The week before last there was unrest in Örebro. In two suburbs there were acts of vandalism, primarily cars being set on fire. It happened on successive nights and there were various arrests made. Since then there has been much introspection and handwringing in the local press, and I suppose in the community in general. How could such a thing happen in such a prosperous land as Sweden? The general feeling is that it is all about the growing gap between rich and poor, the feeling of dissatisfaction of some people in the community that they are badly off when others have it all.
Ours was one of the two suburbs affected by the unrest, which was labelled an “upplop” by the press. Upplop can be translated as “riot” which seems to me to be something of an overstatement. The so called riot in Brickebacken amounted to the burning of a number of cars by vandals who rapidly disappeared from the scene. There was no crowd of angry young men shouting and throwing stones and bottles. You could almost wonder if the actions were the result of boredom, rather than anger. The press made a lot of it, but the local inhabitants of Brickebacken were quick to say how safe and secure they feel despite everything.
The paper contributed with an article summarizing the social and economic differences between various suburbs of Örebro. A couple of things stood out. The richest suburb, Adolfsberg, has a disposable income per household of more than 3 times that of the poorest suburbs. It also has more than twice the number of people with a tertiary education, and half the proportion unemployed. Needless to say, only 9% of those living in Adolfsberg has a foreign background, compared with 77% of Vivalla, which is one of the poorest suburbs.
Brickebacken, where we live, is not the poorest suburb though the average household income is still less than half of that in Adolfsberg. It is however, one of the most immigrant dominated areas, with some 53% coming from outside Sweden. Vivalla and Brickebacken were the two suburbs of Örebro affected by the so called riots.
Local politicians were asked for their opinions about the causes of the unrest, and their suggestions of solutions. The general consensus seems to be that the underlying problem is “utanförskap” – literally translated as “outsidership”. The perpetrators, like many in the community, feel outside. The solution, therefore, is to reduce this feeling of being outside. How to do that? Various ideas have been floated, but the general consensus is that educational opportunities need to be improved, free time activities need to be provided, especially for youth, and unemployment needs to be reduced, to give people more income, and to give them something to do with their time.
I read another editorial the other day which commented on Sweden as being, according to an international survey, one of the happiest nations in the world, with only a couple of other nations ahead of it (one of which was Australia!). The article wondered what happiness really is. Interestingly, I am fairly sure that the rich-poor divide in Australia is significantly greater than in socialist Sweden, even if according to the survey Australians as a group have it better than Swedes. I also remember seeing a documentary a few years ago about poverty in the UK, where the richest people earn up to 300 times the poorest, so a threefold difference in Örebro seems fairly trivial.
There is no doubt that a huge gap between rich and poor creates resentment and envy, a feeling of injustice. The revolutions of the last two hundred years bear witness to that. Neither is there any doubt in my mind that feeling like an outsider leads to discontent and depression. We all desire to “belong” and we all want a meaningful existence, where we do something worthwhile and where we are rewarded for our efforts. There are too many people who have neither a sense of purpose or belonging in our society. Helping people to gain that must surely be one of the major tasks of our times.