“Occupy” the commons- Rome on Al Jazeera English

This is my latest published on Al Jazeera English and one of the few articles I have written on my own lovely country…

Everybody thinks we are pretty much the country of pizza, mafia, and Berlusconi, so if this piece can help shed a different light on Italy that would be already a good result. Italy is such a complex country. I hope I have succeeded in explaining the difference between legality and legitimacy in this new wave of occupations which is quite key, in my view, to understand the phenomenon.



A new wave of occupations redefines citizenship and political participation in Italy, as elections fast approach.
Last Modified: 20 Feb 2013 08:55

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]

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

2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.

credit: Time.com

I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

“Occupy” culture at Teatro Valle Roma

I`ve just published an article on Al Jazeera English talking about the “occupy culture” movement in Italy, whose best expressions are Cinema Palazzo Sala Vittorio Arrigoni and Teatro Valle. I`m happy to have joined, even if only for few days due to my permanence in the Arab world, this exciting movement.

We are planning an evening dedicated to “Creative Revolutions!” at Teatro Valle next 27th Nov. featuring creative user-generated videos (songs, cartoons, parodies, mini-soap operas) coming out from the Arab Spring. Stay tuned for more details. And please spread the word about these amazing efforts to free culture in Rome and give it back to citizens.

‘Occupy’ culture enters Roman theatre
As a result of privatisation and downsizing, Italian communities have taken culture into their own hands.
Donatella Della Ratta Last Modified: 16 Nov 2011 16:03

On November 14, while Silvio Berlusconi was heading to the Quirinale to resign amidst a crowd chanting “buffoon, thief”, a thousand people were quietly sitting in a former cinema listening to a public reading of David Foster Wallace’s last book. When the news of the resignation came out, somebody jumped on the stage and started to play the piano, while the crowd erupted in a chorus chanting “Bella ciao”, a partisan song from Italy’s resistance against Mussolini. After the one song, they all went back to the reading. The crowd – made up of publishers, actors, artists, book lovers – stayed up all night long reading David Foster Wallace in a technically illegal place.

The old Cinema Palazzo is an occupied building in the San Lorenzo area of Rome that has been renamed “Sala Vittorio Arrigoni” after the Italian activist who was killed in Gaza last April. Months ago, activists took over the historical theatre, which was about to be converted into casino with slot machines. Since then, backed by famous artists and actors like Sabina Guzzanti– an Italian satirist who has always criticised Berlusconi – the Sala Vittorio Arrigoni has held cultural activities – from plays to concerts – relying entirely on people’s donations.

From Palazzo to Valle

Over the past few months, re-appropriation of goods that once have been public or devoted to culture and education has been a growing trend in Italy. This was a reaction not only to Berlusconi, but to the culture he has generated over decades of commercial television and which has been renamed Berlusconismo. Occupations of movie houses and libraries – to reclaim cultural venues as public goods – have been flourishing in small villages and big cities alike. The most significant started June 14 at Teatro Valle, an 18th century theatre at the heart of Rome, where Sarah Bernhardt’s company used to perform.

The day after the 2011 nationwide referendum, which successfully marked the return to daily campaigning against corruption and privatisation of public goods, a group of artists christened Teatro Valle Occupato. The activists settled there and called immediately for a press conference at which they explained the reasons behind the occupation.
“Once the property of public body ETI, which was shut down for not being financially productive, Teatro Valle risked being sold to private companies to become a restaurant. And, as theatre employees, we were re-assigned to a different public institution. People who have been working for years on the lighting of the theatre, for example, had to become doormen at the ministry of culture in order not to lose their jobs.””The theatre has been a target of one of these ‘usual’ corruption stories that we unfortunately hear so much about in Italy,” says Mauro, who has worked on the technical staff of the theatre for 20 years.

“The trade unions would tell you, ‘Take it, at least you will have a salary’,” adds Hussein, an Iranian-Italian who is part of the group that planned the occupation of Teatro Valle.

“But they never consider the social cost of moving from a job that you are skilled for to a completely new environment. This way you also destroy the cultural know-how of a profession. By strictly applying the ‘re-assign’ mentality of HR departments, you kill the historical heritage of a place, of a city.”

“We don’t want to hear the ‘this is the only solution’ answer. There are other solutions, but we have to sit all together and think about it,” he adds.

Alternative solutions

The occupants of Teatro Valle have been thinking about alternatives. After six months of holding free, donations-based plays, movies, poetry readings, concerts and workshops, they are now trying to build a new formula for a cultural foundation that gives the place back to the public.

Stefano Rodota , a law professor, and Ugo Mattei, the author of Plunder: When the Rule of the Law is Illegalare helping to draft the charter of the nascent Teatro Valle foundation.

“The main point is that this theatre is a monument. It should be given back to the citizens and administrated as a public good,” says Fulvio, an editor and TV director who has been in the occupation group from the very beginning.

“We are looking into a ‘third way’ of financing culture. Not private, not entirely public, meaning that it doesn’t have to rely entirely on public institutions’ money. This could imply corruption and go against the quality of cultural offers. We would rather have the citizens micro-financing the activities of theatre, at least for a part.

“We want to have shareholders that love the theatre but have a pro-active relation with it, too. It’s not a matter of paying an entrance free and watching a show anymore. We would rather address to a pro-active audience, who contributes financially but also artistically, by suggesting things to do, people to contact.”

“We are also elaborating a different concept of art direction,” says Simona, a theatre actress who is now leading Teatro Valle’s communication efforts.

“Instead of having one person who keeps the power for a whole mandate and decides everything, we are considering having three people, coming from different disciplines who discuss before taking shared decisions. In a way, that is what has already been going on here for months: each week we have somebody who takes the art direction of the theatre.

“We would always ask this ‘temporary art director’ not to bring only his/her play or songs, but to give back to the community by doing a daily training to share knowledge and skills with everybody. We would ask to develop not only an artistic concept, but also a new political philosophy throughout the week.”

‘Peer-producing culture’

“What we are experimenting here is a new approach to politics,” adds Fulvio. “An idea of peer-producing culture, economy, law. Something which goes beyond the idea of just delegating others to take care of these fundamental sectors.”

So far, the Teatro Valle Occupato experiment has been doing great. Each day, there is a line of people waiting for the evening show. In the morning, training sessions animate the beautiful 18th century stage, which is kept tidy by the occupants. Young people have also started to join the occupation, originally composed mostly of people in their 30s and 40s.

Martina, 25, came from Tuscany and joined the occupation in September. She was fascinated by the experience. “We do stuff here, we see culture on the move,” she says while live-tweeting.

Berlusconi is gone, but the occupiers are already thinking ahead. Their next move will be a popular petition to cancelthe financial privileges and political immunity of members of parliament.

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

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy

#15 ott: dimenticare i 500 e concentrarsi sui 495.500

Il #15ott e` andato e quello che sembra restare e` una polemica infinita sulle violenze di uno sparuto gruppo di persone, per i quali si e` dovuta riesumare la vecchia definizione di “black bloc” gia` in voga all`epoca di Genova 2001.

Alle persone e ai media italiani impegnati oggi a discutere l`uso della violenza che ha devastato Roma e la sconfitta del movimento degli “indignados” che ieri avrebbe dovuto fare il suo debutto in Italia vorrei ricordare un paio di concetti importanti.

Uno: ieri ci sono state manifestazioni in tutta Europa e in tutto il mondo, tutte generate dal “movimento” dal basso “occupy”, quello che cerca di riprendersi citta` e istituzioni schiacchiate dalla dittatura capricciosa della finanza globale e da stati inermi e soggiogati. Mi risulta che in nessun posto ci fossero 500.000 persone, come si sono viste a Roma. Perche` non proviamo a parlare di quei 495.500, invece di parlare di quei 500 che si sono dati da fare a devastare la citta? Perche` dobbiamo sempre sminuirci, quando quella di ieri a Roma e` stata una sfilata di forze nuove in campo, 495.500 persone scese in piazza senza un`organizzazione, senza un partito, ma con una causa comune? Roma e` stata la citta che ha registrato piu presenze, e questo non si puo perdere nel chiacchiericcio mediatico del post manifestazione, preso dall`orrore perbenista per le devastazioni di ieri. L`argomento principale non e` e non deve essere quei 500. L`argomento principale sono i 495.500 scesi in piazza ieri, senza partiti e senza organizzazione…

Due: ..e senza servizi d`ordine. Chi e` un “habitue” delle manifestazioni, sa che scendere in piazza con l`allora fu Rifondazione comunista o con il PD o con i Cobas o qualsiasi realta organizzata significa anche garantire un certo tipo di ordine dentro al corteo. Il partito o il sindacato ha il suo servizio d`ordine, organizzato, e ha molte piu probabilita di individuare ed isolare persone intenzionate a creare caos e violenza. Ma in una manifestazione come quella di ieri, dal basso per l`appunto, i servizi d`ordine organizzati erano pochissimi, come scarse le aderenze ufficiali di partiti, sindacati, e realta “istituzionali”. Gli “indignados” e quelli degli “occupy” movements sono realta dal basso, decentrate, “disorganizzate”. Una lettura intelligente del movimento da parte delle forze dell`ordine responsabili di tenere, appunto, l`ordine, avrebbe dovuto capire questo, e regolarsi di conseguenza. I 500 invece, organizzatissimi, lo sapevano benissimo e hanno giocato su questo. La loro tattica e` appunto disperdersi fra queste persone per usarle da scudo e fare guerriglia urbana. Possibile che le forze dell`ordine non lo sapessero? possibile che non l`avessero previsto? perche` dovrebbe essere colpa dei 495.500, che pure hanno fatto di tutto, come anche documentato da alcuni giornali, per isolare i 500?

il carro del teatro Valle occupato -cinema Palazzo occupato

Tre: ignorare il fatto che in Italia la protesta “indignados” e “occupy” non fosse anche una protesta direttamente rivolta contro il governo Berlusconi e` da ingenui. Questo va assolutamente preso in considerazione. Quella di ieri, quella dei 495.500, e` una protesta contro la finanza globale e il governo Berlusconi e la sua corruzione, e le sue ingiustizie..non e` una protesta qualunquista di 500 che mettono a ferro e fuoco la citta..non dimentichiamolo

scontri a San Giovanni

Quattro: Non dimentichiamo che le richieste di queste 495.500 persone -come di tutte le altre riunite a manifestare in Europa e nel mondo, come di quelli che ancora non sono scesi ma dalle loro case si rodono dentro per le ingiustizie e i soprusi di questo sistema globale- sono richieste legittime. Il dibattito del post #15ott deve essere concentrato su questo e non sui 500. Sara` anche compito degli indignados -o non so come vogliamo chiamare questi 495.500 che ieri erano in piazza- costruire il dissenso giorno per giorno , e non lasciare che la loro marcia di ieri sia offuscata da quei 500 e che tutto cada nel dimenticatoio. La marcia pacifica di ieri e` soltanto un passaggio di un processo iniziato gia da mesi -per esempio con le numerose occupazioni che ci sono in giro in tutta Italia, la piu significativa quella del teatro Valle a Roma- e continua oggi e la prossima settimana. Non saranno certo i 500 di ieri ad arrestarlo.

In Italia c`e molta piu gente di quanto noi stessi pensiamo che capisce e condivide le ragioni di questo movimento.

Ieri, quando sono andata in Piazza San Giovanni per dare una mano, insieme ad altri volontari, ai ragazzi dell`Ama che stavano pulendo il delirio creato dalla violenza dei 500, sono rimasta sorpresa quando, cercando di scusarmi con questi lavoratori che devono passare la notte a ripulire il “post-dissenso”, mi hanno detto:

“siamo contro la violenza, e quello che e` successo ad opera di pochi e` sbagliato. Ma la manifestazione e` giusta, le richieste sono giuste e sacrosante, e noi siamo d`accordo”.

Nessun risentimento nelle loro parole. Se quei 495.500 non sono il capro espiatorio di lavoratori che sono costretti tutta la notte a ripulire dall`incivilta`, perche` dovrebbero esserlo per i media o per altri cittadini?

Penso che dovremmo prendere tutti ad esempio l`umilta e l`apertura di queste persone e andare avanti, nel modo corretto, anche per loro.

con i volontari e i ragazzi dell`Ama a ripulire San Giovanni