‘Occupy’ the commons

A new wave of occupations redefines citizenship and political participation in Italy, as elections fast approach.

Teatro Valle, the 18th century theatre occupied since June 2011, has paved way to the citizens' movements and inspired similar occupations and grassroots campaigns all over Italy [Photo courtesy: Teatro Valle Occupato]

The place in the central area of San Giovanni in Rome could make a lively sport complex with a variety of activities for all ages. Once the administrative headquarters for vehicle registrations and driver’s licensing, it is a dismissed public building, now, technically speaking, an illegal place.  

Eight months ago, Scup (Sport e Cultura Popolare) as the space has been renamed, was occupied, cleaned up and brought back to life by a mixed group of young activists, sport instructors and some residents of the neighbourhood. They were outraged by the lack of public spaces for leisure and sport activities in an area that has become more and more gentrified while rental prices have soared. 

In Italy, the public sector downsizing has resulted not only in cutting public funds for culture, instruction and health care, but has also pushed speculation in the real estate market to grow. It has helped shady private firms to acquire under-priced properties that the government needs to sell for quick cash. 

“Occupying is an expression of public outrage,” says Carlo, a young activist born in the neighbourhood who, a few days ago, re-occupied Scup for the second time, after the police had cleared the area in an attempt to discourage the occupiers. 

In an act of ongoing defiance, Carlo and the neighbourhood residents regained control of the space, asking once more to stop speculating on public buildings, demanding the government to provide basic public services, such as gyms and kindergartens at affordable prices. 

Housing also represents a dramatic problem in this neighbourhood and generally speaking, in the city of Rome, which is filled up with publicly-owned buildings – either dismissed or abandoned. 

Many of them have been occupied by low-income families in need of a place to live. A few miles away from Scup, since 2004, 80 families have (illegally) taken control of a fairly central building, close to the historical church of San Giovanni. 

On several occasions, the local government has ended up formalising such housing occupations and granting former occupiers the right to stay. In the case of Cinema Palazzo, an occupied movie theatre which was about to be converted into a casino before being taken over by an outraged crowd of students and local residents, the court ruled that the occupation serves the goals of a broader collectivity and not private interests. So, the occupiers continue staying there, running cultural activities and workshops for the families of the neighbourhood, while the speculation project has been put on hold. 

“Occupying is an expression of public outrage.” 

– Carlo, a young activist

For those who are not familiar with Italian politics, the fact that an illegal act – such as an occupation – can be recognised by a court as legitimate might look odd, at the least. 

Yet, caught in a wave of neoliberalism and committed to dismantling the welfare state apparatus, mainstream politics in the country has often failed to protect rights that are granted by the Constitution, such as the right to proper housing. 

This has left a huge void that social and political experiments – such as the new wave of occupations – are trying to fill in the name of constitutional legitimacy. 

A new generation of occupations 

Currently, the city of Rome alone counts hundreds of housing occupations and dismissed buildings that have been occupied and converted into centres for cultural activities or youth places. 

The oldest ones, with a clear militant orientation, have existed for decades. While some of them have been living under a permanent threat of being cleared by the police, others have been legalised and are paying a rent to the municipality, albeit within a scheme of controlled prices. 

Some others are just tolerated by the local authorities – whether right or left-wing oriented – in a sort of “live and let live” philosophy. 

But new occupations, such as Scup or Cinema Palazzo, wish neither to be institutionalised nor just to survive by being ignored or forgotten by the local government. 

They firmly denounce the lack of social services in town, at the same time claiming for their legitimate rights, as citizens and taxpayers, to get health assistance, children care and infrastructure for leisure at affordable prices. 

Valeria and Chiara, among the students who are occupying Cinema Palazzo, explain that “occupied places do not aim at offering services to the citizenry, but at showing them how knowledge can be built in a co-operative way”. 

This attempt of creating spaces for peer-production distinguishes all the newly occupied places, aiming at establishing open workshops where people can experiment different ways of doing politics together. 

It is a new attitude towards pro-active citizenship – in sharp contrast with the idea that political representation, obtained through the voting process, can alone defend citizens’ rights. Yet this idea, in the past years, has resulted in emptying politics from any participatory meaning and turning Italian youth away from it. 

But now, many seem to have realised that pro-active citizenship is the only way to hold politicians accountable and directly claim their citizen rights. 

“This is a new wave of occupation,” Carlo from Scup notices. “They are initiated not only by activists. Citizens themselves help a great deal, together with the workers of a given sector which has been downsized, for example, culture, sport, health care… It is a much broader phenomenon with a potentially wider impact.” 

Cinema America, the brand new occupation in town, symbolises this new attitude of opposing speculation and defending public goods across generations and social backgrounds – by linking activists, workers and local residents. 

In the neighbourhood of Trastevere, a movie theatre – designed by renowned architect Di Castro – which was to give way to a three-storeyed parking lot and luxury apartments has been turned by young students into a multi-cultural centre, offering film screenings for children, theatre classes and artistic workshops. 

The place also hosts the neighbourhood’s public assemblies and has become a hang-out for all generations. 

Recently, the efforts were rewarded, as Cinema America attracted the attention of a wider coalition of architects, actors and intellectuals who publicly stood by the occupation, emphasising its ultimate goal of preserving a public good. 

“Nobody would expect us to keep this place so clean and tidy, and to be able to self-govern it. We are young, but responsible. It is politics that does not want us to grow up,” says Matteo, a 20-year-old who lives in Cinema America, maybe hinting at those government officials, from both the right and the left-wing, who have portrayed Italian youth as lazy, spoiled and even “choosy” when it comes to finding employment. 

By taking over public places, the occupiers claim to have given them back to the citizens [Courtesy: Teatro Valle Occupato] 

Fighting for the ‘commons’ 

The general outrage at the greed of private interests and the weakness of public sector that sells off common wealth with an excuse of efficiency and rationalisation, has also entered the healthcare category. 

CTO Andrea Alesini hospital has been in permanent mobilisation since December 2012. An “occupy” tent and coloured protest signs are placed at its entrance, explaining the passersby how a section of the emergency has been shut down without any notice.

Other departments are threatened to follow the same fate, if not the entire hospital, one of the few in the Italian capital to be equipped with a helicopter landing for serious emergencies and well-known for its specialised orthopaedic surgeries. 

The spending review, which the government wanted to be a process to rationalise public spending and make it more efficient, has in fact resulted in a blind downsizing that undermines public health and obliges citizens to look at alternative forms of assistance, such as private insurance companies. 

This pattern is replicated in different sectors and this is why the employees of CTO hospital are joining the “occupy” movement in Rome – to host joint assemblies, to co-ordinate common actions to defend public services and to fight wild privatisation and speculation. 

Teatro Valle, the 18th century theatre in the heart of Rome occupied since June 2011, has paved way to the citizens’ movements and inspired similar occupations and grassroots campaigns not only in Rome, but all over Italy, from Sicily to Milan. 

The latest initiative from Teatro Valle Occupato is promoted in co-operation with law professor Stefano Rodota. The plan is to restore a former parliamentary committee that, in 2007, before the fall of Romano Prodi’s government, was in charge of drafting a law proposal to protect the “commons”, shared resources such as water, environment – “and now we have added the internet,” reminds Laura, an actress occupying Teatro Valle. 

For the first time ever, this committee, composed of senior law experts, will work jointly with civil society. Public assemblies will be hosted in different occupied places, starting from the stunning historical location of Teatro Valle, which now runs different types of activities by volunteers and survives through people’s donations. 

By taking over places like Teatro Valle, the occupiers claim to have given them back to the citizens. Paradoxically, this would be an act against legality, yet a legitimate one, since it is carried out in order to defend rights and principles granted by the Constitution. 

Constitutional rights and political participation 

The Italian Constitution and constitutional rights are repeatedly invoked and quoted by the occupiers, even by the youngest at Cinema America. 

The awareness of this new generation of occupiers vis-a-vis citizens’ rights and the respect they pay to constitutional duties, manifest in the way they fight speculation and try to defend the commons. 

Against all odds, these youth will go to vote at the upcoming parliamentary and regional elections on February 24 and 25. 

Trying to draw a different meaning of democracy, which goes further electing political representatives at the Parliament, the “occupy” movement seems not wanting to reject representative democracy as a whole. Instead, it tries to integrate the latter with new practices of direct democracy, where politics can be understood in a more pro-active way. 

This is a unique opportunity for activists, students, workers, citizens as a whole to be politically creative and try to experiment a new idea of active citizenship.

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr