On the morning of July 8, as the Group of Eight (G8) world leaders began arriving in L’Aquila, Italy, activists scaled the hill overlooking the red zone and laid out huge sheets of white plastic to form 10-meter-high letters reading, "Yes We Camp," the slogan of the citizens’ committees in L’Aquila, which was hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on April 6, 2009. And it was on display for world leaders during the G8 summit being held just outside the city in an area off limits to the local people.
The G8 summit was originally to take place on the island of Sardinia, but on April 23, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s scandal-ridden prime minister, made the surprise announcement that it would be moved to L’Aquila, saying it would put the world’s spotlight on the devastated city. But that’s not how it was seen by local residents still mourning the loss of friends and loved ones—300 people died in the quake—as well as their homes and their city.
Among the first events organized by the citizens committee was a candlelight march to remember the victims. The march started at midnight, with 5,000 people holding candles illuminating what everyone remarked was now a ghost town. Only 23,000 of the 70,000 residents remain in the city—nearly all of them living in the camps—while the others were moved to hotels on the coast. "L’Aquila is Italy’s New Orleans" commented Francesca, a Code Pink activist from California who was in Italy for the No Dal Molin demonstration.
Unlike most Italian marches, there were no signs, flags, or banners, aside from one with the names of victims and another with two words, "Truth and Justice," a demand seen as "the best way to keep the memory of those who are no longer with us alive." The silence was broken only by the sound of helicopters flying overhead, monitoring the peaceful march.
I asked people what they thought of holding the G8 in L’Aquila. The most common criticism was the inappropriateness of using the tragedy as a backdrop for the international summit, especially so soon after the earthquake. Others talked about how the G8 was bringing more inconvenience to people who were already suffering, with military checkpoints, road closures, and the blocking of internet and cell phone service for the duration of the summit. In addition, the frenetic 24-hour work to prepare the city for the G8 took vital resources away from the reconstruction work that would help get people back into their homes before winter.
However, it wasn’t just the G8 that brought more control and restrictions to the citizens of L’Aquila. As the residents of the tent camps began to recover from the earthquake and started organizing to demand a role in the rebuilding of their city, new rules came into effect. In an attempt to stifle dissent, distributing flyers was forbidden within the camps, as was organizing assemblies.
But organize they did, in part thanks to the space set up in a public park by the 3e32 committee, the only place in L’Aquila where people can gather outside the tent camps and where everyone can come and go as they please—without checkpoints. There is a main tent for events, meetings, concerts, theater, Internet, and a fair trade shop.
On July 7, the day before the official start of the G8, the citizens’ committees organized an all-day forum. Local residents, as well as people from all over Italy, gathered to talk about the reconstruction, both physical and social, of L’Aquila. The central focus of the citizens’ committees is the 100 percent Campaign, which calls for 100 percent reconstruction of the city, 100 percent participation on the part of the local residents in the decisions that affect the city, and 100 percent transparency regarding how reconstruction money is spent.
The committees have deemed the funds thus far authorized by the Italian government insufficient to rebuild the city. Adding insult to injury, the Italian parliament nevertheless recently approved the purchase of 131 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets for a total of 13 billion euro.
As the G8 came to a close, there were some concerns that there would be no "withdrawal" from L’Aquila. Throughout Italy, unpopular decisions handed down from the central government are increasingly enforced by the military, including the construction of incinerators at Acerra and mega-landfills at Chiaiano near Naples. Berlusconi has also threatened to use the military to enforce the construction of a new U.S. base in Vicenza and, more recently, for the construction of new nuclear power plants.
However, in each of these cases, the local people have succeeded in creating a movement to defend their territory and their right to dissent. In this day of "representative systems" that are in effect killing democracy, the local citizens’ committees and assemblies are examples of true democracy.
Stephanie Westbrook is a U.S. citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements there. Photo by Claudia Pajewski.