Social media and research: Swedes tackle police racism

Instagram account Police Brutality in the Suburbs lets people share experiences as study reveals extent of abuse.

Sweden police brutality
The founders of an Instagram account tackling police racism. From left: Nisreen Elemam, Fatimah Al Sharkawi, Aftab Soltani [Al Jazeera]

“You know, you hang with your friends in the town centre. The police can stop you several times in an evening. You can stand here, and get stopped, be pushed against a wall for everyone to see. You walk towards your school – you get stopped again. We feel followed.”

“I had just arrived at the festival. A person grabs me from the back. When someone grabs you, you react. The police thought I was resisting. He threw me on the ground, put his knee on my back, and I screamed. He called me the N-word. That was what hurt the most.” 

“Frustration, hate, irritation, humiliation and oppression. Being subjected to discrimination. These are the feelings I get every time I get stopped. Even if you are innocent, and haven’t done anything, you get scared, stressed.”

“It was an ordinary evening, nothing special. All of a sudden, a police car stops in front of us. They jump out and push us against the car. It happened without any reason. None of us had anything strange on us. We’ve never had any dealings with the police previously in terms of records. This happened because of the way we looked, we are black. We saw another group of guys in front of us, all white. They were not stopped.”

This happened because of the way we looked, we are black. We saw another group of guys in front of us, all white. They were not stopped.

by Victim of racial profiling

These are some of the testimonies by Afro-Swedes, Muslims and Roma from marginalised areas, collected as part of a study on the Swedish police by criminologist Leandro Schclarek Mulinari on behalf of Civil Rights Defenders.

“To be stopped and controlled by police is an everyday experience for very many people who do not have white bodies,” Mulinari told Al Jazeera, adding that the aim of the study, published in December, was not to cast the police as racists.

“There are problems with structural racism within the police force, and this study aimed to deepen the conversation around racial profiling – which is a phenomenon that’s not being discussed in a Swedish context.” 

Leandro Schclarek Mulinari said being stopped and searched is an everyday reality for non-white Swedes [Courtesy: Leandro Schclarek Mulinari]
Leandro Schclarek Mulinari said being stopped and searched is an everyday reality for non-white Swedes [Courtesy: Leandro Schclarek Mulinari]

Before the study, an Instagram account titled “Polis Brutaliteten i Orten”, or Police Brutality in the Suburbs emerged in November.

Within two weeks, the page had more than 10,000 followers and was flooded with personal stories of suffering verbal and physical abuse, racial slurs and stop and searches – which did not appear to be random – by the police.

In January, an anonymous user said police called his group of friends “damn Syrians”.

Hossein Khodr posted in December, saying how a simple discussion with police over a parking ticket escalated, seeing him questioned of selling drugs.

Another user in December claimed that police told him that his car “looks too expensive for you to own”.

Similar posts relate to police intimidation and repeated stop and searches.

‘Military intervention in the suburbs’

Fatimah Al Sharkawi, 22, one of the founders of the project, said the account was set up after troubling discussions at the political level to beef up security in the suburbs.

“To us, creating the account was timely,”  she told Al Jazeera, “especially at a time when politicians are discussing the importance of bringing the military to the suburbs to support police in battling crime, and increasing surveillance with CCTV cameras.”

During the first parliamentary debates of the 2018, Jimmie Akesson, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, suggested using soliders to support police in fighting gang-related crimes.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven later said using military resources was not his preferred method, but stopped short of ruling the option out altogether.

Social justice activist Aftab Soltani, who helps manage the Instagram account, said the feed is “bringing up uncomfortable truths”.

“The Swedish police have this nice image, they are not supposed to be like the US police,” she said. “But these are the effects and results of structural racism, and of course it will manifest itself in one way or another.

“[Mulinari’s] report validated our experiences, it’s not just personal opinions. These are collective experiences and a reality for many. These are testimonies from all over Sweden which need to be discussed. The account and the report are mirroring the society and world we live in.”

Mulinari said unlike the UK and US, data is hard to come by in Sweden.

Furthering research, he added, “changes the tone of the discussion and conversation about the topic.”

Police response questioned

Police responded to the testimonies within the study, claiming they were isolated cases of poor policing.

This reaction reminded Mulinari of a secret Roma register, a database formed by police set up in 2013 containing the names of 4,000 mostly Roma people.

It it against Swedish law to gather directories based on ethnicity.

“For example, when the Roma registry was exposed – where Roma people in Sweden as young as two were illegally put on a registry by the police force – instead of looking at it as institutional racism, they dismissed it as the result of bad judgment by individual policemen, rather than the failure of the police force,” he said.

“We need to see to what extent [racial profiling] is part of the police force’s work, and what consequences it has on the people.”

What they did to me is illegal and wrong’

Rania – not her real name – is a 16-year-old non-white, Sweden-born citizen.

She spoke to Al Jazeera about her experience with the police.

This is her story:

As they were attending a festival in Stockholm, one friend in the group became intoxicated. It was an alcohol-free event. The police wanted to take the friend into custody so she could sober up.

“We told them we can look after her, but in the end, we accepted what the police said,” Rania said. “As more officers started to arrive the atmosphere turned hostile very quickly.”

Rania claims the police handled her roughly, handcuffed her and put her inside a police van. Inside the van, she saw another friend from the group.

After a few minutes’ drive, the police released the friend from the vehicle.

She was then left alone with the three officers – two males and one female.

One of the officers told her: “We are now going to take a short trip to the forests.”

Rania panicked.

“The officers pulled me out in an industrial area into the forest.

The police are supposed to protect us, not attack us.

by Rania*, victim of racial profiling

“We started to walk and the officer said to me: ‘No one is going to find you here, you will regret having so much attitude towards us!’

“While he was doing that, he was pushing a cold hard item onto my neck. I later discovered when he pushed me down to my knees that it was a gun.

“I thought they were going to kill me. He repeatedly asked me: ‘Will you show attitude to the police again?’ And I repeatedly said no. I told them you can beat me up if you want. The officer replied: ‘You don’t deserve to be beaten up, you deserve to die’.”

Rania claimed the officers walked her deep into the forest and left her with her handbag in the dark.

She did not have a mobile phone but eventually managed to find her way out.

She saw a light by the side of the road and a security guard. He drove her to the nearest tube station. They were about 25 minutes away from the city.

Rania reported the incident to the police and the security guard testified; he had seen the police van earlier and watched them walk into the forests.

The case was closed after a few months because there was not enough evidence to prove a crime had been committed. 

“I never had any dealings with the police prior to this incident,” said Rania. “I had no negative feelings towards them. But since this happened, it has sparked hatred towards them.

“Even if I had attitude, it does not justify how they treated me. What they did to me is illegal and wrong. Prior to this I heard about police brutality and racial profiling, but I did not believe it was true. The police are supposed to protect us, not attack us.”

By the time of publication, police had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

 Follow Fatma Naib on Twitter: @FatmaNaib

Source: Al Jazeera