracy, more openness and progressive economic policies that are increasing social justice.
The keys to calm nights in my neighbourhood are local involvement and national work for economic and social cohesion. We, the Greens, have a mission here. We must remember the youths of the suburbs, even when the nights are calm.