This blog post was made possible thanks to Janko Belin’s (President – društvo AREAL) inputs and corrections. Please, consider following društvo AREAL’s Facebook account for updates on their important and liberatory harm reduction work.
First came the Police, then the bulldozers. The ruins of the Autonomous Factory ROG speak volumes of the progressively increasing ease with which Slovenian authorities are deploying violence to curtail rights and freedoms.
Amidst the ruins lies the office space of društvo AREAL, the only community-led harm reduction initiative in Slovenia. Its President, Janko Belin, shares the news with a sense of urgency and determination: ‘It’s not just us being attacked, but a collective. We will defend our civil society in full capacity!’
As Janko says, the Autonomous Factory ROG was a 15-year cooperative effort at the service of the neighbourhood, the community, and otherised people pushed to the margins by intersecting forms of oppression
The rise of ROG…
Originally a bicycle factory at the city centre of Ljubljana, the building was abandoned and remained in a state of dereliction for over a decade.
In 2006, neighbours, activists and artists reclaimed the space to serve as a multifunctional, self-run space for political organising, cultural manifestations, sports and the provision of services to groups facing marginalisation.
Five years ago, the Municipality of Ljubljana decided that the space should be demolished to build a new facility. The original plans, which included a design hotel, appear to have given way to a hub for ‘creators, citizens, organisations and companies’. Crucially, these plans exclude ROG’s current users. In fact, as part of these gentrification plans, the Municipality sought to evict the very collectives that had nurtured the space back into functionality.
In September 2019, a decision by Slovenia’s Supreme Court brought a sliver of hope to ROG. While acknowledging the Municipality’s ownership of the space, the Court rejected the eviction claim. According to the decision, ROG was akin to a ‘public good’, open to the people of the city. As such, its users were not an evictable legal entity, but rather an ever-evolving social formation.
Throughout the proceedings, the organisations and collectives that are part of ROG’s vibrant life have called on local authorities to open spaces for meaningful participation, dialogue and consensus-building; to no avail.
Instead, they got bulldozers.
…and its downfall
On 19 January 2021, the Slovenian Police, acting at the behest of the Municipality of Ljubljana, arrived at ROG’s site to evict its occupants and destroy it. In Janko’s own words, there was ‘no warrant, no eviction papers, nothing official – just brute force’.
Some occupants and supporters had gotten wind that authorities were planning to target self-managed cultural and civic spaces in the city. Some of them rushed to both ROG and the Metelkova Art Center.
The small crowd that tried to protect the site was met with violence. According to some of the people present, the Police pushed and shoved, arrested and tear-gassed demonstrators. Within hours, the building lied encircled. Bulldozers quickly stepped in to summarily destroy the building.
15 years of popular mobilisation, creativity and solidarity crushed to ruins.
An attack on harm reduction
Janko has experienced something similar before. From 2004 to 2008, društvo AREAL ran the Balkans’ first homeless shelter and overdose prevention site (ERNEST) for people who use drugs. After years of service, the site was destroyed by the police and Janko was sent to prison. He was later absolved and provided financial compensation but, as he puts it: ‘Money didn’t bring our shelter back!’.
For the last two decades, društvo AREAL has been steadfast in supporting the health and welfare of people who use drugs, including as part of the Support. Don’t Punish campaign. The organisation provides a valuable lifeline to people who use drugs in situations of great vulnerability, including migrants in need.
The organisation’s DBM Project, for instance, works mostly with migrants and refugees. The Project has pioneered the documentation of this population’s drug use-related needs, as well as their experience in navigating obstacles in accessing health services in Slovenia.
Following ROG’s demolition, društvo AREAL requested that public authorities recover and restitute the [securely-locked] confidential documentation from the DBM Project.
Other materials may be impossible to retrieve. Valuable and scarce harm reduction material seems to have been lost. This includes campaigning materials, sterile injecting equipment, food donations and samples naloxone, a life-saving medication that reverses opioid overdose.
The European Union’s drug agency and its 2021-2025 Drugs Strategy underscore the crucial importance of empowering people who use drugs to protect each other, the provision of naloxone and the accessibility of services.
Drug-related deaths in Slovenia have been growing steadily since 2014. According to the latest European Drug Report 2020, the country’s ‘drug-induced’ death rate is 41 per million, significantly above the EU’s average: 23.7 per million.
In this light, the destruction of ROG and društvo AREAL’s headquarters and materials, during one of the worst health crises that the world has seen in years, can be clearly understood as an intolerable aggression on harm reduction itself.
Civic space under threat
That said, besides the material losses and psychological impact of this police operation, the demolition puts into sharp relief the deteriorating conditions for community and civic mobilisation in Slovenia.
The government of Prime Minister Janez Janša, brought into power on a platform of xenophobia, islamophobia and nationalism, has increasingly undermined rights and freedoms. His virulent rhetoric, peppered by conspiracy theories and attacks on the press, the judiciary, academics and “communists” places him comfortably next to the right-wing authoritarians mushrooming across Europe, the Americas and beyond.
On Friday 22 January a demonstration in solidarity with ROG was interrupted and a number of participants arrested. The Police argued that the procession violated the COVID-19-related curfew.
The destruction of ROG is a disaster for the countless people that found support and a sense of community at the site.
It should also be a warning sign about the destructive impact of the unholy alliance between neoliberal and authoritarian forces, and their convergent agendas of gentrification and exclusion.
For human rights bodies, European agencies and organisations invested in human rights and harm reduction, it is a call to action.
The destruction of ROG cannot be in vain.