Translated and edited by Ernest Dowson
Radical America, Vol.7 no.2, March-April 1973
Community struggle in Italy has gone beyond the trade-union tradition which limits the class struggle to the fight for higher wages. The Italian working class have recognized that their needs for a freer and happier life cannot be realized by increasing the spending power of individual groups of workers. Any gains made inside the factories have been countered by the bosses’ use of inflation and property speculation. Social services (housing, hospitals, schools, and so on) are determined solely by the needs of large firms. In this situation the struggle in the community becomes crucial, and working-class people are forced to discover new forms of self-organization, tactics, and demands.
The rent strikes have developed not as symbolic acts of protest against government policies, but as a direct response to the tyranny of rent. Thousands of families, finding that they can’t afford the rent or not being able to see why they should pay it when they are living in run-down tenements or in projects where there are no amenities, fall into arrears and are threatened with eviction. The rent strike binds them together and makes an active weapon out of a series of isolated protests.
The strikes are organized block by block, staircase by staircase, with regular meetings, newsletters, wall newspapers, leaflets, and demonstrations. In the course of the struggle people begin to take control of their project or building – asking themselves why they should pay rent, how much they should pay, if any, and what it should be used for. At the same time they make sure that the rent collector and the police can’t carry out their jobs. Anti-eviction squads are set up, and contacts are established with workers in nearby factories who can be brought out immediately. Women play an essential role in the organization of the rent strike. During the day, along with their kids, they guard the project against the police.
Occupations in Italy have been mass collective actions involving hundreds of people. There has never been any question of legal rights, and there have been many violent clashes with the police, with people defending themselves from behind barricades. The buildings taken over have often been modern blocks of apartments left empty by speculators. In some cases the workers building the apartments have joined in the occupation. Control of the apartments and decisions about how the struggle should be fought are in the hands of general meetings. In the course of the struggle new, collective ways of living – day-care centers, communal kitchens, people’s health centers – are developed. In this way people begin to live in the buildings in a way which is totally opposed to the idea of isolated, private units for which the architects designed them.
In Italy people have recognized that rent strikes and occupations are part of the same struggle. “A house is a right – don’t pay rent!” has been a common slogan for both; and in a number of instances, for example in Milan, the same organizations have been used to build rent strikes and to prepare for occupations. This unified struggle around housing has been the pre-condition of the extension of the fight into other areas, such as transportation, health, and prices.
All these struggles have relied on direct action : “Legal” channels for registering protest or demanding reforms are seen for what they are: delaying tactics used by the ruling class to divide people and buy off their leaders. Appeals to politicians, petitions to Parliament, and the like have been rejected as irrelevant if people are prepared to fight to take now the things that they need. In the modern city the traditional working-class way of life has been increasingly destroyed and replaced by the anonymity of life in the housing project. In the course of their struggles the Italian working class have begun to create for themselves a new identity, a way of life which is more and more outside the control of the bosses. In defining and fighting for their own interests as a class working people have begun to take back everything that has been stolen from them, taking control of their own lives and taking over their cities.
Milan is Italy’s largest industrial city. In addition to large numbers of medium-size factories, there are several huge industrial plants – OM (trucks), Pirelli (tires), Sit Siemens (electrical goods), Alfa-Romeo (cars). Together with Turin it “attracts” 2,000 workers a month from the South. During the “Hot Autumn” struggles of 1969, these migrant workers were very militant. The most important aspect of these struggles was the lesson they gave people in how to organize on their own behalf and in their own way. At Pirelli, for instance, the fight was organized through the United Base Committee, set up with the support of students. It was this kind of experience which was the pre-condition of the more-general struggles which were to develop outside the factories.
Milan can be divided into four areas :
(a) The city center: banks, businesses, shops, hotels, and luxury apartments.
(b) Old working-class areas from which the workers are being pushed out. These areas are lived in by the traditional Milanese working class, pensioners, small shopkeepers, and post-war migrants from the South. Most of these people are eligible for the municipal-housing waiting list. The housing in these areas is a mixture of early, pre-war municipal housing, and very old privately-owned houses which have no amenities. Private owners – the biggest is Ceschini – collect millions in rent. These old working-class neighbourhoods have traditions, history, and local community life which make them very different places to live in from the new working-class neighbourhoods. In the older neighbourhoods, the struggle over housing has developed around making the old apartments livable, rent reduction, and the fight against eviction of tenants, which landlords are keen to attempt in order to be able to renovate the apartments and sell them off to someone with cash. In other cases landlords take in rents and service charges for years without doing any repairs. They let apartments become so run down that they can get permission to knock them down and build luxury apartments in their place.
(c) Areas of municipal housing where the working classes expelled from the inner-urban area are being rehoused – Quarto Oggiaro, Galaratese, Rodzano, and so on. Also living in these projects are migrant workers with children born in Milan, and a group of scabs – petty-bourgeois, police, civil servants, city guards – put there to spy on militant tenants and break down tenants’ solidarity. Municipal-housing areas are the heart of housing struggles in Milan.
(d) Outlying areas: These are places like Bollage, Novate, Desio, Sesto, and Cinisella which have grown up around factories such as Snia, Autobianci, Alfa, Innocenti. They exist only to provide a place for factory workers to sleep. Even here rents are high ($12.50 a week for a one-bedroom apartment, $15.50 a week for a two-bedroom apartment), and there are no schools, hospitals, shops, or public transport. The housing here is either co-operatively owned apartments or shanty-town huts which are usually the only accommodation for recently-arrived Southerners.
The Housing Struggle
Housing struggles in Milan have centered on municipal housing. To get a municipal apartment you have to show that you have a steady job, and the waiting period is at least five years. A year’s residence in Milan is also required before you can get on the waiting list. This immediately excludes recently-arrived Southerners, workers whose work is seasonal (for example, construction workers), the under-employed, the unemployed, and the thousands who don’t know how to fill in the forms.
In 1964 5% of the families in municipal housing were in rent arrears. By 1971 this had risen to 18%. During this period the housing authorities lost $8,750,000. Ten thousand families received warnings, and there were 750 evictions. At the height of the struggle. 25% of the families in Galaratese were in rent arrears, 45% of those In Quarto Oggiaro, and 50% of those in Rodzano.
The struggle began in 1968. In Quarto Oggiaro, when 30,000 families in municipal housing were faced with a 30% rent increase, a Tenants’ Union was created. In that year it made door-to-door contacts and organized public meetings. By June 1968, 700 families were on total rent strike. The Tenants’ Union spread the struggle with the demand that rent be no more than 10% of wages. In September 1968 four people were arrested during eviction. Kids attacked police cars, and women blocked steps leading to apartments. The Union expanded, and the brutality of the police made people more angry. In April 1970, 500 police were needed to evict one family.
On May Day 1970 about 2,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Quarto Oggiaro. This was a positive break with the tradition of “public processions” organized by the political parties and the trade unions. People were coming onto the streets of their own community. The march was an occasion for people to realize their growing strength and unity and to further develop their struggle. It culminated in a mass meeting held in a square in the center of the district, where a large number of people spoke about their experiences:
An elderly woman from the area: “We tenants began our struggle in January 1968. I was one of the first women to stop paying rent. Despite the many difficulties, our struggle has developed. The young people of the area have had a lot of trouble, day and night. But our minds are made up. If anyone goes on rent strike, nobody’s going to be able to evict them. Every time the police come we’ll be there, all together, in front of the door, to stop them from getting in.
“Not long ago 500 police were sent down from the Viale Romagna – 500 police to throw the family of one poor worker out onto the street. How come, when hundreds of evictions used to be carried out with only one officer there, it now takes a whole army ?
“It’s because here in Quarto Oggiaro people have got together to fight. Because here in Quarto Oggiaro there’s the Tenants’ Union. We’re using a new type of weapon to fight against the rising cost of living, against the bosses’ exploitation of us in our homes. It’s something really effective – a rent strike.
“I’m not speaking now to the young people, to those youths in the area who have been in the forefront of our struggle. I want to say something to the women who live here. Many of them still aren’t involved and haven’t realized the importance of this strike.
“In the two years and five months that I’ve been on strike, I’ve saved a lot of money. I feel healthier. I’ve had more money to give to the children, to the ones who really need it. I’ve had some money to give to a few old-age pensioners. I’m not saying all this to give you big ideas about myself. But just think for a minute. Rather than give your money to the bosses, keep it for yourself. Give it to the children. Give it to the workers who are struggling in the factories and who are exploited year in and year out.
“People talk about the Hot Autumn factory contracts. What did the workers gain? Nothing – absolutely nothing! I know what my family’s finances are like. If you do the shopping, you see prices rising every day. I’d say we’ve lost out badly. They can laugh -the clever ones, the reformists, all those male politicians. But we’re getting near election time, and we’ll give our vote to those who deserve it – and that’s none of them!
“Eat sirloin steaks … don’t go handing your hard-earned money over to the thieves in the Viale Romagna!
“After those 500 police came to Quarto Oggiaro our struggle expanded a hundred times. Even the very next day. Anybody who’s still paying rent just remember this: You won’t get a penny of it back from the authorities. Follow the example of the young people – even if you don’t give them responsibilities a lot of the time, seeing as they’re so young. They’re much tougher and braver than we are, because after 50 years of struggle we can’t get the same results we used to.
“Personally. I can say this. Since the time I first went on rent strike things have gone better for me. Long live the working class! And long live the struggle of the tenants!”
A woman worker from Fiar: “After four months of strikes in the factories I was in trouble trying to live on a wage that just wasn’t enough. I have three children, all of them very young and dear to me. And I just couldn’t afford the rent I was paying to this private landlord. So they had me evicted. I didn’t get help from anyone.
“Then I heard there was a flat empty in Quarto Oggiaro, and I decided to squat in it. Now the authorities have told me I’ll have to get out in ten days’ time. Well, the authorities had better learn this: I love my kids and I’m going to make sure that they’ve got somewhere to live. And I can show them a thing or two.
“A home is a right, and in the name of that right I’ve taken one!”
A worker from Quarto Oggiaro: “Comrades, the woman from Fiar who’s just spoken… I think the gist of what she said is quite clear. Here in Quarto Oggiaro, there are dozens of families, apart from those on rent strike, who were in need of a home and have started squatting, without crying or begging for it.
“Now, the Council, those public-spirited men, have summoned the families to the Town Hall to tell them they’ve got to get out in the next 10 days. We haven’t come here just to have a march to celebrate May Day. The sister who’s just spoken mustn’t be driven from her home. Because if we can come here today in such numbers, then the next time there’ll be more of us. And we’ll place ourselves in front of this house. The police won’t kick them out because they won’t have the strength to do it.
“Today, May 1st, has been decreed by the middle-class politicians as a day to be celebrated. But for us there’s no cause for celebration, because we’re still exploited, because they still kick us out of our homes, and because we want a festival that’s really ours. All the people here know what I’m trying to say, what festival I’m talking about.
“We’re the ones who build the houses. We’re the ones who work in the factories. Without the working class there’d be nothing. Who is it who makes the goods? Who is it who does all the work? Who is it who makes it possible for everyone to benefit? Us!
“Houses are ours because we build them and need them, and for that reason we’re going to have them !”
A speaker from the Tenants’ Union: “In June there will be the elections. Before long all the parliamentary vermin will be putting a show on, even in this area. You’ll see them come making a heap of promises, trying to buy our votes! Even though during ordinary times they treat us as second-class citizens and call the police in on us, when our vote is worth as much as Big Boss Pirelli’s and they need it to boost their power, lo and behold they arrive here in person. What a nerve these gentlemen have to come here looking for votes! Look them straight in the face and you’ll see that they’re the same ones who order the evictions and who pretend to be indignant when the evictions actually happen.
“In our area there are hundreds of people who have had rent reductions only because they’ve jumped on the bandwagon of this or that political party. Do we have to do the same? No! We say that housing is a right, built with our money and sweat. So we’re going to continue the rent strike until we’ve beaten the bosses and the false friends who try to wreck our struggle. The bosses are doing everything in their power to break our will to fight – intimidation, attempted corruption, violence. There’s nothing they won’t stoop to, to try and regain control. They’ve even given reductions in rent and rent rebates on houses built after 1963. But not one of these maneuvers has worked. Our struggle is still going strong.
“What the Tenants’ Union is aiming at is to link the struggles in the local factories with those in the community. But, though a link-up of this sort would make us unbeatable, it’s being obstructed right down the line by the unions. Because they’re afraid of losing control over the people – afraid that they won’t be able to check the thrust of the exploited to develop their own power.
“To make this clearer, let’s look at one very concrete example. In February the Office of the Judiciary, together with the police, took advantage of the absence of one tenant to load his furniture out onto the street. Some local women told several comrades, who then began to mobilize. They went and told the workers in a nearby factory, who immediately downed tools and left the factory to protect this man’s right to a house. In the space of an hour all the worker’s furniture was put back in place, the door was closed again, and a new padlock was put on, right before the officer’s eyes.
“So far, with the exception of the last time, when there were 500 police on the spot, not one eviction has succeeded. Because the people here are mobilized and united. In the morning, when the man from the Office of the Judiciary comes around and most of the workers are at work, the chief role is played by the women and children. Once they slashed the tires of a police car, and the cops had to go home on foot!
“Comrades, let’s carry the message of the rent strike into the factories; let’s bring together the struggle in the factory and the struggle in the community. In that way we’ll be able to realize our strength and our power – people’s power!”
It now became necessary to see the struggle in Quarto Oggiaro as part of the total working-class struggle, and to extend it to all other aspects of social oppression – prices, health, education, transportation. This led to the picketing of local supermarkets (the UPIM) and the strike of secondary-school kids over the price of books.
The people of Quarto Oggiaro have refused to allow their struggle to be diverted or taken over by political parties or other so-called “representatives” of the working class. The Tenants’ Union is a mass organization independent of any party or trade union. The CP, which wanted to send a petition to Parliament, was seen as a joke. What’s more, people have recognized that the housing struggle cannot be limited to the struggle of tenants and the rent issue. Relying on their own initiatives, they have brought together people on rent strike, people facing eviction, squatters and homeless families. After a number of isolated squats in Quarto Oggiaro and nearby Galaratese, where 10 families occupied a building in September 1970, people began to prepare, through the Tenants’ Union, for the mass occupations which emerged at the beginning of 1971.
On Friday, January 22, 1971, 25 families occupied a modern block of apartments owned and left empty by IACP in Via Mac Mahon. All victims of previous evictions, they had been living in special centers set up for “Homeless Families”. At the centers anywhere from 5 to 11 people live, sleep, and cook in one or two rooms. Lavatories consist of cramped cupboards, too small even to stand up in. Vermin and disease are rife. Because local bosses regard people housed at the centers as “unreliable”, the rate of unemployment is very high. Those who do have work have to travel miles to get it.
The apartments that the families moved into were supposedly built for working-class people. They cost 14,000,000 lira ($23,330) in cash, or 22,000,000 lira ($36,660) in installments ($5800 down and just under $120 monthly) – obviously way beyond the means of any worker, employed or not.
Once inside the apartments the families began to build barricades, hang out red flags, and string up banners. Across the end of the street was a banner reading “All Power to the People”. It wasn’t long before groups of journalists arrived on the scene, and long arguments started between them and the squatters. The next morning more families arrived. Collections to buy essentials were organized. Other people set out to gain support in the area, touring it with loudspeaker vans and stopping to hold street-corner meetings.
At 2:30 the police arrived – about 2,000 of them, armed to the teeth. They immediately surrounded the building and began to attack it from the rear, so as not to be seen from the street. They were very vicious. Canisters of tear gas were fired directly at the people squatting. (This is common police practice nowadays.) About 65 people were eventually taken in for questioning, and 25 of them were arrested. Those who remained were offered transportation back to the “Homeless Families” center. This they scornfully refused: “I came on foot and I’ll leave on foot.”
Outside a big crowd began to gather. People were forming up to march in protest when the police charged again, using still more tear gas. In spite of this the march managed to form up, and people set off through the neighborhood to the local market. Here the families decided to occupy the Social Center in Quarto Oggiaro rather than go back to the “Homeless Families” center. “Let the bosses go and live in the center; we’re not going back.”
Over the next few weeks the Council offered the families a few houses right away and the rest as soon as possible. The families rejected this sop and stuck together until they were all rehoused. When the people arrested during the eviction came to trial, the courtroom was packed and the “case” against them was laughed out of court.
The occupation at Via Tibaldi was a great step forward. A whole neighborhood was involved in it: factories, schools, took part in the organizing of the struggle. There was a victory at Via Tibaldi because everyone there was fully aware of the issue: There were 70 immigrant families who had been promised a place by the Council and had to be rehoused.
When the confrontation came, it was clear who was on which side: It was homeless families, workers, and students against the bosses, the unions, the housing officials, and the police. In the six days of violence the people occupied everything – houses, the streets, the town hall, police wagons, and the Architecture Faculty at the University. Thousands of police were mobilized against those involved in the occupations. In one day there were two attempts to evict everyone. The forces of repression attacked with tear gas, clubbing everyone who got in their way. Twice they were beaten back. After the third attempt to shift them, the occupiers agreed to be rehoused temporarily by a charity.
This was a tactical retreat.
The mayor and his mob were forced to give in. Houses were allocated to the families who had squatted and to 140 other families who had been evicted and were “living” in hostels waiting to be rehoused. The alliance of workers, students, and tenants forged before and during “the taking of Via Tibaldi” shows how strong the working class is when it fights together. With this alliance the working class went on the offensive and won a famous victory In June of 1971.
The occupation begins on Tuesday morning. The squatters are nearly all Southerners – workers at Pirelli and other, smaller factories, building workers, and unemployed people. Some of the people have been involved in other struggles: Before this occupation the families from Crescenzago were on rent strike.
The occupation is strengthened by a continual coming and going of workers (many of them from OM, a large factory only 150 yards away), students, and local people who support the action. They offer help, bring useful materials, and work alongside the squatters. The workers engaged in building this block of apartments also are sympathetic. The firm they work for is about to close down.
Because of the two months of organization which had led up to the occupation the whole of Milan knows about it. Aniasi, the mayor, and the officials of the IACP (the State building authority) know about it too. Almost at the same time they both start denying responsibility.
Barricades are built in the streets, particularly by the women and children.
Wednesday. A demonstration is organized to go to Porta Ticinese. It’s the Festival of the Naviglio, and people figure Aniasi will be there. The families want to have a few words with him and let him know that they’re ready for anything. The march is headed by a banner that reads “Homes Occupied!” There are dozens of red flags. The marchers move off shouting “We want houses NOW!”, “Free houses for workers!”, and “Long live Communism!” When they reach Porta Ticinese they find that Aniasi has left. So everyone climbs up onto the rostrum and occupies it for a while. Then, with more and more people joining in, they set off back to the apartment building.
Thursday. The families decide that the struggle must become more militant. Twenty or so people go to the Marino Palace, to a meeting of the Council. Once again they refuse to listen. A room in the Town Hall is occupied from 5 pm till midnight. When they get back to the Via Tibaldi there’s a meeting of heads of families which decides that the struggle must continue to the bitter end. Nobody so much as mentions the idea of abandoning the building. By now the whole of Milan knows that we are in the Via Tibaldi, and new families continue to arrive. The people who occupied and won the apartments in Mac Mahon come to give us support. There’s also a lot of discussion about new forms of struggle. Over the next few days a huge demonstration is organized to show that we have no intention of giving in.
Friday afternoon. Catalano arrives, sent by the Town Hall and IACP. This official has a reputation for cramming workers into shanty towns after having promised them homes. Catalano wants a list of the families involved. He gets it, but he’s also tried by a genuine People’s Tribunal. People tell him what they think of him – that he’s nothing but a lackey of the bosses, a rat and an exploiter. A crowd of workers surround him, shouting: “We’re going to have the apartments, and you can get stuffed for the rents!” He was really swaggering when he arrived; but by the time he leaves, several hours later, he’s pale and trembling. And he’s had to give the squatters some solid commitments.
Saturday. The mobilization continues. In the afternoon another barricade is built in the streets.
Sunday morning;. Two thousand cops arrive to clear out the Via Tibaldi. The Town Hall and the bosses have decided that they have to put down these people who, in six days of struggle, have become a reference point and an organization center for the whole working class of Milan. All the squatters know that they had a right to defend what they had taken and what was rightfully theirs. But it’s more a question of building our strength and using it at the right time. On Sunday morning we are still too weak. After long arguments with the police the squatters decide to leave the building and move to the Architecture Faculty of the University, at the invitation of the students.
On Sunday evening 3,000 police arrive to throw everyone out of the Architecture Faculty. They think it will be as easy as it was in the morning. They couldn’t be more mistaken. While the police squads take up their positions, a meeting of all the families decides that this time they have to defend themselves, and that they’re strong enough to do it. And the cops are going to pay for the eviction from Via Tibaldi.
Once again all the organization comes from the squatting families. Women and children on the upper floors, all the men down below behind the gates, facing the riot squad. At 11 pm the cops charge. But they get their fingers burned. They hadn’t expected the fierce and powerful reaction from the people inside the building, or the attack from behind by people who haven’t managed to get inside. When they eventually manage to force their way into the building, the police find no one there. Everyone has managed to get out and is regrouping in the streets, ready to carry on the fight. Having run out of tear gas, the riot squad retreats, completely disoriented, charged by the squatters. We lose count of the jeeps demolished by stones. The whole thing lasts until two in the morning.
Monday morning. Members of all the families meet up on the university campus. They are all there. People decide to go along to a meeting of the architecture students. Here, in the afternoon, some of the squatters are chosen to explain the struggle in Via Tibaldi. A proposal is made that closer links be created between the students’ struggle and that of the “homeless”. On the basis of this proposal the meeting decides that the families should occupy the Architecture Faculty again later that day. As for the Faculty Board, they decide to initiate a permanent seminar on the housing problem with the people from Via Tibaldi who are “experts” on the subject.
At the Architecture Faculty, as always, decisions about how to carry on the struggle are made solely by the assembly of families, which meets twice a day. During one of these meetings a huge demonstration is suggested for the following Saturday. This will help to bring home the meaning of the struggle to those who aren’t directly involved. This demonstration is to mobilize 30,000 people!
Wednesday – five o’clock in the morning. The police surround the whole university precinct in three huge circles. Traffic is at a complete standstill. It’s a trial of strength. 250 students are arrested, plus a dozen lecturers and even the Dean of the Faculty! The families are carried off once more in police vans. A few hours later, a general assembly held at the Polytechnic is also broken up by the police. Vittoria, the Chief of Police, De Peppo, the General Procurator of the Republic, and Aniasi, the Mayor, think they have finally beaten what was originally no more than a few dozen families, but what became the symbol of Milan’s working class. They couldn’t have been more mistaken!
Wednesday dinnertime. All the families eat at the canteen of the ACLI (Action Group of Italian Catholic Workers), where they have been given shelter. From now on no one can avoid the struggle in Via Tibaldi. The ruling class are caught in enormous contradictions trying to reconcile the demands which are coming from every direction – from a section of the PSI and local councilors; from the CP and the ACLI, which they’d always thought were under their thumb; from the FIM (one of the metal workers’ unions whose members are particularly militant). Some orders are coming from Rome, and others from local employers. The greatest danger is that the struggle will spread. This is what is giving them nightmares. And the families do everything in their power to make it happen – by organizing Saturday’s demonstration, by going to the factory gates with placards and leaflets, by sending a delegation to the congress of the ACLI and to the general assembly of the student movement, where they are given a tumultuous reception. And before every action is taken, the assembly of families decides what should be said, what line to take, and what proposals to put forward.
As for Aniasi and Company – their goose is cooked. Catalano, the same messenger boy who’d come so arrogantly to the Via Tibaldi, now hurries to the ACLI with an offer. “Too vague”, say the families. “Your words and promises won’t be enough to solve the housing problem now. We want an agreement written and signed by Aniasi and the Council.” Two hours later the agreement is there!
Before July 31 the Council will allocate 200 apartments, not only to the families from the Via Tibaldi, but also to 140 others in a similar situation. Each family will receive 100,000 lira ($1,665) compensation, plus 15.000 lira ($250) for each member of the family. There’s no stipulation of three months’ deposit before moving into the apartments. All evictions and all rent arrears are frozen by the Council.
During this of struggle none of the squatters has ever imagined that the workers’ fight about housing would end at Via Tibaldi, nor that the only problem is how to get a new home. This struggle is only a beginning. Now the families want to help organize the struggle against rents, fares, and prices. A lot of work needs to be done circulating information around local factories. For this reason the assembly of families from Via Tibaldi has become permanent, involving people from every district in Milan.
Rome is one of the first stops on the route which takes people forced off the land in the South on to the industrial cities of the North. Between 1951 and 1969 the population of the city grew by an average of 60,000 a year. There are few regular jobs for these migrants, since apart from service industries and construction most of the work there is clerical and is handed out as a “favor” on the say-so of local politicians. There are 40,000 people unemployed, many of them young people.
Since it is ruling-class policy to make workers move to the industrial jobs in the North, hardly any low-rent municipal housing is built in Rome. There are 100,000 families living in the outlying slums. Construction workers, newly-arrived immigrants, unemployed workers, pensioners; they live either in shanty towns or in apartments shared by several families. Another 62,000 families live in private accommodations, paying rents of between 40,000 and 80,000 lira ($650 to $1300 a month).
The struggle for cheaper housing began in 1969 when people started to occupy luxury apartments in the city center left empty by speculators (Tufello: 125 families; Celio: 225 families; Via Pigafetta: 155 families; Via Prati: 290 families). The struggle soon spread to families living in tenements, who went on rent strikes and developed collective ways of fighting evictions.
Since the people from the shanty towns have nothing to lose, their struggles have often been direct and violent. Before leaving their huts they have often burned them to the ground, determined never to return. In recent struggles construction workers have played an important role. At Via Alboccione construction workers joined 205 families to occupy the houses they had just built.
The Peoples’ Clinic – June 1971
In San Basilio, one of Rome’s outlying ghetto areas, a movement has been developing of people fighting against their, inhuman living conditions. There are 40,000 people trapped in this slum district. In the past few months about 100 families have been on rent strike. This started as a spontaneous protest, and now it’s becoming more organized. A real confrontation is building up with the IACP over exorbitant rents, arrears, and threats of eviction. The rent strike is becoming a major issue for the whole community, with mass meetings, protest marches, and demonstrations.
Last weekend there was a meeting to integrate the results of a large number of staircase meetings. About 800 families have been involved in these meetings, which were organized by the San Basilio Collective, a group of women and workers from the area, along with a number of students.
At this central meeting there was a discussion of new plans of action and ideas which had been put forward by local people. There was very heavy criticism of the lack of medical facilities in the area – no first-aid station and no clinic, with the nearest medical center being the clinic at the hospital in Rome. It was decided to start a fight to set up a clinic and a decent medical center in the area.
On Wednesday, after a deputation had gone to the Council for the nth time and still had not been received, a decision was made to occupy the neighborhood Ises Center. The occupation took place after a meeting and demonstration which had gone right around the neighborhood. The involvement of women, workers, and young people and the support expressed by local residents prevented any action or attempts at intimidation by the police.
The people who took over the Center formed themselves into a permanent assembly which stayed there all night. They sent out an appeal to all Left-wing doctors to get in touch with them. Meanwhile people talked about the inhuman conditions under which they live, which are the cause of many of their illnesses. They realized that if you’re going to get rid of sickness you have to do away with exploitation in the factories where people breathe in smog and break their backs on the production lines, and at the construction sites, where people work in rain, dust, and mud. For years now people have been lining up at the health-insurance clinics only to be given the usual pill and then told not to be a pest. They’re fed up with taking pills and drugs which do nothing but make drug manufacturers rich. They’re tired of doctors and others who live off their illnesses. They’re sick and tired of being patched up so that they can carry on working and producing for the boss, then falling ill again and having to go back for further repairs.
People also want decent places to live where typhus and hepatitis aren’t rampant because of bad drainage and sewers. And they want enough money to buy decent food. There aren’t enough green spaces in the area, and as someone said: “These apartments were built for getting sick in, not for living in.” San Basilio wasn’t built to cater to people’s needs; it was built to satisfy the plans of the bosses. “San Basilio is like FIAT’s shanty towns in Turin,” said one construction worker. “At least it has the same function – to keep the workers out of the way.”
On Sunday there was a huge meeting of all the people in San Basilio, and a festival to inaugurate the “People’s Clinic”, which is by now fully operational. Eighty workers, women, and young people met with the doctors in the main hall of the center. A long banner was hung up with the slogan which sums up the way people feel: “The only way to get anything is through struggle.”
At this meeting the role of the clinic was defined. As one woman said, “This clinic is more than something which responds to the real needs of the people here. It is a first step toward ending our exploitation.”
The People’s Clinic is run by doctors who lend their services to everyone free of charge, giving out free medicine and medical attention, particularly to the kids who are forced to play in the streets, which are full of broken glass and rubbish. The clinic is also a center for political discussion and for organizing other struggles which are being waged in the area – whether it’s the fight against the fascists and the police, or the running of the rent strike and the squatting. The task of the doctors is not just limited to lending their “services”, in fact, but extends to participating in all the struggles in the area and to passing on their specialized knowledge so the people can start to control their own health.
San Basilio is a small working-class city outside Rome. A wave of housing struggles began here in April 1971. The local politicians attempted to contain the struggle by channeling it back into safe ways: upcoming elections.
On Tuesday, May 6, the first clash between squatting tenants and politicians erupted. From 9 pm to midnight the local population of San Basilio was mobilized against an election meeting held by the Christian Democrat mayor, Darida. The meeting had been called unexpectedly, without even so much as a poster on the wall. Obviously the idea was to wrap everything up in the space of half an hour. Just a visit, an appearance, and then a quick getaway from this area which could certainly not be expected to be friendly to a unionist who, only a few days before, had shaken hands with the leader of the Fascists, Almirante.
At the time fixed for the meeting there were already 100 to 150 people in the market place. The enormous number of police standing around was a sure sign that the Christian Democrats who were coming to speak were hostile.
So, this is what happened: Under the rostrum, an immense and pompous affair, there were roughly 15 electoral agents. Just behind was everyone else – all the working-class people, women, and young people of the area, as well as a few people from the CP. Groups formed, and people started to talk about the past 20 years of promises…the promises of all the mayors…the promises of this mayor.
People decided to interrupt the speech and get a woman and a worker from the area to speak. At last it got underway. But the Mayor hadn’t had the nerve to come. Instead it was Medi, the professor, the one who’s been so active in the anti-divorce campaign, the guy that the whole of Italy have had the chance to “admire” on their TV screens as a brilliant commentator on the. space exploits of the Americans.
Right from the start he began spouting a load of bullshit: “How fortunate you are to be living outside the city, in an unpolluted atmosphere.” There was an immediate barrage of catcalls and slogans shouted at the top of people’s voices. Medi reacted stupidly in front of this group of workers: “You’re all barbarians, and the city of Rome will wipe you out…. You’ve got no brains and can’t understand what I’m trying to tell you.”
It went on like this for an hour, until 10 pm, with women pressing against the rostrum and the police, in confusion, not knowing how to control dozens of kids who were going round and round the orator in a line, howling into jam jars and making one hell of a din. And the professor? He was still at it, shouting insults: “You’re like donkeys…it’s easy to see that you’ve never been to school.” This remark was followed by a volley of eggs. Medi turned to the police and demanded that they take control of the situation. The cops put on their gas masks. People retreated. The police threw the first tear gas. The meeting ended. “Rome will sort your lot out, you barbarians; we’ll win, don’t worry.”
People came down from the blocks of flats. By now there were more than a thousand people. The police had remained grouped in the market place and continued to hurl tear gas at the windows and at women. One moment people saw a cop setting off on a bike; the next the reinforcements had arrived. About 40 lorry-loads, more than 700 police in riot gear. Provenza, the Vice-Commissioner of Police, also arrived, to take command of the operation. The area was besieged. The police, foolishly, decided to go into a block of flats and start beating people up. They were met by a continuous and very violent volley of plates, bottles, and anything else that people could lay their hands on.
The police withdrew, and finally left the area. It was a little after midnight. In the market place, people set fire to the rostrum. Groups formed. People worked out who had been arrested and who had been injured. People tried to find out news about those who had been arrested.
Don’t Vote – Occupy !
By June 1971, with regional elections only a few days away, all the political parties talked about was “law and order”. The CP was making vague promises about housing reforms: something people were very preoccupied with.
After an assembly in 20 families decided to occupy a block of flats on Saturday, the 5th. The occupation was a failure, since the flats are privately owned and impossible to defend. The families decided to turn back and wait a few days.
On Wednesday, the 9th, there were occupations at Centocelle and Pietralate. At Centocelle, the police responded immediately: They tried to arrest an isolated comrade.
The squatters reacted immediately, and managed to free him. A police car was smashed up, and another six or seven showed up with their sirens wailing. We woke up the neighborhood with megaphones, denouncing the police’s attack. People came out of their houses shouting to the police “This is our area – get the hell out of it!” The police were forced to leave.
Meanwhile, at Pietralate, the occupation had gone off successfully, so we decided to go there and have one large squat. At the beginning there were 70 families. During the night 30 more arrived. The occupation got more organized. Doctors were found. Staircase assemblies were arranged and people were appointed to take charge of each staircase.
During the night our assembly decided that if the police came to evict us, we would all stick together and regroup somewhere else to continue the struggle.
Early in the morning of the 10th the CP officials arrived. At first they tried to persuade us to go back home. (Where to?) Then they turned to insulting us by saying we were gypsies and thieves. In the meantime the police had arrived and surrounded the block. When they entered the courtyard we all came down, trying to stay together. But 12 of us were separated off and threatened with arrest. At this point the women attacked furiously. They started pushing against the police cordons and demanded the immediate release of everyone. It was a great moment. The police didn’t know how to react; they were being attacked by women and kids. At first they tried to push them away violently, but in the end they were forced to release everyone. We all shouted and cheered loudly.
At an assembly in the afternoon, people had a go at the CP and all other reformists. We decided to occupy again so that the struggle wouldn’t lose its momentum. That evening we occupied in the Magliana district – 70 families and their friends. A police car that got in the way was smashed; the police fired in the air; a police car that came toward us was stoned. At three in the morning the whole area was surrounded by riot police. We held an assembly in the courtyard and decided to march from the houses toward the police lines. This decision was not unanimous. Some of us wanted to stay and defend the flats. In the end we all marched out shouting slogans. People came to the windows. When we got to Via Magliana the police charged. Fighting was violent. There were 60 arrests. Many of us were kept in jail for hours.
After this eviction, we decided to hold meetings in different neighborhoods of the city. Many people decided not to take part in the elections and to make sure the struggle goes on.
Since its beginning, Italy’s economic development has been uneven – the North growing faster than the South. High unemployment and low wages have forced millions to migrate. During the boom years, 1959 to 1963, almost a million people traveled north. This process has been accelerated by the mechanization of agriculture. Between 1951 and 1970 the number of people working the land fell from 7,200.000 to 3,800,000 – out of a labor force holding nearly constant around 20.000,000. As in other Common Market countries, only the larger farmers prospered.
To stop this migration, the Government set up the “Cassa del Mezzogiorno” (Bank of the South). Initially its function was to provide subsidies to agriculture and help create social infrastructures (houses, roads, schools, hospitals). Its failure to make any significant change led to its role’s becoming more and more to provide investment for factories. The factories that were built were all state-owned: Alfa-Romeo in Naples, Italsider (steel) in Taranto and Naples, chemical plants in Bari and Porto Torres on Sardinia. The building of these factories provided the first job for many of the workers coming off the land. But since it takes far fewer workers to run these ultra-modern factories than to build them, unemployment in these Southern cities has risen quickly in recent years and will remain high, since no other industries can develop to complement the few existing factories.
Very little has been done to build enough schools, houses, and hospitals to cope with the growing population of these cities. The working class is controlled by a mixture of overt repression and political corruption, and the only hope of a place to live lies in becoming a member of a political organization. Frustration erupts in angry, violent outbursts – for instance in Battipaglia, where days of rioting followed the closure of a local factory.
Over the past few years there have been a growing number of housing occupations (Salerno: 80 families; Torre del Greco; Messina: 328 families; Carbonia : 130 families). In Syracuse, where houses are usually allocated to the “clients” of local political bosses, people’s anger became so great that new tenants had to take possession of their apartments under heavy police protection. Other projects which had been walled up before they were finished had their entrances smashed open by violent demonstrators.
Occupation of GESCAL apartments In December 1970, 200 families occupied apartments belonging to GESCAL (the State housing authority) in the working-class district of Tamburi. They had been living in the slum tenements in Via Lisippo. Police threats and vague promises from the Council had no effect on them. People had gotten it into their heads to take direct action. They took the initiative themselves, going around from tenement to tenement, organizing and bringing people together.
One of the activists said: “We have abandoned all faith in politicians, people who come round every five years asking us to vote for them. They say they’ll give us work and homes, but every time they just leave us where we are, in the cold and damp. We hate them all, because they live off our slavery. And they do everything in their power to make sure people don’t rebel and take what is rightfully theirs.
“Because we’ve behaved ourselves, because we’ve listened to their promises, dozens of children have died in the slums where we live. We have all had illnesses, and we have all suffered. We shall bear these marks within us forever. The people who have our suffering on their consciences will be made to pay dearly – pay the whole price.
“We organized the occupation the evening of December 2. Within a few hours the slums were empty, but the GESCAL apartments were full. Now the apartments are OURS. We haven’t got water or electricity yet, but we’re already getting water from down in the courtyard, and we’re trying to organize the provision of supplies for every apartment. And as far as the electricity is concerned, we’ll see about that too.
“Meanwhile, we’ve begun cleaning the place up. It’s never very nice wearing yourself out with this sort of work, but at least it’s a bit more satisfying than sweeping out the rat-holes we were living in before. We’re happy. We’re confident in ourselves and our own strength. We’ve organized in each building and made links between buildings. We intend to keep these apartments, and we need to organize to keep the police out.
“We’ve had a couple of meetings every day to talk over any problems, to clarify our ideas, and to decide what has to be done. We’re keeping in contact with other people in the area, and trying to spread the word to people in the factories. On Sunday, December 6, we had our first general meeting. This was important because it meant that we could all get together, and we could also talk to workers, women and children, and unemployed people from different parts of the city.
“It wasn’t just the people from the slums who organized this occupation. The initiative came from there, but it quickly spread to other parts of the city. The people in the old part of the city – the street cleaners, the fishermen, and the unemployed – were particularly quick to act. Today there’s not one apartment left empty in all these buildings. But we know that there are many other buildings empty around here and in other parts of the city. We’ve got to find out where they are, because the whole city is in ferment, and all the working-class people want to occupy houses.”
Red Flags over the IACP-April 1971
The NEZ (Northern Expansion Zone) is an IACP estate about 10 miles outside Palermo. About a thousand families live there, mostly unemployed building workers, clerical workers who occasionally work on the land, and fishermen. These families are mostly earthquake victims from the Western Sicily earthquake disaster of June 1968. They took possession of the houses after they had been requisitioned by the Prefect. Many people simply squatted in them. Of course the IACP regards this occupation as “illegal”, and it has started sending out injunctions for the payment of arrears: 30,000 lira ($500) per flat.
On Thursday, March 27, there was an occupation of a block of flats that were still being built. The police came to evict people, but the houses were occupied again, and this time the people stayed there.
Since the building was still not finished, the squatters them selves organized to get the drains working and set up electrical supplies and so on. On Sunday there was a mass meeting to discuss the problem of the injunction. There were 300 people there – mostly women, who are the most active and determined people in this fight. A strike of the whole area was scheduled to begin the next day, and a platform was approved including flats to be provided officially for everyone; cancellation of all arrears of rents; building of roads, schools, and all the amenities which are totally lacking in the area; and self-determination of contributions. The people of the NEZ area don’t want to talk in terms of rent, because they don’t agree with the idea of paying rent. But they are prepared to provide a small contribution, according to what they can afford, for the building of new homes.
The next day (Monday), beginning at 4:30 in the morning, the whole area was at a standstill. There were pickets on the street corners, as well as a large contingent of police. People gathered in the Central Square, and at 8:30 am a march set off in the direction of Palermo. Women and children rode in cars and trucks, and men walked. Throughout the march the police continually provoked people. The marchers arrived at the IACP offices in Palermo. The police set up a cordon across the road, but the marchers broke through the lines and about 50 demonstrators managed to get into the building. Others got in over the balconies and through windows. Inside the IACP there was a huge commotion: For once the tables were turned on the people who govern our lives.
When the women came into the building all the officials beat a hasty retreat. The President of the IACP appeared, pale and trembling, and agreed to speak to some sort of “delegation”. He tried to evade their questions and give nothing away. But the demonstrators decided to occupy the Institute. Meanwhile the people who had stayed outside began to mobilize other people in Palermo. The Base Committee from the shipyards arrived, and also a number of working people from other parts of town.
This struggle became a reference point for everyone. For the bosses and bureaucrats things were getting too hot. Two hours later the President returned and announced that he was going to withdraw the injunctions for rent arrears. For the time being people decided to leave the Institute (by then it was 6 pm), but the struggle for these objectives was to go on.
The most active of all the people were the women – the true militants of this day of struggle and clashes with the police. Among other things, they succeeded in freeing a comrade who had been arrested by the police.
Early this year building workers took over a block of luxury flats they have just finished building. They moved in with their families and other working-class people. Police were called by the local CP administration, but could not gain access to the barricaded block of flats.
The local capitalists have hardly invested in industry, finding it more profitable to make money in real estate and tourism, as well as through Mafia-run industries like prostitution and smuggling. The main sources of employment are various forms of hustling. Children, who are particularly successful at this, play an important role within the economy of the family. Unlike other cities, in which schools are places where kids are accustomed to the discipline of work, in Naples working-class children are systematically discouraged from attending school. In this situation, the struggle to keep a school open takes on a wholly-different dimension: Parents are refusing to allow the system to put their children on the streets.
February 1970. Secondiglio is an Ina Casa housing development on the outskirts of Naples. It’s one of the many dormitory suburbs into which the bosses shove all the people they don’t want around the city centre. Go back 10 years, and it wasn’t so bad… at least on the map. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that the map was only for show. No one had any intention of making it a reality by making the area a pleasure for people to live in. A dump of a flat was enough – there were no decent streets, no services, no schools, no parks…. (These things aren’t profitable for the investors.)
There are about 14,000 people there. About 2,000 of them are people who, having waited 10, 20, or even 30 years in hovels, have now been rehoused in apartments without adequate windows, without water, without drains, without furniture, without light.
The first struggle in Secondiglio was for a primary school. People wanted a prefabricated building to hold a thousand children, and the promise of a proper building before too long. About 40% of the children attending school are at least a year behind the normal. Another 30% are two years behind the normal. About three months after the beginning of the school year at least a tenth of the kids are demoralized and stop coming. And then comes the “motherly” advice of the schoolmistress: “School’s not for you. Why don’t you get a job?”
The worst crime of all is the way kids are made to believe that school only runs up to the 6th grade (primary) level. Local industry couldn’t supply itself with cheap labor otherwise. As a result, 90% of the “educated” have only a primary-school certificate, and 30% are illiterate. What’s more, the children are highly vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses. Large numbers of kids have rheumatic fever, heart conditions, bronchial pneumonia, and so on. School is a place to catch diseases – just one more reason for not going.
The kids spend the whole day hanging around the area in a freaked-out state. But they’re still not too young to learn how to hustle… so many families have someone in Poggiorale prison or Filangeri juvenile prison.
After nine years of demands, a miniature school was opened. From the outside it looked beautiful, but inside there was no electricity or heating, and the children shivered with cold. They had to go to school wearing hats and scarves. After two weeks the new school was closed, and the kids went back to their old shanty hut of a school. But now there were too many of them, so the school had to be run in two shifts. The results are exactly the same as before. Few kids go to school, there’s a high turnover of teachers, and no one studies. No one does anything.
It wasn’t long before people had had enough. So they began to organize and prepare for a fight. They held a meeting and organized marches in the neighborhood. The kids came out on strike. They felt that they had to carry the struggle beyond the area. So groups of parents went to the center of Naples, to the Department of Education and to the Town Hall. They shook up the bureaucracy: “We’ve had enough of rubber stamps and promises. We want the school reopened immediately, with the electricity turned on.”
The various officials responsible were really scared…but it still wasn’t enough to get them off their backsides and make them finish the building. People realized that they were in for another swindle, and immediately began organizing again.
They cordoned off the school with chains, and a large number of people went to the Town Hall to put pressure on the officials. They forced the authorities to come to the area the next day so they could see for themselves what things were like. The headmaster and the teachers joined in what was going on, though they’d accepted shoddy treatment for years. From now on the school will be run on different lines, because the community is taking direct control over every aspect of its running.