Earlier this month, two stories featured prominently in social media feeds for a news cycle or two. Comparing them makes for an interesting experiment, not only in news analysis, but also in cultural criticism.
One story told of a Robin Hood figure, who used his position and his practical know-how to push back against the unfeeling and unresponsive corporate interests and public authorities. The other was of a canny operator who seized on an opportunity to make a show of sticking it to the man and earning a big PR win for his boss, costs to the rule of law and good order in society be damned.
Here’s the thing, though: captivating as they are, both stories present themselves as accounts of a single set of facts. They are, to wit: the Papal Almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, paid a visit to a squatters’ residence in Rome, which is home to some 450 people, roughly 100 of whom are minors under the age of 18. When Krajewski found them without power, he said he would look into the matter, and promised to restore current personally, if the electric company hadn’t restored power by 8pm that very evening.
When 8pm came and went, Krajewski – who had some training as an electrician – cut the seals on the building’s main meters and thus restored the flow of electric current. Krajewski left a calling card for the power company workers who inevitably came to investigate, explaining that he took full responsibility for the action.
That, at any rate, is a rough and ready rehearsal of the barest bones on which the stories as told and debated in the worldwide press were based. There’s more to it, of course. There always is.
The occupied building in Via di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme belongs to the Istituto Nazionale Previdenza Sociale (INPS), roughly Italy’s social security or national pension fund. It used to be an office of the Istituto Nazionale di Previdenza per i Dipendenti dell’Amministrazione Pubblica (INPDAP), though the facility had been abandoned some time before the INPS absorbed the INPDAP, starting in 2012.
A group called “Action” led the occupation of the former INPDAP/INPS building in 2013. The squatters created an ersatz association called Spin Time Labs in the space, describing their outfit as “a common good, a ‘construction site’ of urban regeneration, a new dimension of living and a multi-purpose cultural centre”, one that boasts “a concert and event hall and an auditorium for orchestras, conferences and assemblies”.
Spin Time Labs, to hear them tell it, “organise courses, shows and theatre workshops, initiatives for children and social assistance activities”. Spin Time also claim to operate an osteria (a Roman tavern), as well as a craft brewery, a carpentry shop, and other activities. They describe the facility as “open to all, [and] attentive to the young, the least and the neediest”, though there has been controversy: the Italian press has alleged that the commercial activities are largely unlicensed, and that there is unsafe conduct. As Il Messaggero reported: “Among the products sold are those derived from hemp, more or less legal. ‘Saturday night is hell,’ says the doorman of a neighboring hotel, ‘with trash everywhere and drug-dealing.’”
The 450 people who call the ex-INPS/INPDAP building home allegedly do not live there rent-free, either, but pay for the privilege. The power was out – and had been for almost a week, when Cardinal Krajewski showed up – because denizens had run up a €300,000 (£265,009, $336,000) electricity bill since seizing control in 2013.
“We are prepared to pay the utility bills,” a statement from Spin Time in the wake of the episode said, “as soon as the authorities should decide to send them to us in our name.” Spin Time, to its critics, is looking to parley this contretemps into official legal recognition of their squat.
Cardinal Krajewski says his only concern was to alleviate an immediate and pressing danger to the health and safety of suffering people. “It was a desperate gesture,” the Papal Almoner told Italy’s ANSA news service. “There were 400 people without power – [people] with families – without even the ability to run their refrigerators.” He reached out to the power company and the city authorities before following through on his promise to cut the seals and restore power to the building.
Whatever one thinks of Cardinal Krajewski’s actions on the evening of May 11, they were the actions of a fellow who saw people suffering and in danger, and helped to alleviate both immediately. He took responsibility for his actions, and never pretended for a second his action was the end of the affair or anything more than “a desperate gesture”.
Some of Krajewski’s critics accuse him of deliberately undermining rule of law and rights to property. His behaviour and characterisation of his actions after the fact both bespeak unwillingness to be turned into the poster boy for antinomian revolutionaries and fashionable radicals.
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