Full transcribed interview with CoNaSP trainers Giulio (Palestra Populare Valerio Verbano) and Luigi (Palestra Popolare Palermo)

Palestra Populare Valerio Verbano, Rome.
Palestra Populare Valerio Verbano, Rome.

Interview with two trainers from the National Coordination of Popular Sport (CoNaSP), a network of gyms run collectively by anti-fascists in Italy, the ideas and history behind them and some thoughts for those who might be thinking about starting their own.

Submitted by Ed on March 31, 2018

Giulio: Trainer and organizer from Palestra Popolare Valerio Verbano (Tufello, Rome)

Q: Tell us a bit about the history of the gym.

G: The gym was first squatted in 2005. When we entered into the building it was in a terrible state. We realized straight away that to make the building functional we would need a lot of funds. There was still no agreement amongst people over whether to turn the building into a gym, a theatre or a regular social centre. We weren’t able to reach a consensus and the building was in such disrepair (bits of the ceiling and wall were missing ect..) that the idea fell almost straight away. There were a few months of stalling and in the intermitted period the property owners put the locks back onto the building and repossessed it. However the occupation had started a discussion amongst the locals and other comrades over wanting to create a space of gathering that wasn’t the typical social centre. And the discussion went on long after the occupation.

We decided to set up a series of activities to finance the project (dinners, concerts, debates … these types of things.) – To raise funds to understand if we could set up a starting budget that we could work with to try and do up the building. So in 2007 we reoccupied the space. Many realities no longer existed, we had already set up the Valerio Verbano Association ONLUS (a Not for Profit) that dealt with a lot of the money. We cut off the locks and re entered the building. The works began and lasted about 13 months. (We entered the building September 2007 and the official opening was in October 2008). In the process we took out a bank loan, and one of the comrades even remortgaged his grandmother’s house!!. She lived in the neighborhood, had been a partisan and was heavily involved and wanted to see the gym project working out. Especially because there are many young people in the neighborhood, a lot of drugs and addiction, a lot of crime, and setting up a gym (a healthy space) which would take young people off the streets appealed to many members of the neighborhood. This was essential.

And so we began this adventure, a lot of us already had experience, for example I had already been a coach in another Palestra Popolare for three years. Other coaches either came from the same background or had trained in ‘traditional’ gyms. So more or less we had a good base to start from. From here on we began this journey, primarily focused on combat sports but mainly because the majority of us came from those disciplines. The first year at the gym was almost too good. We had an overwhelming response from the people of the neighborhood, other people heard about the gym and came from outside. This galvanized us, we were young and believed that we had already done large part of the work, so we relaxed a little bit. And the second year we risked a complete flop. We realized that we wanted to carry forward the idea of popular sport in a serious manner (working to compete at the regional and national level, bringing young people to compete.) So we decided we needed a person who would dedicate themselves full time to the managing of the gym. We began a process of accounting to evaluate our finances to understand clearly whether we could finance this. The person wouldn’t receive a full paycheck but some money, because if you are here every day morning till night you are not going to be able to go out and earn even 200 euros. So yes, we set this up and from there on we had an exponential growth. This October we will be celebrating 10 years and we have become one of the focal points not just in Italy but other parts of Europe too.

Q: Why have you been so successful, do you think?

G: I think we have been so successful because we have managed to unhinge that mechanism by which the Palestra Popolare is identified as that place where militants train. For us it is not like that, we have always reasoned that popular sport needs to be just that (popular.) Today Sport has been completely taken away from working class people, there is juts not the same access as there used to be. You used to be able to access the ‘Dopo Lavoro Ferroviario’ (after work social and cultural associations) where people could pay very little and train. Today sport has become a commodity in the worst manner possible, I call gyms (in a joking way) the shopping malls of sport. You need a bank account, you need an IBAN, you spend 100 euros a month… which a working class person just cannot afford. So our logic was that with the term ‘popolare’ we have give back to the people that which has been taken from them. And in this case we utilized sport.

Now, how do I give it back to you? I have to give it back in a manner which allows a person to train in the best way possible at a working class price. Here we charge 30 euros a month and provide qualified instructors, personal trainers, doctors, physiotherapists and nutritionists. You have a team of people that follow you and take you to compete both at the regional and national level (for those who want) and at an amateur level for those who want. We have a series of courses at both a competitive and amateur level.

Q: You are part of a network, tell us about it.

G: Yes! Rete CoNaSP: Coordinamento Nazionale Dello Sport Popolare (translates as: National Coordination of Popular Sport.) It was born in 2014 from a series of national realities. Unfortunately often when you set up these projects between those who want to lead, those who want to push the their own political line… we didn’t manage to include all the gyms. We realized that unfortunately many popular gyms only do a political logic and this cannot work for us. I cannot think to ask someone who walks through the door whether they are a comrade, whether they have a membership to a group. It is clear that a right wing militant would never enter a palestra popolare. But yes, this created a split because some say that a popular gym needs to be for antifascist militants. A palestra popolare in itself has antifascist values, I don’t need to write that we are an antifascist gym, we are called Palestra Popolare Valerio Verbano (named after a 19 year old antifascist who was killed in his house by fascists.) So the nature of the gym is clear. Anyways, this debate reduced the number of gyms that adhere to CoNaSP. Many of these other gyms are not at a high level where they can integrate properly into the network anyways but for us it was a shame because this could have been a real opportunity. At the end of the day none of us wanted to syndicate over the how or the why.

We have 9 gyms in Italy and we created this network to make sure that we could ensure a growth both in organization and in training. And since forming the network we have seen an exponential growth for both trainers and athletes. Fundamentally CoNaSP is a network which allows trainers, athletes and participants in general to continually share skills through stages, seminars and meetings. But sport takes the centre of the discussion and is the central knot of the discussion. It is clear that the political discourse is linked (because we all come from these realities) but it is more like a politics in the context of sport. E.g. how do we fight the mafia mechanisms of federations, how do we overcome sexism and racism in the sphere of sport etc.

Q: How is it that inequalities are addressed?

G: Combat sports have always had the taboo e.g. ‘She’s a woman and a boxer??’ I think that the best answer is given by the woman herself. I have trained so many women that would completely destroy a man. This is because those who practice a combat sport are those who believe in that discipline. Obviously at the official level, if the matchmaker instead of looking at the performance of a fighter is looking at her ass I intervene and call the person responsible. Denouncing these things publicly helps to break this systemic behavior. In the gym this issue does not arise.

Q: What is the relationship between antifascism and the gym?

G: The relationship is implicit in the name of the gym. We dedicated this gym to Valerio Verbano, a comrade of the Autonomia Operaia. He picked a particular path. He decided to investigate (through photographic and written dossiers) the relationship between the state, right wing extremist groups and mafia organizations, and publish these with names and information. He chose this type of action which cost him his life when he was shot in the back in his home in front of his parents by two fascists. So dedicating this gym to his memory is emblematic of or antifascism.

In the gym my way of practicing antifascism is to make sure that children and young people grow up with values of equality and anti-racism; making them grow up with the consciousness of our histories, without indoctrinating them. I don’t come to you and tell you ‘you have to be x and y’, I make you come to your own conclusions. My antifascism is producing culture and at a historical time when statistics tell us that 47% of Italians are functionally illiterate. So putting young people in a position to understand a series of things is really important.

Of course outside of the gym my antifascism takes another shape.

Q: Casa Pound has developed its own Muay Thai gyms, can you tell us about them?

G: Yes: Il Circuito – Circolo Combattenti Casa Pound. Fundamentally it is our parallel. It is a circuit which is parallel to the Palestre Popolari. Unfortunately all these pretty words that they have used, probably stealing them from our own lexicon have obviously proven to just be pissing into the wind. Every single time where there have been assaults in Italy where people from Casa Pound were involved all of them have been linked to the Circuito. The most recent instance (just to cite one) is when the comrades from the Squadra di Calcio Ardita (San Paolo) were assaulted. 9 People were arrested, all nine were members of the Circuito Casa Pound in Viterbo.

The (Il Circuito Circolo Combattenti Casa Pound) have their own network, they compete in tournaments at a national level. But they are not well seen, it often happens that they are asked to leave. It happened recently in a circuit organized by a organization for the promotion of sport. They were asked to leave after they performed the Roman salute following a match. The referee asked them to leave and called them crazy. At an institutional level they are not well seen.

In fact they often operate in closed circuits where they basically just fight against each other and just beat the shit out of each other and that’s the end of the story. This is a system which we don’t like to adopt. Yes if we have a tournament where different palestre popolari come together for a day and compete and share skills, ok. But in relation to antifascism, when I do a competition I find myself fighting against a fascist, and it is there that I need to prove my worth. Because I can guarantee that if I enter the ring with the Palestra Popolare Valerio Verbano Shirt (or any other palestra popolare gym) and you find yourself in front of a right wing militant his instinct is to beat the shit out of you. So either you beat him or you’re fucked.

Luigi: Trainer and organizer from Palestra Popolare Palermo (Sicily)

Q: Tell us about Palestra Popolare Palermo

L: Palestra Popolare Palermo was born as an ‘Associazion Sportiva’ in 2013. And it is an association which operates in official circuits above all in three disciplines: Boxing, Muay Thai and Powerlifting. It is the culmination of a journey that started in 2003. It began in a social centre (Centro Sociale ExKarcere) The gym still operates in an occupied space. And it was born from a need by the collective that organized the space to be able to practice sport outside the logic of the market. Inside a space free of racial, gender and class based discrimination.

This project is attractive to all different components of the city. So basically, not only for comrades, not only for those who are politicized, especially in the proletarian sections of the city. We pose ourselves the problem of how to integrate different groups of people without being a reality that offers less than other realities. People began to train in the gym, but soon they wanted to do a qualitative jump towards the competitive level and we were unable to provide this (even at the organizational level, we had been left out from the official circuits of sport.)

So the important issue was this: to not forgo any aspects of our project (being antifascist, antiracist, antisexist, anticapitalist) whilst still being able to integrate within the official circuits of sport. Even because it is in these spaces (outside of the social centre) that people who are not politicized practice sport. So we set up this ASD: Associazione Sportiva Dilettantistica (amateur sport association.) Within the statute of the ASD we clearly state our politics and what sport means to us (the popular vision of sport.) So yes, we began this journey and achieved great results right from the start. Initially exclusively in boxing, but subsequently in other disciplines eg. Muay Thai and Powerlifing. We have several semi professional boxers, whilst in May 2018 our boxer Gainluca Bentivegna will be competing for the National Belt for the super-lightweights category. Our Verdiana Mineo has also just qualified first place in the regional Powerlifting championship for her weight and overall. This is kind of our dynamic.

So we are an ASD and as a project we adhere to CoNaSP, which I am sure Giulio has told you about. In CoNaSP we try to carry forward a parallelism between involving people into our political project whilst providing a quality of sport that is excellent and no lesser than what you could find in another gym.

We think that to do sport in a popular manner should be an added value, not something that substitutes the quality of the sport that is taught and practiced.

Q: Do you have any advice for emerging red gyms?

L: The important thing for all spaces that have the objective of conveying a political message is to not close off from the rest of the community, to not exclude. To convey these messages (and not just simply preach to the converted) these spaces need to be open to the city. And if the city cannot reach these spaces, it is these spaces that need to go where people are.

For example, this is why in Palermo we have recently began a project where we go to a college and set up boxing classes in the school gym. Because it is not the identity of the space that characterizes the message, but it is the message that characterizes the identity of the space. The lessons we teach have a political edge that is characterized by us who put on the course.

Often there is a risk (and in Italy some gyms are going in this direction) of creating a space only for ‘elites’, only for those who are already militants. But if you are already a militant you are already pointed in the right direction, it seems a bit useless. If you are a militant it becomes an issue of training and formation, which can have its place but is a bit unnecessary to publicize. In fact, it is best not to publicized it at all.

The important thing is to distinguish the two things, for us everything that is political is open not closed.

Q: What is the antifascist atmosphere in Palermo like at the moment?

L: … squaddism only works if you bring 1000s of people to the street like we did in Palermo. You need both squaddism and community organizing, if one excludes the other it is partial.

Force without mass movement does not allow others to get involved. Antifascism then starts to seem like something that is only carried out by militants, and therefore excludes a lot of people that cannot relate or do not know how to get involved. So squaddism must be followed or accompanied by big popular based movements that all can join into. E.g. the demo with the duck tape. Therefore building popular cohesion and antifascist involvement.

For more information about Palestra Popolare Vlerio Verbano please visit (and give a like to): https://www.facebook.com/ppvv2008/
For Pelastra Popolare Palermo: https://www.facebook.com/palestrapopolarepa/

Reposted from the Brighton Anti-Fascists website.