XM24: survival and inspiration against all odds

  • September 14, 2014

Cities & Communities

The story of the XM24 squat in Bologna is one of struggle and resistance, of hope and inspiration; a story about the self-management of everyday life.

Read this article in Turkish here.

XM24 is a self-managed social center and public space in Bologna, Italy. It was first occupied in 2002, but its origins go back to the 1990s, to the social centers and the anti-globalization movement of that decade. It is heterogeneous and non-hegemonic, but it holds anti-fascism, anti-sexism and anti-racism to be the three common points that hold the space, its collectives and its individuals together in a revolutionary and pluralistic identification with the broader anti-capitalist movement.

The object of this article, written by two militants of the space, is to give a sense of our story and daily practice that, we hope, will be useful to comrades outside of the Italian context.

Birth of a global space: 1999-2002

The story of the XM24 social space begins with the protest movement that exploded in 1999 after the Seattle riots. That movement took shape in Bologna the next year, with the creation of the Contropiani network. This network played a central role in the mobilization against the OECD summit. The summit, held in Bologna itself, represented yet another moment in which globalization and development were being discussed behind closed doors, with countless issues not even on the agenda, like worker’s rights, oppression of indigenous peoples and the devastation of the environment under neoliberalism.

The network needed a physical space to organize meetings and prepare the mobilization, so in July 2000 an abandoned warehouse on via Ranzani was occupied, filling an abandoned space with people and their desires. Starting from here many different paths began to intersect, creating a common space around concepts like the need for free circulation of people and of knowledge, a global minimum and living wage, the globalization of rights rather than that of capital.

All these points were at the center of building opposition to neoliberal globalization. The same words and slogans were yelled at the G8 summit in Genoa, in 2001. It was in everyone’s hearts that the cultural and generational multiplicity that made those massive demonstrations possible, the independent information media activism project represented by Indymedia, the Social Forums, legal aid volunteers, joy, determination and militant solidarity, be the only characteristics of that summit. Instead there was harsh repression from the state, culminating in the death of 23-year old Carlo Giuliani; the brutal beatings at the Diaz school; and the legalized torture of detained protesters at the Bolzaneto barracks.

In December 2001 the spaces of via Ranzani were evicted by the police. The city administration then assigned the spaces of the former city fruit and vegetable market, in via Fioravanti 24 to the various collectives which had been based in via Ranzani. The agreement was public, but informal, and as a consequence the initial entry into the 3.000 square meter space represented an occupation. The occupants were not a homogeneous collective with a common political line, but multiple intersecting subjectivities that since Ranzani had been carrying on various political projects.

The occupants were aware that they were giving a space back to the neighborhood – a working class area which was very important in the resistance to fascist occupation. The space had been abandoned for years and was falling apart, ugly, and had become a hotspot for drug dealers and addicts alike.

Now it was revived by people with different life stories and projects, but with a common objective: to short-circuit neoliberal mechanisms, producing social justice and horizontal social spaces. The weekly assembly took on a strong political weight in the self-management of the space in furtherance of these objectives, becoming the space in which to collectively discuss how to keep alive a project that was full of political and social potential.

Repression, reflection, innovation: the first decade of XM24

Brutal police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and the subsequent media cover up and legal repression did not succeed in neutralizing the social center movement in Italy that XM24 had emerged from, but the long-term effect was both weakening and traumatic. The end of the movement against the war in Iraq (2002-’04) can be taken as the beginning of the “fase di riflusso”, the ebb phase, when the accumulated strength of years of struggle subsided and the movement began to lose traction, street presence and social relevance.

The flip-side of this decrease in collective strength was a sharp increase in the legal repression of activists, and a country-wide attempt to make the occupation of social centers, and the occupation tactic in general, impossible. Historic social centers, including legalized ones, came under increasing pressure from city administrations which attempted to exploit the situation to wipe out decades of political work and struggle.

In Bologna this situation was particularly felt, due to the center-left mayor’s decision to launch a law and order campaign whose main target was the city’s social and housing occupations. Between 2004 and 2007 the police carried out numerous evictions, and activists received hundreds of citations, frequently finding themselves charged with subversion of the democratic order – a law of fascist origin – for actions as simple as the interruption of a city council meeting or the self-reduction of a meal at the university’s cafeteria (the most expensive in Italy).

This period also saw, on a national level, a sharp increase in neo-fascist violence against social centers, activists, migrants and members of the LGBTQ community. This period of relative isolation and repression, which coincided with the first years of XM24’s existence, contributed to the definition of the space’s political priorities, discourses and campaigns.

The political interventions practiced by the space and by the collectives and networks active in it in this period were largely, but not exclusively, along three broad lines: a collective attempt to re-imagine the theory and practice of anti-fascism; the collective and participatory theorizing of self-management; and the support of migrant activism against institutional and cultural racism and labor exploitation.

The desire to re-imagine anti-fascism was a direct result of the heterogeneous and non-hegemonic composition of the assembly of the space. A particular contribution to this debate came from the queer collectives active in the space, which encouraged an analysis of fascism and anti-fascism that took into consideration the patriarchal and hetero-sexist nature of fascist and neo-fascist discourse and culture.

The urban laboratory

The increasing pressure that social spaces were coming under provoked an intense debate regarding the nature of occupation, self-organization and self-management in the context of broader political struggle. Within XM24 itself the debate centered on the relationship of the space to the city administration and more importantly to the Bolognina neighborhood in which it was situated and on whether it was possible to interact with local institutions while at the same time practicing politics in an autonomous way, that is, without falling into a trap and being “recovered” by the mechanisms of capital and its governance.

This approach was tested when the space decided to collectively participate in the Laboratorio di Urbanistica Partecipata (‘Laboratory of Urban Participation’), initiated by the local administration to involve different social realities of the Bolognina neighborhood in the process of deciding the course of a large construction project to be realized in the area. While the end results revealed the bad faith of both the administration and construction companies, the experience proved valuable in terms of relating to local situations outside of the radical left scene, which in the future would prove very valuable.

In order to defend itself, but more importantly to counter-attack the institutional attempt at removing the social center experience from the map, XM24 began the process of developing a collective discourse of self-management. This process centered on common points that permitted the development of a broad and pluralistic political debate: the inseparability of self-management from a political culture and praxis that is anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-authoritarian; the political incompatibility of self-management with the legalistic framework of institutional urban policy; and the central role of self-management of spaces and life in the broader anti-capitalist and social justice movement.

In 2008 the On the Move Project was born from the Migrants Coordination, a youth-oriented community organizing project that has become an important voice for working class migrant and Italian youth, many from the Bolognina neighborhood, which has campaigned for citizenship rights for migrant youth born or raised in Italy. XM24 has had a central role in these mobilizations and projects, both as host and more generally as an openly multi-ethnic and anti-racist space, which during a period of increasing institutional and cultural racism never stopped openly opposing racism and supporting (politically, humanly and economically) migrant and anti-racist struggles.

These struggles made Bologna a center for the migrant struggle in the Italian context. Some important examples of this were the first of Migrant Strikes and support for migrant workers of the logistics sector who have carried out dozens of strikes and pickets over the past few years.

Over the years many major events have contributed to the construction of XM24’s political identity and presence. For ten years XM24 was the home of the Anti-MTVday. The event celebrated independence from major labels, accessibility and diversification of underground music, and the self-management of the creation and distribution process. United by the slogan “Stop music business and television lobotomy”, thousands of people from all over Italy and other European countries would come to XM24 for the autumn festival, which in ten years hosted hundreds of bands and independent record labels.

The Bologna Festival Burn of 2013 supported, through concerts, art performances and street art, various other spaces in the city that produce culture from below and develop political, cultural and social alternatives to mainstream models. In 2005 the social center entered into the Critical Wine – Terra e Libertà network, a project that foments the creation of new global sensibilities relating to food and the environment, aiming at liberation from the consumerist model of production and alimentation.

This is the same objective behind CampiAperti, the self-managed cooperative network of farmers who belong to the social center and hold a farmers market of biological produce every Thursday, an event that draws dozens of people, young and old, to the space every week. The social center also has a collective garden, in the shadows of the massive construction works happening behind the space, a little bit of green in a sea of cement and speculation.

Under attack: “The Battle for XM24”

The city administration had promised during its participation in the Laboratory of Urban Participation the massive development project known as Trilogia Navile in the abandoned area behind XM24 would only remove a small part of the social center’s courtyard necessary to construct a roundabout. However, when the final project was made public it was revealed that the actual project called for the demolition of a significant portion of the structure itself; the kitchen, gym and one of two concert spaces.

It became clear that with the pretext of the roundabout the city administration was attempting to weaken, if not eventually evict XM24. The mobilization in defense of the space was a challenging moment in the history of the space, in that it required an enormous amount of discussion, research and organizing, attempting to maintain consensus, transparency and horizontalism in every moment of the campaign.

The parting shot of the campaign was the painting of an enormous mural on the wall intended for demolition, by world-famous street artist Blu, whose murals have adorned XM24’s walls since its birth. The mural depicts the city of Bologna as a Lord of the Rings-style clash between good and evil, center and periphery, social movements and city rulers. The mural drew massive attention to the campaign, on a political and artistic level, and became a symbol of the struggle to save the space.

The campaign organized several very successful events in which artists, writers and musicians performed in support of the campaign, drawing thousands of people to XM24 and reminding city administrators what would happen if the space were evicted.

The campaign culminated in the blocking of the first day of works to construct the roundabout, in which activists conducted a press conference and presented city administrators with an alternative set of plans, drawn up by comradely architects, for the construction of the roundabout.  This proved to be a winning strategy. Within hours a new round table was called by the city and within a few weeks the project for the demolition of part of XM24 was abandoned, and a roundabout similar to that initially projected by the Urban Laboratory was built.

Autogestione and the City: a committee for self-management

One of the main points in the discussions between XM24 and the city administration was the absence of any formal legal agreement between the space and the city. The city initially demanded that XM24 sign a traditional agreement, in which the space would constitute itself as a cultural association and sign a strict contract for the management of the space.

This proposal was rejected, on both political and practical grounds. In the face of this resolute rejection the City relented on its demands and an agreement was reached in which the space was “assigned” to a third party committee. This committee was established to permit the assignment process, without reducing the horizontal, non-hierarchical assembly of XM to a legally recognizable form.

The committee is a third party subject that vouches for the activities of XM24 without representing it. This agreement allowed the multifaceted experience of XM24 to go forward, reducing, but not eliminating, the gentrification-induced political pressure that the social center and its collectives face every day.

The creation of the committee in December 2013 coincided with the signing of an agreement with the city that for the moment legalizes the occupation of XM24. But it has a broader goal, which is the promotion and support of self-managed social experiences in Bologna with the objective of encouraging the spread of occupation tactics and self-management in the city.

These tactics are also seen as a fundamental part of the construction of radical direct democracy and social and political protagonism and participation from below to respond to the needs of communities. The political wager of the committee is that it will be a tool to defend self-managed spaces and practice social conflict. Various social centers and spaces from Bologna have decided to participate in it.

The situation today

On a day-to day basis, XM24 is a center for the self-management of everyday life in the Bolognina neighborhood. The Ampioraggio People’s Bike Shop, organizers of Bologna Critical Mass, the annual Human Motor mobilization against the Bologna Motor Show, and convergence space for many neighborhood residents, young and less young, migrant and Italian. The People’s Kitchen, a vegetarian, cruelty-free space has been a vital resource for political and social groups to organize benefit dinners for projects, legal aid and political prisoners for many years now. The People’s Free Gym is an open space for neighborhood residents to do yoga, aerial circus and many other arts without spending money.

The only central decision-making space is the assembly, every Tuesday night, frequently beginning late, always ending after midnight. It is a space of collective responsibility, where decisions affecting the whole space are made and where new people can come to propose projects or events. It is public and usually made up of thirty to forty people.

As in many spaces, finding a consensus is not always easy or automatic, but through horizontal decision-making and free participation the space is still functioning, twelve years on. The space is completely volunteer-run and self-financed, and is continuously hosting new projects in which those proposing are welcomed, but expected to take responsibility of the fact that they too are now participating in the management of the space, and not merely using it.

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Giulia Zapata Foresti

Giulia Zapata Foresti is a political activist who conducts research with a political and legal framework on minority rights and on the criminalization of social protest at an international level.

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Sean Patrick Casey

Sean Patrick Casey is an activist in the Migrants Coordination of Bologna, he writes for and belongs to the editorial collectives of Connessioni Precarie and Bolognina Basement.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/xm24-social-center-bologna/

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