Occupations in Rome defend the rights of commoners

February 22, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedWhen people deliberately break the law to become squatters or take possession of public buildings, it is a pretty good sign that the market/state is failing to meet the public’s basic needs. This is the general scenario in many parts of Rome, reports Donatella Della Ratta of Al Jazeera, as various citizens’ movements take over theaters, public buildings and apartment buildings.  Squatting and illegal occupation are rampant. 

Much of the turmoil has resulted from budget cutbacks and the resulting failure of government to uphold its constitutional duty to provide adequate housing and meet other public needs.  Shady speculators then swarm into the picture to snap up buildings that the government is selling at rock-bottom prices in order to raise money. 

What’s a victimized public to do?  Defy the law and occupy what is theirs.  In Rome, former employees of the Teatro Valle, a grand public theater and former opera house, have taken over the premises since June 2011.  (Here is Della Ratta’s November 2011 account of the Teatro Valle occupation.)  This act of defiance has now sparked many similar citizen takeovers around the city.  In one of the more notable occupations, citizens took over a government building used for motor vehicle registrations and drivers’ licensure.  As Della Ratta reports: 

“Scup (Sport e Cultura Popolare) as the place 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 neighborhood.  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.” 

A young activist, Carlo, explained:  “Occupying is an expression of public outrage.” 

 The city government acknowledges that there are now hundreds of housing occupations and occupations of closed-up buildings.  Many are being converted into community centers for cultural activities or recreation for young people: 

The oldest [occupations], 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 legalized 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 institutionalized 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, child 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 cooperative way.

This attempt at creating spaces for peer-production distinguishes all the newly occupied places, aiming at establishing open workshops where people can experiment with 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.  This idea, in the past years, has resulted in emptying politics of any participatory meaning and turning Italian youth away from it.

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

Direct citizen action to challenge speculators, absentee landlords and government privatization of the common wealth!  This is a remarkable new stage in the evolution of protest.  More:  citizens are coming to realize that they don’t just need to stop privatization.  They need to enter into commoning.  They need active, ongoing self-governance beyond representative government.  

The latest occupation in Rome involves Cinema America, a movie theater.  The building was scheduled to be demolished to make way for luxury apartments and a three-story parking structure.  Now the theater has become an inter-generational hangout and the place where neighborhood assemblies are held.  The occupation has even won support from a broad coalition of architects, actors and intellectuals who defend the goal of preserving the theater as a public good.

But the dialogue is moving from “public goods” – an economic term – to a recognition that more direct, accountable forms of citizen governance are needed.  People understand that their struggle is not just about physical things, but about their own political sovereignty and emancipation.  Government cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises.  It can’t assure fairness and freedom. Enter the commons?

There is a pride among the self-governed that comes with stepping up to responsibility.  A 20-year-old boy, Matteo, who now lives in Cinema America, told the reporter:  “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.”

The sentiment echoes Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of Zucotti Park.  A crowd of strangers proved to be remarkably resourceful in self-organizing themselves and managing essential functions.  Commoning almost comes naturally.  To be sure, there is a difference between a short-term occupation and a long-term, stable system of management.  But the sting of dispossession that comes with market enclosure also focuses the mind and spirit.  People are motivated to show that another way is possible.  As Della Ratta writes, there is “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 rationalization….”

The deep irony is that occupations are, in their own way, the highest form of legality.  How’s that?  “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 [Italian] Constitution.”

The Magna Carta was similarly supposed to guarantee certain commoners’ rights and make them permanent.  But as the crisis in Italy reminds us, a piece of paper does not guarantee rights.  Not does the existence of government or courts.  Only direct and active commoning does.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: common assets, squatting