Civil Rights In L’Aquila

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SHARING WINE, pasta and
birthday cake in a log
cabin in the mountains
of central Italy this past
June among artists,
actors & friends, we visitors
from Illinois heard
the name “Katrina” spoken often throughout
the evening. It was a shorthand for
how these survivors of the April 6 earthquake
and its continuing aftershocks
around the city of L’Aquila felt about their
treatment by the Berlusconi government.
L’Aquila, about an hour east of Rome,
was the epicenter of a strong earthquake
that had devastating effects, not only on the
old buildings of ancient villages in the area,
but also on recent structures that were not
sturdy enough to withstand the tremors.
Three hundred people died in the quakes of
those days, and many more were made
homeless, forbidden to return to houses
that might not appear damaged, but were
riven by dangerous structural flaws.
Four months later, many still could not
return home and were living in tent cities
administered by volunteers and the Civil
Police. We met one tent city administrator,
a prison guard from another city who had
heeded the call for help. People at the camp
ate in mess halls and suffered the decisions
made for them by the government. Friends
and family members (including ourselves)
had to seek permission to visit. A priest and
a volunteer psychologist told us about their
attempts to offer psychological services,
which they said were not always welcomed
by the survivors.
Our visit occurred a couple of weeks
before the meeting of the G8, which had initially
been scheduled to take place in Sardinia,
but, in a controversial move by
Berlusconi, was relocated to the National
Academy of the Finance Police on the outskirts
of L’Aquila. The official rationale was
that it was a gesture of solidarity with the
survivors, and also that the
move would save money on
security costs for the visiting
heads of state. The last time
Italy hosted a G8 meeting, in
Genoa (soon after the 1999
World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle), protests
were met with heavy police
raids and attacks, giving rise
to widespread charges of
police brutality, lack of
respect for civil rights, and
the death of a protester.
The unofficial reasons
for locating G8 in the disaster
area was that the area was already
under tight control, and interference
against the G8 could be spun to make
protesters appear callous. The success of
this strategy was reflected in NPR and
CNN reporting that Berlusconi’s stated
aim of calling attention to the plight of
L’Aquila residents apparently failed as
they were nowhere in sight. This misinterpretation
framed Berlusconi’s deliberate
distraction as a humanitarian effort.
Before we arrived, we were not sure
what attitudes would be among the survivors.
Those at the party said they
opposed the G8 and were in favor of
protests in general, but they didn’t feel up
to staging any themselves. Still, the further
clampdown on civil liberties that resulted
from the transplanting of the event to
L’Aquila were recounted with bitterness.
What survivors told us was that they
were more concerned about their grievances
with the conservative Italian government,
and worried that their problems
would continue after the entourages left
town. L’Aquila was a university town, but
today the university is destroyed. A former
professor of psychology joined me on the
porch later in the evening still fuming four
months after the events, to explain how the
government had flown over the area in
helicopters and decided on 30 sites for tent
cities. Survivors were arbitrarily assigned
temporary dwellings regardless of their
preferences, breaking up communities that
might otherwise have provided mutual
support. “Katrina.”
Anger also stemmed from information
that contracts from the government for
rebuilding were awarded to some of the
same companies that had built the
destroyed buildings in the first place. This raised suspicions that cronyism, rather
than safety and relief, was the government’s
primary concern.
The simultaneously angry and resigned
mood was intensified by other issues on the
national scene. One day during our stay, the
papers and web were abuzz with news of a
short-lived plan to restore Le Ronde, a kind
of civilian guard decked out in uniforms
strongly suggestive of fascist militias of the
1930s. Layoffs of tens of thousands of
teachers sparked more ire. Two of our hosts
were involved in the nearly year-long occupation
of the University of Genoa, part of a
nation-wide occupation and student strike
in high schools and universities in protest
in response to the layoffs.
And, as in the US, fear-mongering
about immigrants and marginalized Italians
treated as immigrants is a widespread
tool used by the right-wing coalition
as a wedge issue. The effects of this
campaign might be seen in the victories
of the Right in the recent European
Union elections.
Our last day in Italy we saw big protest
posters appearing in the train stations that
depicted the G8 heads of state somewhat
squashed by a call (in boldface
type) to keep pressure
on them about issues of
poverty. Amidst the discouragement
we encountered, we
also saw many signs of resistance
and organization,
including among the Artists
of L’Aquila—signs that the
feeling of “they don’t really
care about us” might give
rise to transformative political

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