As the promoters of the municipal referendum on public schools were celebrating their victory, violent clashes took place between students and police in Bologna on May 27, 2013. After several rounds of confrontations, students fought back and outnumbered the police, who eventually left the square.
The confrontation took place in Piazza Verdi, the iconic square at the very heart of the University district. Piazza Verdi is a highly symbolic location in the history of political movements. Over the past few years, the square has been at the center of heated debates, with local residents gearing up against those social forces perceived as a disturbance. These include the endemic problem of illegal drug traffic with its trail of petty crime and vandalism, but also the many non-resident students who hang in the area for its vibrant nightlife, political activists who do their organizing work in it, young people in general, and many immigrant shopkeepers who profit from the presence of thousands of students.
In this respect, Piazza Verdi represents a major fault-line in the history of the city, a place where the social conflicts and divergent interests that shape the area become most evident. In a city whose economy thrives and profits on the university (the student population is currently around 70,000), most of these conflicts revolve around generational rifts, incompatible lifestyles, and the old question of who “owns” this city, local residents or students. Over the years, several repressive measures and ad hoc regulations have targeted Piazza Verdi and the surrounding area, including bans forbidding the consumption and/or the sale of alcohol, public gatherings, or even amplified music.
Yesterday’s episode is the consequence of a previous act of repression. Last week, on May 23, police intervened to clear a public assembly organized by the student collective CUA in the popular square, a debate on anti-austerity struggles, featuring a delegation of striking workers from the Sodexo cleaning firm in Pisa. The assembly was supposed to start at 7 pm, and at that time the organizers were setting up the sound system in the square. But those speakers, boomed the president of the neighbourhood Milena Naldi (member of SEL, the left-wing party led by Nichi Vendola) had not been authorized. And so the police intervened. The scene was, to say the least, surreal: in anti-riot gear, with shields and batons out, the police cleared the square, attacking a small group of people who had thrown together a defence with some shields and helmets. To the question of whether such violence was appropriate for such a trivial matter, the president of the neighbourhood responded yes. The result is one young man in the emergency room, hit by a bottle thrown during the scuffles. Two hours and a police charge later, the assembly did finally take place. Workers from Sodexo, although horrified by the repression, said that they were energized by the students’ resistance. The following day, Mayor Virginio Merola (PD) backed the repression. He dismissed the claims of “oppression” as ridiculous, and he announced zero tolerance for future infractions.
As a response, the student collective CUA had called for a public assembly on May 27, at 6 pm, in order to “reclaim the square.” The main focus of the initiative was denouncing the lack of spaces for participation. Once again, the activists were welcomed by anti-riot police. The initial tense confrontation escalated quickly, with police charging the protesters five times, people who were unarmed and had, for the most part, uncovered faces. After several rounds, however, the protesters charged back, forcing the police to retreat. While the mass of students pushed police away, some protesters also threw bottles at the officers. In the following hours, about 200 people took part in the assembly.
A spokesperson for the collective involved rejoiced, speaking of a victory for the movement. Five people (one reporter and four police officers) were reportedly injured in the scuffle. Later in the night, demonstrators also announced that three protesters had sought medical help after the confrontation. The students announced more initiatives over the next few days in order to reclaim the street.
These episodes are indicative of growing repression. Any form of dissent or political disturbance is being criminalized and marginalized, as happened with the eviction a month ago. The public administration is reacting nervously to challenges, while the city is in a potentially explosive situation. Around 74,000 people are listed in the province of Bologna employment centre, 10,000 more than last year. The figure, very high in itself, is lower than the real number of unemployed workers. A total of 632 business closed during the first three months of 2013, three times the figure of the same period in 2012.