Swiss Anarchists Chase Squatter Dream in Shadow of Central Bank

Some lawbreakers in the Swiss capital get a helping hand from the taxpayer.

Take Bern’s Reitschule. In its 117-year history, the cultural center that sits a stone’s throw from Parliament and the Swiss National Bank, has encouraged anarchy, violence and protest. Yet it draws support from the city government.

As questions are raised about whether it should continue to get such funding from next year, its defenders say Bern needs a place like the Reitschule. It is the only one of 19 cultural venues in the capital whose financing remains in the balance because there’s no accord on proposed measures to improve fire safety and security, according to city official Christoph Lerch.

“The city needs culture, nightlife and in particular a free space where people can do what they want,” Aline Steiger, a spokeswoman for Reitschule said over a cigarette at Sous le Pont, its restaurant. “The troublemakers aren’t some bad rascals who then disappear again, they are people who have something to say.”

In straight-laced Switzerland, Reitschule stands out. Its most recent act of rebellion: hand in a flag in return for a beer in the bar at the graffiti-covered building to help battle “nationalism in the public arena.” Flag thefts spiked and at least one diplomatic mission warned its citizens to steer clear of the city center for fear of disturbances.

‘Needle Park’

Switzerland’s liberal legal system has helped the country become an economic powerhouse and made its citizens some of the richest in the world. Those same laws have allowed a counterculture to thrive. Zurich’s “needle park” drug scene was notorious in the early 1990s. Squats in Geneva were commonplace for years. And in Bern, Reitschule houses everything from an “office for applied utopia” to “capital slams.”

Opened in September 1897 as a riding school and a place for popular assemblies, exhibitions, boxing matches and circus shows, the pagoda-style sandstone manege is now home to some 20 collectives that organize concerts, parties, theater and cinema.

Repeatedly under threat of being closed and torn down, Reitschule, has seen riots, drug-dealing and two homicides, all the while being supported by a broad majority of the city’s population as an offbeat cultural arena.

In 1976, the school still produced an Olympic medalist when Christine Stueckelberger trained at Reitschule before winning an individual gold medal in dressage at the Montreal summer games. Five years later, the last horses relocated, and the building became partly derelict. It has been used full-time as an alternative youth center since 1987.

Since then, there have been five attempts to get Reitschule closed via a city-wide referendum. The most recent, in 2010, was rejected by almost 70 percent of voters.

‘Shameful for Bern’

“Reitschule is shameful for Bern,” said Erich Hess, a cantonal lawmaker for the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, speaking by phone, who organized the 2010 vote and wants to start another one at cantonal level. “When you take the train to the city it’s the first building you see, which isn’t very motivating for tourists to get out in Bern. It is still a lawless place within the city.”

Reitschule is officially described as an “autonomous cultural center,” meaning authorities have no say about its concerts, dance events, movie shows and exhibitions. The collectives that run it are each responsible for a part of the building and meet weekly to decide on common matters, according to Steiger. Anyone can call a plenary meeting, and decisions have to be reached by consensus, she said.

That means smaller fringe groups have veto power and can impose their will against the wishes of the mainstream, said Reto Nause, the city’s head of security.

‘Getting a Grip’

In 1990, the occupants themselves cleared one part of the complex that had become a hotbed of crime, only to have the evictees return the same evening, armed with guns, according to Der Bund. In 1996, another section was cleared by riot police and filled in with concrete, it said.

“In future it would be about preserving the cultural institution and getting a grip on the security situation,” Nause said. “It’s very questionable if this will be possible with the existing structures that allow a small violent minority to rule over the larger peaceful majority.”

That minority’s clout was in evidence in October, when about 60 flags were stolen. A prime target were Bern’s communal vegetable plots, where Swiss and immigrant gardeners proudly fly their nations’ banners, said Martin Blaser, who runs the Sonnenhof garden complex and owns a plot himself.

“Reitschule incited theft and vandalism,” said Blaser. “The flags are a symbol of our community as well as our diversity. Gardeners were hurt by the theft and angry about the damage.”