This morning, Florence witnessed the most recent instance of the international clampdown on public space and civil liberties. The city’s oldest and historically most important social center, Progetto Conciatori, in the heart of the Santa Croce neighborhood, was forcibly evicted by the Italian police.
The expulsion brought to a close thirty-two years of cultural, social and political activities that had rendered Progetto Conciatori a beacon of autonomous civic organisation and direct democracy, and a fount of cultural innovation. It offered legal services to immigrants, and provided crèche facilities and a variety of courses ranging from multimedia skills to yoga to the local community.
This is a concrete result of the wider rubric that strives to delegitimize the concept of public space and its collective deployment for the common good. This development prioritizes the commercial over the civic, and under its aegis, all that is not conceived of in monetary terms of profit and loss is condemned as a historic anomaly inhibiting the inexorable drive to further “progress”.
It has taken an ominously concrete form in the clampdown on the Occupy Movement across the United States — a clampdown that has quashed the dissenting voices emerging from these shared, public, ‘Occupied’ spaces, through intimidation, sometimes brutal violence, and mass arrests.
Here in Europe, things have taken an analogous turn in a slightly more nuanced fashion, combining the deployment of police repression with judicial amendments that criminalize any attempt to defend the concept of public space. In the United Kingdom, the right to protest has been undermined by draconian policing tactics like the practise of “kettling”, as well as by recourse to traditional tools such batoning defenceless demonstrators.
However, Britain’s long and shameful past of police excesses has recently enjoyed ever-increasing judicial backing, as evidenced in the recent High Court ruling that the Occupy London encampment be evicted at the behest of the City of London. The notion of public space was further weakened by the Court’s decision to criminalise squatting, thus prioritizing property rights over the basic right to housing.
This tendency to dismiss the collective good for the purported necessity of facilitating corporate capitalism is clear in the attempt to promote the PIPA and SOPA legislation in the USA. Once again, access to public space, this time a digital one, is at stake, and one should not wonder why thousands of websites went offline on January 18th in protest. The first major “digital strike” is definitely a step forward, yet many things remain to be done in order to reverse this co-ordinated attack the global elites and their local lackeys are orchestrating.
Focusing back to the local level, the events of this morning are a regrettable further step in the realization of Mayor Renzi’s vision of Florence as “la citta delle vetrine, della moda e dello shopping” — the show case city of fashion and shopping in Italy. His fantasy Florence could well become the superficial wonderland of luxury shops and glittering window displays that he envisages, but it is already well on its way to becoming the city where housing rights are denied, where unsightly immigrants and the poor are pushed to the urban periphery, far from the sight of the tourist hordes and from the socio-cultural wasteland of stylised consumption.
The Progetto Conciatori was the last bastion of resistance to this homogenization of culture and the marginalization of dissenting voices in the city center. Although this incident could be dismissed as minor in the scale of the wider political tumult across the globe, it is these small battles that must be fought in order to preserve the spaces where alternative visions of the world can be formulated.