On Protesting for Social Justice from Geneva

After protests in several Swiss cities, Geneva witnessed its own version of the Black Lives Matter march today (June 9, 2020), the largest in Switzerland, with an estimated 10,000 people marching between the Place de Neuve and the Parc des Cropettes in Grottes.

The American protests were originally sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, but they have spread across the US and further afield (including London and Paris), and their scope has expanded from issues of police brutality to systemic racism across all layers of society.

The protests in Geneva have us reflecting on the synchronicity of such a demonstration less than a kilometer away from WHO in the time of COVID-19—and International Geneva’s pivotal role in advancing the conversation on social justice.

Protesting in the time of COVID-19? With social distancing de rigueur, it is certainly jarring to see large groups of tightly packed protesters. However, WHO has, in fact, issued guidance and responded to questions relating to the advisability and organization of mass gatherings, publishing an updated risk assessment tool for organizers. Ultimately, it advises organizations to make a risk assessment and then proceed in the most responsible way depending on the virus’ spread in that area.  

Faced with the possibility of increasing spread, organizers in the US expressed the idea that racism and institutional violence cause more harm than the virus. While that argument is powerful—it is really important to highlight the impact of racism and institutional violence, including on health—it's also important to remember that such harm compounds rather than cancels out the effects of the virus. At the end of the day, it always comes down to a series of trade-offs, and for some, it's never the right time to protest racial or gender inequality. That being said, in determining whether protests should go ahead here, Switzerland’s rather positive COVID-19 situation was relevant. After all, Deep Knowledge Group—a consortium of groups that provides analytics to Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong Venture-capital firm, “a data-driven investment fund focused on the synergetic convergence of DeepTech, frontier technologies and renowned for the use of sophisticated analytical systems for investment target identification and due-diligence” (if you are able to explain what that means, please get in touch!)—found Switzerland on top of its Big Data Analysis ranking of Countries and Regions by COVID-19 safety. Countries such as France, the UK, and the US were far behind, in the third tier out of four.

In Geneva then, the protest was granted permission from the authorities and committed to ensuring that all persons wear masks and carry hand gel, that social distancing measures were respected, and to dividing the protest into groups of less than 300 persons.

Could this be a glimpse into the new normal for protests? On Sunday (June 14, 2020), the feminist strike collective (la grève féministe du 14 juin) will be organizing events in 16 different locations (one for each demand) around the city over the full day so as to involve as many people as possible while keeping under the 300 mandatory maximum of persons.

Reflections for International Geneva

While some aspects of the Black Lives Matter platform are very US-centric, others definitely are not. The “defund the police” mantra, for example, has to be understood in a US context where police budgets have been ring-fenced or increased while social services and other programs have been cut around them. But anger and protests at systemic racism are legitimate regardless of where you are. A great many recommendations have come out of International Geneva, relating to addressing racial inequalities, improving the protection for migrants or refugees, or conditions of detention by reducing prison overcrowding or even fulfilling the right to health. Yet, has the content of those recommendations changed significantly over the past 30 years or so? Or will those recommendations be qualitatively new in the 2020s?  

In 1968, social scientist Kenneth B. Clark testified before a US Commission investigation after the uprisings against racial injustice that had flared up across the US the year before (recalled on the always excellent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). His words strike a chord:“I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot [in 1965].... It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.” Clark’s critique implicates the reports and investigating committees themselves, too easily integrated and subsumed into a system that has adapted to accommodate such recommendations without having to change systemically.

In so many areas, the hard reality is that we know what needs to be done. It is the lack of follow-through and the lack of implementation that is at fault. It’s wrong to dismiss such protests and movements as mere acts of solidarity with a US-specific problem—not least because Switzerland has its own issues with police violence. But the global pandemic is an opportunity for a deep rethink, and a real restructure. History shows us that while such moments are rare, they do exist and should be seized.