On a Friday night in September 1982, teenagers poured out of the Fridhemsplan metro station. First just a few dozen, then hundreds, and soon more than a thousand of them filled the station’s hall, the sidewalk, and the road outside. Eventually, they walked three blocks south to Rålambshovsparken, entering the grassy Stockholm park via a concrete pedestrian bridge.
“They were everywhere,” said police superintendent Kjell Andersson. “They were on top of the bus shelter, in the trees, on the roofs of the polling huts, and on the electrical poles.” The teenagers had come from all over Stockholm and its surrounding towns. They weren’t drunk or stoned. They didn’t have placards or a cause. They weren’t protesting or demonstrating. They were there simply because they’d agreed to go there. And many of them had come to Rålambshovsparken to see people they knew but had never met in person.
The teenagers didn’t have long to find each other. After an hour or so, the police arrived, not exactly sure what to do with a group of a thousand teenagers who had suddenly appeared, with no clear reason to be there. Sweden’s constitution included the right to peaceful assembly, but the country was an orderly, regulated society where it was believed that most of young people’s needs could and should be met by the state. If you wanted to play sports, you could do so at a designated sports club. If you wanted to socialize with other youths, you could do so at a prescribed school or a youth center. The gathering at the park that night was unstructured and impulsive, built by word of mouth; it was the opposite of what Swedish society was prepared for.
More than 50 police officers were sent to the park, at least some of them from the Piketstyrka, similar to American SWAT teams. They wore riot helmets, carried batons, and brought police dogs. “They were a bit scared,” said Olle Lindgren, one of the teenagers who had gathered that day. “They hadn’t seen anything like it before.” When the police dress for a riot, they usually find one. In his book Europe, Europe, German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger describes what happened next:
Within seconds the peaceful scene was transformed into a threatening confrontation. The officers in charge were determined to disperse the young people. The police hit a few with their truncheons, the dogs became restless, there were bruises and torn clothes.
The police drew the teenagers back onto the elevated pedestrian bridge; some of the teens, angry about the breakup of their gathering, first booed and then started throwing rocks and beer bottles at the police and elsewhere. “The youth could not be calmed down,” said the police superintendent. “Cans and rocks were whizzing around everywhere.” The police hid behind cars and trees to protect themselves. Four police officers were injured, with one suffering a broken collarbone. Reports vary, but about 10 of the teens were arrested. Newspapers the next day called it a “youth riot.” The police superintendent called what happened that night masspsykos — mass psychosis.
One teen said the hotline was like a drug for him. Every day after school, he’d head home, get on the phone, and stay there for hours, talking to teenagers living outside his industrial town.
Since it all began with a group of ingenious teenagers who took advantage of a flaw in the design of the Swedish national telephone system in order to create an unofficial hotline, the chaos at the park became known as the heta linjen-upploppet: the hotline riot. Decades before the popularization of the internet as a decentralized place for people to connect and ideas to proliferate, the Swedish hotline did the same, and in so doing marked a change in the country’s direction. For the teens involved in this forgotten slice of history, it was just a small rebellion. But today it’s early proof that the seams of the public square were ready to burst, even in 1982, as soon as young people figured out that technology would allow it.