Category Archives: ACORN International

Searching for Political Space in Prague and Elsewhere

ACORN CzechPrague New countries, new languages, and new people seem constantly in front of me on this trip, but what is surprising whether here in Prague, Rome, Palermo, Cairo, or back home in the United States is how very, very similar the questions are everywhere in the world for progressives trying to create real change and alternatives.  In Prague the Michal Ulver, the organizing spark behind the formation of ACORN Czech several months ago had assembled a group of diverse activists to meet me and introduce me to the spectrum of political activism.  There were strategists and intellectuals, students and anarcho-syndicalists, green party people of various movements, trade union activists, alternative media people, cooperative boosters, social democrats, ex-communists, and others.

Like progressives everywhere, they were both discouraged and hopeful.  All of them are excited about the Occupy activity in the United States and what it might mean.  I also believe they are largely excited because they are hoping this could be a spark that catches fire and reunites progressives here and everywhere.  The weakness of labor unions around the world has been a body blow and produced real cynicism because everywhere the organizing model seems mired in the past and people are having trouble finding the heartbeat for the future.  One man told a story of being abandoned by his union on his job.  What could I answer?  Many of these activists told stories of being pushed out of jobs in retail, in government, in factories, and now fighting through social systems and unemployment.  Furthermore, the installation of a right-center party in the Czech Republic has unsettled many with concerns about how protected public space and political action for progressives might be today and in the future.

There was a lot of interest in cooperatives and whether or not these institutions could provide real alternatives.  In fact “alternatives” are very much part of the dialogue here about all forms of civic involvement because various formations create alternative platforms for proposals for action and change.  It was hard for me to tell what was really happening in these meetings, but they are closely followed.

The interest in ACORN International and our patient, persistent form of base building had appeal, though there was extensive discussion on whether ACORN’s membership here would have to be “secret.”  That was shocking and unsettling, and I am still searching to understand the situation more  thoroughly.

How different are these circumstances anywhere?  Occupy with its resistance to “leaders” is a reaction to how people are pulled into the “flesh eating machine” as Marcuse famously called in a million years ago.  Reading about the ability of the US government to get access to emails without notice or court order, makes me think perhaps the reactions in Prague may not be as paranoid as I might first think either.

I’m not sure if I’m teaching more on the road or as always simply learning more and more every day about the difficult and challenges of the work?


Visiting the Metropoliz Squatters in Rome

IMG_1363Rome A great adventure and advantage of my work is getting to see parts of a city that even long time residents cannot imagine.  I may not see all of the sites in the tourist guide books, but I see amazing things where people live and work behind the walls of most visitors.


On arriving in Rome Saturday afternoon, Senator Lucio D’Ubaldo gave me a ride into the city since he was landing at roughly the same time.  He insisted before visiting over lunch that I see some of the massive fascist architectural projects around the EUR district that had been largely abandoned with the advent of WWII, but were still deeply planted as governmental facilities in this very upscale Roman neighborhood.  Being largely ignorant of these Mussolini-era projects, it was both fascinating, education, and almost frightening in its symbolic scale and ideological power.


David Tozzo of ACORN Italy and I had a different reaction on Sunday IMG_1425afternoon as we spent several hours touring “Metropoliz,” a “squat” and cultural project in a massive, former pig slaughterhouse in the eastern part of Rome.  We had been introduced to this project through connections made with some of the volunteers helping ACORN International who were part of the graduate design and architectural projects at University of the City of London, and had promised to check it out during my visit.


About 100 people, who had been evicted or were homeless, were living permanently in Metropoliz.  Immediately I could recognize Peruvians from my many visits to ACORN Peru, and seeing one section painted Peru Piazza only confirmed what I already knew.  Other permanent squatters had come from Senegal and other countries as they were evicted from place to place.  In a adjoining building were another 100 Roma who were not part of Metropoliz, but in the same soup.  Over the two years of this experience various artists, designers, and others had joined forces with the squatters in a way that was not clear to me, but had evolved into a documentary film called Space Metropoliz. There was a large, homemade telescope at the top of the plant tower.  A friend explained that three “balls” from the plant were imagined as the base and that they were working with the squatters on a pIMG_1377roject of “imagination” to build a rocket to the moon on top of that construct.  I had some trouble following all of this, but perhaps that was the point, since the designers and cultural workers were trying an experiment to see if diverse people at Metropoliz could come together on an “act of imagination.”  The film would document that effort.


Asking what would happen after the film was finished, I was told that that was a good question, which didn’t comfort me much.  It seems that the future is also “part of the experiment” to see what the squatters will make of it all later when the film is over.  I suppose that once again the rocket may hit earth with a loud and resounding thud.


Who knows?  The space was mammoth, and in Italy access to water and lights are allowed for humanitarian reasons by the public utilities (amen to that!), so people were fashioning reasonable living quarters in some of the areas.  Others were jumbles of graffiti and mayhem.  The former “classroom” was little more than rubble with books thrown on the floor.  The most finished area was where the “rockets” were being painted by professional artists and some of the children.


As we were walked around on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon with a breeze in the air and the first hint of fall everywhere, we could tell by the steady stream of people who seemed to be going and coming that Metropoliz was something of a happening.  The permanent squatters were sanguine about all of that and largely ignored the outsiders and their trooping around cameras in hand.  This was not industrial tourism but a sort of “developmental tourism” almost similar to what we had seen in the recycling area of Cairo.


TherIMG_1402e seemed to be potential everywhere, but problems almost as large.  According to our friends from UCL, this is one of a number of similar squats around Rome.  It’s an interesting phenomena and worth a look.  I’m skeptical about how all of this plays out, but was filled with good wishes and hope for all involved.  Why not?  Something good can happen here that wasn’t possible before hand.