Photo: Zero81

Naples rising: rebel youth movements buzz in the old city

  • July 30, 2016

People & Protest

Naples’ citizens suffer from the multiple hardships of unemployment, austerity and mismanagement. Social movements jump in where institutions fail.

The buzz of Naples’ squares and bars at night is electrifying. Public life reaches its high after sizzling hot afternoons. The Southern Italian regional capital of Campania has become a frontrunner of social movement mobilization. At present more than 20 buildings are occupied throughout the city with a vibrant activist scene organizing cultural events, political discussions, free health care, and language classes for immigrants — providing an alternative vision of the city. People who have lost their homes in the economic crisis take refuge in occupied spaces.

Nowhere can social struggles be better observed than in the post-industrial wasteland of Bagnoli in the city’s outskirts. Villa Medusa is a picturesque palace in sand color just by the waterfront. Elderly people hold dancing lessons three times per week in one of the rooms. A public library decorated with a framed image of Marx, Lenin and Gramsci quotes painted on the wall is a meeting point for students opposing the central government’s vision to turn the area into a place for high-end tourism featuring a yacht harbor.

Activists highlight that the un-rehabilitated industrial area begs for alternative visions for unemployed workers of the closed-down steel industry rather than gentrifying tourist masses. The local hospital might have to close its doors soon due to lack of investment in the health sector. In the meantime the central government has barred Naples’ administration from the decision-making processes in order to fast track their vision for Bagnoli. While elite politicians debate their proposed projects behind closed doors in Rome, activists open up more and more spaces to invite Bagnoli’s citizens to come together.

Lido Pola, a property recently occupied by activists, looks like a relaxing bar irresistibly close to the beach — only that this part of the sea is too polluted to swim. The idea behind the occupation of Lido Pola has been to reclaim part of the ex-industrial area and provide a free space for debates and concerts. Naples’ utopic islands find themselves in the midst of a charming city that suffers from unemployment, austerity and corruption.

The upsurge of social mobilization in this city is everything but novel. Nick Dines, author of a radical urban history, emphasizes that the 1970s already saw “radical neighborhood-based movements that organized, among other things, the self-reduction of utility bills and, following an outbreak of cholera in 1973, fought for improved sanitary conditions.” The following crisis-prone decades in Naples created a climate in which numerous factories, warehouses and palaces were opened to a wider public. In the early 1990s, Officina 99 became a nationwide symbol for counter-cultural self-organization.

Since then, various obstacles have encouraged activists to become masters of their own destiny. Only two weeks ago, more than 200 citizens debated the prospects of radical direct democracy in the city center. Massa Critica, a social platform that tries to unite different collectives and progressive forces across the city under one umbrella animated people of all age groups to share their vision of the future of the city.

The recently re-elected independent major Luigi De Magistris engaged in this debate. Under his municipal government, occupiers across Naples did not face any evictions to date, making him welcome to speak in the squares. Massa Critica and De Magistris are both in contact with Barcelona en Comù, the radical municipal platform that drove the anti-eviction organizer Ada Colau to win the city elections and become mayor of Barcelona last year. The objective of these platforms is to build a European network of rebel cities.

Nevertheless, the struggle for a people’s vision of the city continues both with and against Naples’ mayor. Earlier this month, the fashion label Dolce & Gabbana was invited to block parts of the city to celebrate the brand’s thirtieth anniversary. A strong police presence ensured that the freedom of movement was restricted while celebrities and Russian billionaires were slurping champagne in Naples’ historical center. Meanwhile, social movements staged an alternative fashion show featuring unemployed and precarious workers to demonstrate their disagreement with the corporate appropriation of the city.

The centro storico, which remains mostly working class, constitutes one of the most densely populated city centers in Europe. With Italy’s banking crisis currently intensifying, the prospects for the younger generations look increasingly bleak. At social centers like 081, volunteers try to provide alternative vision for this generation’s future — even if their efforts might sometimes seem like a drop in the ocean. The joyful faces on pictures on the wall bear witness to the fact that liberating and creating free spaces is an essential part of the collective effort to keep up the youthful spirit of this old city alive.

The people of Naples currently face the multiple goliaths of underinvestment, corruption and the absence of democracy. Even though the general political vision of Massa Critica to introduce elements of direct democracy is shared by the mayor, the shaky alliance with the city administration is not demobilizing the various grassroots groups. The movements profess their readiness to engage in each neighborhood and organize demonstrations where necessary. When the mayor was recently speaking at a Massa Critica event discussing direct democracy, activists mocked the city council’s misappropriation and misuse of public space by wearing fake D&G shirts.

Naples’ rebel spirit has recently inspired other movements to follow suit. Last weekend, a national congress assembling social movements from across Italy was held in Naples’ southern outskirts. Rebel movements from all parts of the country shared their visions for alternatives to top-down politics and ideas for municipal-driven solutions. The debates centered around resistance to the constitutional reform that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposes to entrench bipartisanship and austerity politics. A new municipalism facing the elites implicated in corruption and austerity is currently in the making across Italy.

Jasper Finkeldey

Jasper Finkeldey is a PhD student at the University of Essex doing research on social movements resisting coal mining in South Africa.

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Mauro Pinto

Mauro Pinto recently completed a PhD in Public Economics at the University Orientale in Naples. He is an activist with Massa Critica.

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