Sweden: The truth about Gottenburg by Joe Higgins

TENS OF thousands demonstrated against US president George W. Bush and the summit of the European Union (EU) in Gothenburg, Sweden, 14-16 June.

These peaceful mass protests were the biggest demonstrations held in Sweden for many years. Up to 15,000 took part in the "Bush not welcome" demo on Thursday 14 June.

Bush came to see the EU leaders the day before the summit to sell the "Son of Star Wars" to them and tell them once again that his government does not care about the Kyoto protocol.

Nevertheless, 20,000 took to the streets in the demonstrations held the day after Bush left against the EU and the European Monetary Union (EMU). 

As many as 25,000 then took part in the last international demonstration against the EU summit’s neo-liberal agenda.The demonstrations were extremely successful and are another impressive all-European mobilisation against global capitalism and neo-liberalism.

They highlight a growing public resistance to the EU, delivering another body blow to the bosses EU/EMU a week, after the No vote in the Irish referendum on the Nice treaty.

One-quarter of Sweden’s total police force were in Gothenburg to protect Bush and politicians attending the summit – the biggest police mobilisation ever seen in Sweden.

The police had promised to "adopt a friendly attitude". Bengt Staff, a police spokesperson said two days before Bush arrived that "Gothenburg is different. We have had a constantly open dialogue with the protesters during the preparations for the summit".

But there was no such dialogue when the demonstrators actually started to make their voice heard. Nearly 1,000 demonstrators were arrested or kept by the police for six hours during 14-16 June. Three were shoot by the police, one of them is still in critical condition and more than 60 people were taken to hospitals.

The police, the media and all the out-of-touch politicians at the summit were simplisticly saying that the demonstrators were to blame for the violence.

The establishment are using the riot that erupted on Friday 15 June, and the destructive vandalism followed in its wake, as a pretext to attack the anti-capitalist movement in general and the socialist Left in particular. The events in Gothenburg will have repercussions beyond Sweden and could be used as pretext to ban all demonstrations against EU summits and meetings of capitalist institutions like the IMF, WTO or the World Bank.

It is already being used to stop demonstrators from going to Genoa in July.

It is also likely to be used as an excuse for the militarisation of the Swedish police and for more resources to the "Europol" (the EU police).

A chief inspector, in a television debate after the summit, even accused Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (the Swedish member of the Committee for a Workers’ International, CWI) "of actively supporting groups" involved in smashing shop windows and throwing pawing stones. This is a scandalous remark and a blatant lie, which gives glimpse of the current hysteria being whipped up by the media.

As socialists we do not advocate actions like smashing shop windows as a means of political protest. These kind of actions do not serve any political purpose and tend to act as a diversion from the real struggle and the task of mobilising workers and young people against big business and capitalist politicians.

But the riot and the damaged it caused erupted after several police attacks and provocations against protesters.

It started with the police building an iron curtain around Hvitfeldska Gymnasiet, a school used both as a hostel and a combine centre/conference hall for organisers of the protests against the summit. This was done on Thursday morning (14 June), many hours before the first demonstration against Bush was going to start.

Several hundred protesters staying at Hvitfeldska were taken by the police during the days. This was done to divert attention away from the big protest against Bush and to deliver a warning to all who were thinking joining the demonstrations.

The "Bush not welcome" demonstration which followed later, was, however, an impressive demonstration despite the police’s intentions to create an atmosphere of unease and fear.

AFTER THE ‘Bush not welcome’ demonstration, which had two CWI members speaking, finished, the Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna then initiated a march up to Hvitfeldska. This march was stopped by police with dogs and on horses.

But while the police were blocking our way people still in the school managed to escape.

But what happened on Thursday was just the beginning. Friday morning started with a 4,000 strong protest meeting against the opening of the summit.

This protest was called by Göteborg 2001, the broad network of more than 80 different organisations that organised the Saturday demonstration. The CWI argued within the network that the protest meeting should be followed by a demonstration but were not able to convince the others.

This is why Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna together with the SWP in Norway and the Non-Violence Network decided to demonstrate together under the name "the Anti-Capitalist March".

Around 2,000 joined the march which was blocked by the police, but after a couple of minutes until we were allowed to continue. Our intention was to go back to the square were the "the Anti-Capitalist March" had started.

Suddenly the police went in with dogs to split the demonstrations. They went in particularly heavily against the anarchist who started to fight back, by throwing paving stones against the police as they moved further up the street.

The police were using the same tactic applied against an anti-EU demonstration in Malmö in March. This saw the last part of the demonstration being suddenly attacked and 229 demonstrators were taken in by the police.

The same police spokesperson quoted above said before the summit that "Gothenburg was not Malmö", but Gothenburg became much worse than Malmö.

The police bear the main responsibility for the riot that then started. The police are to blame for parts of Gothenburg becoming like a war zone.

While 20,000 were marching against the EU/EMU a lot of young people were at a street party (in a park) called by the Reclaim the City.

This party was harassed and attacked by the police on several occasions. The police were looking for revenge and it ended in a tragedy.

The police fired and shot three people with live ammunition. It was the first time since the 1930s that police have used live ammunition against protesters.

The events of Friday 15 June came as a shock. There were even people within Göteborg 2001 who argued that the following day’s demonstration should be cancelled.

But members of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna were instrumental in convincing others that the demonstration should go ahead and demand that the police stay away.

We have also argued for an independent commission to investigate what happened and start to gather witnesses. We also demanded that the police chief responsible and the Minister of Justice should resign.

The police kept away from the massive demonstration that took place on Saturday and no problems occurred.

Joe Higgins, the socialist MP from Ireland and a member of the CWI spoke at the demonstration and was regularly interrupted by applause. He spoke out against police brutality and was later the main speaker at the CWI rally that afternoon.

The police, however, had implemented a partial state of emergency in Gothenburg that day. Demonstrators from other countries, amongst them two buses of CWI members and sympathisers, from Germany were stopped outside Gothenburg and kept from early morning to late afternoon.

People on the buses were not allowed to go out and no food was provided – treated no different to criminals.

The police acted in an arrogant and provocative way as soon as the big demonstration finished. In the afternoon 500 police officers sealed off a square where hundreds of people assembled to protest against police brutality.

They were kept for hours as the police used the excuse they were looking for an alleged armed "German terrorist".

In the night the police raided a school where members of the Rätvisepartiet Socialisterna were sleeping. The special anti-terrorist force attacked the school with automatic weapon and ordered everyone to crawl out and lay down on the wet ground outside the school.

One of our members asked why. The police reply was to handcuff him. One police officer said: "Yesterday you set the agenda today we do".

Even a 16-year-old disabled girl, a CWI member suffering from the effects of polio, was forced to lay down in the cold, despite her needing to be dressed warm for her blood circulation.

THE COMMITTEE for a Workers’ International (CWI – the international socialist organisation which the Socialist Party is affiliated to) had a very good intervention in Gothenburg, despite its members being harassed and taken in by police (no charges were made and all were released after a couple of hours). Two buses of CWI members from Germany were also stopped.

We sold more than 1,000 papers and a lot other material. At least eight new members joined during the period of the demonstrations.

The CWI is now organising protests against the violation of democratic rights and police brutality in Gothenburg. Our German section held a protest on Monday 18 June and others will do the same this week.

Sweden’s CWI section are producing a special issue of their weekly paper and are organising a series of public meetings explaining what really happened in Gothenburg on 14-16 June.

JOE HIGGINS, the Irish Socialist Party and CWI member who is a member of the Irish Parliament was at the demonstrations in Gothenburg. After his experience, outlined below, he wrote a letter to the Irish Times highlighting what really happened, part of which is given below:


Dear Sir,

Media reports about the events surrounding the EU leaders Summit in Gothenburg concentrated on some hundreds of balaclava-clad demonstrators throwing stones and smashing shop fronts despite the tens of thousands of people who held peaceful and disciplined protests over three days.

I was an eyewitness to some events. From personal observation and from detailed accounts from some of the main organisers of the massive and peaceful protest marches, I am not prepared to allow the general verdict to stand that the violence was simply the planned and premeditated action of a hardcore of anarchists.

The reality is much more complex and more sinister. My conclusion is that such violence as happened was directly linked to repeated police actions that were deliberately and calculatedly provocative and merit a genuinely independent investigation.

Before any trouble whatever, Police action began at the Hvitfeldska School.

Gothenburg City Council had given the school over to Gothenburg Action 2001, the network which organised the main demonstrations and which included groups such as Friends of the Earth , trade unions and Left political parties. The school was used as the venue for the counter summit, an information centre, a medical centre and also as an accommodation area .

On Thursday 14 June, the same day as a peaceful 15,000-strong demonstration was being held nearby against US President Bush, the police surrounded this school with a solid wall of up to 100 steel containers brought in by trucks. Riot police with dogs and horses then invaded the building, questioning and searching all occupants and detaining them for hours.

The flimsy pretext was that ’violence was being planned’.

The hardware to build an iron curtain like this isn’t assembled in a few hours – the action had obviously been planned for weeks in advance and was the beginning of a repeated pattern of gratuitous harassment.

On Friday 15 June an ’anti-capitalist’ march of about 2000 left Gotaplatsen and, by previous agreement with the police, went peacefully to a nearby street closer to the Svenska Massan where the EU Summit was about to begin. Without warning , and in total contravention of the previous agreement, hundreds of heavily armoured riot police with dogs and horses split the march in two and isolated the ’Black Bloc’ of about 300 anarchists who were at that time participating peacefully and bringing up the rear.

This was the catalyst for the most serious fighting between this group and the police which spilled down through Kungsportsavenyn.

Stone throwing and smashing up a street are not the correct way to respond to police provocation or to defend a peaceful march from attack by police and their vicious dogs, but there is no question that this violence with the anarchists would not have happened if the police had not provoked it.

Later that day at Vasaparken the police incredibly shot three protestors with live bullets Israeli-Army style.

I witnessed the arbitrary rounding up and arrest of perfectly peaceful people, more than 100, at a location and time when no trouble existed.

Members of the Committee for a Workers International to which the Irish Socialist Party is affiliated were travelling to Gothenburg when the buses were stopped, all occupants arrested and detained all day, then forced under police escort back to the border.

They had been travelling to join the international protest march and rally of 25,000 people at which I was a guest speaker. No police appeared at any stage and the event was hugely succesfull, disciplined and utterly peaceful.

The events in Gothenburg raise the most serious issues about the attitude of the EU to the democratic rights of those who are opposed to its policies.

These are questions for the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] Mr Ahern as much as for Swedish Prime Minister Persson and the other EU leaders.

Do they endorse the provocative commando style tactics of the Swedish police? Is the contempt which EU leaders have shown for the Irish electorate’s rejection of the Nice Treaty to be extended to all citizens in the EU who oppose their policies?

Is there a strategy to deliberately provoke a violent reaction from an identifiable volatile minority to discredit the massive and growing movements of those who turn out to protest peacefully at policies such as multinational domination of the EU, privatisation and militarisation. These are questions I will put to the Taoiseach in the Dail and to the Swedish Ambassador and government.

Yours sincerely, Joe Higgins TD

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June 2001