|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Gothenburg one year on
Anti-capitalist clampdown in Sweden
The Swedish police viciously attacked protests against last year’s EU Gothenburg summit. Now, 71 activists have been prosecuted of whom 36 have received prison sentences ranging from eight months to two-and-a-half years. No police officers have yet been prosecuted, despite them shooting three demonstrators. PER ÅKE WESTERLUND of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) explains the state’s agenda and how it is being countered.
THE EVENTS DURING and after the Gothenburg protests on 14-16 June 2001 showed some of the features of counter-revolution. The first gunshots were fired against demonstrators since 1931 in Sweden; 1,100 people were arrested; massive state propaganda portrayed the activists as ‘terrorists’; and those prosecuted were held in solitary confinement for months and received custodial sentences ten times longer than usual.
The police in Gothenburg (as one month later in Genoa, Italy) acted as if the demonstrations were a threat to those in power. They arrested alleged ‘saboteurs’ days in advance. They claimed that demonstrators were armed and had even fired shots. They expected police stations to be stormed and believed the EU summit was in danger. Who painted this picture in the first place? The answer is that it’s the job of the police to protect those in power, and the politicians were apparently extremely worried at the prospect of big demonstrations in Gothenburg.
The ruling class in Sweden reverted to its old traditions of state violence to suppress a challenge. When the workers in Sundsvall organised the first big strike in Sweden in 1879, the regional governor was terrified: ‘God help us, it looks as if the International is here’. The fear of international influences and organisation was the same in those days. Sharpshooters and increased police patrols were used to intimidate workers in Sundsvall. In the 1920s and 1930s the capitalists in Sweden and other countries organised armed volunteer corps to protect strike breakers (in Germany these developed into the Nazis). But it was the army, rather than volunteers, who fired the shots which killed five workers in Ådalen in 1931. After decades of slander against the workers’ leaders and in defence of the army, the real significance of the events in Ådalen was not acknowledged by the social democratic labour movement until the radicalised 1960s and 1970s.
Why the heavy police intervention in Gothenburg against demonstrations which hardly posed a threat to state power? Those prosecuted were predominantly young people connected to anarchist circles. It should be seen in its international context. One million people have participated in mass protests outside capitalist summits following the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in November 1999. Many more worldwide supported the criticism of global capitalism. The predominantly youthful anti-capitalist marches were and are an anticipation of much bigger, more powerful workers’ actions and even revolts. This is a direct result of the neo-liberal policies pursued by governments all over the globe in the last decade.
PARALLEL TO SEEKING a ‘dialogue’ with protest groups, governments prepared tougher police responses to prevent demonstrations from disrupting the meetings. Gothenburg was part of this pattern. Following Gothenburg, given that pictures of burning barricades and smashed shop windows were used again and again in the media, with references to ‘war’ and ‘90% support for the police’, the Swedish establishment seemed to win the propaganda campaign.
The social democrats in Gothenburg gave roses to the police. The Left Party leadership concentrated on condemning the riots, not mentioning the police brutality. The small Socialist Party (USFI) bent in the same direction amidst this enormous slander campaign. In the first sentencing, which was then duplicated in other cases, the court claimed that "the violent riots in Gothenburg at the time of the summit were a brutal assault on the democratic values of a constitutional state". "Policemen were forced to fire", the court wrote in order to underline the violence of the demonstrators. This official version, which from day one was challenged by Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden) and a handful of others, has subsequently collapsed.
In Norway, without the same pressure to defend its ‘boys in blue’, criticism has been stronger even in official circles. "The blunt message", commented Thomas Mathiesen, professor of law in Oslo, "was that one should think twice before participating in political demonstrations". Five union leaders in Norway joined the campaign in support of Gigi Longo, an Italian living in Oslo, who was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
The police violence in Gothenburg can be divided into at least four chapters: the encirclement by hundreds of police of the Hvitfeldtska school/hostel; the attack on the anti-capitalist march; the assault on Reclaim the City’s festival; and the storming of the Schillerska school/hostel. There were also a number of other serious incidents.
The surrounding of Hvitfeldtska school, the day before the EU summit, was a decisive event. The school provided accommodation for 450 demonstrators and was the centre for the organising network. Hundreds of riot police encircled it, using a ring of industrial containers. They claimed that violence was being ‘prepared’ and that threats had been made against police. When those inside tried to break through police lines, they were accused of violent affray and the order was given to arrest them all. These orders where issued by state prosecutors from a command centre, not (as has since been claimed) by individual police officers in the heat of the moment.
Most of those receiving prison sentences came from the protests at Hvitfeldtska. But even in court the police propaganda was cut to pieces. The demonstrators had ‘planned violence’ – those encircled could hardly have planned to act against a police attack no-one had foreseen. The demonstrators were violent – even the police evaluation showed that there was no violence prior to the police intervention. The demonstrators were armed – the police did not find a single weapon after searching the school. The subsequent stone-throwing was a result of the police attack.
THE AIM OF the trials – to substantiate the police story and make a harsh example of the defendants – was achieved by flagrant manipulation. Police officers who had never met the accused gave testimony; newsreel videos were manipulated (one had a new soundtrack dubbed on and contained 25 edits in a three-minute sequence); paving stones were passed around as evidence in each trial even if the charges were not related to stone-throwing. If the police or the court regarded the accused as a political activist, as opposed to ‘non-political’, it resulted in a longer sentence.
A 20-year-old was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for merely waving at the Bush Not Welcome demo in a (completely unsuccessful) attempt to draw attention to events at Hvitfeldtska and get the march to go there. He was not accused of stone-throwing or vandalism and he denied waving. Rioting between police and protesters was already going on when this man was arrested. The police told the court that the 20-year-old had been under surveillance for weeks prior to the demo, ‘proving’ he was involved in ‘subversive activities’. His lawyer was told that the police had no film of the events, which could have helped in his defence. Yet, in later trials, the police produced film clips from these same events.
This ‘waving’ activist provided the only link between the demonstrations and the ‘information centre’ which the police attacked the same day. In the first trial against this ‘centre’, eight young people were each given three to four years in prison for "inciting violent riots". The Court of Appeal later halved their sentences, amending the charge to "assisting violent riots". The evidence produced was extremely weak. From an apartment these youth had sent ten mobile phone text messages to a maximum 62 recipients. Three of the messages were "important" according to the court. But all were sent hours before the clashes between police and activists outside Hvitfeldtska. The only person found by the police to have received the messages was the 20 year-old ‘waving’ activist.
This trial underlined the political character of the courts. The Court of Appeal claimed that those sentenced had "similar ideological opinions and felt a strong distrust towards the police", referring to books or leaflets found in their houses. Anyone could register to get text messages from the information centre, and its equipment consisted of one computer – despite police talk of an "advanced and secret command centre". The purpose of the centre seems rather to have been to warn demonstrators to avoid conflict with the police. It was definitely not illegal.
The Gothenburg trials resulted in a ten-fold increase in the length of prison sentences for violent riot. Teenagers were given two to three years in prison, longer than for neo-Nazis convicted of violent crimes (one to six months), rapists or other real criminals. In Seattle the longest jail term was nine days, compared to an average of one year and three months in Gothenburg’s first 30 convictions. Among those now in prison is Hannes Westberg, the activist almost killed by police when they tried to break up a peaceful Reclaim the Streets party in a park. The policeman who fired the gunshots has been cleared.
Criticism of the police and the courts has been growing since last summer. The first demonstration against the courts was organised on the initiative of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, with others, in September. New books, TV programmes and a new network have focused on the injustice of the legal proceedings.
This has even been reflected by the High Court rulings late this spring. The High Court tried to achieve some ‘reconciliation’, acting in a more neutral manner than the lower court. It lowered the sentence of one activist from 20 months to four months, deciding that he could not be responsible for later violent riots.
Another concession is that four police officers have been charged for storming the Schillerska school. Masked paramilitary police with automatic weapons attacked the school. They forced people out of their sleeping bags and made them lie face down in the schoolyard for more than an hour in pouring rain. The police were violent, shouted abuse and threats, events chillingly repeated in the bloody storming of a school by Italian police in Genoa one month later. The trial of the police officers in Gothenburg is intended to improve the reputation of the courts, but after a delay of almost a year it will not nearly be enough.
THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE to Gothenburg has been to strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state. "Disturbances and violence of the kind which took place in Gothenburg constitute a threat to democracy", the government wrote in a new bill. "The police should have better capabilities to manage situations like in Gothenburg", said the justice minister, Thomas Bodström. In contrast to Genoa, no senior police officers were replaced. Of course, the minister is the guiltiest person.
The government hypocritically claimed that the violence prevented ‘peaceful demonstrations’ when, in fact, the clashes never took place in the vicinity of the demos. The stone-throwing was the spontaneous reaction of some anarchists and a section of youth against the police violence. The truth is that the police considered banning the biggest of the peaceful demos, with 20,000 participants on the Saturday morning (16 June).
The committee drawing up proposals for more resources and powers for the police has not yet completed its work. Under discussion are proposals to ban the wearing of masks on demonstrations, the use of emergency police forces, water cannon and teargas. Tighter border controls is another proposal, linked to the propaganda about ‘foreign professional criminals’ in the riots. Yet only four of the 71 prosecuted in Gothenburg are non-Scandinavians.
Two days after the Gothenburg summit, 25 top prosecutors from EU countries held an emergency meeting in Stockholm. Their proposal was to give Europol (the EU police) extended responsibilities to include surveillance of people planning to disturb EU summits. In mid-July the ministers decided that suspects could be banned from entering a summit country. New repressive EU laws had been planned for some time, but the terrorist attacks in the US have been used to hasten this process.
The new common arrest order means that decisions on extradition are made by civil servants, not governments. No country can refuse a request for extradition even if this concerns something which is not a crime in that country. Among the categories covered by the new law are "participation in a criminal organisation, terrorism and IT crimes". This opens the way for the toughest national laws to become the norm within the EU. Extradition could apply for people hiding refugees (a crime in France), or members of the Kurdish PKK (illegal in Germany). And what about summit demonstrators or environmental activists? Are they covered by the definition of terrorists? These questions were in focus at a demonstration initiated by Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, outside the Riksdag (Swedish parliament) in Stockholm in May.
The EU anti-terrorism proposals refer to an "increase of violent actions in connection to EU summits, perpetrated by uncontrollable elements among which people belonging to terrorist organisations have been discovered". The state repression in and after Gothenburg is part of this EU-wide process. No government wishes to be accused of being soft on activists or refugees, let alone ‘terrorists’. The EU is developing Europol and the coordination of state prosecutors through Eurojust, with a similar system for the courts. It also aims to register refugees and ‘suspects’ in the Schengen Information System (SIS).
THE EVENTS IN Gothenburg showed the strength of the repressive apparatus, but also its limitations. The police violence and hysterical media campaign had the upper hand in the first months. Several of the organisations behind the demos played into the hands of the police. Most of them by bending under the pressure, while others, such as some of the anarchists, by praising stone-throwing as a viable method of struggle. Others, like Attac, virtually disappeared after Gothenburg.
From the beginning, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna advocated public defence campaigns for those prosecuted. With demonstrations, protest meetings, and petitions etc, RS has successfully defended members on trial or refugees threatened with deportation. This time it was clear that the young activists, held in isolation, were reluctant to conduct public defence campaigns. Most of their anarchistic organisations also refused to campaign, based on their penchant for secrecy. The first demonstration against the trials, again on the initiative of RS, was held in Gothenburg in September 2001 and helped increase consciousness about the trials. So did those defendants who went public – Hannes Westberg and Gigi Longo.
Can the police and the courts break the new movement? The short answer after Gothenburg and Genoa is no. This spring we have seen the biggest protests so far, in Italy and Spain. In Sweden, the demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan were bigger than any left-wing demo for years before Gothenburg. The police and the politicians have not been able to strengthen their position despite their enormous resources. The role of the state is clearly understood by a small but growing layer of activists, workers and young people. And in the broader layers of workers there is widespread scepticism.
In capitalist society, the ruling class is a small minority ruling through its economic power and its state apparatus. Generally, the state seems to stand above the struggling classes, giving the appearance of a neutral arbiter. In calm periods the state acts via laws, statutes, traditions, the education system, negotiation, etc. But when the power of the ruling class is threatened, the state will attempt to use its armed backbone: the police, military and courts.
Consciousness about the role of the state faded during the reform decades following the second world war. The destruction of the welfare state in the 1990s, however, has made its role clearer. Gothenburg is the clearest example so far that the Swedish state is no exception. With 2,500 policemen present, it was a training camp for future battles. But resorting to this level of violence is, at the same time, a problem for the rulers. They prefer to rule through peaceful, democratic means, holding the most repressive weapons in reserve. The experience of Gothenburg will hardly calm their nerves. If the police had such big difficulties facing mainly young demonstrators, what will happen when the movement reaches French, Italian or Argentinian strength?
Loyalty to the state is the prime test of a politician in capitalist society. The system demands that neither politicians nor anyone in the legal system should question the action of the police in Gothenburg. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has taken on the role of restoring the authority of the courts by reducing some of the sentences. The trial of police officers for brutality at the Schillerska school has sparked an internal conflict between the Gothenburg police and the National Task Force over who was responsible. The state ombudsman has initiated an investigation into the Hvitfeldtska affair, criticising the police. All this is a result of continuous public campaigning, demonstrations and the emergence of new facts, leading to growing pressure from below.
How should state repression be answered? One of the clearest lessons from Gothenburg is that the police force and the courts are not impartial. Workers and anti-capitalists in struggle must educate and develop stewards, witnesses, legal expertise and our own media. On a limited scale, the campaigns after Gothenburg have begun to play that role.
The main way to answer repression is by mass participation on a clear programme. More unions and rank-and-file organisations must participate in protests and struggle. There are many examples where violence from the state apparatus has been futile in preventing a real mass movement, like when the Argentinian masses overthrew the De La Rua government in December. Armed soldiers and police could do nothing.
But first of all, the struggle against repression is political. The working class needs new mass socialist parties in Sweden and internationally – parties which explain the reasons for capitalism’s neo-liberal policies and show how to struggle for a socialist society.
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