Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A far-right political party covered a busy subway station in posters and banners that demonize the country’s homeless people.
Stockholm’s subway system has been infiltrated by a racist ad campaign, one that is sending shockwaves through the Swedish capital. The extreme right Sweden Democrats political party has plastered the busy metro station at Östermalmstorg with controversial, impossible-to-avoid posters and banners that imply many homeless people are involved in organized criminal activity, a claim debunked by a recent Norwegian study.
The misleading campaign, which features images of sleeping homeless people in Roma clothing and the text “sorry about the mess here in Sweden,” has upset many people, who feel that it’s xenophobic and demeaning. Some locals have insisted that it “kicks at some of the most vulnerable in our society.” Last night, thousands of Stockholmers took part in a demonstration against the campaign, after which a breakaway group of protesters entered the subway station and tore down some of the posters.
The nationalist, populist Sweden Democrats are used to stirring up controversy. This time, however, much of the anger against the campaign has been directed against Stockholm’s transit operator, Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (Greater Stockholm Local Transit) for allowing it to run. Dubbed “Stockholm Local Racists” by protesters (as seen in this placard), SL has received “thousands of complaints,” according to local press.
Part of the problem is the sheer size and visibility of the campaign. Messages from a far-right party descending in tiers down an escalator and wrapping walls from floor to ceiling are a lot to stomach in what is for many an unavoidable public space. In response, SL has said that it can’t refuse advertising that abides by national guidelines, and has promised to replace the vandalized posters.
Making the spat more intense is the fact that this is a particularly fraught time in Swedish politics, as it is across Europe, where support for parties on the extreme right is surging. Although they started in 1988 as a tiny fringe group, the Sweden Democrats more than doubled their vote between the 2010 and 2014 elections to emerge as the third party in Sweden’s parliament.
They still aren’t likely to take part in government any time soon. The 2014 elections saw them gain nearly 13 percent of the vote, as compared with just over 31 percent for the Social Democrats (currently governing in minority coalition with the Green Party) and some 23 percent for the Moderate Party. Sweden’s major parties maintain a policy of non-cooperation with the Sweden Democrats, thus they are unable to directly influence policy.
They have nonetheless played a significant role in the national conversation. Admittedly, the role they have mainly taken on so far is as scandalmongering goons. Since arriving in parliament in 2010, they’ve been beset by incidents that have undercut their regular claims to being a non-racist party. In 2012, video footage emerged of three Sweden Democrats members—two of them members of Parliament—racially insulting Soran Ismail, a Swedish comedian of Kurdish descent; pushing a woman they called a “little whore” into a car; and arming themselves with metal pipes.
Soon afterwards, another member of Parliament from the party accused two men from immigrant backgrounds of stealing his bag and pushing him out of his wheelchair. It later emerged that he had left his bag at a restaurant, while the men in question had actually helped him back into his chair when he fell out.
And in December 2014, party secretary Björn Söder caused international controversy when it was reported that he said Jews could not be Swedes unless they abandoned their religious identity.
The Stockholm subway blitz isn’t the only advertising campaign in Europe to have targeted migrants and immigrants recently. In Hungary this year, the government itself paid for a campaign plastering billboards with slogans such as, “If you come to Hungary you cannot take away Hungarians' jobs.” The messages were printed in Hungarian, which few new migrants speak. A crowd-funded counter-campaign launched with $120,000 of public contributions this summer, with such tongue-in-cheek slogans (in English) as “Come to Hungary, we’ve got jobs in London”—a reference to the country’s poor economy and role itself as a source of migrants.
Meanwhile, in 2013, the U.K. government launched a campaign warning illegal migrants to go home or face arrest. The messages appeared on billboards dragged around areas of high immigration on trailers. Dubbed the “racist van” campaign by opponents, it turned into a major embarrassment for the government when it was banned by Britain’s Advertising Standards Association for using misleading arrest statistics.The fate of these campaigns could teach the Sweden Democrats a thing or two. While their saber-rattling may satisfy some parts of the population, they succeeded in galvanizing resistance from anti-racist groups. The inaccurate, misfired attacks of those campaigns also made their sponsors look ridiculous —though the Sweden Democrat’s past gaffe-ridden experience shows that ridicule is something they are not necessarily afraid of.