ROME, Italy (CN) — Children splash in a wading pool on the front lawn of what was once a hulking public art institute on Via del Casale de Merode, a residential street near central Rome. Their shouts of glee fill the heavy summer air with lightness. For now, life carries on as normal inside this gigantic squat.
Under the shade of a passageway connecting two buildings of the former school, aging Muslim men sit and talk and smoke cigarettes. Out in front of the school, a Peruvian man is working in his luxurious garden. Women chat in Italian as their children play in the water.
This tranquil scenario is deceiving: Everyone here is on high alert. At any moment, they know a phalanx of police could show up and force them all out.
“This is a critical moment,” said Andrea Papa, a 35-year-old juggler and aerial acrobat who lives in the squat. “This is a very difficult moment.”
This old art school is one of some 90 squats in Rome, and is slated to be shut down along with dozens of others in a mass operation to evict thousands of people who’ve turned abandoned buildings, most of them public structures, into homes.
These squats are a focal point in an ideological war between Rome’s left-wing populace who by and large support the squatters and a new powerbroker in Rome: the right-wing Northern Italian party known as the League.
By going after Italy’s squats, the League’s leader and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is going after two of his favorite targets: immigrants and left-wing activists.
The first major expulsion took place July 15 when hundreds of police officers shut down a large squat inside a school where about 350 people lived. Many of those living in the school were Moroccans, Egyptians and Romanians. There were some Italians too, including a woman who’d lived there for 19 years.
In the past few days, police in Turin in Northern Italy evicted about 350 immigrants living inside abandoned structures in the Olympic Village, built to house athletes for Turin’s 2006 Winter Olympics.
“Onward with the evictions and the return of order in all of Italy after years of waiting and silence,” Salvini said in a statement after the evictions in Turin.
Salvini is ordering law enforcement agencies to shut down squats big and small across Italy.
Squats, or occupazioni, are found throughout Italy and function as cheap housing for Italians but even more so for immigrants and foreigners. The squats are attractive for many people because there is no rent to pay.
But these squats also often serve another function: They are strongholds for a potpourri of mostly left-wing artists, musicians, political activists and radicals. And it’s in Rome where one of the country’s most entrenched, and diehard, movements in support of the squats can be found.
“We occupy public buildings that have been left empty for years,” Papa told a Courthouse News reporter during a tour of the large squat on Casale de Merode. “We don’t occupy private buildings.
“A house, an income and dignity,” Papa said. “That’s a slogan that is very dear to us — all of us.”
Papa sat with a friend and fellow squatter, 37-year-old Alessio Rossetti, who said he makes a living as a svuota cantina, taking items being thrown out and selling them, a present-day version of the 19th century rag-and-bone man who scavenged for a living. Rossetti said he lived in the squat with his wife and several children.
“We have very specific rules,” Rossetti said. “If you are violent, you’re out of here. If you treat women the wrong way, you’re out. If you deal in drugs, you’re out.”
The two Italians got up and led the way through the squat’s grounds and into its halls.
The occupation of the school began in 2005 when hundreds of people set up a tent city — a tendopoli — in the parking lot behind the school, Papa said. He said his mother and younger brother were among the original squatters. After months in tents, the squatters took over the old school, which was a shutdown art high school, a liceo artístico.
“Before the building was occupied, it was all overgrown and heroin addicts came here to shoot up,” Papa said as he walked to the back of the building where the tent city once was erected. “It was disgusting.”
A tour of the squat reveals an off-the-grid community where doors to apartments — old classrooms transformed into funky homes — are left open and where a friendly atmosphere prevails as people of different nationalities, and ages, mingle and live together.
Every week, occupants of the school meet to discuss matters relating to the building.
“We decide everything together at assemblies,” Papa said, standing in the meeting room area.
Papa and Rossetti were proud of their squat, which has a garden, a library, a music venue and other communal spaces.
“We’re a movement,” Papa said. “But we’re the ones under attack the most from the decree.”
The decree he’s talking about is a sweeping law passed by Italy’s new government last November that targets immigrants and orders police to shut down illegal occupations.
The law, called the Security and Immigration Decree, is routinely called “the Salvini Decree.” It is highly controversial and the subject of intense legal wrangling, with critics calling it unconstitutional and setting up, in the words of one legal expert, a “judicial apartheid” for immigrants.
The decree lays out a nationwide plan to map where illegally occupied buildings are and to use the police to evict people living there. The decree also stiffens penalties for squatters: up to four years in prison. The decree also gives authorities much more leeway in expelling immigrants.
No wonder then that tensions are running high around Rome’s squats.
Not too far from the occupied art high school, hundreds of other people — mostly immigrants — are living inside a large multistory glass-windowed former office building on Viale del Caravaggio. Fear of a police raid was palpable. In recent days, authorities have said they plan to evict everyone in the squat.
Outside the building, at least two people were posted as sentries. People came and went from a front gate, carefully locking the gate behind them.
“We don’t know where we’ll go,” said Julie, a 26-year-old woman from Burkina Faso who lives in the building and who said her immigration status was uncertain. She declined to give her last name. She said she’s lived in Italy for 16 years.
“If there isn’t an arrangement, we’ll end up on the street,” she said, standing next to her 12-year-old brother, Marco. He was born in Italy and attends an Italian school. But unlike in the United States, a person born in Italy cannot automatically claim Italian citizenship, and both face an uncertain future if evicted.
“When he’s 18 he’ll make a request to become an Italian citizen,” Julie said.
On the streets around the occupied building, locals are of mixed opinions about the push to kick everyone out. Residents and shopkeepers said the immigrants in the building cause no problems, though there are concerns about the building’s safety and some would like to see it reopened as an office building.
Before becoming a squat, the environmental department of the regional government of Lazio was housed in the building.
“I want to help everyone,” said Andrea Vaccarotti, a realtor with a nearby office. “The problem is that here in Italy we’re struggling. We have economic problems.”
He said the wave of immigration is exacerbating Italy’s woes.
“We are in a country where immigration has not been controlled,” he said. “We’ve not been able to handle it well and now the overwhelming amount of immigration is causing us even more problems.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)