Italy is already at war. Nobody would have noticed, had it not been for a handful of trains carrying US military equipment from the military base of Ederle (north-eastern Italy) to Camp Darby (Tuscany); and had it not been, of course, for the mobilizations of a few hundreds of Italian activists who over the past few days have been chasing those trains all along their route, to stop or at least delay their journey, in an attempt to enforce “an embargo against American weapons that will kill civilians in Iraq”.
This week’s protests, following in the wake of the successful demonstrations of February 15, are contributing to the strengthening of the Italian anti-war front, as the presence on the Italian territory of these “trains of death” rekindles the debate over Italy’s logistic role in supporting an attack on Iraq.
Due to its geographic location, since the end of World War 2 Italy has been a key strategic location for the establishment of US and NATO military bases, initially to contain the threats posed by the then Soviet Union. There are currently 6 major US bases and 4 major NATO bases located across the country, plus countless military installation, employing about 13 thousand military and 15 thousand civilian personnel.
Camp Darby, near Pisa, Tuscany, widely considered the largest US arsenal abroad, allegedly hosts 20 thousands tons of artillery ammunitions, missiles, bombs and over 8 thousand tons of high explosives; due to its proximity to the port of Livorno, one of the two largest in Italy together with Genova, Camp Darby is also one of 6 US bases worldwide used for mobilizing troops and equipment. And Livorno is precisely the final destination of the train’s military cargo; from there, it will be shipped to Turkey and to the Iraq war front.
Since the inception of the Iraqi crisis, the US Administration has been pressing the Italian government to grant access to the country’s airspace, bases and transport infrastructure, to facilitate the deployment of troops and equipment towards the Middle East.
Needless to say, Berlusconi and his cabinet proved all too easy to convince. On February 14, the Minister of Defense Antonio Martino, sent a letter to the Italian Parliament informing that he had granted all the US’ request concerning transport infrastructures, both civil and military, specifying that “those requests are not part of actions leading to the preparation of war against Iraq, but of an effort to put pressure on Saddam Husseins’s regime”.
Martino’s letter aroused widespread indignation among the opposition and the anti-war movement, as it was rightly perceived as a declaration of unilateral support to a US military action on Iraq, regardless of any decision taken by the UN Security Council, without giving the Parliament the opportunity to debate Italy’s involvement in the conflict, and in stark opposition to the widespread public opposition to war.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the most militant wing of the anti-war movement, headed by the Disobbedienti (“The Disobedients”) decided to step up the confrontation, preparing to intervene with peaceful direct actions at the earliest signs of military maneuvers on the Italian territory.
They didn’t have to wait long. A week later, on Friday 21, the first two trains (out of a planned total of 26), departing from a minor station in North East, were already being loaded with military vehicles and equipment, heading for Camp Darby. Alerted by rail workers, demonstrators made it quickly to the spot, holding up for a few hours one of the two trains while the second managed to depart. But it was not going to be an easy ride.
Thanks to an efficient communication network, protesters, often operating in relatively small groups (20-30 people) set up mobile blockades all along the route, lighting up fires and obstructing the tracks, forcing the train to come to a halt and to change its route several times before it reached its final destination. Their actions didn’t go unchallenged, of course, as the police promptly stepped in to clear the route as the train advanced at a walking pace. The train eventually made it to Camp Darby, with several hours’ delay.
By the end of day one, it was clear that demonstrators were not going to be alone in their pursuit: rail workers, tacitly supported by their unions, immediately declared the would boycott the trains’ operations, refusing to work and providing the demonstrators with all the logistic information required to set up blockades (itineraries, timetables, etc.); the mayors of Pisa and Livorno (the two Tuscan cities near to Camp Darby) formally asked the government to provide detailed information of the military cargo, complaining they had not been notified that such operations were going to take place; and dockworkers in Livorno proclaimed their intention to strike in the event they were asked to load military equipment.
The workers’ resistance received the full support of Sergio Cofferati, former leader of CGIL (the largest Italian trade union) and widely regarded as one of the most influential figures of the Italian left, who on that same day issued a statement encouraging “the use of all possible democratic measures to contrast war”.
Cofferati’s declaration was (unintentionally?) matched by a very similar (yet profoundly different) statement by the Minister of the Interiors Giuseppe Pisanu who, taken aback by the strength of the protests, advocated the “use of all possible measures, and if necessary […] the full restraining force of the state” against the demonstrators.
Indeed, as actions intensified over the following days, so did police repression: demonstrators were often beaten and forcibly removed from the tracks, and in some cases identified and reported to the local police station. But this was not enough to deter protesters, who partially changed their strategy switching to what they called “creative disobedience”.
Given that the trains of death were transiting on the same tracks and at the same time as regular trains, what easier way to block the former than by arresting the latter? The “put a brake to war” campaign was launched: activists would get on board civil trains and operate the emergency brake, creating further delays to the trains of death that were following on the same tracks.
(Interestingly enough, there weren’t reports of any complaints by travelers and commuters affected by the delays, who on several occasions where seen to be very supportive and encouraging, cheering up the activists with rounds of applauses.)
Blockades, rallies, occupations and sit-ins spread like wildfire, also thanks to alternative media such as global radio, radio sherwood and indymedia italy, that provided live coverage of the protests, advised demonstrators on how to reach the hot spots along the rail tracks, invited to report the sighting of trains, offered the necessary legal advice and even acted as forums for discussing methods and forms of civil disobedience (on indymedia, a rail worker was explaining how to turn the semaphores red without hurting oneself).
By Tuesday 25 February it was apparent that the blockades were being successful in creating some serious disruptions to the military maneuvers: the Ministry of Interior and the Public Security Department had decided to make trains travel at night, in an attempt to escape the blockades, while some of the military cargo was being deviated on the highways causing severe delays and long queues.
On the same day, demonstrators also learnt that the US military were negotiating with Slovenia the possibility of redirecting the remaining trains across their borders, to reach Turkey through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. While initial instructions (later classified) mentioned 26 trains, only 8 had made it to their final destination by Tuesday. And no trains were spotted on the following day either, as the demonstrations reached their peak with a 10,000 people march in Pisa and blockades, occupations and demonstrations all across the country, even in those regions where no trains of death were due to travel.
Are there any lessons we can learn from these events? First, there are acts of civil disobedience capable of bringing together a wide range of social forces, beyond the most radical constituencies. By joining forces with rail workers and their trade unions, not only did demonstrators get access to key logistic information, but their actions gained a greater credibility among the general public, large sections of which have until recently been quite cautious in supporting acts of civil disobedience.
Second, successful action does not necessarily require rigid, centralized organizational structures. Indeed, last week’s train blockades were the outcome of the efforts of diverse groups, mainly from social centers and militant organizations, sharing a long history of coordinated actions while maintaining their own identity and organizational autonomy.
Third, there is no point in sitting around waiting for the next big demo to be arranged, before we mobilize over and over again. Small local actions, if cleverly organized, can be equally powerful and effective in showing our determination to stop the war. It didn’t take thousands to obstruct the plans of the American military in Italy: a handful of courageous and determined people was all that was needed. As the African proverb goes, “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a small room with a mosquito.”
PS – as i write, i learn that, according to the Minister of the Interior, “the shipment of US military equipment was regularly completed” with the arrival of the last train in Pisa, and that “police managed to guarantee at the same time public security and the right to demonstrate”. In the meanwhile, however, il Manifesto (Italian left-wing daily) is reporting the sighting of at least 10 “ghost” planes, carrying military personnel and equipment, that have been stopping over at night at the Roman civil airport of Fiumicino, directed to Kuwait…