The people of the northern Italian city of Vicenza, with help from activists around Italy, the rest of Europe, and even in the United States, are continuing to block the proposed construction of a new U.S. military base on their soil. When a company laid underground fiber-optic cables at the site of the proposed base, activists fill a junction box with cement. When another company tried to begin the work of removing World War II era U.S. bombs from the site, activists camped out in the cold for three days and nights while allies in Florence and a small town near Naples conducted simultaneous protests in front of the company’s offices. The company backed off and has suspended the work. And a small town outside Vicenza has now refused to allow the United States to construct a residential village for troops.
Recently, Italy’s foreign minister assured Condoleezza Rice, and Italy’s president assured George W. Bush – not for the first time – that the base will be built. And the U.S. Congress, unbeknownst to the American people, has approved the funding. But there is a reason for these repeated public assertions that everything is on track. It isn’t.
Saturday, December 15th, 2007, was predicted to be the coldest day Vicenza had seen. It snowed lightly in the morning. And even without the weather factor, organizers had hopes of only about 20,000 people turning out for a long march through the city and yet another rally against the construction of a base at a location called Dal Molin. But as the march proceeded for hours through the streets of Vicenza, the sun melted the snow, and word came that the back end of the march had not yet left the starting place, it became clear that, without any advertising, and with negative or nonexistent media coverage, over 80,000 people had turned out in this conservative city with no university and no protest tradition. And there was no counter-protest whatsoever.
At the end of the march, the crowd poured into a piazza to hear speeches from playwright Dario Fo, Catholic priest Don Gallo, event organizer Cinzia Bottene, American Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz (famous around the globe for holding blood-colored hands up to Condoleezza Rice) and others. Desiree was wonderful despite being moved to tears by the thought of whose fault it was that Italians and others around the world must hold these protests.
When it was my turn to speak, I described the situation in the United States, expressed solidarity with the Vicentini, and encouraged the American soldiers already stationed in and near Vicenza to refuse illegal orders to go to Iraq. I also noted that some clown named Edward Luttwak does not speak for the American people, despite appearing as an American military expert (and cheerleader) in every Italian television news story about the U.S. military.
Naturally, I also mentioned the movement for impeachment, and it was nice to hear a crowd of Italians join in with a chant of “Impeach! Impeach! Impeach!” Someone later told me “You know, there are a lot more than 80,000 people who want Bush impeached.” At a conference the next day in the “Presidio Permanente” (a major activist camp on property adjoining the base site) I asked the audience if they knew that the continuation of funding for the occupation of Iraq and the failure to begin impeachment were the work of a woman of Italian descent. Several people shouted “Nancy Pelosi!” I asked everyone to send her Emails.
Twenty years ago in Vicenza, if you said you were American it was a bit like saying you were a rock star. Now it’s like saying you’re Dick Cheney. “Yankee Go Home” and “Americani A Casa” are popular chants and graffiti, although usually said only in reference to Americans in the military. The Vicentini call us their brothers, but don’t want us occupying their city. They sometimes shout “Fratelli Americani… A Casa.” In fact Italian peace activists, just like American peace activists, are accused of being anti-American, and they reply that they want to be friends with Americans, but not slaves to Americans.
They have a point. Before anyone in Italy was asked, the U.S. military, and congressional committee staff, had laid out the plans for a major new base in the middle of a residential area on the edge of an historic city full of renaissance architecture. Agreeing to build the new base in a “palladian style” has appeased no one.
Instead, citizens maintain a 24-7 presence on the edge of the site in their “permanent” fort, consisting of large white tents and trailers. The tents have heat, electricity, light, a sound system, a kitchen, and a store selling every possible article with the anti-base label “No Dal Molin.” A trailer has a radio station. There are not, however, places for large numbers of activists from out of town to sleep. So, in addition to hosting guests in homes, the No Dal Molin movement, in preparation for Saturday’s march seized an abandoned Italian military barracks. Activists then contacted the police offering to pay the utility bills for three days and give the place a major cleaning. The police left them alone. Even during the march, the police stayed out of sight, having apparently decided that a visible police presence boosts the movement. When European activists – used to the freedoms of speech and assembly – hear about Americans being arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, they sometimes assume we must have committed actual, you know, crimes.
But there are also civil disobedience actions in Europe that can lead to arrest. Some of them involve blocking the construction of bases or rail lines, or blocking the passage along rail lines of trains carrying military materials.
For three days, including the Saturday of the march, anti-bases activists from around the continent gathered in Vicenza to share their experiences and plan future joint efforts. There are anti-bases gatherings planned for Germany, Belgium, and the United States in the spring.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq might have been possible without the U.S. bases that dot the face of Europe, but it would have been and would continue to be a very different operation, since so many soldiers are sent to Iraq from these bases and then return to them. These bases were also used to move prisoners to Guantanamo four years ago. And, as in 80 percent of the nations on earth, the presence of U.S. military bases forms a large part of Europeans’ perceptions of the United States. Meanwhile, many citizens of the United States have only the vaguest notion of the approximately 1,000 bases and 300,000 soldiers they pay taxes to maintain in other people’s countries.
How many Americans have heard this story? Citizens of the Czech Republic learned that a base was being planned in their area. The absurd U.S. line is that this base is needed to protect against attacks from North Korea and Iran. But, in a public vote, 99 percent of residents of the area opposed the construction of a base. A group of town mayors in the area formed an alliance to speak out against the base. It has not been built.
Since the U.S. military is constantly building new bases, when and if it decides to use a location other than one that is being protested, that victory may not be immediately apparent, the way it was in Vieques. And the organizers of the Vicenza protest will not consider that a complete victory. When I asked Cinzia what she would do if they chose to build the base in Romania, she replied “We’ll go train the Romanians.” But as long as the struggle against the base continues in Vicenza, victories will continue to pile up in the form of a growing Italian and European peace movement, and possibly in changes in Italy’s government.
In America we sometimes like to imagine that a third political party would solve our problems, but Italy has some 15 significant political parties, and essentially the same problems we do. They’re told that if they don’t settle for the current government they’ll end up with a worse one. They’re told that if they aren’t happy with Prodi they can have Berlusconi back. They’re told that if they can’t be happy with a government that says it is for peace and progress while doing the exact same things the previous government did, well then they can have the previous government back again, or something even worse. And so, as change becomes possible, the activism that could force it is drained away by partisanship and the sensation of being in power for power’s sake. Italy even has a new party that goes by the name Partito Democratico.
While our Democratic Party pretends it has to pass a bill in order to end the funding of an occupation that can be ended by refusing to pass any bills, Italy’s leftists propose a doomed vote for a moratorium on bases rather than adding the measure to a larger bill and risking the collapse of the current coalitions. And the media, much of it owned by Berlusconi or controlled by Prodi’s government, and most of the rest owned by other business interests, is on the side of U.S. empire. Italy’s constitution prevents it from going to war, so the occupation of Iraq, and that of Afghanistan which Italy still supports, are called humanitarian missions. The most prominent coverage of Saturday’s march was of graffiti that one or more people had written on a wall near a new theater, even though No Dal Molin activists had cleaned it off by the next afternoon.
But the Italian people are not fooled or silenced. They have some newspapers on their side. They have internet organizing. They have an active and aggressive labor movement. And their peace movement, unlike ours, does not directly confront their country’s nationalism. In fact, there are right-wing nationalists who oppose the construction of U.S. bases. But, above all, there are many who oppose nationalism and militarism, proudly call themselves leftists, and have dedicated themselves to doing what is needed to achieve peace in the world.
A lot more information on the anti-base struggle in Vicenza can be found at http://afterdowningstreet.org/vicenza
A video that Howard Zinn recorded as a message to the people of Vicenza for the events of this past weekend is at
A video of Cinzia confronting the prime minister of Italy last June is on the indispensable site of Stephanie Westbrook’s group in Rome, US Citizens for Peace and Justice:
Anti-base events are planned for
March 2008 in Belgium:
April 11-13 in Omaha, Nebraska:
April and August in Germany:
The anti-base movement will also be prominent at the European Social Forum in Sweden in the fall.
ONE THING YOU CAN DO:
One of the biggest local backers and profiteers of the proposed base at Dal Molin also profits when anyone buys a bottle of wine with the name Zonin on it. Don’t buy any! You can find a list of brands not to buy at http://www.nodalmolin.it
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Vicenza! by Chris Capps-Schubert (includes photos of the protest)