Sweden’s PEGIDA Problem
I arrived in Stockholm’s chambered, gorgeous Central train Station in the early morning. For weeks, Swedish papers had been running increasingly shrill articles claiming that gangs of North African migrant teenagers had “taken over” the station, and were stealing, drinking, and groping with impunity. One Stockholm cop told the Daily Mail they were “on their knees.” I expected a scene from the movie Over the Edge, but the station was quiet and peaceful as usual, with just the familiar handful of friendly, shambling Roma panhandlers working in front of the T-Bana gates. As I reached to gently mock Swedish friends about their country’s panicky reaction to the influx of refugees, the texts started rolling in: “Watch out for the Nazis, they’ve been beating up people with brown eyes and brown hair!”
The night before, sixty to one hundred black-masked thugs had rampaged through the Central Station and nearby Sergels Square, threatening and beating up migrant teenagers, Roma, and eventually just people who didn’t “look” Swedish before they were subdued by the police. The previous afternoon, a group of nationalists had stood at the entrance to the station distributing an anonymously authored leaflet titled Enough is Enough! that fulminated against the refusal of the police to deal with unaccompanied refugee teenagers. “We refuse to accept the repeated attacks and harassment of Swedish women. We refuse to accept the destruction of our once safe society… 200 Swedish men have gathered today in order to stand up against the North African ‘street children’ who rage around our capital’s central station…the legal system has given them a walk over and the social contract is broken.” It ended, “We are not politicians, journalists, or cops. We are your father, your brother, your husband, your colleague, your friend, and your neighbors.”
Initially, the attack was suspected to have been organized by the Swedish Resistance Movement (SMR), a marginal, but highly visible neo-Nazi organization, with a base of support in the skiing area of Darlanda, led by a skinhead ex-con named Klas Lund who was convicted in the 1986 stomping death of young anti-racist organizer. A week before, 38 SMR members — who often march dressed like Mormons — had been arrested after allegedly charging the police at a demonstration in central Stockholm. It soon emerged that the vigilante action was orchestrated by a rare alliance between members of two of Stockholm’s most prominent football hooligan firms, The Fine Boys of Djurgården (DFG) and the Firman Boys (AIK). Usually the two firms are mortal enemies, only coming together to fight in massive nighttime street brawls — which are quickly uploaded to YouTube — but many members have longstanding links to Sweden’s far-right, criminal gangs, and Hells Angels and have periodically dabbled in this kind of anti-immigrant vigilantism. Although in 2005, the firms officially expelled their neo-Nazi members and established a consensus of “no politics on the terraces,” in 2013, some members formed “citizens guards” during the 2013 Husby riots that shook the Stockholm suburbs — these patrols were quickly appropriated and publicized by friendly neo-Nazi organizations. After leaks from anti-fascist sources in the football scene began to point the finger at the firms, Firman Boys posting a brief and cryptic transmission on their website: “Firman Boys don’t do politics, end of message.” One leading member of the neo-fascist group Nordic Youth told me the attack on Central Station was mostly the work of the firms, “but there might have been some others.” Mats Jonsson, the head of security for Stockholm’s Djurgården club (which is completely unaffiliated with the hooligan firm, the Fine Boys of Djurgården), told me, “We don’t know who the firm members are because there are no memberships. That’s why its tough to say how big they are… There’s usually not a political agenda with the firms, its usually simply violence and territory and standing up for each other … [but] I think we have to have things under strict observation in the coming months, to see what direction it’s going to take. It would be a big issue if we had a political agenda.”
The thwarted pogrom is only the most recent escalation in an increasingly malignant atmosphere of anti-migrant xenophobia in Sweden. Last year, the country accepted nearly 160,000 asylum-seekers — more than any other Western country, and a startling figure even for the world’s humanitarian power. This has met with an intense mobilization from the far right. Last August, the Sweden Democrats (SD) — an extremely popular, young, button-down “immigration critical” party who emerged from the bog of the far-right and skinhead scene in the 80s and 90s around Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish) and Nordiska Rikspartiet (Nordic Reich Party) — unveiled a controversial ad campaign in the Stockholm subways, targeting Roma panhandlers with English-language murals targeted at an international audience, with messages like: Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from desperation. At another, where Roma were known to camp: Sweden should do better than this!
The Sweden Democrats have spent the last decade severing their neo-Nazi and hard nationalist associations and rebranding themselves as reasonable, fiscally conservative parliamentarians who only want to limit immigration to clarify the budgeting priorities of the welfare state. Though the Sweden Democrats have tried to drown their past, incidents and statements crop up over and over again, sometimes even with senior leadership, such as the 2013 scandal when three high-ranking party officials were revealed to have threatened a popular Swedish-Kurdish comedian named Soran Ismail with an iron pipe, telling him he “behaved like a Paki” and calling a young bystander a “whore” — two of the officials resigned. This fall, the party had to sever ties with their large youth division, the Sweden Democratic Youth (SDU) over a row with the militant young leadership over their frightening direction with their videos like “Salute to the European Youth!” and their growing connection to European identitarian and neo-fascist parties. The Sweden Democrats meteoric rise to their current poll position as the country’s second most popular party — and the most popular in regions like Skane, in the South — has clearly been fueled by the governing Social Democrats open-armed but ultimately opportunistic waffling during the refugee crisis — they permitted asylum-seekers to come when public opinion was with them, but then signaled they would reject half of the applications and instituted an expensive ID check on the border from Denmark, when the winds shifted after the Paris attacks.
The migrant crisis has also provided a situation where the Sweden Democrats are simultaneously distancing themselves from and mobilizing their extreme fringes and local leaders when it suits them. In November, Kent Ekeroth, a leading Sweden Democrat parliamentarian, told a rally in the South, “You are the spearhead we need to take our country back.” Local Sweden Democrats took to publishing maps and addresses of places where asylum seeker homes were being built in local municipalities. Last fall, fires on asylum-seeker homes spiked in Sweden, with 30 being classified as suspected arsons. In September, at the peak of asylum-seekers pouring over the Öresund Bridge from Denmark, a local Sweden Democrat councilwoman in the South tweeted, “Can’t someone go stand on the bridge with a machine gun?”
The day after the Central Station attack, a new PEGIDA-like umbrella coalition composed of the discharged flotsam of the Sweden Democrats rallied under the banner of the “People’s Demonstration” in Norrmalmstorg, Central Stockholm — the birthplace of the term “Stockholm Syndrome.” Polish nationalists wielded flags beat three anti-racist organizers, two of them immigrant women. The officially apolitical “People’s Demonstration” brought together all the fringes that SD: SMR, Nordic Youth, Polish nationalists, football hooligans, and anti-migrant nationalists around websites like Avpixlat and Right On, rallied alongside SD parliamentarians. The carefully culled image SD has built once again unraveled, with Sweden’s largest evening paper Aftonbladet running the headline, “Nazis and Sweden Democrat Politicians Demonstrate Together.”
A week after the People’s Demonstration, about two hundred feminists and antifascists gathered in Medborgplatsen on a frigid Friday night, carrying torches and banners. They came from groups like Feminism Underifrån [Feminism from Below], Allt åt Alla [Everything for Everybody], and Stockholms antifascitiska tanter [Stockholm’s Anti-fascist Grandmas] chanting, What are we gonna do? Crush racism! When? Now! One of the women who was beaten the week before, an activist named Tess Asplund, spoke into a microphone: “I’ve been fighting this battle for 25 years. I’m used to fascists and Nazis calling my house threatening me and telling me they’re going to rape me. But what’s frightening is there are so many similarities between what is going on today and back in the time before the murders in Malexander [referring to the 1999 murder of two cops by neo-Nazis]. We were attacked last weekend at the ‘People’s Demonstration.’ They claim that they’re protecting women, but they attack women. The Sweden Democrats are the same idiots who attacked my friends in the 90s, screaming, ‘Keep Sweden Swedish!’”
After Cologne, it was revealed that Swedish police had been tamping down similar group sexual assaults by North African men in Malmö on New Years Eve and at a Stockholm music festival in 2014 and 2015. The January stabbing death of a 22-year-old Lebanese woman named Alexandra Mezher at the unaccompanied asylum-seekers home where she worked by a Somali teen provided a martyr. It was fairly common practice, until recently, for the Swedish mainstream media and police not to mention the ethnicity of individuals involved in crimes, out of liberal good intentions of not fueling racial profiling. The safety of (ethnically Swedish) women has now become the right-wing rallying cry, like a cudgel to be wielded against young, male asylum-seekers. The ultranationalist Sweden Democratic Youth have been actively courting ethnically Swedish women for a while now with flashy videos like “Young Swedish Girl” where blonde girls ride bikes, swim, and enjoy life to jangly indie-pop as a voiceover intones: Sweden is turning into something unrecognizable. We are ordinary young Swedish girls and we say enough is enough! In our country, you should be able to feel safe, even if you are a young girl and out late at night. The video has half a million views on YouTube. The left has responded with the popular hashtag #inteerkvinna. [Not your woman]
“We’re here to show the racists we’re bigger than they are! We’re here to fight for the right to our bodies and to speak for ourselves!” one of the speakers at the rally yelled. After the rally dispersed, I spoke to Carol on the stone steps of Medborgsplatsen — a Chilean-Swede, and the other woman who was beaten by the Polish nationalists. “Three guys beat us with their sticks and flags. When we were on the ground, they were kicking me in the legs and my friend in the head. He went to the hospital. When I was 15, places like Gamla stan and Slussen were off-limits to immigrants like me. I think we’re going back to the 90s, but this time its worse.”
The following afternoon, a ragged collection of nationalists and Nordic Youth with ties to the “People’s Demonstration” gathered in Björns trädgård, directly in front of Stockholm’s oldest mosque. A group of about a dozen tough, skinhead nationalist guys kept a lookout on a balcony in front of the mosque, looking for anti-fascists. They’d been coming every weekend to feed the Swedish homeless since the summer — like Generation Identitaire’s infamous pork soup homeless feedings in France, the feeding was explicitly meant for Aryan blondes. “The thing here in Sweden right now is you’re only supposed to hand out the good things to the immigrants, not the Swedes.” a ripped, middle-aged bald guy named Chris told me. “And whatever people do to counter violence is racist,” he added. I asked him who was starting violence. “The leftists!” his friend hissed.
“We get lots of threats here because we’re only helping Swedish people,” one of the organizers, an elderly pensioner named Magdalena told me. She pulled out her phone and showed me a picture of her face in crosshairs covered in paintball bursts, with a caption: Aim at that face, don’t miss the fucking shot. “Here you have a mosque. But there are a lot of people there. We don’t have much money. If you have ten crowns you have to decide who you help.” I asked her if Roma people were welcome to eat. “If someone wants to eat, they can ask. Many people are rude and don’t know how to behave. If you’re rude, you don’t get anything.”
Thirty seconds later, a brave middle-aged Roma couple tiptoed up through the gauntlet of toughs towards the coffee. A bald guy in sweatpants muttered, Nay, Nay, brusquely turning them away. I spoke with Roger Sahlström, a nationalist-friendly photojournalist who was milling about in the crowd. “Right now I’m working the hate site…. uh, the site with a not-so-good reputation, Avpixlat,” he said. “It’s a site where we write about issues of migration. There are a lot of assholes there, but I’m trying to clean it up… We see our own society crumbling before our eyes when it comes to school, healthcare and jobs. Old people and handicapped people don’t get help. But then we have loads of money for other people.”
One of the leaders of the neo-fascist Nordic Youth, named Christian Matteson, had showed up to be part of the security detail. “We give food and clothes to homeless Swedes. Specifically for Swedish homeless because there are different other organizations that give it to Gypsies,” he told me. “I think it’s obvious if you look into history that there has never been a multicultural society that really worked out. We have weak people not standing up for themselves, dependent on the government. I think a lot of it is about immigration, but I also blame socialism.” Nordic Youth describe themselves as a “metapolitical” organization, subscribing to a Huntington-ite worldview, and are known for their frequent protests and actions against migrant homes, as well as their connections with the Polish and Hungarian far-right. I asked Matteson what he had thought of the beatings at the Central Station. “I think it was good. There are lots of criminal elements in Central Station. The police told the media they couldn’t do anything about it. Somebody had to put their foot down and show them.”
After leaving Björns trädgård, I took the T-Bana directly to see Mathias Wåg — Sweden’s most famous and knowledgeable anti-fascist, who runs a thinktank called Research Gruppen. A veteran of the violent battles of the 80s and 90s alongside Stieg Larsson and Expo, Wåg lives with his partner and infant daughter in a pseudonymous apartment, with a protected identity — he is routinely threatened by neo-Nazis as a result of his decades of activism and information he provided that led to convictions in the 1999 murder of beloved syndicalist Bjorn Söderberg. “That murderer guy is still threatening me. If I go to the dentist, they say, we can’t see your last name — we just call you Mathias X,” he said. Wåg writes for Sweden’s large newspapers and also edits Brand — Fire — the world’s oldest continuously-published anarchist journal, started in 1898. A gentle redbearded giant, he catalogs the strands and ranks of the individuals, groups and parties of the far right with taxonomic meticulousness.
Wåg wanted to make sure I clearly understood the ideological distinctions among the diffuse elements that make up Sweden’s far right. “The Nazis — the former white power scene — are quite small. But we have a huge network of extreme right around the Sweden Democrats, who call themselves the ‘Sweden-friendly Movement’… They don’t speak about race. They talk about the Swedish — ‘Swedish culture, we love Sweden, we’re against political correctness and cultural Marxism.’ They’re the ones who organized the People’s Demonstration, the soup kitchen, and Avpixlat. They’re looking at PEGIDA and English Defense League. This big wave of violence — we don’t connect it to Nazis. We connect it to the PEGIDA area. Breivik, in Norway He came from this area, not the Nazis or the Nordic Resistance Movement. The man who killed a lot of people in Malmö? The so-called ‘Lazer man’? — he came from this scene. The guy who killed people at the school in Trollhättan? He came from this scene.”
Sweden is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of the images of Alan Kurdi this fall, the pro-refugee public opinion has now inverted into vigilante rage. There is a massive housing crisis, identity checks on the Oresund Bridge from Denmark, and the country’s Migration Agency has signaled that they will likely reject half of the asylum-seekers presently in the country — a difficult task for any country, but a nearly impossible one for Sweden. The governing Social Democrats, who returned to power with a weak coalition in 2014, are polling at a historic bottom, widely considered short-sighted, opportunistic, and rudderless. The fear is that victory by the insurgent Sweden Democrats will turn the political landscape upside down in the 2018 general election. Outrage over crime and sexual harassment and assault allegedly committed by migrant youth is building with enraged citizen outbursts at neighborhood and city council meetings and conspiracies, such as the one that was uncovered last week, by fourteen Swedish Poles to attack asylum homes. After years of complaining about how the country’s feminist policies have gone too far, the Sweden Democrats are trying to rebrand itself as the party that values the safety of Swedish women. All of the parties, even the Sweden Democrats, favor a strong welfare state — though the Sweden Democrats want the welfare state to work for ethnic Swedes, not immigrants. The underlying fault line over the soul of the Scandinavian welfare state is whether its true roots lay in the brilliantly organized labor movement of the 20s and 30s that brought forth the welfare state, or the ethnic homogeneity from whence it sprung.