In more than fifteen years of rock-and-roll touring, my worst night of sleep followed a June 10, 1989, show at Centro Sociale Leoncavallo, an anticapitalist squat in Milan. On that impossibly long tour, ending just months before the Berlin wall fell, my band Soul Side played at social centers lodged in squatted buildings in Italy, Holland, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Germany. Several of these places were hygienically challenged, with mangy dogs scurrying about, leaking sewage pipes and nowhere to bathe. None, however, rivaled the squat in Milan where we were taken after our concert at Leoncavallo to “sleep” in a bat-infested room, on mattresses that had seemingly been marinated in bodily fluids.
Since the mid-1970s, groups of anarchists, communists, punks and artists across Europe have availed themselves of liberal housing policies to seize and inhabit abandoned buildings–former factories, churches, schools, etc.–and turn them into nonprofit, anticapitalist social centers. These “autonomous zones” have succeeded to varying degrees in existing outside of government regulation. They are essentially illegal, and plenty are mercilessly crushed by the police (like the vast majority of American attempts at squatting). But many European squats have been tolerated, and have somehow managed to keep their fortified doors open. Milan’s Leoncavallo (www.leoncavallo.org) is Italy’s oldest and most well-known social center, established in 1975 in a crumbling building by a band of squatters with a manifesto. After several evictions, one of which spurred national solidarity demonstrations in 1994, today’s Leoncavallo resides in an assortment of buildings behind huge walls that can be quickly barricaded in the event of another police raid. Social centers like Leoncavallo host a wide range of cultural and political activities: theaters, bookstores, art galleries, guaranteed shelter for homeless immigrants, meeting spaces for antiglobalization (“no global”) organizing, Internet cafes, soup kitchens, yoga classes and live music of varied genres.
In recent years European squatters have clashed with increasingly aggressive police forces. As a result, many social centers have disappeared, while a few have been given official recognition and support from local governments. But even under the reign of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi–who is hostile to anything and anyone falling under the “no global” umbrella–Italy has nearly 150 active social centers, most of them stationed in squatted buildings.
A few months ago my current band, Girls Against Boys, discovered that Leoncavallo is still considered a menace to Italian society. Following concerts in Prague and Zagreb, our tour was turning back west and we were all looking forward to entering Italy, home of the world’s best roadside food services. Disappearing European borders and the advent of a single currency, the Euro, have made life easier for touring musicians, but bands in vans will always have hard times at borders. As we crossed out of Slovenia on October 31, Italian border guards examined our tour itinerary, which listed concerts that night in the Centro Sociale Rivolta outside Venice and two days later at Leoncavallo. “Do you know that these places are against the government?” we were asked. We responded with placid, innocent smiles, but our van was emptied and searched meticulously with electronic devices, X-rays and dogs. After two hours–broken up by twenty-five-minute cigarette breaks for the arrogant gatekeepers–they finally conceded defeat and let us re-pack our van and get on our way.
As we soon found, both social centers were indeed in protest mode, organizing travel groups to the European Social Forum (ESF) on November 6-9 in Florence, a summit of more than 400 antiglobalization groups, political parties and NGOs from all over Europe, focused largely on preventing a US attack on Iraq. Two hours after crossing the border, we pulled our van into the Rivolta complex and loaded our equipment onto the stage around barking dogs and large palettes stacked with videocassettes documenting recent “no global” demonstrations. During the concert, one large room was dedicated exclusively to screening protest footage. (Granted, the only people hanging out there looked like they had partaken too liberally in the hash that flows freely in most social centers.) During the weeks leading up to the ESF summit, dozens of activists from outside Italy had been denied entry into the country. So in a symbolic call for open borders, several days after our concert members of Disobbediente, an activist group formed in the aftermath of the G-8 protests in Genoa in 2001, traveled from Rivolta to an immigration control station in Gorizia, a town at the Slovenian crossing, to cut fences.
On November 2 we saw similar mobilization at Leoncavallo. After our soundcheck that day, several of us headed over to the squat’s new Internet center to check our e-mail. We logged in amid members of Disobbediente preparing for the antiwar march on November 9, which would conclude the ESF events in Florence. (Neither Leoncavallo nor Rivolta is affiliated with the anarchist Black Bloc, often blamed for violence and property destruction at demonstrations.) The march ended up drawing more than 400,000 (estimates range up to 1 million), significantly more than the 300,000 protesters in Genoa. And unlike those G-8 demonstrations, this march was completely peaceful–if a bit noisy, since some groups brought their own sound systems mounted on the backs of trucks.
There is no American equivalent to Europe’s squats and social centers. With low door prices and a variety of offerings supplementing the live music–political tabling, vendors, cheap food–our concerts in European social centers are always well-attended, and unlike in the United States, the age range of the audience is invariably broad. Few US squatter communities have been able to withstand brutal police crackdowns. What’s more, American squatters do not enjoy the tolerant housing policies of their European counterparts, let alone much sympathy from the public, thanks to the American reverence for private property.
Social centers offer a rare glimpse of an underground community that has successfully integrated its music with its politics. The income generated from events, musical or otherwise, is funneled into legal defense for incarcerated comrades, building maintenance or other community endeavors. While the political activism of most American bands consists of an occasional benefit concert, the unique venue provided by European social centers allows musicians to be part of an actual, thriving subculture that truly deserves the label “alternative.”