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10 years since the “Gothenburg events” June 15, 2011

Posted by mwahlstrom in protest policing, State crime, Våld.

It is now precisely ten years ago since the riots in connection with the EU summit in Gothenburg 2001, as well as – one must add – the huge peaceful protests and other political events in the streets of Gothenburg during these days. From an international perspective, the “Gothenburg events” (as they have come to be called in Sweden) are easily forgotten alongside the perhaps even more spectacular confrontations between police and antiglobalization protesters that previously took place in Seattle and Prague, and subsequently in Genoa where one protester was killed by police fire. It could easily have been different. If one of the demonstrators who was shot in Gothenburg by the police not received rapid medical care, and had the Swedish police used the type of hollow-point ammunition that they do today, we would have had a demonstrator killed by the police already in Gothenburg in June 2001. Luckily we did not.

Much of the coverage of the event in Swedish media focuses of the tactical development of the police in the decade following the “Gothenburg events”. I have commented on this in Radio Sweden and in Swedish TV4. In order to make some facts on this available to an international audience, and to nuance things a little bit more, I have also chosen to publish an extract from a “pre-pub” version my recently published dissertation on the topic of contemporary protest and protest policing in Scandinavia.



Protest policing tactics in the decades prior to the 1990s were not very different from those in Denmark, however the Swedish police never began employing tear gas.[1] In connection with Sweden’s hosting the European Football Championship 1992 the Swedish police decided that they had to improve their protest policing tactics and adopted the contemporary Danish policing model, which was subsequently to be replaced in Denmark in the late 1990s.[2] Although the 1990s was not entirely without challenges for the police, it seems that most Swedish police forces had little experience during this period in large crowd control operations, and in particular had little need for national coordination (Taktikutvecklingsprojektet, 2004). When it was decided that an EU summit meeting was to be held in Gothenburg in 2001, considerable time had passed since the police in Gothenburg had had to manage major protest events or dealt with any large-scale disturbances.

The EU summit in Gothenburg took place June 14-17, 2001 and brought with it the visit of US president George Bush Jr. Several protest manifestations were carried out; the three largest ones were the demonstration against George Bush, the demonstration against the (Swedish membership in the) European Union, and the demonstration “for another Europe”. In a central area of town, alongside the canal, an alternative forum for political discussion was created. Whereas these events turned out to be orderly and peaceful, both on the part of demonstrators and the police, this was not true for other events in their periphery.

The local authorities had put several schools at the disposal of the large number of political demonstrators coming from abroad and from other parts of the country. On the day of the arrival of the US president, Thursday June 14th, the commander of the police campaign took the decision to detain 500 people present at a school. This mass detention resulted in violent conflicts around the school area and arguably built up a general tension and frustration that manifested itself the following day. When, on Friday, a demonstration towards the summit venue started to put pressure on the police cordons barring the road, the police made a quite blunt attack with horses and dogs that triggered a riot on the main avenue in Gothenburg – Kungsportsavenyn. On this occasion the undermanned police were temporarily forced to retreat from the avenue by a comparatively small number of apparently quite determined rioters. In the evening there were continued clashes between protesters and the police in a nearby park, during which the police opened fire and wounded three people.

“The Gothenburg events,” as they were sometimes subsequently referred to, had several notable repercussions. First, the sentences of alleged participants in the riots were exceptionally harsh, both historically, and in comparison with equivalent sentencing in other Western countries. Moreover, some individuals were convicted on disputable grounds (Bull, 2003; Centerwall, 2006; Wijk, 2003; Östberg, 2002).

Second, there is both qualitative and quantitative evidence that the events during and after the EU summit had a negative effect on leftist activists’ general confidence in the police and the judicial system (activist interviews; Wennerhag, 2008). In large parts of the leftist activist milieu the immediate aftermath of the Gothenburg summit was marked by feelings of hopelessness. Nevertheless, already in 2003 exceptionally large numbers of people were mobilized against the Iraq war, demonstrating peacefully in cities and towns nationwide.

Third, in 2002 the Council of the European Union defined the riots in connection with EU meetings and other summits as “terror situations” in order to include actors suspected of involvement in such activities in the international information exchange related to terrorism (Flyghed, 2002: 38). Rioting is effectively labelled as terrorism and individuals that have been convicted of offences in connection with protests may face travelling restrictions that inhibit their opportunities to protest abroad. Criminologist Janne Flyghed (ibid.) argues that there are, furthermore, reasons to fear that suspicion also extends to organizations that operate within the law.

Fourth, after initial praise in the media for their heroism in the streets of Gothenburg, the police were subject to critical scrutiny, not only by researchers and journalists (e.g., Abrahamsson, 2006; Björk & Peterson, 2002, 2006; Löfgren & Vatankhah, 2002; Oskarsson, 2005), but also by a Swedish Government Official Report (Göteborgskommittén, 2002). The preparation, tactics and organization of the police in connection with the summit were criticized. The events during the EU summit were also formally assessed by the police in two reports (Polismyndigheten i Västra Götaland [West Götaland Police Authoritiy], 2002; Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board], 2001b), and between 2001 and 2002, a project was conducted within the National Police Board in which the tactics in connection with major disturbances of public order were an important part. The suggestions that came out of the project were, however, strongly rejected by several bodies within the police (interview police Stockholm), and the work consequently had to be further developed by another constellation of people. The result of their work finally concluded with a report in 2004 (Taktikutvecklingsprojektet, 2004) containing a handful suggestions concerning the adoption of a new “mobile concept where the legality, the flexibility of the police operation, conflict solving and the safety of the single policeman is in focus” (p. 3) and the creation of a national reinforcement organization (see paper II). These suggestions were accepted by the National Police Board 15 March 2004, and led to the introduction of the new “Special Police Tactics” (hereafter SPT). It can be noted, in relation to the discussions about the grounds for police reform, that the final report makes extensive reference to a sociological report, edited by Björk and Peterson (2002), in order to assert the inadequacy of the prior tactical concept.

In April 2005 the first group of teachers in SPT was educated at the National Police Academy, under supervision of a group of Danish colleagues. Later the same year members of the four new public order divisions (two based in Stockholm, one in Gothenburg and one in Malmö) had been recruited and were trained by the colleagues that took part in the first course. At this time the SPT had become codified in an official instruction manual (Danielsson et al., 2005). Interestingly, the police commanders received their training in SPT among the last within the organization, which meant that there appears to have been a degree of inertia in the actual implementation of the tactics. Consequently, because of the uneven adaptation of police commanders to the new tactics it is not possible to establish a fixed moment when the reform was finalized, also since it was immediately subject to extensive evaluation and ongoing reflection on the national level.

Whereas the Danish “mobile concept,” mostly in terms of its range of tactical manoeuvres, directly influenced the SPT, the Swedish concept already from the start included further developments concerning in particular its “communicative approach” (cf. paper II). The latter aspect of the SPT involves both prior negotiation with demonstrators, maintenance of an openness to communication between individual police officers and demonstrators, and, distinctively, the development of specialized dialogue police units (Holgersson, 2010). Between 2007 and 2010, the Swedish National Police Board hosted a research project where the police tactics during 19 events were evaluated by teams of researchers and police officers (Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board], 2010a). The analyses as well as the concluding recommendations of the project are strongly influenced by the “social identity model” in social psychology and its proponents’ recommendations, e.g. to maintain a differentiated approach to the participants in a demonstration based on good knowledge, assure working communication with demonstrators, and to focus on facilitating the “legitimate” objectives of the protesters (Reicher et al., 2004; Reicher et al., 2007). Consequently, the Swedish police have added four “conflict reducing principles” – i.e., knowledge, facilitation, communication, and differentiation – to its conceptual arsenal.

On the Swedish protest scene during the first decade of the 2000s several of the most violent conflicts between police and protesters occurred in connection with so-called Reclaim the Streets (RTS) parties.[3] Introduced in the late 1990s, a good number of them were held in Stockholm and some resulted in violent confrontations between activists and the police (Stahre, 2004). Some of these events are referred to in paper four. During the European Social Forum in Malmö, one protest was also organized as an RTS party.  The Malmö police commanders had to endure both external and internal criticism for not having intervened when some RTS participants broke into a bank, even though this restraint probably contributed to the relatively low overall level of violent conflict during the event (cf. Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board], 2010b). This dispute showed striking similarities with the internal debate within the police after an RTS party in Stockholm in May 2000. The national police board this time directed strong criticism towards the local police force for having been too passive in relation to the disorderly crowd (Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board], 2001a). The county police commissioner wrote an extensive reply, defending the relatively restrained police tactics used with reference to the risks of intervention being disproportionately large compared to the severity of the disorder and crimes committed (Gunnmo, 2001). Both of these cases are illustrative of ongoing disagreements between different factions within the police corps regarding the priorities during public order operations and of the inherent tensions between legality and public order (cf. Oskarsson, 2005).

A series of annual extreme-right mourning marches in the Stockholm suburb Salem also led to confrontations and an ongoing tactical interplay between police and anti-fascist activists, outlined in detail in paper III. Police tactics during these events varied as to the degree and type of coercion, which ranged from reactive violence against demonstrators in 2003, to a proactive mass detention in 2008. Considering that the latter incident coincided with the ongoing refinement of “conflict reducing tactics” mentioned above, it serves as a reminder of how the police can easily fall back on undifferentiated and hard tactics despite theoretical knowledge and training in dialogue and a differentiated tactical approach.

Two Swedish legal innovations during the 2000s deserve to be mentioned. In 2005 a law against being masked in connection with demonstrations was introduced (SFS 2005:900) as a consequence of debates related to the riots in Gothenburg 2001. The law comes into operation when there is a disturbance of public order, or an imminent risk of such disturbances. It has so far had very limited application in practice. In 2009, another law was introduced (SFS 2009:389), that extended the legal capacities of the police to remove participants in a crowd from the location. This corresponds well to a police tactical development where spatial separation has become an increasingly important type of intervention (see paper III).



Abrahamsson, H. (2006) En Delad Värld: Göteborgshändelserna I Backspegeln (Stockholm: Leopard).

Alfiero, P. & Björklund, T. (1993) 16 Greps – Fyra Poliser Skadade Expressen 1993-10-10, pp. 6.

Björk, M. & Peterson, A. Eds (2002) Vid Politikens Yttersta Gräns: Perspektiv På Eu-Toppmötet I Göteborg 2001  (Eslöv: B. Östlings bokförl. Symposion).

Björk, M. & Peterson, A. Eds (2006) Policing Contentious Politics in Sweden and Denmark  (Maastricht: Shaker Publishing).

Bull, T. (2003) Demonstrationsfrihetens Dubbla Ansikte, in: J. Flyghed & M. Hörnqvist (Eds.) Laglöst Land, pp. 201-231 (Stockholm: Ordfront).

Centerwall, S. (2006) O 2954: En Analys Av Ett Rättsfall Efter En Händelse Vid Hvitfeldtska Gymnasiet I Göteborg Den 14 Juni 2001 (Göteborg: Stig Centerwall).

Danielsson, A., Wolter, O., Axberger, H.-G., Guvå, G., Hedlund, R., Natri, A. & Bergquist, M. (2005) Det Mobila Insatskonceptet: Utbildningsmaterial (Solna: Polishögskolan).

Flyghed, J. (2002) Normalising the Exceptional: The Case of Political Violence, Policing and Society, 13, pp. 23-41.

Gunnmo, G. (2001) Polisens Insatser I Samband Med En Demonstration På Södermalm I Stockholm Den 1 Maj 2000.

Göteborgskommittén (2002) Göteborg 2001: Betänkande (Stockholm: Fritzes offentliga publikationer).

Holgersson, S. (2010) Dialogue Police: Experiences, Observations and Opportunities, RPS Rapport 2010:4, pp. 134 s. (Stockholm: The National Police Board).

Löfgren, M. & Vatankhah, M. (2002) Vad Hände Med Sverige I Göteborg? (Stockholm: Ordfront).

Oskarsson, M. (2005) Lag Eller Ordning? Polisens Hantering Av Eu-Toppmötet I Göteborg 2001 (Stockholm: Jure).

Polismyndigheten i Västra Götaland [West Götaland Police Authoritiy] (2002) Eu 2001-Kommenderingen.

Reicher, S., Stott, C., Cronin, P. & Adang, O. (2004) An Integrated Approach to Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 27, pp. 558-572.

Reicher, S., Stott, C., Drury, J., Adang, O., Cronin, P. & Livingstone, A. (2007) Knowledge-Based Public Order Policing: Principles and Practice, Policing, 1, pp. 403-415.

Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board] (2001a) Inspektion: Polisens Insatser Med Anledning Av Ordningsstörningar I Stockholm Den 1 Maj 2000. (Dnr: VKA-128-2368/00. Stockholm: Rikspolisstyrelsen).

Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board] (2001b) Rikspolisstyrelsens Utvärdering Av Eu-Kommenderingen I Göteborg År 2001 (Stockholm: Rikspolisstyrelsen).

Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board] (2010a) Kunskapsutveckling Inom Särskild Polistaktik 2007-2010: Slutrapport, Dnr PoA-109-4499/06 (Stockholm: Rikspolisstyrelsen).

Rikspolisstyrelsen [National Swedish Police Board] (2010b) Polisens Genomförande Av Polisinsatsen Vid Esf-Konferensen I Malmö Hösten 2008 (Stockholm: Rikspolisstyrelsen).

St. John, G. (2004) Counter-Tribes, Global Protest and Carnivals of Reclamation, Peace Review, 16, pp. 421-428.

Stahre, U. (2004) City in Change: Globalization, Local Politics and Urban Movements in Contemporary Stockholm, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28, pp. 68-85.

Taktikutvecklingsprojektet (2004) Redovisning Av Taktikutvecklingsprojektet (Stockholm: Rikspolisstyrelsen).

Wennerhag, M. (2008) Global Rörelse: Den Globala Rättviserörelsen Och Modernitetens Omvandlingar (Stockholm: Atlas).

Wijk, E. (2003) Orätt: Rättsrötan Efter Göteborgshändelserna (Stockholm: Ordfront).

Östberg, E. (2002) Göteborgskravallerna Och Rätten: Några Iakttagelser Ur Ett Människorättsperspektiv (Stockholm: Svenska Helsingforskommittén för mänskliga rättigheter).

[1] Police use of tear gas is actually allowed in Sweden and has been used in connection with interventions indoors. However, tear gas has, as yet, never been employed in connection with public order policing. Some general directions and advice on the use of tear gas are given in statute FAP 104-3, where it says that the use of tear gas is allowed when more restrained forms of violence are insufficient and when “permissible with regard to the character of the task” (§ 1), but that the use of tear gas is not specifically regulated by Swedish law.  A closer regulation for tear gas use during major public order situations is under preparation at the time of writing this text.

[2] It is interesting, however, that in connection with the 1993 riots in Gothenburg (see above), the West Götaland assistant county police commissioner comments to the press that: “It doesn’t help to stand still. We have learnt that from colleagues abroad. We have to attack and arrest people.” (Alfiero & Björklund, 1993) What was to become one of the core principles of the new Danish mobile concept for public order management, was not completely alien to the Swedish police in 1993.

[3] ‘Reclaim the Streets’ is a carnivalesque form of protest originally aimed at temporarily and symbolically ‘taking back’ the streets from motor traffic (St. John, 2004). It first appeared in Great Britain in 1995. Subsequently, the specific issues at stake in protests bearing this name have varied somewhat.



1. http://tinyurl.com/worlhowel17234 - January 22, 2013

Precisely how long did it take you to post “10 years since the Gothenburg events Crime & Control”?
It comes with quite a lot of beneficial advice. With thanks -Lon

mwahlstrom - January 23, 2013

As you can see, the post was posted in 2011 on the anniversary of the ‘Gothenburg events’. The main part of the text is taken from the introduction to my doctoral dissertation on protest and protest policing in Sweden and Denmark. The entire introduction can be found by following the link above, and clicking on the document “thesis frame”. All best – Mattias

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