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Italian Women Lead Grassroots Campaign Against US Military Base

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"E noi che siamo donne, paura non abbiamo
La base non vogliamo, la base non vogliamo."

And we who are women are not afraid
We don't want the base, we don't want the base.

The women singing and chanting at the head of the massive march on February 17 in the picturesque Italian town of Vicenza have been fighting to stop a U.S. military base from being built in their community. Cinzia Bottene, a housewife who has become the public face of the movement, was ecstatic with the turnout for the march, estimated by the police at 80,000 and by the organizers at 200,000. "We've never had anything like this before in the history of Vicenza. There were more people marching with us than the total population. The government, both nationally and locally, will no longer be able to ignore us."

Unlike campaigns organized by activists or political parties, this movement sprang from the community itself. The main organizers are Italian women, many of them housewives who were outraged when they learned that a US military base would be built on the site of an old airfield called Dal Molin. The old airfield, which is now a green space, is right next to their homes and is less than two miles from the city's historic center.

"The military base will bring more traffic, more noise, more air pollution," complained Cinzia. "You see how beautiful our city is? A new base will put a strain on our infrastructure, our services, our resources. It will destroy our community."

The people of Vicenza take great pride in their city, which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1994 because of the number of buildings designed by the famous 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio. The military base would be less than a mile from Palladio's ancient church in the Piazza dei Signori.

Many residents also worry that the new base will make Vicenza a target for a terrorist attack. "With the Bush policies causing so much resentment in the world, such a large base could get us caught up in Bush's wars," said Vicenza resident Anna Faggi. "

Vicenza already houses the US military base called Ederle, which has about 2,900 active duty military personnel. With the new base at the Dal Molin airport, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a rapid reaction unit now spread between Italy and Germany, would be united. (Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade were among the first troops involved in the Iraq war.) The combined force would bring the number of US military in Vicenza close to 5,000. Construction is scheduled to begin later this year and to be completed by 2011 at a cost of $576 million.

The local community says that plans for the base were made in secret by the previous Berlusconi government and the local government back in 2003, and the people only found out about it in May 2006. Since then, they have been educating and organizing the residents, and fighting the local city council that approved the base in October 2006 by a vote of 21 to 17. They bang their pots and pans at city council meetings for hours on end. They organize signature drives, block traffic, hold candlelight vigils, stage sit-ins at local offices, and on December 2 they held a mass march of 30,000 people. Knowing from polls that they represent the view of the majority of Vicenza residents, they asked the city council for a referendum on the base, but the council refused.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi, elected narrowly with a center-left coalition last April that ousted the conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi, had a chance to reverse government's decision, but didn't. On January 16, 2007, Prodi announced that he would abide by the previous agreement. Outraged, the Vicenza citizens decided to step up their opposition by setting up a permanent encampment on donated land adjacent to the proposed base. "The encampment is the best thing that has happened to our movement, because it allows us to have a presence 24-hours a day," said Attilio Pavin. "It's like a melting pot that brings the diverse parts together-the youth, the parents, the different committees. The young people-our children-really run the camp and take turns sleeping there. At our planning meetings, about 200 people show up. We eat together, we sing, we have fun together. It's really magical."

As part of the revving up of their opposition, the community decided to organize a massive demonstration on February 17 and ask people from all over Italy to join them. The pro-base forces, with the help of the conservative press and the US Embassy, tried to keep people away by orchestrating a fear campaign alleging that the march would attract extreme leftists prone to violence. They said there would be a repeat of the clashes between police and demonstrators that occurred at the anti-globalization protests in Genoa in 2001. The U.S. Embassy warned Americans to steer clear of Vicenza. On the day of the march, the airspace over the city was closed, and most stores in its historic center were shut down. Officials even shut schools normally open on Saturday. Some 1,500 police were mobilized for the day and helicopters hovered overhead.

While the fear campaign certainly kept some people away, particularly parents who kept their children from attending, for the most part it had the opposite effect. People poured in from all over the country. The marchers, dancing, chanting, singing, laughing, encircled the picturesque city with rainbow-colored peace flags, flags saying NO to the Dal Molin Base, and the red flags of the various Communist parties. Music blasted from trucks with stereo equipment. Unlike US marches, there was plenty of alcohol: everyone seemed to have a bottle of beer or a glass of wine in hand.

It was a glorious, sunny day, and the atmosphere was festive and 100% peaceful. The crowd was so huge for this small town of just 120,000 residents that the march began an hour early just to alleviate the overcrowding. The lead banner, held by the women, said, "The Future is in Our Hands" and warned the politicians that the protesters would not give up. For hours, the women marched for 4 miles, singing and shouting chants like: "Vogliamo la terra, senza basi di guerra (We want the land, without a base for war) and "Vicenza no se usa, per una base USA" (Vicenza will not be used for a US base). The march snaked outside the walls of the old city, ending with a rally, a presentation by Nobel playwright Dario Fo, and a concert in the city park.

Silvio Berlusconi called this grand show of people power "an anti-American march" that represented a "sad day for Italy." He obviously didn't see the crowd's reaction to a group of Americans who participated in the march holding a banner reading "Not in Our Name-Americans Against War." "We could hardly move because everyone kept stopping us to applaud and take our pictures," said Stephanie Westbrook, organizer of the Rome-based Americans for Peace and Justice. "I've never seen anything like it. People were hugging and kissing us, giving us flowers and glasses of wine. It was an extraordinary outpouring of love and sympathy."

As a representative from the United States, I had an opportunity to address the crowd. I was greeted with thunderous applause when I said that the march was pro-American because the American people in the last election rejected Bush's policy of war and aggression. When I noted that the US already had 737 foreign bases and we certainly didn't need another one, the crowd roared and joined me chanting, in English, "1,2,3,4, No More Bases, No More War."

Gina Masi, a 17-year-old from Vicenza dressed in punk-style black with lots of spiked metal, came running up to me afterwards, in tears. "Please tell your people that we are not anti-American," she insisted. "Look at me. My clothes are American, the music I love is American. Even my boots are American Eagle. But we want to relate to Americans through culture and music, not military bases and war."

Most of the protesters were, in fact, angrier at their own government than they were at the United States. They feel betrayed by Prime Minister Romano Prodi. Prodi's position has divided his own government. The communists and Greens, both members of the government coalition, supported the march, as did individual Senators from other coalition parties.

All were furious when Prodi, on the very day of the march, insisted that the mobilization would not affect his decision. "They dye has been cast and the decision will stand," he said.

But unlike here in the U.S., where mass mobilizations go unreported in the press and ignored by the politicians, the Italian march made front-page news throughout the country and will undoubtedly have an impact on the political scene.

Organizer Patrizia Cammarata was fired up as she talked about future plans. "This is just the beginning. We'll boycott businesses working with the base, we'll call strikes, we'll block construction. Prodi better understand that Vicenza has support from all over the country. We no matter what he says, we will keep saying 'NO' to the base.

Cinzia Bottene, addressing the crowd at the end of the march, said, "I am very proud of my city today. We have shown the true spirit of Vicenza. I hope that Prodi will be smart enough to listen to the people and change his mind. That would not be a sign of weakness, but the sign of a good leader, for we, the people, will not give up."
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Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace and author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection. 

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