Squatters in Rome fight for social change

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A room at Lab Puzzle in Rome. Photo: Rosie Scammell/The Local
10:48 CEST+02:00
With the economic crisis showing no sign of abating, people in Rome are turning to the city's abandoned buildings for shelter and community support. The Local visited Lab Puzzle, a former council office, to find out how Italians are developing their own social movement.

A group of Italians sip drinks on a terrace overlooking Rome, while others film a pair of performing rappers on their iPads.

This could easily be an exclusive nightclub in the capital. Instead, it is one of the many buildings in Rome to have been taken over by squatters as part of a political movement to make the government rethink their approach to housing rights and education.

One of the principal aims is to open up abandoned public buildings for social use and offer students free accommodation while at university.

The activism was sparked by a new education law, approved in 2010, which cut the number of university courses and slashed funding by at least €300 million the following year.

Thousands of students took to the streets that year, protesting against what was perceived as the government-led demise of the education system.

It led to the emergence of Lab Puzzle, a group which fights for student and housing rights as well as against racism and facism, explains Italian student Gin, as he rolls a cigarette one Friday night at the squat.

“The main issue was that young people were in a precarious situation; they didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have welfare,” says the 25-year-old.

Gin added that the government at the time “was just responding to the [economic] crisis with cuts, privatization and taxes. As a result of the student mobilization, we started Puzzle.”

The group’s aim was not only to find a rent-free place to live, but to develop a social centre for the people of Rome.

Gin and his friends took over the abandoned office block in Rome’s Tufello neighbourhood in February 2011.

Sina Mancusi, 26, was also part of the group and now lives in the five-story building with eight Italians and one Azerbaijani.

The Iranian says that although not paying rent or bills has its advantages, he joined Puzzle for other reasons.

“I moved to Italy in 2008 and didn’t speak good Italian. I made friends at social centres and I went with them to the protests. I moved in here because I like the anti-Fascist movement, I follow politics, the Occupy movement and human rights in general.”

More than two years on, he admits living in the squat has had its challenges.

“At the beginning we had problems, for two or three months they wanted to evict us. Since then we’ve signed an agreement with the city council so we can stay, for the moment. But in the future, we don’t know what will happen.”

Gin says that it’s become easier since Rome’s new left-wing mayor, Ignazio Marino, was elected last month, pushing out a politician from the right-wing People of Freedom (PdL) party.

The squatters live on two floors, while another two are for communal use.

Walking around the building has the air of a revolutionary youth-centre for grown-ups.

Politically-informed slogans and graffiti cover the walls, while books fill the designated study room and an international photography exhibition fills another.

The smell of communal cooking blends in the corridors with wafts of smoke,while pet dogs drift in and out of rooms.

“We call it ‘welfare in progress’,” says Gin of the Tufello building, with the regular social events bringing attention to the organization’s wider aims.

“We want a free room to be a right for all students. In Rome there are many abandoned buildings like this one, which we can enter and clean up.”

For students living outside the squat, Puzzle runs a drop-in session on housing.

“A lot of students in Rome pay really high rent on the black market, so we have a lawyer [at university] who can advise them,” adds Gin.

Plans are also underway for an Italian language school for immigrants, on the ground floor of the building.

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While immigrants and students have been hit hard by the economic crisis, the Puzzle members say there are a number of squats across the city which also house families.

Photographer Valerio Muscella has been documenting the waves of occupations and evictions in Rome for a year.

Whether run by political organizations or not, Valerio says the people involved in squats all want the city council to make positive changes.

“They feel they are unhelped and enter squats to get something from the city they have been living in,” he says.

“People don’t want to live in occupied buildings, they want to live there temporarily before being given council houses.”

Although Valerio has not witnessed any violence in evictions, he says the authorities have been heavy-handed and lack understanding of the squatters’ situation.

“[Former Mayor] Gianni Alemanno thought the only way to treat these people was with evictions.

“It seems like in the last two or three weeks the municipality is getting closer to the problem, maybe because the more people occupy buildings, the harder it becomes to ignore,” says Valerio.

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