The people of the northern Italian city of Vicenza, with help from activists around Italy, the rest of Europe, and even in the United States, are continuing to block the proposed construction of a new U.S. military base on their soil. When a company laid underground fiber-optic cables at the site of the proposed base, activists fill a junction box with cement. When another company tried to begin the work of removing World War II era U.S. bombs from the site, activists camped out in the cold for three days and nights while allies in Florence and a small town near Naples conducted simultaneous protests in front of the company's offices. The company backed off and has suspended the work. And a small town outside Vicenza has now refused to allow the United States to construct a residential village for troops.
Recently, Italy's foreign minister assured Condoleezza Rice, and Italy's president assured George W. Bush - not for the first time - that the base will be built. And the U.S. Congress, unbeknownst to the American people, has approved the funding. But there is a reason for these repeated public assertions that everything is on track. It isn't.
Saturday, December 15th, 2007, was predicted to be the coldest day Vicenza had seen. It snowed lightly in the morning. And even without the weather factor, organizers had hopes of only about 20,000 people turning out for a long march through the city and yet another rally against the construction of a base at a location called Dal Molin. But as the march proceeded for hours through the streets of Vicenza, the sun melted the snow, and word came that the back end of the march had not yet left the starting place, it became clear that, without any advertising, and with negative or nonexistent media coverage, over 80,000 people had turned out in this conservative city with no university and no protest tradition. And there was no counter-protest whatsoever.
When it was my turn to speak, I described the situation in the United States, expressed solidarity with the Vicentini, and encouraged the American soldiers already stationed in and near Vicenza to refuse illegal orders to go to Iraq. I also noted that some clown named Edward Luttwak does not speak for the American people, despite appearing as an American military expert (and cheerleader) in every Italian television news story about the U.S. military.
Naturally, I also mentioned the movement for impeachment, and it was nice to hear a crowd of Italians join in with a chant of "Impeach! Impeach! Impeach!" Someone later told me "You know, there are a lot more than 80,000 people who want Bush impeached." At a conference the next day in the "Presidio Permanente" (a major activist camp on property adjoining the base site) I asked the audience if they knew that the continuation of funding for the occupation of Iraq and the failure to begin impeachment were the work of a woman of Italian descent. Several people shouted "Nancy Pelosi!" I asked everyone to send her Emails.
They have a point. Before anyone in Italy was asked, the U.S. military, and congressional committee staff, had laid out the plans for a major new base in the middle of a residential area on the edge of an historic city full of renaissance architecture. Agreeing to build the new base in a "palladian style" has appeased no one.
Instead, citizens maintain a 24-7 presence on the edge of the site in their "permanent" fort, consisting of large white tents and trailers. The tents have heat, electricity, light, a sound system, a kitchen, and a store selling every possible article with the anti-base label "No Dal Molin." A trailer has a radio station. There are not, however, places for large numbers of activists from out of town to sleep. So, in addition to hosting guests in homes, the No Dal Molin movement, in preparation for Saturday's march seized an abandoned Italian military barracks. Activists then contacted the police offering to pay the utility bills for three days and give the place a major cleaning. The police left them alone. Even during the march, the police stayed out of sight, having apparently decided that a visible police presence boosts the movement. When European activists - used to the freedoms of speech and assembly - hear about Americans being arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, they sometimes assume we must have committed actual, you know, crimes.
But there are also civil disobedience actions in Europe that can lead to arrest. Some of them involve blocking the construction of bases or rail lines, or blocking the passage along rail lines of trains carrying military materials.
For three days, including the Saturday of the march, anti-bases activists from around the continent gathered in Vicenza to share their experiences and plan future joint efforts. There are anti-bases gatherings planned for Germany, Belgium, and the United States in the spring.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq might have been possible without the U.S. bases that dot the face of Europe, but it would have been and would continue to be a very different operation, since so many soldiers are sent to Iraq from these bases and then return to them. These bases were also used to move prisoners to Guantanamo four years ago. And, as in 80 percent of the nations on earth, the presence of U.S. military bases forms a large part of Europeans' perceptions of the United States. Meanwhile, many citizens of the United States have only the vaguest notion of the approximately 1,000 bases and 300,000 soldiers they pay taxes to maintain in other people's countries.
Since the U.S. military is constantly building new bases, when and if it decides to use a location other than one that is being protested, that victory may not be immediately apparent, the way it was in Vieques. And the organizers of the Vicenza protest will not consider that a complete victory. When I asked Cinzia what she would do if they chose to build the base in Romania, she replied "We'll go train the Romanians." But as long as the struggle against the base continues in Vicenza, victories will continue to pile up in the form of a growing Italian and European peace movement, and possibly in changes in Italy's government.
In America we sometimes like to imagine that a third political party would solve our problems, but Italy has some 15 significant political parties, and essentially the same problems we do. They're told that if they don't settle for the current government they'll end up with a worse one. They're told that if they aren't happy with Prodi they can have Berlusconi back. They're told that if they can't be happy with a government that says it is for peace and progress while doing the exact same things the previous government did, well then they can have the previous government back again, or something even worse. And so, as change becomes possible, the activism that could force it is drained away by partisanship and the sensation of being in power for power's sake. Italy even has a new party that goes by the name Partito Democratico.