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Claudio Albertani: Black Blocs, Tute Bianche and Zapatistas in the anti-globalization movement

(translated by Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia, Ph.D.)

This article will appear in New Political Science, December 2002.


All evil that arises in a republic is due to the violent hostility that divides the nobility from the people, because while the former wants to rule, the latter refuse to obey.

Niccolò Machiavelli

“..little by little, a new age of fire is being kindled, and none of the living shall see its end: obedience is dead.”

Guy Debord

More than fifty years ago, George Orwell wrote that a society turns totalitarian when its structures become openly artificial, that is, when the ruling class can hold on to power only by force and deceit. Such a society can neither afford to be tolerant nor allow a truthful account of events. Today, Big Brother rules everywhere and fighting its lies is proving more difficult than it was in Orwell’s time. We had one example of it on the occasion of the demonstrations against the G8, the summit meeting of the powerful that was held in Genoa in late July 2001. We thought that trying to reassemble fragments of that “official” account might prove a useful exercise in restoring the truth, and we would like to make these tools available to anyone wishing to use them.

An impressive number – up to maybe one hundred thousand – of microphones, cameras and videocam recorders were deployed during the demonstrations. This has eased the task of recollection and of critical analysis, even as it played into the hands of the Italian government’s ill-meaning curiosity. Additionally, thanks to the establishment of Radio Gap and its Internet site (www.radiogap.net/it), information was disseminated in real time, making it possible to follow the events in several languages and in all parts of the planet. We have therefore used this material and the testimony of eyewitness participants to the Genoa events. In an age when all certainty seems to have been lost, it is difficult to predict how the anti-globalization movement will develop, but one thing we do know: we won’t be able to go forward on the bumpy road of human liberation without remembering Genoa.

1. Genoa: an exercise in totalitarian democracy

The tradition of the oppressed teaches that the “exceptional state” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at aconcept of history that corresponds to this, so that our duty may become that of provoking the true exceptional state…

W. Benjamin

This is the salt of democracy. Every citizen has equal rights and equal duties, being clubbed equally by the police.
movimento@ecn.org, 7/31/01

In preparation for the G8 summit meeting, the city of Genoa was taken apart and reassembled following criteria that adapted and updated the counter-insurrectionist urban planning theories of Baron Haussmann, the French architect who, in the wake of the 1848 Paris Commune revolution, had demolished entire Parisian districts to prevent the building of barricades and to allow for the movement of artillery. Poised between the flaunting of power and the awareness of their growing unpopularity, in Genoa the ruling lords had decided to barricade themselves inside the “Red Zone.” Access was restricted to residents – who in any case had been invited to take a few days’ vacation and cautioned not to hang out to dry anti-aesthetic underwear (?!) in the Red Zone streets – government lackeys, officials and media accredited by means of an “internal passport.”Around this “Red Zone” the city was split in two by twenty-thousand law enforcement officers drawn from the regular police, the financial police and the Carabinieri.(1) Also part of the force were three-thousand military, parachutists, prison guards, marines, air force men, commandos, frogmen and germ, nuclear and chemical warfare élite corps. At the same time, the political temperature was artificially raised by a sloppy replay of well-known pressure strategies; there were letter bombs, small attacks, false alarms: all predictable moves. In Italy, every time a protest movement surfaces, the various government bodies like to pick the bottom of the barrel.

By July 19, Genoa had taken on the Kafkaesque aspect of an armored, semi-abandoned city. The railway stations were closed as were the port and the airport, the elevated road that runs along the seashore and the main access plaza to the highways. Also closed were beaches, offices and factories; weddings, surgeries and funerals were put on hold, and all over the territory a capillary, obsessive control had spread like a spider web, along with an arrogant display of military power. Not even under the Nazi occupation or during the great uprising of July 1960 had Genoa been under such tight military control.

On July 19, during a peaceful demonstration in support of the rights of illegal immigrants (very few of Genoa’s immigrant population participated, due to the threats the police had delivered from house to house in the preceding weeks), we saw clearly that no one – not just the illegal immigrants – could circulate without upsetting the safety of the rulers. In trying to anxiously protect themselves from the thousands of protesters who had converged from the continents of the world on Genoa to set siege to the city and to test the effectiveness of the new tools of dominance, the rulers had suspended by decree the reassuring cloak of normal social life. The city was so chock-full of chain-link fences, barriers, forced detours and obsessive mazes that crossing it from west to east – under normal conditions a pleasant walk through the largest ancient urban center of Europe – would have taken several hours, with detours through mountains!

On July 20, when among wine chalices and linguine al pesto (rigorously garlic-free, to please the gastronomical idiosyncrasies of Prime Minister Berlusconi the satrap), the global élite – the world’s virtual senate, to use Noam Chomsky’s expression – convened in the Palazzo Ducale to amiably discourse of the destiny of humankind, part of that humankind decided to take their destiny into their own hands….

The reaction was swift. The sky was crisscrossed by deafening combat helicopters from which, as in Apocalypse Now, government gorillas armed to the teeth leaned out. Below, ill-intentioned squads of policemen and Carabinieri gave vent to their sadistic instincts and beat unarmed, semi-naked protesters, but receded before the Black Blocs who were intent on effectively destroying jails, banks, police stations and supermarkets in other parts of the city. On the night of the 21st the cops, anxious to shake the dust off their clubs after too many years of social quiet, devastated two schools were hundreds of protesters were lodged. One of the buildings housed the movement’s multi-media center. Most of the people arrested had been sleeping. The police beat them while singing Faccetta nera, that old Fascist song, and continued their brutality in the hospitals, barracks and jails at the rhythm of unmistakable slogans such as “One, two, three, long live Pinochet / four, five, six, let’s set fire to the Jews / seven, eight, nine, no pity for the Negro boy.”

Even more than this wretched folklore, if there is an element in the Italian government’s conduct that truly recalls Fascism it was the disturbing way in which law-enforcement men hunted down the protesters, not because they were engaged in illegal activities or ignored orders (no warnings to disperse or orders to break-up were given; the police, matter of factly, just attacked the marchers). Like new-age Jews, the protesters’ only guilt was the mere fact of their existence. The aftermath was war-like: over 300 arrested, 600 wounded, dozens of smashed heads, broken arms and legs, an unknown number of detainees tortured in the barracks, perhaps even some desaparecidos, and the acrid smell of a dead man’s blood on the hot pavement.

Was the police action a counter-guerrilla experiment that had been planned in cold blood in the high spheres of the global élite or was it, more simply, a bravado of Italy’s center-right government, eager to take their revenge on the “reds” who had barred them from government forty-one years earlier? The simultaneous German proposal to establish a European anti-riot force and the insistence from all sides to create an international list of subversive individuals would lead us to opt for the first hypothesis, but it’s still an open question.

In Genoa, the worst of two years of world-wide repression came together: the torture and Nazi songs of Prague and Naples, the chain-link fences of Quebec City, the escape routes blocked as in Naples, the attack on the schools that housed the protesters and the firing into the crowds of Gothenburg. While Premier Berlusconi did not blush as he boasted that “the G8 had done a good job and for the first time opened itself to civil society,” the fiery Vice Premier and neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini warned that “ours is a democratic government where no one has the right to think that freedom is being suppressed.”

Their message was clear: ours is the best of all possible worlds, and let no one dare object. Clearly, the ruling neo-Fascist party, heir to the inventor of the very word “totalitarianism,” claimed for itself the role of thought police.

2. In praise of provocateurs

Carlo Giuliani was not “dressed in black.” He was nor an anarchic insurrectionist. Neither was he a squatter or a “punk animal.” He was just a young man angry at the world, and the world defended itself by killing him. He was not one of the few: he was one of many. Genoa: A Few Or Many? Press release signed A few anarchists, 7/24/01

While the law enforcement authorities and the governments of the world – Italy’s in particular – were resurrecting the threadbare ghost of the anarchist bomber, the press and the television were discovering a new lode on which to feed: the mysterious Black Bloc, the last anti-hero of social warfare.

Since truth is not one of the reporters’ goals, a list of their lies would be both long and tedious. With slight variants, this is the refrain: since Seattle, groups of good activists have engaged in civilized protest against neo-free market globalization. They organize seminars, study groups, meetings. They have plans. They would like to be heard. And maybe they would be heard, were it not for some parasites that exploit the situation by
engaging in reckless acts of vandalism.

We are talking of the Black Blocs: dressed in black, they appear and disappear swiftly like Ninjas. Non-talkative, mysterious, they come from far-away countries such as the United States, Germany, England, Basque Country (and here ETA’s ghost is evoked…), Greece, Eastern Europe. All the elements that make up a monster are in place, for if one can help it, the evil anarchist is not a homegrown product. This concept of evil in general, and of anarchists in particular, bears a clear U.S.A. stamp, for along with other factors, contemporary North American nationalism is shaping itself around a campaign to oust foreign subversive elements.

Marco Beltrami, a Tuta Bianca and the spokesman of North-West Laboratory (a GSF member group), called the Black Blocs “fast, light mosquitoes that enjoy no consensus and are a disgrace to everybody,” forgetting that before Genoa, in an interview with an American Black Bloc spokesman, Carta, a review close to the North-West Laboratory, had expressed an interest in becoming the BB’s preferred interlocutor in Italy. And in Gothenburg this past June, Tute Bianche [White Overalls] and Black Blocs had participated jointly in demonstrations without major disagreements. It was only after July 20 that the Tute Bianche found their ideal scapegoat in the Black Blocs.

“Why didn’t they stop them at the border?” thundered the newspapers, including Liberazione and Manifesto that until the day before had clamored in support of allowing the demonstrators to circulate freely throughout the city. In the hours following Carlo Giuliani’s death, all sorts of hypotheses about the Black Blocs were disseminated. Were they hooligans? Infiltrators? Soccer fans who had been warned by the police but had been guaranteed impunity? Agents working for murky interests? In any case, they were provocateurs.

Every time we find the word “provocateur,” we inevitably feel a mixture of anger and sympathy. We are angry because only those who have blacked out their memory completely can bear the resurgence of an evil language, “anarchist provocateur,” that bears the bloody mark of Stalinism. Sympathy because after all, the major revolutionary experiences of the twentieth century would not have happened had it not been for the “provocateurs” who had forced them. Those who rose up in Kronstadt were provocateurs; so were the anarchists and libertarian Communists in 1937 Spain; the workers who rebelled in the so-called socialist countries in Berlin, Budapest and Danzig; the French May rebels of 1968 and the 1977 Italian revolutionaries.

Maybe not everyone recalls that in January 1994 the same label was applied to the Mexican Zapatistas who claimed their right to a life of freedom and dignity, thereby blocking the bankrupt path to power of Mexico’s electoral left.

3. Black Blocs. They broke shop-windows. They knocked down lies.

My lords, the time of our life is short, and if we live, it is to trample upon kings

William Shakespeare – Motto of the Global Rights Network. Genoa, July 2001

Those intending to sound the mystery surrounding the Black Blocs soon realize that the mystery exists only in the lies of those who are bent on obfuscation, since dozens of witness reports, studies and articles on the subject have been available for some time on the Internet, in journals and in books. As a case in point, in October 2000 the Belgian review Alternative Libertaire had described the misunderstandings and falsehoods about them that were already in circulation. Recently, the Black Arrow Circle of Bergamo(2) published an interesting anthology of Internet materials on the BBs, excerpted mostly from sites such as infoshop.org, ainfos.ca, indymedia, ecn.org, radiogap and tactitalmedia.

First of all, the term “Black Bloc” is a misnomer: Black Blocs, plural, is more appropriate because no single group with this label has ever existed, the BB’s being instead a wide constellation of individuals, organizations and collectives that are generally both libertarian and radical. Therefore, one does not belong to a Black Bloc; rather, one makes a Black Bloc. In fact, Black Blockers are uniquely visible: their actions always stand out for the high level of fighting spirit, fluidity and solidarity that mark them. Black Blockers use masks or ski masks to remain anonymous, to protect themselves from repression. As one of their documents explains, “It’s not romanticism: Big Brother is watching us!” A well-grounded precaution, since the post-Genoa judicial investigators have used the tattoos that were identifiable from the videotapes of the events to indict some of the protesters who had been arrested.

The Black Blocs made their first public appearance about ten years ago in the United States, when hundreds of men and women wearing ski-masks battled the police during an anti-Gulf War demonstration. They marched in the “Millions for Mumia” April 1999 march held in Philadelphia and gained international center stage in Seattle (Nov. 30/Dec. 2, 1999), where they engaged in spectacular actions against multinational corporations that were already the target of boycotts, such as McDonald’s and Nike, banks, supermarkets and luxury-goods shops. In response, some NGO executives (Global Exchange and Public Citizen) organized a human chain to protect the luxury shops and went so far as to call for police intervention against the “destructive anarchists,” which was exactly what would happen in Genoa in 2001. Others denounced the usual infiltrators. Some academic researchers belonging to the WIN group, however, defended the Black Blocs: “Let’s not cast out this group,” they wrote in a document distributed on the Internet on December 2, 1999.

On April 16 and 17, 2000, thousands of people demonstrated in Washington, DC against a World Bank-IMF meeting. For the occasion, a 1,000-strong Black Bloc contingent adopted a new tactic: instead of attacking private property, they focused their efforts on the police, running barricades and forcing the police to withdraw, and succeeded in freeing some Black Blockers who had been arrested (a worthy goal that was neglected in Genoa). The Black Blocs made other appearances, notably at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia (Aug. 1-2, 2000) and the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles (Aug. 14-17). In L.A., the Black Blocs also took part in interesting experiments, including Clown Bloc, a form of street theater. On another occasion, to make fun of some reporters who had called them “trash,” they built barricades around a city neighborhood taking control of it, and then proceeded… to collect trash. According to several witness reports, at all these events the Black Blocs tried to respect as much as possible the intentions of non-violent protesters and even tried to act as a protective shield between the bulk of the protesters and the police.

In Europe, the Black Blocs had precursors, and probably their roots, in the German autonomy groups of the seventies and eighties. When the movement crossed the Atlantic after Seattle, the groups came into closer contact with each other. Since then, the protests held all over the world, from Prague to Melbourne, London, Nice, Quebec City, Davos and Gothenburg have been strongly influenced by American Black Bloc tactics. In particular, in Quebec City the Black Blocs, demonized in Seattle just two years earlier, were applauded by the local population as they marched across the French Americas Esplanade. The protesters took their cue from Black Bloc techniques when they stormed the “wall of shame” – a foretaste of what would happen in Genoa – destroying it in several places and setting siege to it the entire day. In Gothenburg, a month before Genoa, a Black Bloc of several hundred protesters marched behind a large banner that read: “Smash Capitalism.” At that march as well, Black Blockers made an effort to respect the non-violent demonstrations.

The commitment to non-violent tactics was the result of a clear understanding among the various wings of the movement, although it wasn’t always possible to respect the agreement. By September 2000 and the Prague protest, the movement had split into three groups: pink (strictly non-violent); yellow (disobedience, but no offensive acts allowed), and blue (no self-imposed restrictions).

Having found the Prague solution unsatisfactory, the Genoa Social Forum (GSF) – the coalition in charge of organizing the protest – decided to concentrate their actions in so-called thematic squares (Piazzas Manin, Verdi, Dante, and Paolo da Novi), each of which was to be managed with independent criteria by the various groups making up the movement. The common goal was to set siege to the Red Zone, eventually breaking through it, using strictly non-violent tactics. On July 20, however, the Tute Bianche, a member group of the Genoa Social Forum, issued an incredible declaration of war addressed, among others, to the Italian government and the United States embassy. The document (it blatantly plagiarized Zapatista writings without citing them) sowed confusion and introduced a note of hypocrisy in the movement’s repeated claims of pacifism.

Since for publicity’s sake the GSF intended to have approximately 1,000 groups participate in the event, it decided to count separately each party local and each movement section, even including the organizations that were grouped under the Global Rights Network such as radical Italian labor unions, factory-based union committees and many social centers. Although willing to act peacefully, these groups were not against other types of action. To this, we should add that while the GSF could negotiate with the government to guarantee through-traffic in Genoa’s piazzas, the Black Blocs, coherent enemies of delegated power and hierarchical decision-making, had no representatives to dispatch to the negotiating table to secure their share of media visibility.

As a member of the Tute Bianche from Bologna noted with striking honesty (ecn.org list), “It’s a pity that the Black Bloc, given its ideological choice, has no chiefs, no charismatic leaders, no spokesmen, and acts only through small, self-organized affinity groups. They are hard, pure anarchists who are disgusted by any even distantly hierarchical figure.” The outcome was that the non-violent groups and the Black Blocs acted without reciprocal coordination and so were all exposed without discrimination to the fury of the police. And the Black Blocs, who had been part of the movement since inception (indeed, before many GSF member groups), were portrayed by the malevolent lights of television, of the police and of the slanderers as violent provocateurs who had materialized from nowhere.

And yet, in Black Bloc documents (they have been available for several years on the Web) there is no trace of a rhetoric of violence. The documents contain dispassionate, singular reflections on urban protest tactics and on theoretical sources also shared by other groups, such Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ), Bob Black’s radical critique of work, Murray Bookchin’s municipal-based environmentalism, and John Zerzan’s primitivist anti-capitalism. Furthermore, the Black Blocs circumscribe their activity to symbolic actions against private property, not against individuals.

All in all then, we are not talking about stadium violence or existential malaise as Rossana Rossanda claimed in an Il Manifesto article (Aug. 6, 2001). While undoubtedly subject to criticism and sometimes counter-productive, the BB form of protest is neither irrational nor illegitimate. Furthermore, irrespective of the slander of which theycontinue to be victims, the BBs have enriched the anti-globalization movement with their energy, courage, tactical intelligence and anti-authoritarian methods.

In Genoa, while the groups who went tirelessly in search of television coverage made hysterical declarations of war and threatened to march through the Red Zone without being able to, the Black Blocs silently distanced themselves and chose to act outside of the repressive range of the police. Actually, what the Black Blocs cannot be forgiven is the fact that they shattered the politicians’ lies along with the glass of the shop windows.

Overwhelmed by the events, in the hours immediately following Carlo Giuliani’s death, some GSF leaders even put out the rumor (immediately picked up by the media) that the Black Blocs were “anarchists.” And yet, it is only with a leap of bad faith that the Black Blocs could be defined as anarchist (or, even worse, as punk or animalist, as someone tried to do). A Black Blocker may be anarchic, but an anarchist will not necessary approve a Black Blocker’s actions. As a matter of fact, much of the anarchist movement, not just in Italy but all over the world, is strictly pacifist to the point that, seized by an undoubtedly excessive zeal, some anarchists issued a strong anti-Black Bloc communiqué after the Genoa events.

Others did worse. Francesco Berardi, the unsinkable Bifo of the 1977 Bologna rebellion, referred to them as “hundreds of psychopaths dressed in black; they have been infiltrated by the Ministry of the Interior to set them on the movement.” Alfio Nicotra, Communist Refounding Party representative in the GSF, admitted that as early as July 17 (before any violence occurred) he had reported to the police the presence of buses full of suspects (Corriere della Sera, Jul. 29, 2001). In the same vein, Luca Casarini (Tute Bianche) and Vittorio Agnoletto (GSF) had stated that they “had proof.”

“Are you happy that you provoked police brutality? Are you happy that you finally have a martyr?” roared Susan George, vice president of Attac.(3) Bernard Cassen, president of the same organization and general editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, grotesquely claimed that “the complicity between the Italian police and the Black Blocs is clear.” He explained it all in a full-page article suggestively entitled “Los tentáculos del terrorismo internacional” (The tentacles of international terrorism) which also hinted at the existence of a black International of Secret Services, with the Black Blocs as the pivoting element (El País, Jul. 29, 2001). In the same vein, Karl Schwab, founder and organizer of the well-known Davos World Economic Forum, after praising the peaceful demonstrators “who could have a positive influence on the world of business and on governments” added that “unfortunately, all the good work is systematically sabotaged by the actions of a small minority, whose only goal is violence” (Libération, Jul. 30, 2001).

Now, it is obvious that part of police work entails trying to secure information about the internal mechanisms of the protest movements and to simultaneously sow as much misinformation as possible in them. Since earliest history, infiltration has been one of the more popular methods to control or manipulate a group; this being the case, how could any group say that they are immune? In Genoa, Il Secolo XIX (Sept. 1, 2001) reported the presence of infiltrators not just in the Black Blocs, but also in the Tute Bianche. There is no proof that the former are more vulnerable to infiltration than the latter: on the contrary, the Black Blocs, structured as they are around affinity groups based on an intimate knowledge of all the members, seem better suited to resist infiltration and manipulation.

The colossal police operation that was planned before the riots actually took place seems to indicate that it was a low intensity war experiment in a metropolitan area. Clearly, the Italian government was looking for violence, with or without Black Blocs. The operation probably also attracted the curiosity of a great number of secret agents, both Italian and foreign, with the idea perhaps of influencing events based on their respective national interests. But these are just speculations. For sure, by late afternoon on Friday the presence of infiltrators was revealed by their clumsiness, as reported by journalists and filmed by TV cameramen, even if the cops (unconvincingly) denied it.

In the aftermath of the Genoa events, the Black Blocs pointed out that police and Carabinieri, dressed in black and wearing ski masks, had formed provocateur squads in disguise. The undercover agents were there in particular to spread the paralyzing sensation that the police was everywhere, that there was no exit, and to induce everyone to mistrust the comrade they had just met, and to trust instead the official political parties, the flags, the leaders that we all think we truly know since we always see them on TV.

But even the unquestionable presence of these outsiders does not explain the magnitude of the Genoa riots. According to several witnesses, about 30,000 out of a total of 300,000 participants engaged in violent actions; many more tried to facilitate them in any way they could, individually or organized in Pink Blocs (such as American Tactical Frivolity). The Pink Blocs, already present at Seattle, while not personally engaging in violence, do favor it with their tactics. Of all these groups only a small minority, definitely less than ten percent, were Black Blockers; the rest were individuals who engaged in similar actions and maybe anticipated them. Not a few were Tute Bianche or members of non-violent organizations who had chosen to ignore their leaders’ directives. Others were irate Genoa residents who took an active part in the riots or showed their sympathy by offering water and shelter to the demonstrators.

In retrospect, what happened was not bizarre: instead of the usual paralyzing effect, for once the government’s arrogance provoked an explosion of generalized rage that fueled the most violent Italian social revolt of the last forty years.

In the aftermath, some believed that they ought to defend the “true” Black Blocs who had stayed away from Genoa from the provocateurs who had acted in their stead. Others admitted that the “real” Black Blocs were indeed in Genoa and accused them of turning a blind eye to the consequences of their actions, of shying away from a dialogue with the other groups; in sum, essentially, of behaving irresponsibly (see Liberazione, Aug. 8 and 10, 2001 and Communist Refounding’s Internet site, Reds). Roberto Bui, the creator of Luther Blissett and an aspiring Tute Bianche leader, wrote on the Web that “since Black Blocs methods have been used against us, we must strongly state that these individuals are politically dead. If they had a shred of intelligence they would be the fist to look into their conscience and kill the experience that was Genoa” (Jul. 23, 2001, movimento@ecn.org). At this point, as Oreste Scalzone (9) noted, we should ask the pseudo-strategists of civil disobedience whether it was more responsible to declare war on the “empire,” yelling right and left “we shall break through the Red Zone,” and use an aggressive language, only to accuse the BBs who did run barricades with rocks in their hands and made riots, of violence and of being infiltrated. And finally, all of us together should face Carlo Giuliani’s death. When he was alive, with an extinguisher in his hands, who was Carlo? Whom was he disobeying?

4. The long march of the Tute Bianche

“They knew what we wanted to do, and they could have allowed us to enter the Red zone. The truth is that the Carabinieri messed everything up.”

Luca Casarini, Il Nuovo, 8/27/01

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve given your word. What matters is to whom you gave it.”

Dutch – Ernest Borgnine, in “The Wild Bunch,” directed by Sam Peckinpah’s 1969).

The Tute Bianche like to describe themselves as a creative, non-violent movement of a new sort. Even though they have their roots in the workers’ movement and in truculent ultra-Leninist experiences, as expressed in Toni Negri’s writings, they currently reject the concept of the conquest of power. They also reject monolithic models and are proud of having been influenced by the Mexican Zapatistas, more precisely, by Subcomandante Marcos. But it’s a false image, for despite their appearance the Tute Bianche are more like a traditional party with leaders – now called spokespersons – a clear separation of executives from operatives, an ideology that distances itself more and more from practice, a sophisticated institutional lobbying activity, and even candidates to elective office in municipal and regional administrations.

Are the Tute Bianche a non-violent group? Let’s say that they violently defend the arguments in favor of non-violence. While, for example, the Black Blocs attack private property, the Tute Bianche like to beat up those who disobey their rules. The paradoxes do not end here. Notwithstanding the dislike they have often shown in Italy for libertarians and their ideas, abroad they have built for themselves a reputation as anarchists. In Mexico, where they made a lot of noise, they are considered irresponsible. And in Italy they succeeded in discrediting the noble, at least initially, attempt to create a homegrown neo-Zapatista movement.

In reality, the Tute Bianche adopted the methods of the Ya Basta Association that was born in 1996 from a coalition of social centers who adopted the so-called Milan Charter. Among the centers that signed the charter were the Pedro (in Padua), Rivolta (Mestre), Leoncavallo (Milan), Corto Circuito and Forte Prenestino (Rome), Zapata and Terra di Nessuno (Liguria) and others. The social centers, also known by the acronym CSOA, are the product of 1970s local activism of the type usually recognized as belonging to the Autonomia Operaia(5) area. The social centers were true islands of alternative sociality reclaimed from the gray metropolitan ghettoes, and proved resistant against the 1980s reflux into the private sphere. Never homogeneous, they were more in the nature of local experiments that over time diversified and sometimes overlapped. In the early 1990s, some of the centers decided (and were strongly criticized for it) to seek the cooperation of local authorities and bodies, in the hope of legalizing their squatter-like occupation of the buildings where they operate their outreach activity, obtain institutional recognition and apply for public grants.

We have no intention here of criticizing these choices or discussing the merits of a complex, uneven story. The problem does not lie in dealing with the state, but in how we deal with it and why. In Mexico, for example, the Zapatistas proved that one can deal with the state and still maintain a reasonable margin of autonomy, without renouncing two inalienable principles: transparency and truth.

In Italy, the deep chasm that developed in the social centers between those who rejected any dealings with the state (the “antagonists”) and those who supported it (the “negotiators”) was partially bridged in the wake of the massive wave of enthusiasm engendered by the Mexican native rebellion of January 1, 1994. For the first time, people saw the possibility of building from scratch a new, great movement no longer based on the solidarity model but on the much more exciting model of involvement and sharing. A unified, short-lived phase followed, culminating in the First Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neo-liberal Market Doctrine, held in Chiapas in August 1996 by invitation of Subcomandante Marcos. That meeting was, to all effects, the baptism of the current anti-globalization movement.

Having accepted the Zapatista proposal to organize a second congress in Europe, the differences resurfaced when the time came to discuss the methods and directions of the new meeting. The future Tute Bianche founded the Ya Basta Association and proposed to organize the meeting in Venice with the support of the city government (at the time, the mayor of Venice was philosophy professor Massimo Cacciari who did not sympathize with the Zapatista views nor, to be sure, with the plight of the illegal immigrants), of the Communist Refounding Party (which, at the time, supported the neo-liberal Olive Tree Alliance(6) government) and of Il Manifesto.

The trip to Chiapas by Fausto Bertinotti, the Communist Refounding leader, and several representatives of the Corto Circuito social center of Rome (organized with great fanfare in January 1997) sealed the new alliance, but the Zapatistas were only a pretext since what really counted were the internal dynamics of Italian politics and the difficult balance between heterogeneous forces. As far as Communist Refounding was concerned, the party, with one eye to social movements and the other to voter approval surveys, was seeking to put down roots in the young generation, an important reservoir of votes, while the social centers were intent on moving forward in their long march into the institutions. The Olive Tree coalition that had just come to power thanks to a combination of votes from the former Christian Democrats and the former Communists offered new, unexpected opportunities in that regard.

But in Europe as well as in Italy, most of the movement rejected the Venetian formula, preferring the proposal of the Spanish collectives of holding autonomous, self-financed meetings in five locations in Spain. Still, both Communist Refounding and Ya Basta preferred to initiate direct, exclusive contacts with the Zapatista leaders and boycotted the Spanish meeting under the pretext that the organizers were just… a bunch of anarchists; they also sent Gianfranco Bettin, deputy mayor of Venice, to Chiapas to invite the Zapatistas to an alternative meeting hastily organized for the end of September.

The followers of Ya Basta were quick to call themselves a Zapatista Community, giving rise to grotesque misunderstandings. For it is one thing to proclaim oneself a rebel Native Indian community based on a real process of breaking up and autonomy, and it is an altogether different thing for a group to call themselves a “community” without an authentic history behind it.

In the ensuing months, the Italian groups followed closely the Mexican situation. The Acteal massacre (Dec. 22, 1997) opened a new, unified phase that led to a massive protest: in January, 50,000 people filled the streets of Rome to protest the Mexican government’s policy of genocide. In February, the collectives that had supported the Spain Meeting formed the International Civilian Committee for Compliance with Human Rights.

Because the Mexican Constitution provides for the expulsion of foreigners who interfere in domestic affairs, the Committee was walking on a razor’s edge. To visit the areas of unrest, as the Maya communities hit by the repression were strongly requesting, the permission of the Mexican authorities was required, which was granted with obvious restrictions. The requirement that one be a “neutral” observer was absurd, but human lives were at stake, and the attempt was worth it. The initiative was successful: the Committee, which also included some members of Ya Basta, was able to interview several hundred natives and write a detailed report that was very useful to those active in the Chiapas issue.

Two months later, in April 1998, Ya Basta returned to Mexico, this time alone. While in Italy a policy of getting closer to the center-left government was proceeding smoothly, abroad Chiapas was an ideal terrain to give vent to the revolutionary impulses that were coming from the rank and file. On May 6, 135 Ya Basta militants forced a roadblock of five border policemen in the heart of the Lacandona jungle. Followed by a swarm of reporters, they entered Taniperla, one of the more conflict-ridden villages in the region, where MIRA, an anti-Zapatista paramilitary group, had been terrorizing civilians for some time.

After some push and shove and a few dramatic moments, the Ya Basta militants returned to San Cristobal after issuing incendiary statements. As expected, they were expelled and returned to Strasbourg in a grotesque trip on a plane leased by the Mexican government. Whatever benefits may have accrued to the Taniperla natives is dubious, since the drama they were living was real. But the incident served as pretext for the Mexican government to further reduce the number of visas issued to observers and in any case, Ya Basta’s goal, which was to obtain visibility and create a scandal, had been reached.

More recently, at the March 2001 pro-Zapatista march the Tute Bianche monopolized EZLN’s(8) security and behaved like Hell’s Angels bikers at a concert, repressing rigidly, even violently, the other demonstrators. These Mexican bravados illustrate well the group’s duplicity: intransigent and revolutionary abroad, but flexible at home to the point of agreeing to unsavory compromises. Even the idea of wearing overalls, used in Milan for the first time toward the end of 1998, is explicitly inspired to the Zapatistas: to be recognized, the “invisible” urban dissenters dress in white, just like the Chiapas natives cover their face with black.

But if the goal is to be picked up by the news, invited to talk shows and maybe salaried by some institution, the communities’ gold becomes vulgar lead, and the poetic Maya images (“let’s walk while asking each other questions,” “the dreamers’ army”) turn into annoying and empty refrains. And so, to be more appealing on TV, even the demonstrations are prearranged with the police and managed like real theater performances (“Guerriglia urbana? Ma vi prego…” (Urban Guerrilla? Puhleeez…), Il Manifesto, Feb. 1, 2000). In Milan the Tute Bianche even characterized as a great victory the closing of an immigrant shelter (it was more like a prison camp) whose closing had already been decided by the authorities.

At the Genoa G8 summit, although Berlusconi was offering much less reassurance than earlier “friendly” governments, the existence of a more or less explicit agreement to allow the “defiant ones” (another name for the Tute Bianche) to symbolically break through the Red Zone from Piazza Verdi, followed by the symbolic arrest of token demonstrators who were supposed to be released the same evening – seems by now certain. Unfortunately, the storm that battered the city Thursday night forced the Tute Bianche to postpone to the following morning the “general rehearsal” of the attack, and so the march began with a delay of more than two-hours over the prearranged schedule. As with Napoleon at Waterloo, the rain would prove fatal: before the marchers reached the prearranged point of departure, they were met by the “violence of History” (Marco d’Eramo, Il Manifesto, Jul. 24, 2001).

And so the long march has reached the finish line. From an original platform of total confrontation and the voluptuous thrill of Toni Negri’s ski-masks, to participate in protest marches the Tute Bianche now demand special trains and discounted airplane and hotel fares, just like the labor unions of the establishment. They call this choice “concrete relationships with institutions,” but to cooperate is not the same as to negotiate. When you are different, you negotiate. When you are similar, you cooperate. On April 23, 1998, Luca Casarini, still little known at the time, already knew the difference when he confided to Il Gazzettino that “from now on, the State is no longer the enemy to be defeated, but an homologue with whom we ought to dialogue.”

Such a policy of cooperation, by now quite widespread, has led the Tute Bianche to forge occasional alliances with Communist Refounding, the Green Party and even the DS (Democrats of the Left) (Casarini was a paid consultant to Livia Turco, DS minister of social affairs in the Amato government), to accept corporate sponsorships, and even to run and sometimes elect their own candidates, for example, in the city governments of Venice, Rome and Milan.

On several occasions and in different cities (Bologna, Aviano, Treviso, Rovigo, Rome, Venice, Padua… ) the Tute Bianche played the role of auxiliary police, physically attacking the anarchist and autonomous groups and even the regular citizens who did not follow instructions. In this respect, the Tute Bianche’s “breviary of civil disobedience” is instructive. Here are some sample instructions: “7. Any initiative must be agreed upon with the Tute Bianche; 8. Nothing must be thrown, nor can there be other initiatives except by prior agreement with the organizers; 11. No personal or group initiatives are allowed during a march; 12. Notify the Tute Bianche of any incident.” Exasperated by these attitudes, in early July some anonymous “antagonists” issued a strong anti-Tute Bianche document that was meaningfully entitled “The firemen of the insurrection” (ecn.org list). The most recent shameful episode took place in Venice, a few days after the Genoa events, when a Tute Bianche group from the Rivolta di Mestre social center attacked a group that was sharing a solidarity meal with prisoners.

5. A new world is possible, but it’s up to us to create it. Today.

From the pleasure of creation to that of destruction there is only a swing of the pendulum that destroys power.

Raoul Vaneigem

On July 21, the day after Carlo Giuliani’s murder, 300,000 marchers, notwithstanding the clear dangers they faced, gave a resounding “yes” to the question that had been in the air since Seattle: yes, this movement does exist, and, as the comrades of the Vis-à-Vis review underlined, it “does not seek legitimation: it merely makes its presence felt, it begins to speak anew, it expresses its refusal.”

And yet, the same force that expressed itself with so much energy has led to a worrisome conflict among the various currents that have been part of the movement from its early days, raising crucial questions about its future. Against the opinion of those who want unity at all costs, we must accept the fact that the anti-globalization movement has many souls. From inception, it contained a pacifist soul and one that sought direct action, with an infinite range of variations in between. The strength of the movement could reside precisely in this pluralistic dimension and in the multiplicity of its international expressions. For today, from Karnakata to Thailand, from Seattle to Genoa, from the Lacandona jungle to Porto Alegre, the entire world is in turmoil.

In a recent interview, Subcomandante Marcos said: “We sincerely believe that globally our ’no’s’ join all the others ’no’s’ from all corners of the earth, while the ’yes’s’ are still to be identified. (…) We don’t believe that all these ’yes’s’ can form one world body. As a matter of fact, we don’t see it as desirable, for after all, we don’t believe that we should oppose to globalization a new International” (Linus, Jul. 6, 2001).

The problem is that while the radical groups within the movement do not seek hegemony, and on the contrary are open to and welcome the possibility of other approaches, the same cannot be said of some pacifists who have often indicted the former using violent and slanderous methods, even informing the police, with sometime grotesque results. It happened in Seattle and it happened again in Genoa. To Sandro Curzi, the editor of Liberazione who had publicly criticized the police for failing to take preventive action against the violent groups, an officer replied: “Dr. Curzi, this is not a police state. We cannot do what you ask us to do.”

All these individuals should heed Orwell’s warning: “The important difference is not whether or not there is violence, but whether or not there is an appetite for power. Some individuals who despise the police and the army turn out to be more intolerant and greater inquisitors than those who admit the need to resort to violence in some circumstances” (Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Penguin Books, 1962, p. 118).

But even if the problem of violence exists, the main contradictions are not between violent and non-violent groups, and perhaps not even between those who seek alternatives to capitalism and those who would just as well improve it or contain its damages. The bad faith contained in the accusations of some self-elected spokesmen against the groups that act independently tells us that what’s at stake is, in fact, power. Slander is a serious matter: the Stalinists were guilty of it in Barcelona in 1937 and whenever they felt their interests being threatened.

We must also keep in mind that, as the Black Blocs are fond of teaching, violence lies, first of all, in the social relations themselves. Who was the first to unleash violence in Genoa? The Italian government that armored the city? The multinationals that in the name of free trade despoil humanity and Mother Earth? The nation states that protect them? The Black Blocs? The Carabiniere who fired the gun? Carlo Giuliani who threw the fire extinguisher back at him?

Speaking of non-violence, even Gandhi stated more than once that even though he considered it superior to violence from both a tactical and an ethical point of view, it should not be made into a dogma and that in any case, violence was preferable to cowardice. Non-violence – he used to say – is a valid choice only if those who choose it are capable of violence but renounce it. Certainly, the mouse running from the cat is not an example of non-violence. Today, the practice of non-violence runs the risk of being impoverished by a tamed and condescending behavior, for if the movement is to grow, non-violence cannot mean abstention, neutrality or, worse, collaborationism, but disobedience, determination, action, the construction of something different.

If the goal of the Black Blocs’ vandalistic violence consists precisely in shattering the pretended neutrality of social relations and highlighting their historical precariousness, every such action risks being caught in the web of a symbolic negation of existence. “The end does not justify the means,” Mexico’s Zapatistas tell us, to which the anarchists reply: “We’ve known it for two hundred years.” The growing number of black and red flags at the meetings of the movement cannot be a coincidence.

With or without violence, what matters is that everyone identify their own strategy and their own path, because revolution is this: it is liberation, opening up paths, a centrifugal, not centripetal movement. We don’t need to have grandiose goals or to seek the destruction of capitalism in order to be ready here and now for the struggle against neo-liberal savagery. Today there are no more Winter Palaces to be stormed, and the old debate between “revolutionaries” and “reformists” rings obsolete. As a matter of fact, setting this terminology aside, many prefer to simply call themselves “rebels,” a word that underlines the absence of a finished program in the meaning given to it by the old Communist parties. And even concerning our old, true and tried enemies – Capitalism and the State – maybe, more than destruction, we should talk of setting aside, of dismissing, of choking, of relinquishing….

To the Zapatistas goes the merit of having attracted the world’s attention to these issues, in particular the issue of power. They have often said that they are not interested in ruling or in parliamentary representation. What sets them apart from the traditional parties and from classic guerrilla warfare is not the use of weapons, but the attempt to go beyond the old models, both Bolshevist and Social-Democratic, toward the (not easy) creation of new political ground, instead of morphing into a pressure group or a lobby.

The pronouncements of Cassen, who announced that Subcomandante Marcos, without sky-mask and military fatigues, will soon join Attac (… what about EZLN?) (La Repubblica, Aug. 20, 2001) invite a smile. Were this true, the fire of the first twenty-first century revolution would be put out with the wet rag of Tobin’x tax…. And Tobin’s claims invite an even bigger smile. Contradicting his followers, he claimed to have always been a strong supporter of globalization and of having suggested the tax… to “assist the free market” which, “like all economists, I strongly support.”

Attac and the intellectuals who rotate around Le Monde Diplomatique are the latest version of the old, bankrupt Social-Democratic utopia. Those who think that the misery of the poor could be solved by taxing the wealthy don’t seem to realize that they are founding the future precisely on the continued existence of the wealthy and of the system of exploitation that produces them, of murderous systems of production that feed the wealthy class, and of the State that guarantees the status quo.

We shall not be content with signing petitions nor shall we turn into an NGO with advisory vote at the U.N. In Seattle, just as in Genoa and in the Lacandona jungle, the stakes were of a different sort. “A new world is possible but it’s up to us to create it. Today.” It’s one of the many messages that come to us from the Lacandona jungle. What matters today is creating situations of rupture, opening paths to a different sociality, weaving webs, stimulating encounters, favoring the autonomy of the individual. It is important that we all make our contribution, including the native peoples, with their precious civilization and their capacity for resistance.

This is a young movement, with objectives that still need to be defined. But it doesn’t matter, we will define them at the appropriate time. What is important is that we avoid past mistakes and learn to sail in stormy seas, in the storms of repression and institutional undertows. But it’s a thrilling moment nevertheless, for organs such as the IMF, the World Bank and the G8, who used to believe they could act undisturbed, have been put on the defensive, forced to meet behind insurmountable walls or in inaccessible locations. And treaties that used to be discussed in great secrecy, beyond the pale of people’s rage, are now the subject of public debate.

After Genoa, less people worldwide believe that the globalization of capitalism can promote democracy and wealth redistribution. And yet, this “state of emergency,” this “time of danger” that so painstakingly resurfaced does not admit of repetition. We cannot simply run after the rulers’ agenda, presenting what Tony Blair has disparagingly called “the anarchists’ itinerant circus.”

The future of street demonstrations also raises a number of questions. By now the movement has irreversibly become international: this fact, that concretizes as never before a century and a half of Internationalist dreams and hopes, requires a great quality leap from the point of view of organization and communication. Those who lived the adventure of the 1996 and 1997 Zapatista encounters that were so instrumental in bringing us to the current situation, know how difficult, though thrilling, is communication between people who are strangers to each other and speak different languages. The risk of misunderstanding and of flattening all arguments into slogans is always lurking. The clubbing that a Black Blocker gave a Cobas comrade who was reasoning with him, inviting him “not to start, to wait until everyone was ready” can be ascribed at least in part to this objective delay.

Now that we have freed the field of slander, the most urgent problem we face is how to harmonize the offensive violence of some groups with the non-violence of many other groups. Irrespective of what slanderers may say, the Black Blocs don’t seem oriented toward suicide, though they won’t always be able to repeat their Washington or Quebec City performances.

In Genoa we saw a quality leap in the strategy of repression. The forces of repression decided to concentrate their attack on the peaceful demonstrators, with good results, so it is reasonable to assume that they will continue to pursue the same strategy. This will lead to the withdrawal of those who either don’t want to or cannot fight, forcing the confrontation on military terrain where, even if we wanted, we won’t be able to fight effectively for a long time to come. Some have suggested that we use internal self-policing squads, but in addition to suggesting an unpleasant identification with the uniformed repressors, this solution is deeply at odds with a movement that draws its strength from disorder, from the many approaches of individual creativity. Nor should we delude ourselves about the governments’ political orientation. In Gothenburg, a Social Democratic government ordered the police to shoot at the protesters; in Genoa, a post-Fascist government caused one death. In Paris this past August, Jospin’s and Chirac CRS’s stopped, carded and mistreated people who were taking part in a peaceful demonstration about the Genoa events.

Everyone, even those who for a thousand legitimate reasons refuse to militarize their actions or to counter the policemen’s clubs with bats, and tear gas grenades with Molotov cocktails, must understand that the path of individual and collective autonomy will at some point inevitably collide with the reality of state power and its violence, with sometimes tragic results. In turn, we can no longer bar the “violent ones” from following their own tactics and expressing their points of view, but they must perfect, improve and better measure the import of their actions to better safeguard everyone’s life and liberty.

If, to be sure, alienation cannot be fought with forms of alienation, neither can we erase the stupid violence of the powerful except with something that is in some way, a form of “anti-violence,” whose contours are mostly yet to be defined, a process that will require everyone’s input. For ultimately the future of this movement lies in this: its souls must learn to act in a brotherly way. Otherwise, another chance will have been wasted…

Paris, August/September 2001

My thanks to the fellow fighters of the Solidarity Committee for the Struggle of the Chiapas People in Paris and to Paolo Ranieri, an old friend, team player and passionate witness to Genoa’s events.

Tr. Notes:

(1) The Carabinieri are a military police corps.

(2) Address: POB 15, 24040 Bonate Sotto, Pr. of Bergamo, Italy.

(3) Association pour une Taxation des Transactions financières pour l’Aide aux Citoyens = Association for taxing financial transactions to aid citizens.

(4) Centro Sociale Occupato ed Autogestito = Occupied, Self-Managed Social Center.

(5) Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy). An extra-parliamentarian movement born in the 1960s and influenced by Toni Negri (then political science professor at Padua University). Critical of the Italian Communist Party, it had leftist maximalist tendencies and did not reject violence.

(6) The Olive Tree is a center-left alliance composed of part of the former Christian Democratic Party, the DS (Democrats of the Left – the former Italian Communist Party) and other center and moderate-left groups and parties.

(7) Movimiento Indígeno Revolucionario Antizapatista Anti-Zapatista Native Revolutionary Movement.

(8) Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional = Zapatista National Liberation Army

(9) Oreste Scalzone was, with Tony Negri, a theoretician of the extra-parliamentary, maximalist left that did not rule out violence.


Source: http://tfgcasper.net