Beneath tranquil Swiss scene, root causes of youth revolt lie unsolved

The bankers in their gray suits who passed it on the way to work called it an ''eyesore,'' a ''scandal,'' a ''hotbed of vandalism and drug abuse.''

But the youths who fought for it through 18 months of street riots say it was a source of escape from the consumer society, a symbol of ''autonomy.''

It used to be a run-down, empty factory on the Limmatstrasse, behind Zurich's railway station, until, on April 3, 1981, after some of the worst rioting in Switzerland since the 1930s it was given over to the youths by a reluctant city council to serve as an ''autonomous youth center.''

Then, one year later, it came to a sudden and ignominious end. In the early hours of March 23, 1982 it was bulldozed to the ground by city workmen, protected by a posse of armed police.

Throughout the last two bewildering years, the inhabitants of Switzerland's business and banking capital, have followed the fortunes of the now defunct youth center with a kind of horrified fascination.

By any normal standards, their city is a success. Zurich has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent. Old buildings are being pulled down and converted at a frantic pace to keep up with the inflow of new investment even as the rest of Europe is caught in a demoralizing recession. Zurich, like Switzerland as a whole, presents a confident, affluent face to the world.

But the last two years have uncovered a deep vein of dissatisfaction among the city's youth. Riots have caused damage of over 10 million francs; more than 3,800 people have been arrested; 120 policemen, and over 200 youths have been injured; five youngsters have been blinded by rubber bullets.

These are, all agree, extremely high statistics for a law-abiding city that boasted only seven murders in 1980.

With the center gone, the nightmare has been pushed into the background, and life has returned to normal - at least on the surface. Summer has arrived, and with it the cafe tables are out on the sidewalk; the picturesque Limmat River, which runs through the city center, is swollen from the last snows melting in the Alps; the flower beds and lawns along its bank are being tended with typical Swiss precision.

Behind this tranquil exterior, however, lies an uneasy mood. It is common to see youths exchanging heroin on the well-tended lawns. Graffiti shout out from medieval alleyways. (The favorite is a capital letter ''A,'' usually painted black or red and enclosed in a circle. It stands for ''autonomy,'' but it also smacks of ''anarchy.'') Along the Limmatquai, one of Zurich's tourist attractions, some of the windows of shops and jewelry stores are still cracked.

To the relief of many, there have been no more riots since the Limmatstrasse center was leveled. The only incident so far this summer was a fire that gutted a McDonald's restaurant July 5. Nobody was hurt.

Social workers warn that the root causes remain explosive, and that youths could take to the streets again during the summer - particularly if the new city council, which was recently elected on a law-and-order platform, continues to take a tough line by banning marches and mounting a massive show of force at the first sign of trouble.

''The mood is awful,'' says Andre Eisenstein, who gave up a well-paying job in a computer firm to coordinate relations between the Limmatstrasse center and church groups.

''I've heard of guns being bought, and ammunition,'' he says. ''There's been an unexplained increase in acts of arson. I'm worried.''

The troubles first began on May 30, 1980, after the former city council members voted to spend 60 million francs to renovate the city opera house. Opera was already subsidized to the tune of 88 francs a seat.

''Alternative youth culture,'' like pop concerts, received less than 300,000 francs a year in the city budget. Youths went into the streets to protest and were met with rubber bullets and water cannons. Thereafter, violent clashes were almost weekly events. At their height, 10,000 youths would participate in massive cavalcades that snaked through the city, leaving windows broken and monuments daubed with graffiti such as: ''freedom from ice,'' ''stones grow wings,'' ''we wish you a hot summer - this year, next year - up to 2009 A. D.''

Sociologists struggled to find parallels, and failed. The protests seemed similar to the antiwar protests of the 1960s in the US, the 1968 crisis in France that almost toppled Charles de Gaulle, and the squatter movements of Berlin and Amsterdam.

At the same time, however, the riots were quintessentially Swiss. Here in Zurich there were no Danny the Reds elbowing forward to take command, as in the France of 1968. Zurich youths remained anonymous, their organization called simply ''the Movement'' (both as an experiment in democracy and also an attempt to escape police harassment). Any self-styled leaders were quickly howled down at weekly assemblies.

Surveys of those arrested also found that, unlike the French protests in 1968 , the bulk of the protesters were young apprentices, not university students, and that many had money worries.

''It's impossible to pay the bills,'' complained one apprentice, Rene Hurni, whose rent costs 190 francs ($90) a month - almost half his salary.

Nor, unlike the antiwar demonstrations in the United States, was Zurich's youth movement political, even though there is no shortage of political issues at hand in Switzerland - for example, the country's ambitious nuclear power program, its controversial banking secrecy laws, an education system that favors engineering and science at the expense of the arts and that culminates for students at age 20 with compulsory military service.

Compulsory military service, in particular, is proving more and more unpopular. Last year 593 Swiss youths risked jail terms of three years by refusing to serve - a steep increase on the 354 objectors in 1980. Nonetheless, Zurich youth demands remained vague - they asked for ''autonomy'' - and their sights were set on the unused factory on the Limmatstrasse.

To many, the vagueness seemed the key to the protests.

''There was something liberating about it,'' recalls Heinz Loser, a history graduate at the University of Zurich who watched the movement evolve.

Like others, Loser complained of Zurich's dislike of nonconformity, the oppressiveness of laws that can make it illegal to run a bath after 10 p.m., or the old ladies who stop you on a tram and ask why you're not at work. ''There's just no room to breathe,'' he said.

The mood of defiance, of revolt, came across most clearly in the graffiti:

''We are the William Tells of the 1980s.''

''Illegal? Legal? They're both worthless.''

The mood also was also expressed in the nude marches of the early days down the elegant Bahnhofstrasse, provoking a deluge of outraged mail in the local press.

Then there was the time youths crept into a live television show and unfurled a banner in front of a startled newsreader. It read, ''Sunshine and Light.''

They followed that up by stealing the bust of a 17th-century mayor of Zurich, Salomon Gessler, from a local museum. It was later retrieved in a tram, with a bus ticket attached.

''Crazy - but kind of brilliant,'' said Andre Eisenstein. ''It certainly made me think.''

After failing to subdue the youths with tear gas and rubber bullets, the city council finally relented and the Limmatstrasse complex was made over with a grant of 1 million francs to cover renovation.

Church groups promised 1.5 million francs over three years to cover running costs. The riots died down and youths struggled to exercise their hard-won autonomy. They set up a series of 15 ''arbeitsgruppe'' (work groups) to run a cinema, a printing press, two restaurants, and a bar.

Every month Andre Eisenstein and his colleagues would deliver some 12,000 francs to the center to cover wages, and they give the youths high marks for keeping track of the money. Often, recalls Eisenstein, they returned up to 2,000 francs unspent.

It was different, however, with the profits made in the restaurants, where up to 150 youths at any one night ate stew or vegetarian food under garish posters. The money earned was plowed back into other work groups, or lost.

Gradually, Zurich's daunting social problems began to crowd in with the bitter winter. Alcoholics were attracted by the cheap wine and beer and the late hours. Runaway children were drawn to the center. Pimps, who were initially enraged when the youths attacked sex shops, prowled round in the wee hours. Punks passed by to jeer or lob stink bombs.

What finally tore the center apart, however, was drugs. Last year, 23 people died from heroin in Zurich - an increase from 12 in 1980 and one of the highest rates of any European city. Zurich has an estimated 900 addicts, but only one private hospital will make beds available and there is not a single institution that offers long-term therapy.

''The lack of facilities is a scandal,'' says Robert Waeschle, who works in the city's only counseling center named ''Drop in.''

The youths argued from the start that the center would convey a sense of community that would prove more therapeutic for addicts than Switzerland's stock response to drug addiction - jail. So they set up an ''arbeitsgruppe'' to control the price of hashish and expel heroin pushers.

Initially it worked. Then one pusher, thought to be Turkish, returned with a group of cronies and a gun. Cowed and intimidated, the youths watched helplessly as heroin began to circulate.

In desperation, the youths set aside a special room, which they called the ''junkie room.'' But this, too, quickly turned into a nightmare.

The youths insisted that the junkie room probably prevented drug deaths and there were several anguished calls to the local hospital. But at the same time no one really disputes that it also encouraged curious youngsters to experiment with heroin.

Stung by bad publicity, the city council's patience finally snapped when the youths organized a three-day ''program of information'' and opened up the junkie room to the general public.

Just as it did in allowing the Limmatstrasse center to open, Zurich set the tone for the rest of Switzerland in leveling it to the ground. ''Autonomous centers'' recently have closed in Bern, Basel, and Lausanne, leaving only one left open in the city of Bienne.

The Bern center closed on a bizarre note: Youths were said to have stolen a rare crane from the local zoo and cooked it over a barbecue, but the police also noted 39 criminal acts inside the center.

In every case, the city councils appeared to have chafed at delegating authority over the centers to intermediaries - usually church groups - which deliberately respected the youths' desire for autonomy.

Meanwhile in Zurich itself, the city council has moved quickly to keep up the pressure. In the recent city elections, right-wing politicians took control of the nine-member council for the first time in 54 years and the city's tough no-nonsense education minister, Thomas Wagner, was elected mayor.

Mr. Wagner has declined to give any interviews, but the thrust of his approach is clear. Marches have been banned. A group of lawyers now plans to take the council before the European Court in Strasbourg for infringing the right of free assembly.

Journalists have been arrested simply for covering the riots; and in one precedent-setting case that has deeply alarmed lawyers, a bystander was sentenced to three weeks in jail simply for watching a riot.

What worries social workers is that while the council is clearly set on intimidating the youths, it is making no effort to meet the city's social problems. Although the Limmatstrasse center is destroyed, the drug problem has not vanished - it has simply shifted to disconsolate groups of youths who gather behind the station, or around river boats.

One organization, Pro Juventute (which lost some public support for putting money into the Limmatstrasse center), recently collected 10 young addicts off the streets and took them out for a week's therapy in the country, together with two doctors and three social workers.

The experiment was a success, but it cost 15,000 francs and the organization is now wondering whether the city council is prepared to pick up the tab for such experiments. So far there have been vague promises and several heated meetings with political parties. But nothing concrete.

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