Social Centres

Yesterday one of the “Social Centres” in Rome has been attacked by the police, and people have been sent out of it. I have struggled to find any mention of it in english, therefore I’ll link a couple of italian articles and blog posts (try an automatic translation system – but at the same time I invite people who only write in italian to try and open out to the world, to let everybody know, by writing in english):

Basically hat is happening is that Rome’s major announced today that this is the first episode of a battle against the “Social Centres” and the he means to close/clear many of them. With the excuse that they are illegal places, filled with dangerous people. They even invented the presence of rudimentary “molotov” bombs that really turned out to be bottles of wine in it, to justify the action.
Once again, the old ghost of “security” is being used to repress spontaneous aggregation of people and use of spaces that were otherwise left to rot.
Should “Social Centres” be considered scary or dangerous? Just consider that last sunday I posted the photo below on Flickr and commented:

[…] The alternative people in Rome are growing. A lot of us have kids now, therefore you start seeing refurbished playgrounds and spaces for them inside of the various “Social Centres” […]

Can you read? Playgrounds. Not bombs.

Playground | Forte Prenestino

But what is a “Social Centre” anyway, for those reading this who don’t know it? Here I found an interesting discussion about the translation of the term “Centro Sociale” from italian to english. An excerpt of that discussion follows:

[…] “centro sociale” is a place, usually occupied without police or government permission (the people staying there don’t pay rent or anything basically) where militants, or politically aware groups, gather to discuss about issues and in some case prepare demonstration and revolt acts…For those of you knowing Milan like “Leoncavallo” once. Would you say “squat” or something similar?
I don’t believe there is a one-on-one equivalent in English for this culturally-embedded term. […] I’d like to underline that also in italian we use the term “squat” but it is slightly different from “centro sociale”; maybe we are poaching in the political nuances…but with “squat” in italian we refer mainly to an illegally occupied place where people live (they sleep,they cook…etc etc), while “centro sociale”, especially way back in the Seventies, was mainly the center of great political awareness, of political activists, at least in the Far-left activists’ intentions and point of view.
Despite there being a tradition of social spaces in occupied buildings (also known as squatting), the recent upsurge in (legal) social centres has come about in the last five years. List of current UK social centres, either squatted or legal […]

In the meantime, the Wikipedia page for “Social Centre” has also become pretty complete in its description. It says:

[…] Social Centers are community spaces. They are buildings which are used for a range of disparate activities, which can be linked only by virtue of being not-for-profit. They might be organizing centers for local activities or they might provide support networks for minority groups such as prisoners and refugees. Often they provide a base for initiatives such as cafes, free shops, public computer labs, graffiti murals, legal collectives and free housing for travellers. The services are determined by both the needs of the community in which the social center is based and the skills which the participants have to offer. Social centres tend to be in large buildings and thus can host activist meetings, concerts, bookshops, dance performances and art exhibitions. Social centres are common in many European cities, sometimes in squats, sometimes in rented buildings.
“Social centres are abandoned buildings – warehouses, factories, military forts, schools – that have been occupied by squatters and transformed into cultural and political hubs, explicitly free from both the market, and from state control… Though it may be hard to tell at first, the social centres aren’t ghettos, they are windows — not only into another way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new politics of engagement. And yes, it’s something maybe beautiful.” (Klein, 2001).
The social centre concept has taken root most successfully in Italy, beginning in the 1970s. Large factories and even abandoned military barracks have been “appropriated” for use as social centers. There are today dozens of social centers in Italy, often denoted by the initials CSOA (Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito). Examples include, Pedro in Padova, Spartaco in Ravenna, Officina 99 in Naples and Forte Prenestino, Corto Circuito and Villaggio Globale in Rome and Leoncavallo in Milan. The historic relationship between the Italian social centers and the Autonomia movement (specifically Lotta Continua) has been described briefly in Storming Heaven, Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomous Marxism, by Steve Wright. Social centres in Italy continue to be centres of political / social dissent. Notably the Tute Bianche and Ya Basta Association developed directly out of the social center movement, and many social forums take place in social centers. They are also used for hacklabs, activist copyleft centers (for example, LOA Hacklab in Milan). […]

So well, what Wright has written is certainly true, and historically the Social Centres might have been tied to the extreme political dissent of the seventies. I don’t say that that old model was right; but over time they grew to be very different and beautiful aggregation places where a lot of different activities take place. People have grown up, they calmed down, and are now building spaces for everybody who wants to join in and enjoy and share. There are places for concerts, and theatre, and kids play.

Playground | Forte Prenestino

In certain occasions beautiful stories are told, and the audience listens, open-mouthed and enchanted:

Che meraviglia che meraviglia!

There are happenings where a lot of creativity takes place, such as the yearly juggler meet-up, that is filled with so much joy and fun:

5° Festival Romano di Giocoleria

There is sharing of ideas, knowledge, and interests, such as the Hacklabs / Hackmeetings:

HackMeeting 0x0A

Someone commented ironically on the above, stating they found it strange to see a Microsoft employee joining that crew of the Hackmeeting.
I say that there is nothing wrong in passing by a computer geeks convention. Because that’s what it is, after all.
Only difference from commercial conferences is that, well – it isn’t commercial or sponsored by any company. Nobody will try to sell you anything, but nonetheless you might be able to learn something.

Talking about non-commercial, non-profit sharing, another example is the terraTERRA market that started in Rome at “Forte Prenestino” a couple of years ago:

[…] terraTERRA is the experimentation of an economic model where producers and consumers are committed to each other in order to subvert distribution chains, shorten food distance, value social relations, pleasure and taste. […]

terraTERRA | Forte Prenestino

With all this amount of activities, even tourist resource recognize their importance and you start find reference of them on the net when searching for “what to do in Rome”. From the previous link:

[…] If a visit to a squat doesn’t rank high on your list of holiday priorities, think again. As any local musician will tell you, the best place to feel the pulse of Rome’s music scene is in the Centri Sociali – semi-legal social centres organising concerts, film screenings, theatre and dance events, evening classes, language courses and a host of other activities. Some bands such as Rage Against the Machine play only in the Centri […]

So why would you go and fight and declare war against these places and people?

Because they offer socialization and fun and aggregation, but they do it FOR FREE, and outside of lobbies and commercial interests. Because they undermine the logic of having to buy and own something in order to feel well.

It really boils down to what seems to be the only accepted way of socializing today, in some circles: free sharing and respect are labeled as dangerous, and the only accepted form of a social place is what turns around money: shopping centres, cinemas, restaurants, and any other place where you can be part of society by spending. If you can’t spend you have no place. Anything that does not involve money but sincere expression and sharing is not allowed, when not even actively banned.  Talking about the squatted building that has ben emptied yesterday, it had been left to degrade for decades. Now that is was used for something useful, the owners decided they want to build a supermarket in it. So the occupants had to move out. No bombs, no dangerous people. Just money talks.

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