SPATIAL COMPRESSION AND SPATIAL DISPERSION: THE HOMEMAKING OF ERITREANS AND ETHIOPIANS AFTER THE AUGUST EVICTION IN ROME
by Aurora Massa (ERC HOMInG – University of Trento)
By looking at homemaking practices, this post revisits the police-forced eviction of a squatted building in central Rome (August 2017). How do people rearrange their domestic and daily activities, as they suddenly find themselves without a dwelling place? This reflection shows how these collective practices enable the “taming” of a disrupting event.
Violent images of Italian police firing water cannons at a group of Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants on August 24, 2017, following their eviction from a building they had occupied in 2013, received considerable media attention. Most of them were beneficiaries of international protection. The images were widely shared on social media by diasporic Eritrean and Ethiopian networks, broadcasted on television and appeared in the newspapers worldwide, causing strong reactions of indignation.
The police operation took place not far from Roma Termini, the main railway station in the city, with the aim of “cleaning” (to recall the sinister expression used by the prefect who authorized the operation) Piazza Indipendenza, the square where, since their eviction on August 19, one patch of grass had become a recovery area for some of those who had been occupying the building in nearby Via Curtatone. The latter is a huge, 8-storey building, occupied since October 2013 by hundreds of people, mainly from Ethiopia and Eritrea. The squatters – who resorted to self-organized and informal practices – were men, women, children and elderly, entire families struggling to find affordable homes in the face of the decades-long Rome’s housing crisis. The prefect’s use of the expression “cleaning” signals how categories of impurity still inform the social representation of marginality in governing contemporary global cities, in this case by associating disenfranchised migrants with dirt, disorder and danger.
As is often the case with evictions, the squatters in via Curtatone were totally unprepared, and so was I: the home-making routines among Eritrean refugees in Rome I had been studying vanished overnight. At dawn on August 19 the police broke into the building from the terrace and the main door, awakened the residents and forcibly brought them to the Questura Centrale (the police headquarters) for identification procedures. Nevertheless, in the late afternoon, most of them gradually came back to Piazza Indipendenza and gathered on a patch of grass just opposite the building which used to be their dwelling.
Several newspaper articles and books have been written about the violence perpetrated by the Italian police, the historical inadequacy of the housing policies in the city of Rome, and the social and economic conditions that make squatting almost inevitable for many native and foreign inhabitants of the capital of Italy. Each of these themes offers promising interpretative frameworks to analyse the experiences of the former squatters of Via Curtatone. Nevertheless, here we can adopt a different perspective and analyse the domestic practices put on stage by Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants in a specific space (Piazza Indipendenza) and time (August 19-24). Indeed, from August 19 to 24, a patch of grass in front of the building became a temporary open-air “home” for hundreds of former squatters. How did a group of people cope with an unexpected eviction and the destabilizing situation of being left without a dwelling place? A set of homemaking processes, performed in a condition of homelessness, emerged through ethnographic observation of their daily lives. Many of such practices emerged in response to basic needs (for example, sleeping and eating). Nevertheless, we can interpret them as ways to reproduce routines that have been disrupted by the eviction, to domesticate an unfamiliar place, and acclimatise to a hostile situation. These practices arranged the patch of grass into distinct room-like spaces, where different activities were carried out and the indistinct flow of time was ordered in accordance with the rhythms of a precarious, improvised domesticity. In other words, the former squatters put into practice a process of collective (re)production of domesticity, through which an unpredictable and critical event has been (temporarily) tamed. Ordinary practices – such as eating, sleeping, praying – were adapted to the peculiar spatial conjuncture of the patch of grass and, thanks to their performative character, contributed to shaping routines, forms of intimacy and complicity.
Within the patch of grass
Household possessions (suitcases, appliances, pans, furniture, sacred images, official documents, which the former squatters could – or wanted to – save and take with them) were placed on the patch of grass. The former squatters settled and carried out everyday activities in this narrow space, such as sleeping, eating, calling relatives abroad, using social media, laughing and crying. They held meetings to figure out collective ways of coping with the emergency, hanged out with former neighbours, organized communal prayers, and received guests. As an external observer, I constantly felt like being in a private and intimate space, as if that small piece of land were the orthogonal projection of the three-dimensional space of the palace.
It is easier to explain this feeling by taking into account how the squatters physically engaged with space. Each small group of 3-4 people continued to occupy the same portion of space every day. Each portion was demarcated by bags and suitcases, and carpeted with cartons and sheets, thus creating – in the indistinct space of the patch of grass – imaginary rooms where I was more than once “invited” to sit.
Throughout the day, the patch of grass changed configuration. At night makeshift beds were prepared – especially by the women – through a rather meticulous procedure: cloths and objects used during the daytime were removed, cardboards, blankets and sheets were laid on the ground. Such preparation symbolically marked a temporal distinction between day and night, and constructed a space where people could enact behaviours, such as being bare foot, characteristic of the intimacy of a bedroom. As a young Eritrean woman told me, during night time the patch of grass was turned into a “patchwork”, made up of several coloured blankets partly overlapping.
Moreover, the patch of grass also changed day by day, following the needs of its inhabitants. For example, on the evening of 23 August, a corner was transformed into a place of worship: standing on white cloths spread out for the occasion, a group organized a collective prayer to celebrate Saint Mary, one of most venerated figures in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, whose icon had been put on display. Such visual landscape, along with the tuneful rhythm of the prayers, created an atmosphere of sacredness that spread through the surrounding space, overlapping and intertwining with what was simultaneously happening in other portions of the patch of grass. That same evening, just beside the prayer group, others were hanging out behind a couple of suitcases, drinking gin and beers, and smoking water pipe. The physical proximity of these two scenes made a strong impression on me. Moreover, none of the two groups moved away to seek privacy somewhere else. They rather reproduced their ordinary actions in a place that, in the time and space of the patch of grass, had become their room. Each group not only behaved as if the other were not in sight, but also seemed not to interfere or be bothered by the others’ presence, as if (invisible) walls were separating them.
The peculiarities of the situation appeared even more striking by observing how the squatters interacted with the surrounding spaces. The sidewalk contiguous to the patch of grass was almost empty and the nearby patches of grass were used in totally different ways: people stood there to chat in isolated groups or to look for some quiet, and only a bunch of people slept there on much less refined pallets.
Needless to say, the setting offered by the patch of grass was incompatible with many daily and domestic activities. Parallel to the spatial compression of the patch of grass, other domestic practices were indeed spatially dispersed. The analysis of this aspect suggests the emergence of processes of mobile homemaking, that is movements of people, objects and practices along urban paths.
Outside the patch of grass
Although the patch of grass was scattered with cookware, tableware and food taken from their previous dwells, meals were never prepared there. Sometimes, through whip-rounds, the occupants bought packaged food from the nearby supermarket, but more often the food was cooked elsewhere. Food preparation took place in the formerly squatted building (where those considered vulnerable by the Municipal Social Services were still allowed to live), or in some of the nearby Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurants. Food was also occasionally provided by friends and relatives who lived in squats located in other neighbourhoods, or by charitable associations.
Household items were also stored in a spatially dispersed way following the same paths of food. Indeed, only some former squatters set their material properties on the patch of grass, while most stored them in nearby Ethiopian and Eritrean cafes and restaurants or at friends’ houses. Quite a few left their possessions behind inside the building, arguing that without a place for using them they were totally useless.
Like food and objects, also the occupants crossed the city to reach toilettes and showers, again following the same paths. Many squatters defined managing physical needs and personal hygiene as the hardest part of coping with such emergency situation. Soon after the eviction, cafes and restaurants in Piazza Indipendenza prevented access to their restrooms, displaying signs like “no toilets”. The issue was also remarkably neglected by charitable associations, which constantly provided drinking water, food and blankets, but ignored problems related to waste, dirt and personal hygiene. Again, people resorted to their own social networks. They used the restrooms of nearby Ethiopian and Eritrean cafes and restaurants, where they could also recharge their smartphones, paying for a cup coffee or tea. In order to shower, instead, they went to friends’ on the outskirts of Rome. Thus, restaurants, public baths, and friends’ homes, as well as the long trajectories across the city taken up to reach them, can be interpreted as attempts to replace broken domestic environments.
Even once the dwelling place is absent, dwelling retains a a strong spatial dimension, as a makeshift container – a three-dimensional receptacle in which some practices and objects are placed, and others (dirtiness, external eyes) are kept out.
Out of sight
The location of this temporary and makeshift settlement allowed people to maintain a strong spatial relationship with their former squat and with an area of Rome – comprising Stazione Termini and Via Montebello – historically, socially and symbolically crucial for migrants from the Horn of Africa. Their position in the city, as well as their efforts to stay together despite the disadvantages of being homeless and living on a patch of grass, also constituted a form of dissent and protest that, expressed in the heart of Rome, has not gone unnoticed. However, on August 24 at dawn, their centrality and public visibility prompted the intervention of the police. After being scattered, they gathered again – this time alongside the loci of that very power (represented by the prefecture and the municipality) which had decided for the eviction, thus motivating them to a more intense politicization. However, the settlement was once more cleared by the police and the former residents of Via Curtatone have returned to their usual invisibility. Reception centres in the outskirts of Rome have been offered by the Municipal Social Services only to older and sick people and to mothers with their children, with the consequent breaking of family groups. Many have been hosted by friends and relatives in Rome and in nearby villages, causing a deterioration of the already precarious living situations, often in occupied buildings. Some have moved abroad, hoping that the images of the violence which occurred in Piazza Indipendenza could convince German or French governments to ignore the Dublin Convention.