“the Street Is Ours”: the Swiss Feminist Strike’s Ambiguous Position Towards the Fight for Public Space

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The Swiss feminist strike of June 14, 2019 was an important moment but, as Anouk Essyad discusses, the movement failed to address the way its rhetoric is at times instrumentalized to justify racist policies, in particular recent ones applied to Lausanne’s public space.

Article published in The Funambulist 24 (July-August 2019) Futurisms. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“Women with Crossed Arms, the Country Falls Apart!” one could read on signs during the latest feminist mobilizations in Lausanne, the second largest French-speaking city in Switzerland. Indeed, a feminist strike has been planned for June 14, 2019, and its organizers have been intervening in all usual feminist protests. This strike is part of the international movement that began in 2017 in Argentina, and then spread to Spain, Belgium, and Italy. However, the case of Switzerland is an exception, particularly because the organization of this national mobilization is in many regards historically significant.

First of all, the slogan refers to a previous women’s strike that took place in 1991, which had led to the adoption of the Law on Equality. Moreover, in our context where the working-class movement is deeply weakened by federal and the decentralized nature of political power, the organization of a political strike —  implicitly prohibited by the Swiss constitution —  is in its very principle an exceptional event. Also, by questioning central categories of trade unionism, in particular by extending the principle of strike action to unsalaried work of social reproduction, feminists are energizing the labor movement as a whole.

However, while the huge presence of strikers in the public sphere is encouraging, part of its political orientation raises some concerns. Indeed, alongside the slogans calling for a strike, one could also read signs with a more securitarian undertone such as “Zero tolerance!” or “The street is ours!” In the context of Lausanne, this position is not trivial. Indeed, it marks the total disconnection between feminist movements and the social violence perpetrated against communities of color — many of whom are women — through urban spatial planning. As this text attempts to demonstrate, the strike movement perpetuates the racialization of the public sphere, where those categorized as undesirable are subjected to violence and excluded, while the others seem to have a natural entitlement to the urban space.

For the past three years, the city of Lausanne has been shaped by the implementation of several policies related to urban space. I will address five of them in this text. The first one criminalized begging. Its generic nature should not obscure the fact that it was essentially aimed at the Rroma community. It was justified by racially-coded arguments, such as the so-called fight against criminal networks, which in reality targeted family ties of mutual support for communities living under extremely precarious conditions. There was an opposition to this law, including a referendum, but it was unfortunately inconclusive.

The second one pretended to address the so-called “street dealing problem.” It explicitly targeted the presence of Black men in the public space, under the pretext of the so-called “war against drugs.” This debate opened the door to all kinds of violence against Black men, through a rhetoric of civic commitment. A rally of Families against drugs thus brought together a significant number of people. In response to this debate, the city increased its police presence in the city center, installing uninterrupted stationary presence of police in some squares. This controversy occurs in a context of publicizing and politicizing police violence against Black men, which has recently led to the deaths of three of them: Hervé Madundu, Lamin Fatty, and Mike Ben Peter.