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Black Member of Swedish Parliament Endures Years of Racism

One of only two Black members of the more than 240-member Swedish Parliament, recounts years of racism he’s encountered as a member of Parliament and human rights advocate.

In an exclusive interview with Atlanta Black Star, Momodou Jallow talks about having to move six times because of threats to lynch him and his family.

He said he had to take a man to court six times before Swedish officials would jail him for circulating doctored photos of Jallow as a naked, escaped slave in chains.

In a related case the United Nations is investigating, Jallow said a man was allowed to sell the photos of him for $500 and $700 a pop at the Danish Parliament.

Watch Momodou Jallow’s full interview below:

Read Momodou Jallow’s full interview below:

Neil Nelson: For our readers who might not be familiar with you, can you provide a brief overview of both your personal and professional background?

Momodou Jallow: My name is Momodou Malcolm Jallow, and as you mentioned I was born and raised in West Africa in a little country called The Gambia. And I grew up there, and when I was a teenager, I left Gambia for Sweden, which is in Europe.

So I’ve been living in Sweden, close to 30 years now. I’m 43 years old, so I’ve spent most of my life living in Sweden. My educational background is: I studied political science, and I’ve been working my whole life to try to fight against racism and discrimination. I normally describe myself as a human rights defender because that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life.

So I have had the privilege to lead some organizations around Europe. One of the biggest organizations that I’ve led is called the European Network Against Racism, which is one of Europe’s biggest anti-racism and human rights organization. Nationally, I’ve been working with organizations and I have my own organization, which is the Pan-African Movement for Justice, and the main objective of that organization is to fight against all forms of racism against people of African descent, both nationally and internationally.

And for the past few years also, I’ve been an elected official, a member of the Swedish Parliament, one of the few. I think we have two people of African descent out of 249 members of Parliament.

I feel privileged and very honored to have had that chance and possibility to be able to represent my district, which is the third largest city in Sweden called Malmo. I’ve been working in Parliament now and trying to raise those issues concerning people of African descent, but also issues concerning, poor and working class people and their plight.

My whole life, I’ve been working on issues concerning human rights, especially, particularly for people of African descent at different levels, like I said, at national levels, but also international level.

I’m a member of what is called the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is one of the biggest, if not the biggest human rights organization. So I’m a member of that big institution, and I try to raise issues concerning human rights and trying to raise issues concerning poor and working class people.

And basically my intentions have always been — throughout these past 10 years, and I’ve returned to the U.S. every year — to try to create a bridge and build an alliance across the Atlantic, so that we can tell our stories here because most Americans do not know that the realities for Black people here are very similar to the realities of Black people in Europe.

Nelson: Well, thank you for that brief introduction, and I appreciate that. You’ve really provided us a really great breadth of information about the work you’ve been doing. One of the things that I’ve heard you mention in the past was that when you mention that you are a member of the Swedish Parliament, folks are often surprised. How many Black MPs are there in the Swedish parliament?

Jallow: We have two black MPS. There’s myself, and then there’s the young lady with Somali background that also came in. So we have two out of 249 MPs in Sweden.

Nelson: I see, and what has been your general experience interacting with the other members of Parliament?

Jallow: I’m glad you asked that question. It’s very interesting because I remember the first time I got into Parliament, people spoke English to me when they saw me in the corridors because they assumed that I can not be a member of Parliament as a Black man. So they spoke English to me. They didn’t speak Swedish. They assumed I could not speak Swedish.

In fact, I remember the day that we had the opening ceremony. First day that we’re opening the Parliament — so many dignitaries and old prime ministers and the king, you know, the royal family — everybody was there. And I remember one of the previous prime ministers that was invited to come, he shook my hand. He was calling me an ambassador. He thought I was an ambassador from an African country. So he took my hand, shook it and said, ‘it’s really nice to meet you again Mr. ambassador,’ in English.

So throughout that time I was there – he’s looking at me – he assumed that I am an ambassador from somewhere else. I am not a member of Parliament, so I had to respond in Swedish to him and say, I’m sorry you got the wrong person. I am a member of the Swedish Parliament.

And this continues in so many different ways that I quite often am reminded of the systematic and the structural racism and discrimination that I face in that country because very often I’m reminded that I do not belong in that setting. And I see that in so many different ways.

In fact, it bothered me because the last time that it happened, I was with my daughter, and my daughter saw how they were treating me.

I remember we had visitors. In the Parliament, we have a place for guests that can listen to our debates and then we have the chamber. And when we were getting in, I was with my daughter. So it was a long line, and of all the people that came with visitors, the visitors were ushered to the visitors’ area, and all the members of Parliament are ushered to the chamber.

My colleagues, we’re in a long queue. And all my colleagues that are members of Parliament were ushered to the chamber, and their families and friends were ushered to the visitors’ area. But when I came with my daughter, they ushered me to the visitors’ area, and they were speaking English to me.

They said, this way sir, and one of my colleagues that was in front of me turned around and said: ‘Wait a minute, why are asking him that? He’s a member of Parliament. He’s going with us.’

And even after my colleague said that and I had my badge with my name, and it said member of Parliament with my picture, this lady still continued speaking English to me, and telling me:

‘Oh, I’m sorry, you can go to the chamber,’ as if you know, like I’m a member of Parliament who can’t speak the language.

So, you have this subtle way of excluding an individual, which for me, is like it happens on a daily basis.

It’s amazing that Black people have been historically living in Sweden. I think the first Black person that we know on record came in the 1700s is called Gustav Badin. And this Gustav Badin was an enslaved Black man that was given as gift to the royal family, and he lived in the castle for many years until he died.

So Sweden has been in contact with Black people for many years, because Sweden, in contradiction to what many people know about Sweden, Sweden has been part and parcel on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They have sold black people.

They in fact build a castle called Saint Carolusborg (also known as Cape Coast Castle) in Ghana. It’s still in existence there. If you go to Ghana, you can see. It’s a slave boat where all the enslavers would come and meet and have their enslaved African descent transport them from there to the Caribbean. It was built by the Swedish government. It was built by the king. So Sweden has been part and parcel of this historical oppression that Black people have had to go through.

So to pretend that Black people are quite new in Sweden, is just a farce. It’s not real because they have been encountering Black people for many, many years. In fact, the United Kingdom, abolished slave trade in 1807. Sweden continued 40 years after the United Kingdom abolition of slave trade. They continued until 1847. That’s when they abolished the slave trade.

So, they were exporting iron because Swedish iron was considered one of the best kinds of iron. They’re exporting iron that was used by slave traders to exchange and enslave Black people. So they were exporting this to many countries that were slave traders. So there has been a history when it comes to the encounter between Africans, Black people and Sweden. It’s very telling as to what kind of country it is.

A lot of people say, well listen, you have the opportunity to be in Parliament. That’s progress. That’s good. You know, I’m not saying that’s not good, but you cannot just use that as an excuse, that one Black man slipped through the cracks and got in, and then you think everything is all right. For me, it’s about human rights. It’s about, civil rights. It’s about every person that live in that country should have the right, the possibility, the opportunity to be able to aspire and reach their aspiration and make it real.

My skin color becomes an issue when I apply for a job. It becomes an issue when I’m in school. Our children, children of African descent, they go through hell in school because they are harassed by their classmates because they are black.

Even teachers would ask students, ‘where you come from.’ I have daughters and my daughters are born and raised in Sweden. They’re Swedish. They don’t know anything else, so we call them Afro-Sweds. They have an Afro-Sweds, African descent. And their teachers would ask them, ‘where are you from,’ and they would say, ‘I’m from Malmo,’ which is the city that I live. And the teachers would say, ‘well, you cannot be from Malmo because you’re Black.’ And I’m like, wait a minute. What? You can’t be Black and Sweden? You can’t be Black and born and raised in this country? You should be able to do that.

I mean, you have South Africa. You have a lot of white people there. And if you tell them they are not South Africans, that will be something else. So we’re facing this problem that for people of African descent there are huge disparities in labor and employment. We now have a report that has just been released. And that report shows that as a Black man and woman in Sweden, the more educated you are, the higher your degree, the bigger the pay gap between you and the rest of the Swedish population.

I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying. I mean, this doesn’t exist anywhere. In most countries, the more education you have, then the better possibilities you have. And the pay gap will narrow down because you have a higher education.

But according to this report, if you are a Black person and you live in Sweden, if you have a Ph.D., the pay gap is a lot bigger compared to your [inaudible], then if you have a high school diploma compared to other people.

So, what this means to us is it’s difficult to tell our people, you need to educate yourself. Educate yourself because you’re going to somehow reap financial rewards I’m talking about.

So we have a huge problem in the housing market. We have a huge problem when it comes to access to justice. We’ve seen police brutality at a level that you can’t even understand. We’ve seen racial profiling. I’m a member of Parliament, and I have a passport that says I’m a member of Parliament. I’ve got that passport because I’m a member of Parliament, and so I can travel freely without having any problems.

And every time I travel, even though I’m a member of Parliament, I’m always stopped, and they always say it’s random checking, random, you know visitation. So they would stop me, and they would ask a lot of questions. And they would do some tests, and I’m tired of that.

Even when I travel in my committee at the Parliament, with all the white people that are members of Parliament. We travel as a committee to the United States or somewhere else. All of them would pass through security, and I’m always stopped. They always ask:

‘Is this your passport. Are you a member of Parliament?’

I’m like read it. It says I’m a member of Parliament. I got my photo and my name and they still don’t trust. Some people will ask me. I remember I was in one European country. I think it was Iceland, and they were asking me if I was refugee from Africa. How can you ask that question when you’re holding my passport, and my passport says that I’m a Swedish citizen and is a member of parliament?

Well yet, you look at it and you look at me and you ask the question, ‘are you refugee?’

So we see our Black people are denigrated, systematically, harassed and disrespected, and when we try to fight back, you have extreme consequences. Extreme consequences that for my part, that’s how I got to meet Reverend Jackson because I was subject to hate crimes, because I spoke up and I stood up against racism.

And as a result of that, I was subject to brutal hate crime. There was a picture of me that was put around the country around the city that I live in in chains, naked in chains, and it says this is a runaway slave. And if you should find him, please call this number.

They put my name and my face that was photoshopped on an enslaved Black man’s body in chains, and this was put on big, big, big pictures around the city that I live in and the neighboring cities that I live in. And people saw this and they reacted. And I saw it, and I reacted. And I filed a complaint against this person.

And the reason why that picture was put up, it was because a university in my neighboring city called Lund University. In 2011, the students had what was called a mock auction. And when they had this mock slave auction, they had white people that painted themselves Black and they were in chains. And they came into this party with over 200 other white people, and they stood up on a table. And these other white people were bidding to buy them, and this was supposed to be a joke.

And I thought that was not funny. I thought that was unacceptable. I was not at the party, but I was informed of what took place. And because I was informed of what took place and I’m a human rights defender fighting for rights of Black people, I thought we need to file a complaint. We need to do something about it because this is not OK.

And because I filed a complaint, all these consequences came immediately. The picture was put up all around the city that I was a runaway slave. And if some people should find me, they should call the telephone number. And my life was threatened. People called all the time my phone. I had to change my phone. People sent letters to my home.

I have to move six times to different addresses because they’re threatening to lynch me, to kill me, to shoot me and my family to decapitate me, sending crazy pictures showing how they’re going to do, sending texts written explaining exactly how they’re going to decapitate me, how they’re going to kill me and my family.

So I had to make a choice. Either I stand up to these bigots and races, or I just can you know, shut up. I’m not saying a thing. Just accept that I cannot have the same rights as everybody else in this country as a Black, and I choose to stand up to these people.

So what happened was this particular individual who did the picture, the caricature of me as a slave, he was taken to court, and he was found guilty.

Now you have to bear in mind that hate crimes in Sweden, most of the time, especially when it comes to people of African descent, nobody has ever been found guilty in court.

There have been court cases before, prior to my case, and nobody was found guilty on this account. So I took this guy to court, and he was found guilty. Now, the first time he was found guilty it was a suspended sentence because they didn’t want to send him to jail. This is a white guy who calls himself an artist, but he’s nothing but a nazi He’s a racist, a nazi.

So he said what he was doing was freedom of expression, and he as an artist has a right to do that, and I’m a public figure, so I should be able to accept that. But the court didn’t buy his story.

In fact, when he came to court he came with a jacket. He came with his T-shirt, and you had blackface on the T-shirt and the n-word written on the T-shirt. So he was walking around like that, and during the proceedings in court he kept referring to me with the n-word.

So I felt like I’m not only here battling against this racist, Fascist guy. I’m also battling against the system because the court, and the judges and even the prosecutors’ office that was supposed to be on my side were not doing anything to show this guy that it’s not acceptable No. 1 to wear a T-shirt with the n-word on No. 2 to refer to me with the n-word in court. And when I raised that issue in court, the prosecutor told me you don’t have to worry about that. So I felt like it’s me against everybody, but they couldn’t find a way to free him because he did acknowledge that he made the pictures and he didn’t see anything wrong with the pictures and so on. So they had to find him guilty, but he was given a suspended sentence and fined, which wasn’t worth much money.

But what was interesting is that in court they asked him, now that you know the consequences of your actions, this guy’s family’s been threatened…, are you going to do this again. And he said I’m going to do it again because I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong.

So he was supposed to go to jail because he didn’t show any regret, but in spite of his statement saying I’m going to do this again because I don’t find anything wrong with this, the court if you look at the judgment. You can read it. It is public knowledge. The judge his statement wrote because we do not have any reason to believe this guy is going to commit this crime again, we are going to give him a suspended sentence even though he said clearly that he was going to do it again.

And he kept his word. He did it again. The second picture he put of me was me as a lynched person with my face and then a rope around my neck, and he put this around the city again.

So I found the picture, and I sent him to court, and he was found guilty again a second time. And he kept publishing the same pictures even though he was found guilty twice, and he was found guilty five times because every time he published it I took him to court.

And we go to court and he was found guilty six times, and that third time he wanted to have an exhibition with the same pictures of me in chains and calling me the n-word.

He made different versions of it, and he was supposed to sell them at an art gallery, and people came and they demonstrated, and the police came and they took him. He was arrested, and we went to court again, and he was found guilty a third time, and they decided to lock him up for about three or four months.

So during this time he was locked up, his friends in a neighboring country, which is Denmark, Copenhagen. One of the political parties there, which is a racist right-wing party, called the Danish People’s Party. You can check it out. They invited him. They said if you are locked in jail because of freedom of expression and you are an artist, we want to show that Danes are not like that. You are welcome here, and we’re going to open up our Parliament. It’s like the Congress. You have invited somebody to have an exhibition in the Congress here in the United States. Equivalent to the Congress, they invited him to have an exhibition in the Danish Parliament with pictures of me in chains with the n-word saying I’m a runaway slave. The problem is he had this, and people are demonstrating outside the Parliament in Denmark. But people that came and visited the exhibition and Danes who are buying these photos that they are putting in frames, and they are selling it for about $500 to $700 a picture, and people are buying this from this guy. And in Denmark, I filed a complaint against him, and the complaint it took almost a year, and nothing was done. And then they dropped the case.

Now, there’s a lawyer there that said this is unacceptable in Denmark, and he has pursued the case and sent it to the United Nations, and the United Nations are working on the case, I think.

He’s been updating me. In fact he sent me an email not very long ago that the UN had decided to take on the case, and he’s going to keep me updated.

Nelson: Can you tell me when did the UN decide to take up the case? What year was that?

Jallow: It was last year. I got an email from the lawyer in Denmark, and the lawyer indicated that the matter that they sent to the United Nations about this case would take up the case and investigate why this took place and why the case was dropped in spite of the fact that the same case was taken up in Sweden and was found guilty. And he informed me that the United Nations accepted to take up the case, and this happened last year, in 2018.

So I got an email from this guy, which is in fact a letter from the United Nations that I’m going to try to send you, so you can have the background information. There is a problem with publishing the pictures because this guy was found guilty for publishing the pictures, so I don’t want to be publishing the same pictures that he was found guilty for publishing if you understand what I’m trying to say.

Even when I showed this picture yesterday when I was talking, before I showed the picture I did mention that I would really appreciate if nobody took that picture and tweeted it or put it in social media because the last time we went to court was last year. I went to court with this guy for publishing the picture again on his blog. The guy’s argument was that I throughout my work both in the UN and other institutions when I speak of hate crimes, I do show that picture. And therefore, if he is found guilty for publishing that picture, I should be found guilty for publishing the same picture.

Now my argument was we have two different reasons why we publish the picture. When I publish it, No. 1 I do tell people not to tweet it or distribute it or show it in any way, shape or form. No. 2 I’m doing it because I have to explain the kind of realities that Black people are facing, and because I was able to articulate that in a good way, the judge decided to find him guilty and said I should be able to show the picture as long as it is not distributed, doing what this other guy is doing. So that is a problem that I want you to know well.

Nelson: I understand. So when was the last time that this guy publicly displayed these images in Sweden?

Jallow: It was just last year.

Nelson: Can you give me the month?

Jallow: I don’t have it right now, but we went to court. We went to court again this year because he published it last year, and he was found guilty again, so just a couple of months ago. He was found guilty again for publishing the photo.

Nelson: So the challenge that I have ⁠— and we’ll respect your right, of course ⁠— the challenge that you’re going to have with this kind of thing is that you do have a right, and I believe even a moral obligation, to show this image to shame not just this particular person but the culture that creates this kind of person. It’s an outrage that there are people that call themselves humans who would behave in an uncivilized manner and then be supported by institutions, courts, government, police, their neighbors and other institutions.

This again speaks to your point earlier, which is that the Sweds project themselves like most Western Europeans do as a defender of some kind of sacred human right when in fact they have no intentions of living up to that when it comes to African people around the world, and that’s something that we’ve experienced on a global scale. And so the power of that image with the right narrative is important because it’s not about a court case. It’s about the immorality of his cause and the righteousness of your cause, and that they’re not equal. And that when we speak truth by publishing those images, we speak them in part to shame perpetrators that created those images. And if they take pride in that, then that’s their own damning….

Jallow: ….Well one of the things that I’ve been facing is since this guy has been continuing to do this — and he has an ardent following behind him, which is the far right movement. They support him, and they think he’s a hero. — so whatever I do to lock him up creates consequences for me because they see me as an enemy. Sometimes they write articles about me, blogs about me on the internet, saying that they’ve interviewed me, saying that I’ve been arrested because I want to kill somebody. They’ll Photoshop me with guns. They’ll write articles about, interviews about me saying I want to help immigrants to come and use Swedish system to take their money and take their resources and social welfare system, and I have written a book about that. Sometimes they have pictures of me. They say I’m abler of sickness and I’m admitted in the hospital. You know, they make up stories to discredit me and to dehumanize me. And they put this on the internet, and thousands and thousands of people will share this. And they love it. Some people will call me and say ‘is this true,’ and I’m like no. I’ve never spoken to these people. They’re just making up stories about me like they’re real.

So like I said in the beginning, because of all the consequences that I’m facing as a human rights defender, I have to make a choice.

Now, should I continue or should I just back off and take care of my family and myself and avoid all these problematic consequences that I’m facing?

I chose to fight again. My whole life I have been a human rights defender, and I don’t intend to stop today. So that has created a problem because that’s not the intention they have. The intention they have is to shut me up and continue what they’re doing. I’m a Black man. I’m living in Sweden, so I should not have any rights to say anything. I should not have rights to even my own opinion. I should just be thankful that I’m living in that country and I have the life that I have, and I should be happy and grateful like you know, a lot of Black people do.

A lot of Black people tell me: ‘Listen, why are you doing this? You have a good job. You have a good life. You know? You don’t have to make these people angry. Because when you make them angry, we all face the consequence.’ Some people think like that.

We have some people in leadership roles that are Black, but also even though they are people of African descent, they’re doing whatever necessary for the majority population to love them, which means, in some cases, they will have to push for policy, they will have to have opinions that is directly damaging to people of African descent and other minorities. Now, I choose the other power. I choose to stand up against that. I choose to speak my mind and my truth, and I choose to make sure I make visible any form of structural discrimination, systematic discrimination or racism that exists in this country.

And that is how I came into Parliament because I thought, I live in this country. I learned the language in this country. I’m educated in this country. I’m going to use their own language. I’m going to use the education that they’ve given me to fight against them. And I keep doing that in all different platforms. I’m not just a member of Parliament. I’m also a member of the Council of Europe, and I speak my truth with the Council of Europe. I talk about issues that normally, the normal member of the Council of Europe would not speak about.

When I’m in Parliament, I argue and I fight for the rights of people of color. I fight for the rights of poor and working class people. Those are the people that I feel I represent, and those are the people that I feel I need to fight for their rights to have a decent living, to have respect and dignity and their human rights respected at all costs. And that is my journey. That is something that I really really cherish. That is something that I really want, and I hope the country needs to do. And I do that standing on the shoulders of giants like Reverend Jesse Jackson that I know that I can always call him and he will always be there like a brother figure.

He is always there every time I ask him to come. He’s been to Sweden four or five times. The latest was just two months ago, and he’s always there for me whenever I call him. And knowing that, knowing that I have so many other Black people not only in Sweden but even in the United States and other parts of the world that support me, that give me the strength that I need to be able to continue to do what I’m doing, it’s a blessing. And that is what keeps me going. I hope with this journey to the United States, we continue to build this alliance that I’m always aspiring to have so that I will feel and all the people of color living on the other side of the Atlantic feel that we are not alone, that we have our brothers and sisters all around the world rallying around us and having our back and protecting us from all the evils, all the bigots and racists that we face in the countries that we live in.

Nelson: Excellent. So Mr. Momodou Jallow, thank you so much for sharing with us your story. We are moved by it, and we’ll do our best to make sure that this is publicized and that people become more aware of your journey, your work and the injustice that you have suffered, and your family and also other people of African descent in Sweden, but also the global African community. Once again, thank you for your time, and I hope you have a great remainder of your stay in Chicago.

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