Lessons learned by the Valley of Susa protestors

Rete Lilliput, per un’economia di giustizia (http://www.retelilliput.it/index.php), is a network of associations and non-profit organizations in Italy that has the goal of fighting  inequalities using a Lilliput strategy against the neoliberal Gulliver. As part of their initiatives, they organized a seminar on the construction and practice of democracy. It was held in Rome on April 5 and had as focus the problem of participation.

One of the guest speakers was Chiara Sasso, a lady living in the Valley of Susa in northern Italy and an activist in the No-TAV campaign (http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/NO_TAV), the movement against the government’s intention to let the Turin-Lyon high velocity train pass right through the valley and to end up in a tunnel over 50 km long through mountains known to be full of asbestos. Her speech was not so much about the protest and its justifications as about the impact of this protest on the lives of the people living the valley.

Because the initial protests were totally ignored by the government and the media, the activists were forced to seek support at the grassroots level. In fact, had this "calamity" not happened, there would probably never have been any movement at all.

The protests were always totally pacific and nonviolent even though the media continued to depict them as violent and unreasonable. At one point the protestors undertook a unique form of nonviolent protest: reading out the Italian constitution to the police officers! Once the people started coming out together to meet and discuss and protest, other issues started being discussed. Things like: who are the leaders and what they ought to do? What the people consumed and why? They started to see they were shopping at supermarkets just to save time and to avoid having to meet someone. So they started to re-evaluate their valley’s products which they discovered being unique. Some people started developing cooperatives to promotes the valley’s products, especially agricultural and gastronomic ones.

They discovered that keeping a vigil over the sites of the railway works was an excellent opportunity to meet people, have fun together, eat and drink. They discovered this was a more meaningful life than the one they had been living. Younger people started to re-discover the older generation and its values and history. More and more inhabitants of the valley started to see the threat of the high velocity railway to these re-discovered values. With more people joining, more creative energy was put into the initiative.

This culminated last month in the selling of lands over which the railway is planned to pass in lots of one square meter at a price of 15 Euros. This is a potent form of nonviolent resistance. By spreading the property of the land on to thousands of persons, the bureaucratic weight of the exprorpiation of that land for the purposes of railway construction has suddenly become huge.

Politics for the protesting population has been a nightmare as well. When Berlusconi was in power, they all knew they were fighting against a government that didn’t represent them and this helped them concentrate their energies. But with Prodi’s shaky government, supposedly a leftist and thus "friendly" government, things were worse. Every little step they took, they were accused of wanting the government to tumble. So they were trapped and made to feel like bulls in a china shop.

Whereas it is easy to immagine the benefits of participation in a community, it seems to me that it is extremely difficult to spur a community into doing it. Participation makes sense if there are incentives attached. For many an activist, the incentive may be moral force, self esteem or other, but for most persons, if the participation is void of decision-making or -influencing power, it is meaningless and a waste of time. Often, the presence of people who think they know better impedes participation. The No-TAV protestors have been able to grow on their own, learn from their own mistakes, gradually build confidence and unleash the creative energy of the "common" man.

It is interesting to note how once the No-TAV’s started participating to resolve their problem, they saw the need of help from others and that stimulated solidarity in them for other causes. In fact, No-TAV’s publically support and give hand to a number of other territorial protests and battles, including the No-Dal Molin campaign against the expansion of the US military base in Vicenza. This helps them build more self-esteem and gives their cause more visibility, in turn "obliging" others to lend them a hand. In fact, last month’s land sale in lots of one square meter a head saw the participation of activists from all over Italy.

Today, after the defeat of the Italian left in the general elections, one thing stands out on the map of Italy, painted in red and blue to show the regions that voted for the left or the right: a small red spot up in the north west, on the edge of a sea of blue. That red spot is home to the Valley of Susa.

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