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Switzerland remembers its red revolution

Zurich revolt

(Keystone)

Twenty years ago on Tuesday a small demonstration against the cultural policies of the Zurich City Council erupted into rioting outside the opera house, making headlines the world over.

The riot marked only the beginning of months of clashes between police and activists belonging to what became known as the Zurich Movement in Switzerland. The revolt, motivated by cultural rather than revolutionary factors, spread to other Swiss cities.

It began inconspicuously enough on the evening of May 30 before the start of a routine performance at the opera house. Some 200 demonstrators held up placards protesting at a SFr60-million planned credit for the renovation of the building, an institution which had long been regarded as a symbol of an "elitist bourgeois" culture.

Many of the protesters showed their anger at a decision by the council to let the opera house use an abandoned factory as a warehouse for the duration of the planned renovation. Various groups of alternative artists had, without success, tried to secure the so-called "Red Factory" as a regular venue.

Suddenly, police appeared in riot gear to protect opera-goers and disperse the crowd. But the arrival of riot police was seen as a provocation by protesters. Violence erupted, and escalated when the demonstrators were joined by thousands of people, who had filed out of a Bob Marley concert and descended on the city centre.

The revolt, which lasted on and off for another two years, took everybody by surprise. A vast majority of members of the City Council, including those of left-wing parties, did not know how to deal with a political movement that refused to adhere to the Swiss political tradition of consensus-seeking and compromise.

The police were often helpless in their attempts to react against the youth movement's diverse strategies and street tactics, including civil disobedience, rioting in dispersed groups, and attacks against shops, cars, public works, and sometimes police officers.

Not only the Swiss press, but the international media found it difficult to understand why such violence was suddenly taking place in a city best known for its banks. Reports by international television crews damaged the image of Switzerland as an "orderly" place.

The conflict in the following months focused on the movement's demand for an autonomous youth centre. The organisers held daily open assemblies, and demanded that groups on the fringes of the political, social and cultural scenes should be allowed to work on their various projects without outside interference. But politicians and the media feared that such a centre would only promote anarchy and lawlessness.

The authorities gave in and let the movement take over a disused industrial complex near the railway station. But the activists found the authorities anything but tolerant and hit the streets again. The centre was raided and shut down a couple months later.

This sparked the most violent phase of the riots. The Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich's "golden mile" through the banking district, was destroyed. Each Saturday for months, youths fought running battles with police. There were remarkably few victims: one public suicide of a young woman, who burned herself to death, and a female demonstrator who lost an eye when she was hit by a plastic bullet.

In April 1981 the centre opened again. Church organisations assumed responsibility for the centre, but let youth groups run their own events and projects.

By this time, however, the movement had lost much of its purpose. Some of its members turned to drugs, others moved abroad. The centre became a meeting place for hard drug users and dealers.

By the spring of 1982, the movement was attracting fewer followers to its demonstrations. In the view of many, including sympathisers and veterans of the long hot summer of 1980, the protests had become meaningless.

Professor Hanspeter Kriesi, who published the first scholarly study on the revolt, told swissinfo that it had its origins in "the end of the golden post-war age". Pessimism had replaced optimism as the collective mood of the young and politically active in the 1970s.

The inner-city had became a centre for the Zurich's counter-culture scene. It was a breeding ground for the 1980 revolt. Many leading members of the scene were veterans of the left-wing movement in 1968.

Kriesi says that the outcome of the revolt was "tragic in that it destroyed many people and a lot of creativity." Over the two years following the events of May 30, thousands of young people were jailed; many were only on-lookers.

But the events 20 years ago also precipitated changes in political thinking. Many veteran politicians, while defending their anti-movement policies of the time, also said that they would probably respond differently now, and that the level of tolerance towards diverse cultures has increased substantially in Switzerland, and particularly in Zurich.

by Markus Haefliger

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