Guest post by Ryan Switzer. Ryan is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Stockholm University. His research interests include social movements, the history of ideas, and (im)mobilities. He completed his MA in Political Science at the Central European University.
On the morning of August 28th 2020, a group of Danish far right activists attempted to cross the Öresund Bridge into the southern Swedish city of Malmö. A majority were able to pass through the Swedish border unimpeded and carry on into Rosengård; a Malmö neighborhood known for its ethnic diversity and concentration of Muslim residents. The Stram Kurs, translated to Hard Line, party members intended to burn Qurans in protest of Sweden’s ‘open door migration policy’ and perceived neglect of freedom of expression. But their leader, Rasmus Paludan, was detained at the border, expelled to Denmark and given a two-year ban on entering Sweden. In Rosengård — the Danish activists allowed in to Sweden lit the holy book on fire, and then kicked it back and forth, playing “Quran football.” By that evening, Stram Kurs party members had been arrested for inciting racial hatred and up to 300 of the neighborhood’s residents were rioting, burning tires, and scuffling with police after a counter-protest turned violent. The Guardian’s reporting of the incident quoted a man saying, “They’re violating our civil rights by letting other people burn the Quran that we believe in and now we have to show that they can’t do that. It’s against us, so we’re against them. That’s how simple it is.”
This incident and the events of the following weeks illuminate the nature of the Swedish state’s borders. As Stram Kurs party members continued to burn more Qurans throughout the country — consistently targeting suburbs noted for their high populations of minority residents— the Swedish National Police force attempted unsuccessfully to stop them through deportation, surveillance, and the securitization of the threatened suburbs. As a result, the suburbs’ residents became subject to more policing; the same aggressive securitization deployed to halt the far right at Sweden’s national borders was used to curtail the residents’ freedom of movement, allegedly to protect them from harm. Through these tactics, the state reinforces a paternalistic economic and social border between the segregated suburbs and the rest of Sweden. These tactics may have been employed to deter bad actors from entering, but ultimately only relegated a heterogenous geographic area to the category of ‘threat to public order.’ The policing of the country’s segregated neighborhoods, paired with Paludan’s attempted ban from Sweden, suggests a malleable, highly mobile benevolent border regime incapable of ensnaring perceived threats but very capable of intruding in the lives of its Afroswedish, Muslim, Roma, and ethnically Swedish residents.
This post builds on Vanessa Barker’s work on benevolent violence faced by Roma beggars in the Swedish welfare state; where the state outwardly aims to improve quality of life but does so through the infringement of freedoms. The benevolent border works similarly; impeding mobility in the name of security for the vulnerable. My own field observations confirm that the potential for violent coercion by the state was present for the suburbs’ residents, despite the Swedish police’s efforts at a humanitarian turn.
In Malmö 2020, when cars burned and stones were thrown at police, the anger was less a direct product of police action but rather of police inaction. In the weeks leading up to the Quran burnings, Rasmus Paludan’s request to host a demonstration was publicly rejected – triggering Paludan’s arrest when he did attempt to enter Sweden. A press release explaining the denial of the permit affirms that the legal justification for the decision hinged on (1) the country’s coronavirus restrictions and (2) the threat of public disorder. The right to burn Qurans is protected in Sweden even when the possibility to offend exists. When asked whether Paludan’s ban constituted a denial of freedom of expression, Malmö’s chief of police replied “We see it as the opposite.” This quotation suggests that, according to the Swedish police, the national border plays a decisive role in the protection of freedom of expression, envisioning the border as a tool to block actors that could abuse that right. But the logic of the Swedish police fails to consider the unequal application of the national border. In this case, within weeks of being banned from Sweden, Paludan easily proved his blood right to a Swedish passport, affording him free movement within and beyond Sweden’s borders. The two-year ban was revoked. An entry ban that could have proved a death sentence for a non-European asylum seeker was a bureaucratic formality for the European far right activist.
Let us imagine a scenario where Paludan’s detention was actually successful in halting the Quran burning and maintaining public order. In the words of a Rosengård resident interviewed by SVT “[The riot is] not right. But it wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t burned the Quran.” In this alternate scenario, the Swedish border could have prevented immediate harm but it couldn’t address the social conditions that led to the riot; conditions which were exacerbated by heavy securitization in the weeks following the unrest.
These mechanisms of border securitization are ultimately a means of upholding Swedish state power. Benevolent mobility controls become vehicles of violence when “the welfare state’s ameliorative tendencies collide with its exclusionary undercurrents and inclusionary demands.” I witnessed this duality on a site visit to Husby, one of the 5 places where Paludan had threatened to burn the Quran in the weeks following the Rosengård riots. In Husby’s main square, police in high visibility jackets chatted with market-goers, exhibiting all the hallmarks of the community policing model. But beyond the square’s boundaries, there was a potential for coercion. I stepped into a parking lot where I counted four riot vans positioned along the curb, all just out of view of the square. The police inside were dressed in full riot gear with shining helmets resting on their laps. Passersby, including myself, were stopped to have their identities checked. Like Etienne Balibar famously wrote: “Borders are everywhere” — no longer confined to the hard lines on a map, now extended into neighborhood metro stops. The very techniques used to track and detain agitators were applied to the suburbs’ residents in the name of their safety: identity checks, the threat of violence, and police drone surveillance.
Despite the Stram Kurs party being the intended subject of national border controls, the suburbs’ residents still experienced the brunt of state power. The Swedish police’s 2020 rationale in deporting Paludan to maintain order in Sweden echoes the state’s reaction to the 2009 Stockholm riots, where Sweden’s centre-right government labeled the riots as a symptom of cultural deviancy and incompatibility with European heritage — all to the backdrop of Merkel, Sarkozy, and Cameron’s notorious critiques of multiculturalism. While these statements sparked outcry at the time, today they feel mainstream — further serving as justification for the securitization of a wide variety of spaces within a state. Since being granted his Swedish citizenship, Rasmus Paludan has promised to return for more Quran burnings, meaning the state will have to decide whether this securitization is worth the violence and alienation it inflicts on Sweden’s minority residents. In an era of emboldened far right direct action, and if the pursuit of security for Sweden’s most vulnerable is genuinely the goal in this case, then the benevolent border is a dull, blunt tool to accomplish the task.
Thanks and credit to Eve Rogers for her assistance in illustrating Figure 1.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Switzer, R. (2021). A ‘Benevolent Border’? Policing Right-Wing Protest in Sweden’s Suburbs. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/01/benevolent-border [date]