The expropriation of the domicile – Some notes on the struggles for housing in Rome

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Article first published in greek, in Apatris newspaper #25, translated by Resistra

The Citizens Coordination Committee Fight for Housing was initiated in Rome in 1988 by comrades who participated in Autonomia Operaia (Workers Autonomy), a non-parliamentary Marxist group formed in the ‘70s. Its start-up action, that is to say, the occupation of the suburban area of San Basilio, marked the reinstatement of the struggle for self-organised housing in Rome. The struggle for housing stems from the historical fight of the exploited who were forced by the fascist regime into settlements in the city’s outskirts and were thus obliged, along with many immigrants, to live in sheds and shoddy shelters during the first post-war years. Said premises were built for the impoverished families and anyone considered disposable, if not detrimental, by the establishment.

This “emergency housing condition”, as it was then called by the authorities, was never dealt with because it stems from and hence instantiates the very core of capitalism and the discrepancy found in pope’s city. That is to say, in Rome the building sector is the main industrial activity and the corresponding business owners, that also control newspapers, banks and insurance companies, are the wealthiest and most influential businessmen. The building sector interfere decisively with the city’s management through the preservation of house prices which they achieve by keeping empty thousands of apartments and therefore maintaining the supply and demand relationship unchanged. According to official data, there are currently more than 150.000 empty flats, the average rental price for a house is over 800euros and the corresponding buying price is on average 300.000euros.

Over the years, the struggle for housing was also embraced by other movements and thus went through different stages. In the past twenty years, however, we can identify two significant changes, namely the arrival of immigrants from non-EU countries and the occupation of schools, military camps, offices and other abandoned buildings but not of houses. The first change had an effect on the structure of the struggle on both an internal and an external level. On the internal level its influence can be seen in organisational matters and other issues relevant to cohabitation. On the external level the struggle was modified to the degree that the arrival of non-EU immigrants generates issues relevant to the different “citizenship” such as residence permits, immigration detention camps, the threat of deportation, etc. Nevertheless, it was practically the second of the aforementioned changes, namely the occupation of abandoned buildings that really transformed the struggle.

Ever since the occupation of apartments started, the movement has come to mainly engage in acts of resistance against dislodgement. This shift signalled the beginning of a course of actions that aim at the full control of the building and are based on relations of power (in this regard there were always groups within the Citizens Coordination Committee that intended a dialogue with the institutions, if not their support). On the other hand, the occupation of abandoned buildings entails decisions regarding the distribution of spaces, the development of cohabitation ways and means of access to water and lighting supply, plumping, etc. These installations are often made from scratch by those that participate in the squat which means an even greater degree of collective action. But this process mainly implies a struggle which aims at gaining full control over the building, and stems from the lack of housing and the consequent decision to attack in order to acquire a shelter.

Naturally this type of squat consists of a larger group of people (up to 400 or 500) and poses great organisational issues to those like, for example, the Citizens Coordination Committee that reject the form of a party or a union, oppose representation and aim to horizontal organisation.

The starting point of the movement today is the so-called information centres for families and individuals that are in a critical situation regarding housing. These centres are open once per week usually in different squats and areas of the city. They are run by comrades who provide information about the nature and actions of the Citizens Coordination Committee, and stress that the practice of occupation is illegal, that this movement is open to everyone regardless of gender, nationality, religion, etc. and that it is not a charity but a course of fight.

Those interested are asked to leave contact details (mainly an address) in order to be notified for their participation in assemblies formed to prepare the occupancy process. Said assemblies also function as a space where these people meet and start cooperating with each other. It goes without saying that it is very difficult to induce people who are used to submission and stereotypical roles to work in and through an assembly.

The occupation of the building follows a period during which the main concern is its defence. By the end of this period, and with the support of comrades from other squats of the Citizens Coordination Committee, those that participate in the occupancy start to organize the different spaces inside the building and to create a coordination committee of the squat. This committee functions on a voluntary basis and there are no restrictions regarding the number or the regular recurrence of those taking part in it. This committee handles the common fund and the squat’s relations to the rest of the movement, and tries to make self-management work. All the squats’ committees have an assembly once per week (of course every occupant can participate regardless of whether he/she takes also part in the committee, that is to say, there are no closed meetings).

The struggle over housing is a long-range process that consists not only of the actual occupation of a building, a process that lasts on average over than ten years, but also of a series of actions inside and outside the institutions charged with the solution of the housing issue and the resulting problems that trouble people’s everyday life.

An example of these actions could be the struggle to achieve the recognition of the squat as a place of residence, which may not constitute a great victory in terms of people’s emancipation and liberation, but it is crucial for the squat’s residents since it enables them to assign to a primary doctor, to a school, etc. The Citizens Coordination Committee gives a confrontational form to these manifestations, the outcome of which depend on the relations of power that are build each time.

During the last year things changed a lot since the various “movements for housing rights”, a name that includes all the organisations that work with the families, came together and simultaneously occupied different buildings on certain days, an action that was later called “Tsunami Tour”. During these occupancies, that took place on the 6th of December, on the 6th of April, on the 28th of June and on the 12th of October, more than 20 spaces were opened for use, as residences or free spaces, by families, students, self-organized collectives or refugees. The simultaneous occupation of buildings by different movements does not only make the situation more difficult for the police to handle, but also prompts the discontent, the pain and the rage that the restructuring of capitalism, also known as economic crisis, causes to the oppressed.

Rome’s Tsunami inspired other intermediary struggles (against the pollution and destruction of the soil, against the systematic looting of public funds, or in relation the working conditions), whereas its anti-institutional part (which represents the majority of the movement since long time) built relations with the struggle against the TAV in Susa valley. The underpinning idea is the practice of re-appropriation of the house, or the place where one lives, or the university. It was in that sense the word “income” was used, to indicate the demand for the return of what has been stolen from us and not the request for a minimum social wage (unfortunately, there are still some who are obsessed with an institutionalised redistribution of the wealth). The stabilisation of the aforementioned bonds lead to a demonstration that took place in Rome in the 19th of October and to which more than 70.000 people from all over Italy participated. This group of people did not belong to a political party or a big union, but was rather a mixture of social movements, self-organised collectives and thousands of enraged and disillusioned, though not always awaken regarding the need for a revolution, people.

The dynamic that arises is, in my understanding, clear to all the comrades that envision a revolutionary practice, but so are the limits and risks regarding the nature of competition and anti-authority. A good example of these limits is the motto «one big project: house and income for everyone», written on the banner of the demonstration on the 19th of October. This slogan indicates a possible solution (would we be happy if we all had a house and the TAV was cancelled?) and, although it was thought as an expression of anti-authority, it legitimises the institutions and their role. Of course they hurried to paper over the cracks through a meeting where they practically lied about projects and budgets related to the urgent issue of housing. And, as it usually happens when Marxist-Leninist communism is involved, there is always the risk that the obsession about authority (which for some is satisfied through elections, even though many of those involved in the movement, such as the Citizens Coordination Committee, have shown their distrust towards those that opt for structures of representation) will harm a movement that is libertarian in, both, nature and belief and that the “disease of politics” will dismantle it through bureaucracy and “specialisation”.

The debate is big but the main issue is to specify the dynamics developed within the mixed communities that proceed to occupy buildings due to the housing problem, and to reveal the contradictions of the entire capitalistic system through an intermediary struggle that entails the danger of being absorbed by the state.
Full(ba), Rome, November 2013

Latest developments:
17 activists were arrested on Thursday morning (27/02) in Rome over clashes with the police at a protest for housing rights that took place in October. They are accused for “riotous gathering”, “damage to property”, “serious personal injures against civil servants” (because the activists should have allowed their arrest while they were cruelly beaten up), and robbery. Solidarity demonstrations where the protesters demanded the release of the 17 activists took place in at least three cities. At the moment 7 of the activists are placed under house arrest since they were forced to sign a statement saying that they participated in the protest of October 2013 (source)

This police operation aims to nip in the bud any attempt for radicalisation. By attacking first the active ones it intends to spread the fear among the occupants as well as to make clear that any action that surpasses the limits of a simple demonstration and becomes aggressive against the authorities will be squashed from the outset. A part of the responsibility for these arrests lies with the most experienced of the movement who know well the repressive mechanism of the Italian state and nonetheless did not ensure that basic precautions were taken. There was, for example, a complete lack of face coverage in the protest in Rome, that is to say, in a city where everything is recorded by cameras. There was also a leak of everything said in the assembly where the protest near the city of CIE was discussed and in which the movement for housing rights suggested the attack against and the destruction of the wall. The aforementioned arrests took place right after this proposal and during the relevant protest…

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