Part of the tourist ritual
of traipsing through Italy in August is marvelling at how the locals have
mastered the art of living — and then complaining bitterly about how everything
“So civilised,” you can
hear North Americans remarking over four-course lunches. “Now somebody open up
that store and sell me some Pradas NOW!”
This year, August in Italy
was a little different. Many of the southern beach towns where Italians hide
from tourists were half-empty, and the cities never paused. When I arrived two
weeks ago, journalists, politicians, and activists all reported that it was the
first summer of their lives when they didn’t take a single day off.
How could they? First
there was Genoa, then: After Genoa.
The fall-out from protests
against the G8 in July is redrawing the country’s political landscape – and
everybody wants a change to shape the results. Newspapers are breaking
circulation records. Meetings – anything having to do with politics – are
bursting at the seams. In Naples I went to an activist planning session about an
upcoming NATO summit; more than 700 people crammed into a sweltering classroom
to argue about “the movement’s strategy After Genoa.” Two days later, near
Bologna, a conference about politics “After Genoa” drew 2000; they stayed until
The stakes in this period
are high. Were the 200,000 (some say 300,000) people on the streets in July an
unstoppable force that will eventually unseat Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi?
Or will Genoa be the beginning of a long silence, a time when citizens equate
mass gatherings with terrifying violence?
For the first weeks after
the summit, attention was focused squarely on the brutality of the Italian
police: the killing of 23 year-old Carlo Giuliani, reports of torture in the
prisons, the bloody midnight raid on a school where activists slept.
But Mr. Berlusconi, whose
training is in advertising, is not about to relinquish the meaning of Genoa that
easily. In recent weeks, Mr. Berlusconi has been furiously recasting himself as
“a good father” determined to save his family from imminent danger. Lacking a
real threat, he has manufactured one: an obscure United Nations conference on
hunger, scheduled for Rome, November 5-9.
To much media fanfare, Mr.
Berlusconi has announced that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
meeting will not be held in “sacred Rome” because “I don’t want to see our
cities smashed and burnt.” Instead, it will be held somewhere remote (much like
Canada’s plans to hold the next G8 in secluded Kananaskis).
This is shadow boxing at
its best. No one planned to disrupt the meeting. The event would have attracted
some minor protest, mostly from critics of genetically modified crops. Some
hoped the meeting would be an opportunity to debate the root causes of hunger –
much as those pushing for slavery reparations are doing in Durban.
Jacques Diouf, director of
FAO, seems to be relishing the unexpected attention. After all, despite being
saddled with the crushing mandate of cutting world hunger in half, the FAO
attracts almost no outside interest — from politicians or protesters. The
organization’s biggest problem is that it is so uncontroversial, it’s
“For all these
arguments…about this change of venue, I would like to say I am very grateful,”
Mr. Diouf told reporters last week. “Now people in every country know that there
will be a summit to talk about the problems of hunger.”
But even though the threat
of anti-FAO violence was dreamed up by Mr. Berlusconi, his actions are part of a
serious assault on civil liberties in After Genoa Italy. On Sunday, Italy’s
Parliamentary Relations Minister Carlo Giovanardi said that during November’s
FAO meeting, “demonstrations in the capital will be prohibited. It is a duty,”
he said, “to ban demonstrations in certain places and at certain times.” There
may be a similar ban on public assembly in Naples during the NATO meeting, which
has also been moved out of the city.
There was even talk of
cancelling a concert by Manu Chao in Naples last Friday. The musician supports
the Zapatistas, sings about “clandestinos” and played to the crowds in Genoa –
that, apparently, was enough for the police to smell a riot in the making. In a
country that remembers the logic of authoritarianism, this is all chillingly
familiar: first create a
climate of fear and tension, then suspend constitutional rights in the interest
of protecting “public order.”
So far, Italians seem
unwilling to play into Mr. Berlusconi’s hand. The Manu Chao concert took place
as planned. There was, of course, no violence. But 70,000 people did dance like
crazy in the pouring rain, a much-needed release after a long and difficult
The crowds of police
ringing the concert looked on. They seemed tired, like they could have used a