I came across this trailer for a documentary about a Swedish group called “The Panthers” (inspired by the Black Panthers, of course) and my mind was blown. Watch it, maybe five or ten times if you’d like, and then I’ll explain the background a little bit.
Sweden, Race, and the Suburbs
In the United States, historically, the “inner city” has been populated by poor people – immigrants or Blacks – and in the last 60 years, the suburbs have been primarily known as rich, white areas. In much of Europe, this is reversed – the inner cities are richer, whiter, and more politically powerful, and the poorer people are in the outlying suburbs. In particular, the people of color who have immigrated in large numbers to Europe since the end of World War Two live in these suburbs. (In the US we are now shifting to this pattern – our cities are being violently reshaped, with evictions and displacement of lower-income people, especially people of color, to the suburbs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the San Francisco Bay Area – a topic for a different blog post.)
It’s worth remembering that race is a social construct. It wasn’t so long ago in the US that Irish people weren’t considered white. Jews are thoroughly integrated into whiteness in America in a way that would astonish someone who lived just 60 or 70 years ago. While white supremacy is a global system, it’s going to look and act differently in each place. You can see that in Sweden, people who would read as white in the US are identified as Other. So if you watch that trailer again or watch the “do not treat us like animals” documentary (see below), keep in mind that almost anyone with a little bit of melanin is likely to have a history of racial oppression in Sweden.
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These suburbs are treated as the inner cities have been treated in the US – as less important, with worse education, fewer job prospects, etc. etc., and they see some of the same consequences – gangs, crime – and then some of the same further responses: surveillance and police brutality.
Sweden, of course, had a rich history of social democracy, and still has low income inequality compared to other countries. But since the Eighties, neoliberalism has taken its toll there, too, slashing social services, increasing poverty, and increasing the numbers of the very wealthy – the same growing inequality that plagues every place in the world today.
Racial problems in Sweden mirror those elsewhere. Like in other European countries, the far right is on the rise, blaming immigrants and appealing to nationalism and racism. Just like in the US, people of color are harassed by the police, followed in shops, and discriminated against in the job market.
Last week was the one-year anniversary of the most linked-to text in Swedish history. On March 13th, 2013, following a particularly insensitive remark about racial profiling by the Minister of Justice, one Swede wrote “An Open Letter to Beatrice Ask” that quickly became the most popular page – ever – of the website of the newspaper that published it.
But not all responses were so measured. Economic inequality is given as the reason for explosive riots in the suburbs of Stockholm in May of 2013. But as one of the Panthers, Majsa Allelin, explains in “do not treat us like animals” (starting about 33:51 in):
I think it is very difficult to separate class, in Sweden, from ethnicity. Why we are called the Panthers is because of the Black Panthers in the United States and that struggle. And it was a class struggle that was interlinked with the anti-racist struggle.
The Panthers provide a different way out than riots – organizing. Started in one suburb, they (and in some cases, their model) has spread to others. In an enlightening interview with some Panthers, they talk about its origins and goals. Founded by community college students, they aim to organize youth and young adults of all different backgrounds. I’m particularly interested in what seems to be their non-ideological approach:
[W]e prefer to call ourselves a revolutionizing organization rather than a revolutionary organization…. We get people to be active, that’s revolutionizing. The single biggest effect that we have had so far is more awareness in our community; people have become engaged in social matters.
If you have an hour, watch this engrossing documentary on the Panthers: “do not treat us like animals”. That movie is short on specifics of the organization’s structure and doesn’t show the less media-genic, day-to-day work of organizing, but does show some of their tactics in confronting politicians, as well as letting the youth speak about their experience growing up in the suburbs.
It absolutely thrills me to see the images, ideas, and slogans of the People Power movements of the Sixties in the US reverberate across the world today. It may seem a little incongruent, but it is actually incredibly appropriate to see the banners above with Malcolm X next to “Stand up for your suburb” and Martin Luther King Jr. next to “All power to the people” (in Swedish, of course). It is my hope that here in the US we can catch their echo back to us, and learn from the Panthers about how to confront the same problems: inequality, racism, and the destruction of the social fabric by capitalism.
Documentary showing in the Bay Area
The second documentary – “I’m a Fucking Panther” – is showing in the Bay Area soon: on Tuesday, March 25th, 6:30pm at Station 40 (see the Facebook event) and the next night, Wednesday, March 26th, 8pm at The Long Haul.
I hope you will join me there!
Station 40 is at 3030B 16th Street near the corner of Mission Street across the street from the 16th Street BART Station. Their events space is up a flight of stairs.
The Long Haul is at 3124 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA close to Ashby BART.