Interview with an Antifascist Prisoner in Sweden
Joel is an antifascist prisoner in Sweden. In July 2014, he was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for attempted murder, violent disorder, and carrying an illegal weapon. The sentence followed a collective defense against a Nazi attack on an antifascist demonstration in Stockholm. The interview was conducted in the fall of 2014. Explanatory notes have been added.
You were sentenced in connection with an antifascist demonstration in Kärrtorp, a suburb of Stockholm, in December 2013. Can you tell us about that day?
During the weeks before the demonstration, there had been trouble in Kärrtorp and the neighboring suburbs. The Swedish Resistance Movement (Svenska motståndsrörelsen, SMR) had tried to establish itself in the area. They went through the usual Nazi routine of spraying swastikas on the local school and attacking people who have no place in the world they envision – in some cases with knives.
I’m not sure, but I think Network Line 17 already existed before the demonstration. In any case, it was this network that organized it. ((The Network Line 17 (Nätverket Linje 17) is a network of community groups along the southern end of Stockholm’s subway line 17.)) There were indications that Nazis might show up to disrupt the event, but when I checked in with people in the morning it seemed that everything was going to be fine. Since there was a solidarity benefit for an imprisoned antifascist the same night, I thought I would only stop by the demonstration for a short while before heading into town to help prepare the evening event. When I got to Kärrtorp with a few friends, we were about ten minutes late.
Five minutes later, the Nazis came. ((There were about thirty SMR members involved in the attack.)) We saw them from about 200 yards away. Everything became very chaotic; we weren’t prepared and spread out across the square. We also had very little to defend ourselves with. The Nazis began to shower us with bottles. It didn’t seem to matter to them that there were many children and pensioners among us. They advanced onto the square while we retreated.
One of the strongest memories I have from that day is a policewoman standing between us and the Nazis and then suddenly running away. When I read the police report later, I understood that she went to get her helmet because of all the flying bottles, but at the time it felt like this was going to get really dangerous, even life-threatening. Everyone knows how happy SMR members are to use their knives. ((During the attack, there were only about handful of police officers present. Reinforcements took several minutes to arrive.))
Once the initial confusion was over, we managed to gather and start a counterattack. We stopped the Nazis’ advance but that was not good enough. A front line formed. The police didn’t have a clue what was going on and beat us at least as hard as the Nazis. It was still chaotic, but now we were at least coordinated. We pushed back the Nazis further, and this is when I first saw one of them with a knife. I started heading towards him but lost sight. Meanwhile, the Nazis tried to regain ground. There were serious skirmishes and I saw another Nazi with a knife. If, at that point, the Nazis had gotten the upper hand and one of us had fallen to the ground, it could have been fatal. That’s when the Nazi closest to us got stabbed.
A number of demonstrators who had first left the square now returned. With their help, we managed to push the Nazis from the square to the adjacent bus station, then past some buildings out into the forest. More police arrived only when we were already at the bus station. I had hurt my knee in the melee and didn’t go with the others. Soon, the police shielded off the Nazis and protected them. ((Twenty-eight SMR members were arrested. So far, sixteen have gone to court, seven of whom have been sentenced. The highest sentence so far has been eight months in prison for violent disorder.)) I waited for my friends to return to the square, then I went, as planned, into town to help prepare the evening event.
You said that it wasn’t “good enough” to stop the Nazis’ advance. What do you mean by that?
It is important to understand that the Nazis came to attack us. They didn’t come to have a counter-rally, as they claim. Had it been up to them, they would have chased everyone from the square and, ideally, hurt some folks in the process. The attack was not just about preventing people from taking a stand against them, it was also about propaganda. The goal was to prevent any resistance to their recruitment efforts in the area and to use the action itself as a recruitment tool. Anyone who doesn’t understand this, chooses to ignore reality. Kärrtorp isn’t unique, that’s how it works everywhere. If we don’t fight on the streets, where are we going to fight?
I’m digressing, but it’s really important to point out how crucial it was to not only stop them but to chase them out of Kärrtorp. If you want their activities to end, this is needed.
You also mentioned that everyone knows how happy SMR members are to use their knives. Can you give examples?
The readiness of SMR members to use knives is well documented. About a year before the Kärrtorp attack, a person was stabbed to death by SMR members in Vallentuna, just outside of Stockholm. Only a few days before the Kärrtorp attack, someone was severely injured just a few suburbs away. And at least one of the people who murdered the union activist Björn Söderberg (rest in peace) was connected to SMR. ((On September 21, 2012, Joakim Karlsson was murdered in Vallentuna. On December 7, 2013, Fidel Ogu was severely injured in Hökarängen. On October 12, 1999, Björn Söderberg was killed outside his apartment in Sätra in southern Stockholm.)) There are more examples, but these should suffice. SMR tries to attract people – mostly young ones – with revolutionary romanticism and a sense of community that builds more on violence than ideology.
When did you get arrested?
About a week later. I was picking up my son from school.
It seems that you’ve been active in Sweden’s antifascist movement for quite some time. Can you tell us a little about this?
I grew up in Linköping during the 1980s and ’90s. Just like in the rest of Sweden and Europe, Nazis were on the rise. In Sweden, the “Laser Man” wreaked havoc, and the band Ultima Thule topped the charts. ((From August 1991 to January 1992, the “Laser Man” John Ausonius killed one person, the Iranian student Jimmy Ranjbar, and severely injured ten more in a series of shootings targeting people he considered “foreign” (in the beginning, Ausonius used a rifle with a laser sight, hence the name). Ultima Thule was a popular Swedish rock band with ties to the neo-Nazi milieu.)) Linköping was strongly affected by this. It was a center for the production of White Power music and several leaders of the different Nazi organizations that existed in Sweden at the time were living in or around the town.
I was born in Chile, so I have personally experienced the everyday racism that still exists in Sweden. When I was little, I was physically attacked by Nazis. Once I got older, I started to fight back and defend myself. I realized that this made things much easier for me.
When I was 13 years old, I started going to hardcore punk shows. At the time, the hardcore punk scene was much more political than today. At a gig in 1995, someone asked me if I wanted to travel with him to Denmark to protest a march celebrating the German Nazi Rudolf Hess. I didn’t hesitate a second.
It was during this trip that I really embraced antifascism. I hadn’t known that there was a real antifascist movement out there. Everything in Denmark seemed so organized. There were lots of people from all ages at the demonstration, and this didn’t change even when we got into skirmishes with the police trying to keep us away from the Nazis. You could call it an initiating experience. It took some time before I got organized myself, but it was during this trip that I really understood that I was an antifascist.
Was the antifascist movement in Denmark better organized at the time than in Sweden? Has this changed?
I can’t really say how well antifascists were organized in other parts of Sweden at the time, but in Linköping there was no organization at all, or at least you didn’t notice it. In the late 1990s, however, an extraparliamentary left developed in Linköping as well.
I don’t want to go into details regarding antifascist organizing in Sweden, but once I had gotten involved myself, I noticed that things were really progressing. All aspects improved: research, recruitment, infrastructure. We only dropped the ball in one respect, and that was tactics. While the Nazis experimented successfully with new forms of politics, we didn’t make that leap.
Is the far right a big danger in Sweden? What does the movement look like today?
That depends on how you define the far right. The Sweden Democrats are now the country’s third biggest party. I reckon that is a big threat. ((At the 2014 parliamentary elections, the far-right Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) received 12.86% of the vote.)) It seems that the political situation in Sweden mirrors that in the rest of Europe. Far-right parties are gaining ground everywhere.
With respect to Nazi organizations, there is little risk that they will enter parliament. ((The Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti), which until recently was called the National Socialist Front (Nationalsocialistisk front), also participated in the elections. It received 0.07% of the vote.)) But Nazis will always pose a physical threat to anyone fighting them. Whenever Nazis are left alone, they grow. This is evident if you look at what has happened in Sweden during the last ten years: in towns where antifascists were strong, Nazis pretty much had to abandon their efforts. Those who deny that connection don’t know what they are talking about.
Antifascist activism can sometimes feel tough and unrewarding, but in a town like Örebro, for example, where Nazis were very active just a few years ago, there is now basically no activity at all. Other towns where militant struggle on the street has brought results are Linköping and Gothenburg. For different reasons, Stockholm is a difficult town to work in, but even there Nazis have been pushed back several times.
Internationally, Sweden is still seen as an open and liberal country. How does this go together with the far-right currents that you’re describing?
I think that whenever Nazis go from talk to action, that is, when they kill immigrants or rob banks, it is usually swept under the carpet. And whenever this is not possible – for example in the case of Malexander ((On May 28, 1999, two policemen were shot dead by neo-Nazis in the small town of Malexander in southern Sweden following a bank robbery.)) or Kärrtorp – the politicians make a big media circus out of it, full of condemnation and outrage. So either Nazis aren’t seen as a problem, or, when they are, the politicians give the impression that they will take care of it.
What are the perspectives for the country’s left?
I assume you mean the extraparliamentary left. Not sure if I’m the right person to ask since I’ll be out of the game for some time, but I think there needs to be better collaboration between different leftist groups and we need to establish more common goals.
Can you give examples for such goals?
I think we should be active in the areas that concern us all, especially in those where the underclass is attacked most heavily – this concerns, for example, the privatization of council flats or precarious labor relations. I also think that it is important to engage in small projects where you can actually experience victories and see that it’s possible to change things. That’s crucial for our morale. A good example was the campaign against JobbJakt.
What was it about?
JobbJakt is a website offering jobs. Some years ago, they wanted to introduce a bidding feature where the person ready to do the job for the lowest wage would get it. So, say, someone wants his bathroom redone, and then one person offers to do it for 150 crowns an hour, another for 100 crowns, etc. This is clearly wage dumping and hostile to the working class. It was important for us not to let such practices take root in Sweden and so we campaigned against the website – successfully.
You’ve been stressing the importance of organization in political work. Can you elaborate on this?
The importance of organization speaks for itself. If we do things together we are stronger. How exactly we are organized is secondary. It can be in a band, a union, a militant group, a pacifist group, a cultural center, a social center, a publishing house, a bookshop, or whatever. It doesn’t need to be die-hard activism either. But it’s important that organizing doesn’t stop with your own project. We need to make use of our movement’s diversity. Networks and umbrella organizations are important. At this point, the extraparliamentary left hardly feels like a movement at all.
What is your personal situation like? As a prisoner, what kind of support do you consider most important?
Right now, I’m at the prison in Kumla waiting for an evaluation. Kumla is a “Class 1 Prison” in Sweden, that is, a maximum security facility. Once the evaluation is done, I will probably be transferred to another maximum security facility. (( Shortly after the completion of this interview, Joel was moved to the maximum security prison of Tidaholm. For updates, please see the Facebook page “Free Joel”. ))
Support? I’d be very happy if more people got active and, especially, organized.
Some final words?
Let me quote Madball: “Times are changing for the worse / Gotta keep a positive outlook / Growing up in such violent times / Have some faith and you’ll get by.”
If you want to send mail to Joel, please check the current address at the Facebook page “Free Joel”.
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