We Watched the Stockholm Suburbs Burn
May 24 2013
This week, it felt like the 2011 British riots were starting all over again in the Stockholm suburb of Husby. A man was shot dead by police and the local community started a demonstration. The demonstrations got out of control and riots and arson spread through several Stockholm suburbs. At the time of writing, at least 15 suburbs have been caught up in the unrest and on Thursday the disturbances continued into their fifth night.
Tired of reading the same sensationalist news about how dangerous and crazy the suburbs have become, we took a camera down to the now-infamous Husby.
At first we drove around Husby, Jakobsberg, Akalla and Tensta, which were all eerily quiet. We spotted a few random people with their hoods drawn up, but the suburbs were pretty much deserted.
Some evidence of the previous night's violence had been left behind in the form of burnt-out cars.
After a couple of hours, we spotted a massive cloud of smoke on the horizon. It took us some time to find it, but eventually we traced the ominous plume to a parking lot in the centre of the suburb Rinkeby.
Gathered around five burning cars were a few hundred local residents. As we joined the crowd watching firefighters trying to put out the fire, some kids approached us asking why we had come to take photos.
"This isn't funny at all," one of them told me.
"I want to find out why this is happening and who's doing this," I explained.
"Well, whatever you do, please don't write any headlines about this being riots, because it's not."
I asked again if he had any idea of who might be doing this. His friends started laughing.
"This is just a continuation of the stuff that happened in Husby. I don't think that someone who lives in Rinkeby did this."
As they left, some other kids approached us. They also told me not to write anything negative about what I say, because the locals would never set each other's cars on fire. I asked them how they felt about the situation.
"The fire's pretty cool. But it's obviously so fucking awful at the same time," one of them told me.
Then I met Max (not his real name), a 16-year-old who lives in the neighbouring suburb Tensta. He told me he was playing football in a field nearby when he saw smoke in the sky.
"I don't like that this is happening because my friends hate the police, and I really would like to become a policeman when I grow up," he said, "but it feels like I might not be able to because of this." Next to him was an 11-year-old who lives in Rinkeby. He told me that this was the fourth time he’d stood watching cars burn.
"I mean it happens all the time, it's just now – for some reason – that the newspapers write about it."
A female police officer was trying to keep people away from the fire. Suddenly, a man started shouting at her. She told him that whatever he'd just said (which we didn't hear), he shouldn't have, because it was illegal. This did not calm the man down.
"You fucking Swedish whore!" he shouted, as others tried to chill him out.
"I'm here to protect people from the fire!" she replied, but still the guy went on acting like a dickhead, and some locals had to drag him off.
I went to the policewoman and asked her if this kind of thing happens a lot.
"All the time," she said, looking as if she was about to burst into tears.
"So why aren't you arresting him?" I asked.
"I think he's pretty sick and doesn't feel very well. So we have to let go of that kind of thing. Especially now, when all of Stockholm is burning."
She told me she had been working non-stop since the trouble flared, and that she was getting pretty tired of it now.
"We're here to help and protect people, and then this kind of thing happens where one man is acting stupid. It makes you kind of tired."
When the fire had been put out, people gathered around the car wrecks. I asked some kids if they had seen anything or knew who might have done this. One of them told me that it was initially one car that was burning, and then it spread to the other ones. His friend interrupted him: "Don't know anything, don't see anything, don't hear anything." And so they left.
We were taking more photos when a woman approached us shouting that we should not take any photos of people in the area because they'd already taken so much shit from the media. She told us that the arson had nothing to do with riots.
People left minutes after the cars had been doused. As we went back to our car, hoping it would still be where we left it and not on fire, an older woman asked the kids out loud: "Is everything fine now?" Some teenage girls replied: "Everything has always been fine. This is nothing compared to other countries."
We got into the car, but just as we were about to leave we heard that a school in Tensta was on fire.
We arrived at the same time as some other reporters. A cop told us to be careful as the hills around the school were a perfect place for people to throw stones from. It was dark by now and the police were dressed in riot outfits. We watched as the firemen broke into the school and put the fire out. It was a bit difficult to breathe.
Suddenly all the other journalists had left. They were all equipped with police radios. We were following developments on Twitter and via online forums. It started to get late and as we went to the car we found out that the arson had now spread to the Southern suburb Älvsjö. Apparently there was a library on fire.
As we drove along the highway a fire truck passed us. We followed it into Hagsätra where two cars were on fire. We read rumours online that firefighters had been advised not to put out burning cars as it was no longer safe for them. The firefighters waited, giving us a chance to get up close to the cars. Local residents surrounded the fire and were confused because no one came to put it out. A man had brought his own fire-extinguisher. He looked really upset, but didn't feel like talking to us. We started feeling uncomfortable, like our presence and our camera were provoking people there, so we decided to leave and drive to Älvsjö instead.
Firefighters were busy finishing off their soaking of a building that housed both a library and a police station. The windows of the neighbouring bank had been smashed as well.
As we jumped into the car, the police were questioning a couple of guys in front of us. Police had confiscated two baseball bats. It was after midnight now, and as we left we spotted at least ten police vans at a parking lot. We got out of the car and found out that two people had been arrested for the library/police station fire.
The next burning thing we were destined to spend the night gazing at so it was an elementary school in the North West suburb, Kista. It took us some time to get there and we almost hit both a deer and a fox on the way. We read online that two of the school kids' turtles had died in the fire.
When we arrived the fire was under control. A few local residents were looking on with disgust. A fireman told us that this was his first fire that evening as he had just begun his shift. A guy living next to the school explained to us how tired he was of all this. "This isn't about some guy being shot by police. This isn't about suburban kids rioting. This is just a few people picking on people who are already suffering."
It was almost 3AM now, and we decided to head home. We spotted some smoke on the horizon but were unable to locate where its source. The streets were empty. The highway was dark. We had seen so much in a few hours, but the riots, and trouble-making suburban kids, must either have been one step ahead of us, or maybe there were no riots at all, just a couple of bored and prolific arsonists.
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