Italy: We are All Subversives

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Berlusconi's right wing government is cracking down on protesters, but opposition is growing.

Twenty activists from the Italian anti-capitalist movement were arrested by masked police in the early hours of Friday 15 November, while another 22 were notified that they were under investigation. Some of the accusations are laughable, like throwing vegetables at policemen and going to a demonstration 'armed with a pumpkin', but they are also facing very serious and very political charges, such as 'subversion against state authority'. This is a fascist law dating back to 1930, and carries a minimum sentence of five years.

The evening after their arrest there were several spontaneous protests throughout Italy. The following day there were demonstrations in about 30 Italian cities, with 30,000 in Rome and 20,000 in Naples--the main slogan being 'Siamo tutti sovversivi' (We're all subversives). A few days later, at a meeting of the Genoa city council, seven councillors suddenly stood up, with their wrists handcuffed, shouting 'Siamo tutti sovversivi'. Four of them were from Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), two were from the DS (Blairites), and one was from the Green Party.

The popularity of the movement has been revealed in a recent opinion poll--which also explains why the authorities are so desperate. In 2001 66 percent of Italians thought the movement was a 'positive' development. Immediately after the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence this rose to 70 percent, and what is worrying for the government is that 58 percent of people who vote for the centre-right coalition parties define it as 'very or quite positive'. No part of the movement has drawn back from supporting those arrested--even the moderate Catholic Lilliput network has condemned the arrests.

These arrests occurred almost simultaneously with an even worse legal scandal--which partly explains why the movement is so big in the south of Italy. Just two days after the arrest of the 20 activists Giulio Andreotti was convicted of ordering the Mafia to murder an investigative journalist, and was given a 24-year sentence. He is also due to face trial again for membership of the Mafia. Andreotti first became a Christian Democrat minister back in 1945, and remained in the cabinet for the following 47 years, until 1992--more than anyone else, Andreotti represents Italian political traditions. Yet despite his conviction for such a serious crime he is allowed to remain free.

The main focus of the campaign has been on the best known leader, Francesco Caruso--who managed to smuggle out messages via the relatives, MPs and radical priests who were allowed to visit him. There have been some CGIL flags seen at some of the pickets held outside the jails, and Caruso has been very strong in his support for Fiat workers fighting to keep their factory open in Termini Imerese in Sicily. One of the accusations they face is of having been responsible for organised violence in Genoa. Caruso answers, 'They're reading things back to front, so in Genoa the attacks were launched by demonstrators against the police? So maybe in New York the Twin Towers smashed into two airplanes? Perhaps it was us who tortured policemen in the barracks, naturally after we had arrested them? And it is the poor around the world who provoke hunger in rich people, and it is the sea which pollutes petrol, and children who kill Bush's marines.'

Discussion in Cosenza

A week later a 'southern social forum' was held at Calabria University, where several of those arrested work. One of the speakers was Giorgio Cremaschi, from the Fiom engineering union national executive, who said: 'never again must trade unions repeat the fatal error of 1977, that of cutting themselves off from the movement.' This view was echoed by Franco Piperno, a major leader of the 1970s autonomist movement which engaged in violent clashes with official trade unions. Today he is a town councillor in Cosenza. 'We mustn't repeat our mistakes of the 1970s, when the movement isolated itself,' he said.

Across town the 74 year old archbishop had organised a vigil in support of those arrested, which saw loads of young and old people pack into the cathedral. In his sermon he said that globalisation had brought too many dangers and much destabilisation, and was starving entire peoples and reducing everything to a commodity.

The following day a national demonstration was held in Cosenza, the home town of most of those arrested--and geographically roughly the equivalent of Dundee or Aberdeen. Four special trains had been hired in the north, and the local council organised free local buses, and overnight accommodation for 5,000 in order to facilitate the demonstration. Using the slogan adopted in Florence, the local council had flyposted the town with the message 'Cosenza open city'.

The lead banner was held by the mayor and town councillors, together with the relatives of those arrested. The most popular slogan was 'Siamo tutti sovversivi'. There were peace banners displayed from many balconies, and some people threw red roses down on demonstrators. Nuns from a local hospital even came out to applaud the marchers. As opposed to Florence, most local shops stayed open.

One of those who had been arrested is a leading supporter of the Cosenza football team, and so there were significant delegations of left wing supporters' clubs from central and northern Italy, who announced their presence by letting off smoke flares and singing Bella Ciao. The following day banners in support of the 20 arrested were unfurled on the terraces during several major football matches.

One of those being investigated, Franco Malanga, turned up wearing Norman armour: 'given the fact I'm facing medieval-type accusations, this seemed the right thing to wear,' he explained. Due to their 'deputy leader' Caruso being in jail, the disobedients had a huge contingent on the march. Many of them were wearing blue overalls, given to them by Fiat workers at Termini Imerese during a demonstration two days earlier.

It was the biggest demonstration in the city's history--100,000 strong, say the organisers. Piero Bernocchi, leader of the union Cobas, said, 'Our ideas are becoming dominant. We've beaten those who wanted to divide us. We're going to free the whole lot.'

The road ahead

The uproar over these arrests has coincided with a very important dispute involving Fiat car workers, historically the most militant section of the Italian working class. This trade union militancy is also matched by a political openness normally lacking in trade unions--indeed the Fiom engineering union officially joined the Genoa Social Forum months before the fatal demonstration held in Genoa in July 2001. Several thousand Fiom members demonstrated in Genoa, and as many as 10,000 took part in the anti-war demonstration held in Florence on 9 November.

In a very concrete sense--and using a word which the disobedients use positively--there has been an ongoing 'contamination' between official trade unions and the 'movement of movements'. And since Fiat announced 8,100 sackings in early October, this contamination has deepened. Workers at the Arese factory in Milan have regularly engaged in acts of civil disobedience, from sitting down on the motorway, to picketing Berlusconi's nearby villa, to occupying the departure lounge at Milan airport to protest against the cuts.

But it is the Sicilian town of Termini Imerese which has seen the most militancy. Indeed this mood is now being defined as 'working class disobedience'--for nearly two months the factory has been blockaded by the 1,600 workers, who have made it clear they would not allow 3,000 new cars to leave the factory. Given that nobody would dare scab, on strike days workers go out and sit down on motorways or on the runway of the local airport--even the ferries linking Sicily to the mainland are prevented from leaving.

On the morning of 26 November Fiat workers held another massive demonstration through the streets of Rome. However, in the afternoon many demonstrators went to a joint a mass meeting between Fiom and the disobedients held at Rome University. 'The action that's been taken at Termini,' said Luca Casarini, leader of the disobedients, 'has shown us that our movement has a lot in common with the struggles taking place at Fiat.' Many workers backed Casarini's call for working together. And as the strikes continue, Fiom has announced the setting up of a fighting fund to ward off financial hardship. Casarini too has called for the movement to set up its own fighting fund.

Perhaps this kind of 'contamination' is not surprising, as Fiom has always been a union open to new ideas. It has been the CGIL union federation, roughly the equivalent to the TUC, which has resisted working together with 'the movement of movements'. For example in the build-up to the 3 million strong demonstration in Rome in March, the CGIL politely but firmly refused a request to speak from Vittorio Agnoletto of the Italian Social Forum--yet that Chinese wall also appears to be coming down. An activist from the southern movement was officially invited to speak to 1,000 CGIL shop stewards at a mass meeting held in Naples on 29 November. Guglielmo Epifani, the new leader of the CGIL, said, 'A dialogue with the social forums has now started. This is a confirmation--after Florence, and after the arrests--that we have taken a position.'

The following day the CGIL had called a demonstration against the budget, but it was also against the 20 arrests and in support of Fiat workers. In front of a crowd of 250,000 Epifani said, 'The hopes of young people will not be stopped and cannot be repressed.' As Caruso made clear, writing when he was in solitary confinement, the stakes are high: 'if they get away with the "Cosenza theorem" then any activist in the movement could be persecuted as a dangerous and violent subversive.'

Even though Caruso and other people from Cosenza were released on 2 December, the charges have not been dropped. What is more worrying is that another series of arrests was made two days later throughout Italy. Special Branch raided 45 houses, taking nine people off to jail and charging a total of 23. Incredibly, the accusations relate to the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in July 2001, and involve charges of 'looting', 'vandalism' and 'assaulting a police officer'. The logic behind some of the charges is both ludicrous and chilling at the same time, such as the notion of 'psychic participation' in criminal acts. Following that logic, somebody watching live images on the other side of the world could be found guilty! Not that Caruso, or any of the others, seem demoralised, as he said when he was in jail: 'We've got to move forward. You can't stop a rising tide--hopes and dreams will defeat injustice and the arrogance of the system. They can arrest us, but our ideas are spreading, growing and moving. There is a famous poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda which says "they can rip up all the flowers, but they can't stop the spring"... I might be locked up inside, but in my heart I'm with the workers of Termini Imerese and their families, and with my "disobedient" comrades. And I'll be with them throughout this Saturday's demonstration in Cosenza. Keep fighting, and together we'll keep racing towards freedom.' To win union leaders need to call a general strike and picket out the remaining factories that are still working. Communist Refoundation, meanwhile, has demanded that the Fiat company be nationalised.

Over the last 18 months the Italian 'movement of movements' has been an inspiration around the world. Campaigning here for the charges to be dropped is a concrete contribution in ensuring that it continues to be so.