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



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.

“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.

The third policy is about sex work, which in Switzerland is authorized but regulated. In Lausanne, the area dedicated to street sex work is an avenue emerging from the city center from an industrial district. However, the street has since entered a rehabilitation phase. The city decided to restrict these workers’ scope of activity by forbidding them to meet customers on this avenue, and by pushing them back into narrow, poorly lit alleys. This further marginalizes sex workers and makes them more vulnerable to all kind of violence.

The fourth one concerns the development of urban spaces, more specifically, terraces. Indeed, the officials plan to
standardize their appearance, by prescribing a color for each “important” street of the city. Above all, they also intend to ban all branded terrace objects, such as umbrellas or any furniture, including plastic chairs.

Finally, in response to the institutional action of a liberal left-wing representative, the city has developed a plan in order to, it claims, “combat street harassment.” It extends the police’s prerogatives, and charges them to train other state actors on these issues. In addition to that, they will also be qualified to intervene in secondary schools to provide training about sexual harassment. A public awareness campaign has also been set up. Finally, a smartphone application is being developed, with the goal of reporting behavior perceived as street harassment in real time. This focus on public space essentially targets men of color, since at the same time, men in position of power can continue to sexually harass women at work or at home with complete impunity.

When we consider these five elements in a broader sense, we can understand how they collectively shape the urban structure of this city. On the one hand, they produce and reproduce hierarchical racial relationships, and contribute to the exclusion of people of color from public space. On the other hand, this exclusion of “undesirable” people enables the city to be preempted as a political and conflictual space. This has a neutralizing effect, which ultimately leads to an area that is “smoothed-out,” and purely dedicated to its commercial functions.

Since the plan to combat street harassment has been implemented within the same spatiality as the criminalization of begging, it is to be understood that Rromani women are not truly considered as women. If they were, these women, who are forced to stay in public spaces and are therefore vulnerable to all kinds of violence, should be seen as the first victims and survivors of street harassment. Above all, we would see how their spatial assignment to the street is in itself a source of violence. It is therefore striking that these two debates were able to take place while this apparent contradiction was not identified, which is a reflection of a racist interpretation of reality. Moreover, this plan of action is blinded by the fact that it puts sex workers at even more risk by increasing police presence. In the end, far from defending all women, this policy embodies a securitarian approach that contributes to the exclusion and marginalization of many people, especially women of color.

Last but not least, we can observe a convergence between the denunciation of those accused to be “street harassers” and the rejection of the presence of Black men in urban areas. Here, the inherent violence of excluding people from a common space (and more broadly from society itself) is legitimized by two registers: the white, privileged feminist discourse as well as the rhetoric of citizen engagement. Both of them contribute to the production of an undesirable category of people, against whom strategies for securing urban space can legitimately be implemented through the intensification of police presence.

This mechanism for securing urban spaces makes it possible to commoditize and depoliticize it. Indeed, after excluding the undesirables, and thereby strengthening repressive approaches, we can reduce the city to a purely commercial function. In this context, the regulation of terraces on the basis of going against advertising is particularly cynical, since it targets the working-class establishments, which are relying on such objects. Meanwhile, the public space continues to be saturated with advertising billboards. This planning then becomes the tool by which the last remaining working-class spaces are policed if not destroyed within an increasingly privatized and standardized city.

In short, we are dealing with two sides of the same coin. On one side, the will of securing the urban spaces through increasing police presence against “undesirable” individuals, and on the other side, its commodification through an urban policy that prioritizes the commercial. Both are part of the same goal, to turn the city into a neutral, flat, apolitical place, and as a simple extension of private spaces. The city, then, is even less of a public and collective space.

It is clear that the activists of the feminist strike are fundamentally ambivalent towards the urban space. In a way, they do impose their political presence and question the city’s neutralization and depoliticization. But there is a complete disconnection between the political construction of the strike and its demands, and the urban policy issues described in this text.

In this context, the slogan “The street is ours!” mirrors this ambivalence. It represents the political demand for equal access to the public space, especially against gender violence. It can also be understood as a call for a collective reappropriation of space, against commercial logics. However, since the movement has not explicitly positioned itself in relation to the issues discussed here — in particular in relation to the plan against street harassment and its effects, it can also be interpreted as a silent approval of the racialized violence of the public sphere. While the ambivalence of this position does not make it any less dangerous, it can allow for political work to constrain it to take a stand against any securitarian approach towards the public space, and to refuse any convergence with carceral feminism. It is only by openly positioning itself against these racist policies that the feminist strike movement can become a global emancipation project.