Midnight Notes coverage of repression and resistance in Italy, 1983.
Or Di A Fra Dolcin... (Italy 1983)
The following three documents arise from and describe the latest period of state repression and working class response in Italy.
The first deals with the bloody extirpation of a peaceful prison protest at San Vittore Prison in Milan (reprinted from CARI's Dossier on Torture and Prison Conditions in Italy: 1979-1983).
The second deals with the Autonomia trials in progress as Midnight Notes goes to press (reprinted from CARI Bulletin #8).
The third is a report by an Italian militant on a resurgence of open resistance in a traditional class center, the large-scale factory complexes of northern Italy, in the winter of 1982-83.
All three have been edited by MN.
The post-1979 ferocity of the Italian state is unprecedented in a European context in the last decade. This state brutality is an indication of the "unique" position the Italian working class movement had between 1973-1977, as measured by its generalizing power: starting from its original factory-university base in 1969, the movement circulated in the community, stimulated and was transformed by the feminist and gay movements, and incorporated the "marginalized" social sectors (especially "unemployed" youth) into a vital, multi-faceted oppositional force. The movement was characterized by mass direct action against the "austerity" measures of the state (see the "self-reduction" campaigns of 1974-75) as well as the level of mass "violence" (as seen in the Bologna and Rome demonstrations in the Spring of 1977). This led to an improbable, but palpable revolutionary possibility in Italy typified by the wide-spread failure of capital and the state to control the movement either on an economic, political or police plane.
Yet the movement did prove to be isolatable and vulnerable when the State began a coordinated attack on an economic (restructuring the assembly-line at companies like FIAT; developing small "underground" as well as middle-sized plants which diffused militant nuclei; cutting the social wage), institutional (creating a "united front of major parties" including the Italian Communist Party against the oppositional movement), legal (passage of special "emergency laws", creation of new legal statuses like "terrorist" and "pentiti") , penal (creation of special political prisons, regularizing torture, using isolation cells), police (the formation of an "anti-terrorist" parallel state with autonomous police powers), and international level (active support for the introduction of US missiles into Europe). More than 3,500 political prisoners have been jailed, thousands have gone underground, and thousands more have emigrated to escape actual or potential prosecution. A generation of struggle has been criminalized, with consequences yet to be understood.
In this context, it is important to note that the people arrested, tortured and exiled are far from politically homogenous. Two foci can be readily distinguished: those who have taken the Red Brigades line and those who have been involved in the area of Autonomia. The state has systematically tried to erase all political differentiation in its public analysis of the opposition, and has tried to argue, in the face of overwhelming negative evidence, that all opposition was united into one organization under the leadership of Antonio Negri, one of the theoretical leaders of Autonomia.
The falsity of the charge can readily be seen by the radically different responses that the Red Brigades and the Autonomists have had to the question of legality. The Brigades have taken the "prisoner of war" route and have refused to carry out a legal defense, claiming that they have declared war on the "state of the multi-nationals", and so have nothing to say to the state. On the other side, the Autonomia defendants have demanded trial and have claimed their full legal rights, e.g., freedom of speech, speedy trial, fixed charges, bail, etc. These, the state has refused to grant. This stance of the Autonomists has not been merely tactical, but must be interpreted in political terms. That is, legal rights cannot just be seen as "bourgeois". any more than the wage can be. It is an expression of working class power within a capitalist form. No more would one throw away one's paycheck than one would "throw away one's rights". True, one does not fight for the wage system, but once in it the point is not to give any gains back as though we were beyond the system. Again, just as with wages for work where one wins more wages by refusing to work, so too with legal 'rights' where one wins them by refusing to accept the bounds of present legality. Thus Negri and the other April 7th defendants have tried to preserve their (and the class') rights against capital. By the way, the. "Fra Dolcin" of the title is the medieval communist heretic whom Mohammed, head of the schismatics according to Dante, warns to gather up provisions against a long siege by the ruling Pope Clement.
1. The New Inferno
The "revolt" in San Vittore started on July 20, 1981 (the prisoners, however, denounced the press for calling this peaceful protest a "revolt"). It began with the demand that one of the prisoners he allowed to attend the funeral of a parent and another be returned from an isolation cell on the 4th floor -- notorious as the place where people are taken to be beaten or broken down psychologically through prolonged periods of isolation, or to be tortured.
Soon the protest widened to include a broad range of demands concerning the rights of prisoners: better food; the demand to work, since this is the only source of income many prisoners have, the right to have two more hours of "air" a day (the prisoners spend twenty hours a day locked in their cells), against sudden announced transfers, for more medical care, against the continuous searches in the cells - often accompanied by beatings and the destruction of personal belongings (books, food, clothes...), to have chairs, against the systematic use of long isolation periods (often involving beatings and torture) after arrest or at any act of "insubordination", and to increase their social spaces. Central to the struggle was the request for a higher level of sociality in the jail and against the repression of all forms of affectivity and sexuality, "How many years without love? We have the right to some affection," was one of the slogans of the prisoners, who demanded the possibility to communicate between the male and female sections and visits allowing for more flesh on flesh relations with their relatives (kissing, touching, embracing their children).
The protest that lasted through the month of August was carried on by peaceful means -- the prisoners refused at times to return from the "air", those who had jobs in the jail went on strike, the prisoners would jump over the large wooden tables that separated them from their relatives during visits. Moreover, in collaboration with a movement radio in Milan they organized a series of broadcasts that provided a daily chronicle of the struggle and publicized the conditions of the jail. But despite the peaceful nature of the protest, it was suffocated in blood. On the night of 9/22/81 the retaliation came in the form of a general massacre that made blood flow through the corridors of the jail. The following is an account of this massacre by "The survivors of the night of San Bartolomeo in the second wing of the jail of San Vittore":
"Last night there was much tension in the jail. The guards had gone up to the 4th floor of the second wing -- where the 'political prisoners' are -- after fixing up a gate they unleashed the dogs. To make their intentions known before leaving they screamed to us: "Terrorists, murderers, we will MASSACRE you." There was panic, anxiety, anguish. We felt the smell of the 'squads', we already smelled our blood on the floor.,. then the guards went away but we could not sleep any longer. It was the third night that they screamed threats and this time they had done it from our wing. Then in the silence of the night we heard many noises: trucks, dogs, voices. We kept doubting it was our paranoia that made us imagine everything.
Suddenly around 4:30 the voices concentrated in screams of agony and pain, and the noise of a savage beating coming from nearby -- from the 1st wing. Climbing on the window we saw nightmare scenes: ten guards beating brutally a prisoner naked in front of a window with kicks, clubs -- to be better seen the pigs opened the windows and in the yellow night, because of the lighted beams, the hell of San Vittore looked really like one of Dante's circles. Powerless, we see a wretched guy thrown down the stairs, chased by the military boots worn on the occasion by the guards. Floor after floor we see -- on purpose they stop at each to make us see what they can do -- the naked, body covered with bruises and blood. Then we only hear his screams and the noise of the beatings, his screams that call for help, the pain gets through the wall and though we don't see him any more we guess every kick, every blow, with which they bring him to his cell and hear that the beatings continue there.
Proud of their strength the guards return to the window, they are too far away to be recognized, they look towards the second wing and scream again. We see them well: excited, unleashed against us and we see that they brandish wooden clubs, they are without helmets, others respond to their shouts. We hear them approaching...
Before they come to our floor we barricade as best we can... we hear the noise of the key and an intense noise of footsteps --this time there are really many of them. We had quickly agreed to keep telling each other what was happening: each cell is a very vulnerable micro-world and it's important to know what happens in each of them... Only from the use of so much violence so openly displayed we can understand that this is organized by the head of the jail and is not the usual initiative of some crazy guards. We're all conscious that our improvised barricades are useless, so we decide, passing the word, screaming at the top of our lungs from window to window, to surrender (the occupation troops have won over the unarmed hostages they keep in their hands) and tell them we're ready to take down the barricades and come out with our hands raised... As soon as the barricades are taken down they come in, beat us and drag us out. Then they choose who remains and who's going to be transferred. For those who remain that's the end of it --for the moment -- for those who are transferred the beating continues. It is a massacre... This is how the 'democratic' Dotto (the director of the jail) has responded to the social demands of eight months of struggles. The 'normalization' of the jail has not been carried on only in our wing, but all over the jail with bands of hundreds of guards armed with clubs and all sorts of unofficial weapons and the cover of a 1000 carabinieri...."
The following is an account of a woman prisoner of that night:
"In the morning about five, perhaps earlier -- we first hear desperate screams: screams of the women in the nursery, screams of children so violent that we understand that at the nursery something terrible is happening. Half asleep I don't understand what's happening. I think it's a fire or something like that. Then we hear the men running upstairs. We understand, they are transferring people. There are at least fifty agents -- something terrifying in itself if one thinks that there are only three women to a cell. They enter the cell near ours and drag out the three sisters there. We don't see anything. Our metal door has been closed. We hear noises. After a while we hear another cell being opened.
Then they come to ours. We almost had no time to know what's happening and we are all in our sleeping gowns. They come in. They tell Federica she must leave. She asks to get dressed in the presence of a guard. We remain absolutely immobile. We have understood that they want to beat us up -- we can read it in their faces, and we don't want to give them any excuse to do it. Suddenly and without any apparent reason they take us all three and begin to push us around. I lose contact with the others; I only see a multitude of agents who drag me downstairs, beating me on the back, tearing my hair. They throw me on the ground at the place of transfer half naked, my sleeping gown ripped. Federica has already left, and so have Tata and Pia who were at the nursery with their children... I know that we were not crazy, we hadn't resisted, there were fifty of them against three women in sleeping gowns... They wanted to beat us up, they had already decided it. Then the trip to Genova I was feeling sick with the beatings, the blood I would find in my hair, the nausea and everything else."
2. Autonomia in Purgatory
Four years after the first waves of arrests on April 7 and December 21, 1979 hundreds of Autonomia militants are presently on trial in Italy. Three trials are actually under way. The main one is in Rome against 71 defendants who are charged with subversive association, participation in an armed band and in twelve cases insurrection against the powers of the state. Another one is held in Padova, still against dozens of Autonomia militants, and a third one in Milan against the members of the journal Rosso (Red) which is accused of being a front for an underground organization.
Despite its three-pronged character, however, this is one trial, that by the nature of the charges, the number of militants involved and the exceptional way in which it has been constructed has clearly become the major political trial in the history of the Italian Republic and a key test for what the future of political life in Italy will be. The trial is political in more than one way.
1) Many of the defendants are well-known figures in the Italian Movement, who through their writings and organizational activities have played an important role in the struggles of the sixties and seventies. Others belong to a younger generation that was the backbone of the youth-student movement of 1977. All of these are charged with being part of one subversive project, culminating in the attempt by some master-minds to organize an insurrection against the state. Fifteen years of social struggles in Italy are thus being presented as a conspiratorial criminal project that can only be dealt in a repressive and penal fashion. Indeed, no effort has been spared to create the impression that these people are "Public Enemies Number 1". An impressive display of military power has been arranged. Helicopters fly over the building where the Rome trial is held, while a tank and numerous high-speed police cars patrol the surrounding area. The gates of the building have been electrified and a meticulous check is enforced on the lawyers, journalists and families who attend it. The defendants are transported chained to each other and are kept in cages in Court, divided by several rails from the public.
2) Not only are the charges exclusively political -- subversive association, insurrection against the state -- the way in which the trial has been constructed follows the classical model of political purges. No factual evidence has so far been presented, while in its place, a large role is played by the political judgements of the accusers as well as the writings of the accused.
3) The trial represents a turning point in the Italian "Justice" system, as it is conducted in violation of the most elementary rules of Italian law. Examples of such violations are:
(a) the use of substitute charges, a novelty in the Italian legal system, which has served to ensure the continual incarceration of the defendants in face of the repeated collapse of the charges moved against them. That is, several times in the course of these four years, the defendants have seen the charges against them dropped and substituted by new ones -- a procedure indicating the spurious nature of the accusations and the lack of any real evidence in the hands of the accusers. Furthermore, in most cases, the defendants were not formally notified about the. new charges (often they found out from the newspapers) and were never re-interrogated as prescribed by Italian law (Article 376 of the Code). Some defendants, charged with insurrection against the state have been interrogated only once since their arrest on April 7, 1979.
(b) the vague and imprecise nature of the charges. Typical is the charge of insurrection against the state, originally moved only against Antonio Negri, who presumably and organised it all by himself. Even when the accusations involve "facts", they are totally unspecified as to the date and the location of the crimes.
(c) the only evidence for most of the charges are the confessions of "repented" militants who have collaborated with the police in exchange for immunity. Moreover, though the accused have insistently asked for a cross-examination, this has been denied and some repented whose testimony has led to the incarceration of dozens of people do not even appear in the trial.
(d) finally, the fact that the trial is held in three different places violates the right to the defense, for not being ubiquitous, several defendants won't be able to attend their trial.
In view of this arbitrary, illegal procedure, at the beginning of the Rome trial on February 24, 1983 the defense lawyers have unanimously asked that the defendants be freed and the trial be declared null and void. They have argued that their objections to the form of the procedure go in this case to the roots of the matter, for only by an abrogation of the law can such a trial take place. How, for example, can anybody be accused of theft when what was claimed to be stolen, when and where is left unspecified?
Their request, however, has been rejected. For the Italian state seems much more interested in crushing an uncomfortable opposition than in upholding the "guarantees" of the democratic process. More than that: redefining what the democratic process should be -- and what are the limits of political struggles is one of the main aims of the trial.
Already, over the last four years civil and political liberties in Italy have been dramatically curtailed. Special laws have been enacted allegedly in the "struggle against terrorism." Increasingly even the most peaceful forms of protest are responded to with police clubs -- witness the brutal treatment inflicted on the women who on March 8, 1983 protested the planned installation of the cruise missiles at Comiso, Sicily. . In this context the trial against Autonomia is a pilot trial codifying for years to come the new criteria of legality in the operations of the state.
This is why it is crucial that we protest this arbitrary procedure and show our support for the people on trial. Irrespectively of whether we agree with their politics, the inquisitional process mounted against them is an unacceptable violation of political rights that represents a dangerous precedent in Europe; moreover, what is happening in Italy is not an isolated case. The increasingly repressive measures adopted by the US and Canadian governments against internal dissidents suggests that the "Italian way" may well become a model of our future if it proves successful in Italy. So it is in our interest to protest the violations of civil rights perpetrated by the Italian state against the April 7/December 21 defendents.
3. Moving toward Paradise?
In the period between December 1982-January 1983, there has been a concrete and widespread development of autonomous decision-making on the kind of political actions to be undertaken against the capitalist state (in the face of a policy of repression agreed to by all the major political parties, especially the Italian Communist Party). The autonomy expressed in this "Hot Winter" constitutes the result and synthesis of all the experience that had been assimilated, elaborated and spread by the proletariat movement since the 1969 "Hot Autumn".
The first signs of the renewed generalized struggle date from the autumn of 1982, during the negotiations on modifying the "scala mobile", the wage-indexation system which until then had automatically increased wages with inflation. During that period the workers re-asserted their will to impose their own interests on decisions affecting their class. In many places where workers had temporarily lost confidence, in their capacity to sway decisions, their 'mass participation in workers' assemblies now brought about a decisive rejection of the unions' proposal to accept a reduction in the "scala mobile". It also brought about an immediate strengthening of the workers' confidence in voicing their own demands.
In December 1982 the Prime Minister Fanfani engineered a series of measures which further reduced the proletariat's standard of living. Such measures were met by strikes and demonstrations organized by workers autonomously from the unions' instructions. Union representatives attempting to regain control were accused of collaborating with the state and Employers.
The rupture was such that, during the general strike of January 18, 1983, not a single union leader dared to address the mass demonstrations held in piazzas through-out Italy. It was the first such "silent general strike" in Italy's history. The union leaders' fear of speaking was motivated by the certainty that, had they publicly revealed the agreements they were about to make with the employers, they would have fared even worse than the union leaders who had done so the previous week. During that week, when the national trade union leader Marianetti had spoken in Bologna's main piazza to criticize the workers' actions, he'd been forced to leave the platform – but not before the workers had covered his voice with insults and his body with eggs. So on January 18th union leaders dared not announce their willingness to reduce the "scala mobile" by 10% (as opposed to the 30% reduction demanded by the employers).
During this process of rupture between workers and unions, the Fanfani government announced a number of anti-proletarian austerity measures. The events which followed threw into confusion the state's plans grounded on the "patto sociale" (the social pact, or employers' "peace") and repressive laws. These plans faltered as key centers of transport and communications were disrupted by hundreds of demonstrations and occupations, involving hundreds of thousands of people -- workers and unemployed, men and women, young and old. As motorways, railroad stations and airports were taken over, the government used special repressive laws to attack and criminalize these actions -- but only very selectively, so as not to provoke and further escalate the battle. The occupations included the Genova airport, where people sat on the runways to prevent planes from taking off or landing; the railroad stations of Florence, Palermo, Naples and Rome; the motorway near Termini Imerese in Sicily, and dozens of other major roads throughout Italy.
With demonstrations of this sort continuing for several days, the Interior Minister threatened to intervene further with repressive forces. He organized meetings with trade union leaders, who afterwards made strong condemnations against these mass actions. This state tactic achieved the opposite effect of what the state expected -- that is, it separated the workers even further from the unions and provoked further mass action.
For example, Genova airport, which had been evacuated, was then reoccupied four times more. Railway stations and major roads were again occupied in many towns and villages throughout Italy. Because of these mass actions, the government finally withdrew some of the less popular austerity measures. Other measures demanded by workers, such as tax reductions, were accepted. However, at the same time, the trade union confederations signed an agreement accepting demands of the government and employers. For example they agreed to a 20% reduction of the "scala mobile", that is double the reduction that had been envisaged by the unions and definitively rejected by the workers in mass assemblies. The unions signed this agreement knowing full well that the workers would again reject it even more decisively than before. Such a rejection meant not only a "disappointment" with the unions, it implied a workers' rupture from the traditional workers' organizations.
This kind of rupture had already existed in the 1970s, but mostly at a "vanguard" level, among the most militant sections of the proletariat. In the mid-1970s this rupture took on an offensive mass character, as the vanguards succeeded in winning away the workers from the collaborationist institutions. Despite the retreat of the movement since the late 1970s, hostility towards the collaborationist forces has continued to develop. And now, by comparison to the last decade, it's becoming increasingly difficult for those forces to contain the conflict expressed in hundreds of anti-capitalist revolts.
A typical example of recent developments based on earlier initiatives is provided by the events at ANSALDO, the most important industrial complex in Genova and one of the largest in Italy. It was the ANSALDO workers who marched to the Genova airport and took it over. At the same time they overwhelmingly rejected the agreement between the unions and employers. The Communist Party daily newspaper Unita went as far as to say that these workers' public declarations "put them firmly outside the framework of the traditional workers' union confederations".
Previously the PCI, confident that the workers would accept the agreement, hid supported it in Parliament and in the unions. Yet even the PCI, in an article written by one of the Party's top leaders, had to admit that their political leadership could no longer control the workers of the ANSALDO factory. That admission signifies the leaders' preoccupation with the precarious control that the Party and unions have over the factory working class in particular and the proletariat more generally. This was especially because the ANSALDO workers' rejection of the agreement signed by their unions spread to the majority of the factories in Italy. Thus the workers rejected not simply a particular agreement in itself but also the entire political line of the trade union confederation.
The entire "hot Winter" of struggles was organized and realized by proletarians for their own chosen objectives and with their own forms of struggle. It was carried out despite the inquisitorial climate of police repression and mass media obsession with 'terrorist suspects' supposedly conspiring to foment all such actions of mass illegality. These actions have not only changed the political situation -- they've also opened up a new phase of struggles against repression, which has by no means ended.
For example in recent months the police have attacked proletarian marches, as in Naples and Rome (including even a march of blind people). Judges have issued arrest warrants against leading figures in those struggles such as against over a hundred named workers at the Magnieti Marelli factory in Milan. At Alfa Romero (also in Milan), where the police arrested a revolutionary communist worker, the other workers responded by striking and marching into the courthouse to meet with judges, to distribute leaflets and to hold a press conference against the arrest of their comrade, who was later released. In the four years since the mass arrests of revolutionary communists began in 1979, this was the first time that workers responded in such a way.