Tourists at Rome's Trevi fountain, where paddling or picnicking (but not selfie stick use) now incurs a fine Max Rossi/Reuters

Kebabs and selfie sticks are just the tip of the iceberg in the national struggle to wrest control of historic city centers.

On first glance, it’s easy to nod in agreement with Italy’s wave of bans on tourist-related misbehavior. The latest city to join this movement is Milan, which at the end of July has brought in a (potentially extendable) summer ban on bottles, cans, firecrackers, food trucks, and selfie sticks in its central Darsena neighborhood, a bar-filled canal district that functions as Milan’s main after-dark living room. This comes not that long after Florence’s mayor threatened to enforce a ban on al fresco picnicking in the city’s Cathedral Square by hosing down offenders.

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The Milanese tourist crackdown also comes fast on the heels of Rome’s introduction of fines to anyone eating near or dipping their toes in the Eternal City’s many fountains, then a measure banning nocturnal al fresco drinking in every area of town (with the exception of the suburb in which Mayor Virginia Raggi herself lives). Add these to bans on vending non-local food in Florence, Venice, and Verona and a semi-comic picture develops of an official boot, stamping on a kebab carton forever.

These are bans designed in part to deal with tourist overload, so they are often greeted with general nods of sympathetic approval: Even tourists hate tourists. But the regulations of selfie-sticks, fast food, and other irritants are in fact part of a larger nationwide struggle over the future of Italy’s urban centers—not just clamping down on trash and petty crime but also attempting to control who does and doesn’t have rights of access to key parts of the city.

A national exclusion law, called the Daspo Urbano, was officially brought into action this April; it allows police to fine and restrict the movement of people they deem a threat to public order. The law's scope goes far beyond controlling visitors, as it can hinder access to city centers to anyone officialdom deems undesirable.

The law’s origins lie in measures introduced in the 1980s to counter soccer hooliganism—Daspo is an acronym for Divieto di Accedere alle manifestazioni Sportive or “Sports Event Access Ban.” The regulation permits authorities to arrest people in zones officially designated by local mayors (typically city centers) who they deem to be engaged in “indecorous behavior.” Police can impose a fine of up to €900 (though usually less) and ban people from the prescribed area for 48 hours. If people barred in this short-term fashion continue to cause problems, their ban can be extended for six months or even a year.

But why is this crackdown happening now? There’s no question that many of Italy’s city centers are in a poor state. Rome in particular has become a byword for urban squalor, and barely a week goes by without another tale of Rome’s Degrado (decay/deterioration). Problems include inefficient (and possibly corrupt) trash collection that leaves central streets looking shabby, potholed roads, major buildings left vacant, and historic areas overrun with pushy street vendors—not uncommonly dressed up as ancient Romans. Public buses can be rickety, while the administration itself continues to be riddled with inefficiency and patronage.

Rome’s fall may have the highest profile, but it’s far from alone in suffering poor conditions. Like much of Southern Europe, Italy was hit very hard by the 2008 financial crisis and is still slowly recovering, leaving public services underfunded and overburdened. It has also encouraged younger people with less money (and thanks to high unemployment rates, more time on their hands) to do their warm weather socializing and drinking in the street rather than in bars.

Some recent urban incidents have exacerbated Italian fears about congested disorderly city centers—in June, for example, a firecracker sparked a stampede among soccer fans watching Juventus play live in a central Turin piazza, causing one death and 1,500 injuries.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of a law that promises to make city centers look tidier for people who dislike or feel unsafe thanks to the presence of hawkers, drug dealers, or sex workers. But civil liberties advocates see it as oppressive and arbitrary: The law’s penalties are inherently abusive, it has been argued, because it permits them to be implemented on suspicion, without the police needing to investigate or prove that a crime has been committed.

Roberto Saviano, author of the Mafia exposé Gomorrah, wrote an especially scathing critique of the law for La Repubblica. As he points out, the actual crimes that could be covered by the law already have punishments and sanctions attached to them, making the Daspo Urbano crackdown an unnecessary overreach.

We are witnessing the criminalization of the man who rummages through the trash to take what others have thrown away. Can you be banned for consistently dressing in a way that the mayor and city police deem “indecorous”? Are punk mohawks decorous or indecorous? On what will the morality of behavior be evaluated? If I am dead drunk in the street, there are already [official] tools for intervention. If I hawk counterfeit goods, I’ve already committed a crime… We already have tools to counter these crimes, so what end does the decree serve?

The law does seem to be living up to fears that it offers authorities a license to discriminate. Earlier this month, two trans women in Naples were fined and banned for 48 hours in accordance with the new regulations from the environs of a central square for soliciting, even though they insist they were simply having a drink in a bar. LGBT organizations protested the move, pointing out that it was carried out not because a crime had been committed, but because police had decided they had a hunch something was amiss.

Another critic of the crackdown is Dr. Ugo Rossi, a geographer at the University of Turin and author of the book Cities in Global Capitalism. He points out that the law is a response to fundamental changes to the underlying character of Italian city centers. “It's a structural problem” Rossi says, “one that is particularly evident in Rome and other tourist-dominated cities.” Thanks to the deregulation of the housing market and the rise of home-sharing services like Airbnb, the hearts of many historic Italian towns have become increasingly oriented towards tourist accommodation and businesses, “emptying” them of local residents. “What increasingly replaces them are tourists—or in cities such as Bologna, students—who are not respectful of public space,” Rossi says. “As a result city centers are now just places of consumption rather than residency—ones that are no longer used by local people.”

Not all cities suffer equally from residential displacement, however. “The city centers that have survived this kind of transformation are those in southern Italy's major cities, such as Naples, Palermo, Bari” Rossi says, “where despite some touristification many people are still living in the city core. So reflexes like [the Daspo Urbano] are on the one hand related to anxieties about security, and on the other about fears of a loss of authenticity, or local people who are more protective of their environment.”

Seen in this light, the idea of addressing a complex knot of problems with a set of loosely defined bans on people and practices the police don’t like the look of seems both ineffective and discriminatory. “There should be within the public more reflection over this issue, rather than resorting to measures like the new law,” Rossi says. “When you try to simply repress something, it’s like trying to empty the sea.”

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