Defending the Red City: Why the Fight for Làbas is a Fight for the Future of Bologna

by Maurilio Pirone

5 September 2017

The Làbas social centre in the heart of Bologna is one of the most important examples of urban activism in Italy’s recent history. Originating as a site for solidarity building and autonomous anti-capitalist organising, the occupied space has become a symbol of public rights in Bologna. But in the past few years the city has undergone widespread gentrification, with municipal administrators ignoring the poverty and housing problems that social centres seek to address. Last month, the Làbas occupation was evicted by police unexpectedly. The march organised for 9 September will be not only to save Làbas, but Bologna’s long-held reputation as a ‘Red City’ entirely.

On 8 August, Bologna is a ghost city. Temperatures are high, and few people are still here in the summer months. Rumours are being whispered about the possibility of an eviction of the Làbas social centre – an ex-military barracks that remains the last squatted space in the city centre. Activists, local residents and supporters have been gathered in front of the main entrance to the social centre since 6am. News that police are evicting another social centre – Laboratorio Crash – reach Làbas. Hopes that the rumours of these evictions are misunderstandings are quickly dashed – armoured police vehicles arrive at Làbas surround the area. People try to defend the centre, but the police get impatient, and violently attack the picket lines. Many people are injured. The occupiers are evicted, and a column of black smoke rises up from the building.

Right-wing city councillors exult, and the city’s mayor delays in making a statement. Shocked by the eviction, many people express their solidarity with the activists. The First Citizen, a member of the Democratic party, tries to absolve himself: “Evictions are police and judiciary prerogatives”, he says. The Culture Assessor proposes to move the social centre to another abandoned ex-military barracks, but right-wing parties, magistrates and Democratic party members reject such a solution immediately. It seems politics is not important now – democracy is reduced to procedures and public order. The Làbas activists, however, do not surrender, and move the traditional bio-market they host every Wednesday to a nearby square. This move is a success, and they decide to continue it again every week until another space is found.

The history of this social centre is peculiar. On 13 November 2012, a group of young activists, supported by TPO social centre, squatted the ex-military barracks ‘Masini’ situated in the rich and central district of Santo Stefano. The 9,000 square metre space had been abandoned for decades, and was the object of plans for real estate investments by state property administrators and private investors. Despite two brief evictions, the collective restored the building and launched a large number of social projects: a kindergarten, a weekly bio-market with a local farmers’ association, a brewery, an urban vegetable garden, a bike shop, a carpenter’s shop, and a dormitory for migrants and homeless people. Quickly, the space became a touchstone for housing and environment struggles for everyone from young students to neighbours, from migrants to artists, demonstrating that practices of self-organization, cooperation and solidarity can be the basis for inclusive urban living – and a real alternative to neoliberal ‘solutions’. A committee of local residents was formed with the aim of defending Làbas and halting the municipal government’s plans for the area. One activist was even nominated on the voting list of the Coalizione Civica – a left-wing city coalition – and elected as district council member in 2016.

Over the last few years, Bologna has been the site of numerous evictions, threatening its reputation as a ‘Red City’. The list of these evictions is unbelievably long, and includes housing projects for migrants and those living in poverty, the queer-feminist social space Atlantide, and students’ spaces. Many of the buildings these spaces formerly occupied have remained empty since the evictions, while the municipal government has failed to deal with the social issues these occupations attempted to address. Rather, the mayor, by invoking the police and the judiciary, has worked to transform these matters into public order issues. The absence of political power has reduced the city’s democratic participation to the mere observation of administrative procedures and legal-illegal distinctions.

At the same time, deep economic and urban transformations in Bologna are taking place by way of gentrification and the proliferation of up-market food businesses across the city. Important infrastructural developments – such as the new high-speed train station and the monorail connection with the airport – are changing the profile of some popular districts like Bolognina. Similarly, the city centre – once an area populated by local residents and students – now abounds with food boutiques and restaurants, and is becoming increasingly dominated by tourism. One business model exemplifying this is Fico Eataly World, a sort of Disneyland for food that will open before the end of the year in Bologna. The municipal government is one of the investment partners in this project.

The eviction of Làbas has prompted an important discussion about the future of Bologna. The fate of this social centre and political collective are not the only matters at stake – so is the very model of development and democratic participation pursued by the city’s administrators. The municipal government has lost all touch with the needs of Bologna’s residents. A march to save Làbas, with the hashtag #RiapriamoLàbas, has been announced for 9 September. Thousands of people from all over Italy will come to fight for its future – and the fate of the Red City.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.