An Interview with a member of the tute bianche, post Prague
Changing the World (One Bridge At A Time)?
Ya Basta after Prague
You probably saw them on TV: a phalanx of Michelin men and women trying to push their way through police lines at s26. With its origins in the Italian movement of self-managed social centres, the Ya Basta network is fast becoming known across the global anti-capitalist movement. From its decision a few years back to stand for municipal elections on green and communist party tickets, to its role in Prague, Ya Basta has been no stranger to controversy within the radical left. Here Steve Wright talks with Hobo from Radio Sherwood (www.sherwood.it), a media project that is closely linked to Ya Basta.
What are the origins of Ya Basta and the tute bianche? What are their connections to the social centres movement in Italy?
Ya Basta and tute bianche are not synonyms. The Ya Basta! association (www.yabasta.it) is a network of many groups across many Italian cities. It was formed after Italian militants participated in the first Encuentro in Chiapas in 1996. It has the dual purpose of supporting the Zapatista struggle and of spreading the deep meaning of the struggles against neo-liberalism in Europe. In 1998, most Ya Basta militants also joined the emerging movement called the tute bianche (white overalls). This comprises young people from the social centres, unemployed and casual workers, people searching for their first job, all united against the pressure of neo-liberalism, asking for a universal basic income, but also asking for better conditions of life for everybody. White overalls were chosen as a strong image to symbolize the condition of invisibility imposed upon all those people forced to live without guarantees, without social security, on the margins of a normal life.
How did Ya Basta become involved in S26? How was the demonstration organised?
As I said, Ya Basta is not only a support network of the Zapatista movement, but also accepts their principles of democracy, dignity and humanity as universal categories in an increasingly globalised world. So it wants to affirm these principles in Europe as well. Neo-liberalism is the same, the multinationals are the same, the few people (World Bank, IMF, etc.) who rule the whole world are the same . . . the battle we have to fight is the same, in Chiapas as in Seattle or in Prague. So s26 in Prague was the first important occasion to send a signal in Europe of a real resistance to the plans of globalised capital. Ya Basta and tute bianche were involved from last summer in the meetings held in Prague to organize the demonstrations and direct actions (by the way, some of the Italian were rejected at the Czech border because they had taken part in these meetings).
We decided to reach Prague by train, given the large number of people involved. We had done this for earlier Euro-demonstrations in Amsterdam and Paris, squatting a thousand seats in a train and affirming our right to freely demonstrate wherever in Europe. This time we didnt want to spend most of our energy in defending our right to leave, so we negotiated an agreement with the railways and we paid a nominal political price to get a train for Prague.
But things didnt go so well at the Czech border. The train was blocked for almost two days by the police, who wanted to reject a number of people as persona non grata. Finally, after international media attention was focussed on the case, the demonstrators were allowed to reach Prague.
What led to the decision to use padding and shielding at demonstrations? How successful has this tactic proved to be?
For years our practice of self-defence has been instrumentalised by the media. Every time the police charged a legitimate and peaceful march or demonstration, it was always the fault of the autonomists. The papers would carry headlines like violence returns to the streets, the years of lead are back, or urban guerrilla warfare again. We realised that the communication of events often modifies things more than the events themselves. We decided to send strong images and signals that left no doubts as to intentions. So we invented, rummaging through ancient history, systems of protective apparel, like plexiglass shields used tortoise-style, foam rubber armour, and inner-tube cordons to ward off police batons. All things that were visible and clearly for defensive purposes only. We wanted people to understand on which side lay reason, and who had started the violence. When we decide to disobey the rules imposed by the bosses of neo-liberalism, we do it by putting our bodies on the line, full stop. People can see images on the TV news that cant be manipulated: a mountain of bodies that advances, seeking the least harm possible to itself, against the violent defenders of an order that produces wars and misery. And the results are visible, people understand this, the journalists cant invent lies that contradict the images; last but not least, the batons bounce off the padding. But the question goes beyond the purely practical aspect and is symptomatic of what we call bio-politics, the new form of opposition to power (cf. Foucault).
This is what Judith Revel writes in the first issue of Posse, a new Italian journal edited by Toni Negri: Comrades dressed up in innertubes. The papers are wrong to talk of shields: that is, of a defensive armament. There were shields present, but whats striking is the attempt to interpose between bodies -- the bodies of demonstrators, the bodies of police agents -- an element that blocks both visibility and contact. That is, one that affirms its own political space as something no longer disciplinary, but rather bio-political. The bio-political is a form of politics that, from within the post-disciplinary paradigm of control, reconstructs the possibility of a collective acting. The danger lies in mistaking the epoch, returning to the only collective acting that we believe we know: that of face-to-face, the facing off which is so clearly a part of the old conflict-form of discipline. The padding on the comrades bodies signifies instead the passage to another political
How do you respond tho those critics (e.g. www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/353/pragues26.html) who accuse Ya Basta of manipulating other demonstrators during the encounter with police in Prague?
I dont believe that anyone was manipulated by anyone else. There were affinity groups, and everyone freely and consciously chose whatto do and with whom. We dont think that anyone, including ourselves, has a monopoly on the truth. Each does what they consider most useful and effective. Some sections of the demonstration, such of those involving these critics, were few in number, whereas during the demonstration our numbers grew. Other comrades chose to join our section: not only tute bianche or Italians, but also anarchists and trotskyists of various countries and nationalities. Clearly the vetero-communist vision of some, linked to a strictly marxist-leninist style of politics, has stopped them from seeing past their own noses. We have no grounds for reproaching other sections of the demonstration that engaged in direct action elsewhere in the city, just as most of them have nothing to reproach us for. On the contrary, we wish that there had been many more of them, so that we could have forced the police blockades. But probably even all together we wouldnt have succeeded. We did our bit, what we had decided upon in the joint assembly, committing a huge number of police in a face off on the bridge with continuous charges, resisting and advancing.
Can s26 be considered a success? What comes next?
In terms of Europe, it was certainly a success. The forum ended a day early because of the curfew atmosphere created in Prague. The movements from across Europe finally found themselves together, visible and determinate against an economic globalisation that threatens to create a dual society. For Europe Prague was the beginning, but in the minds of everyone were memories of Seattle, Washington, Melbourne . . . This begins to confirm the validity of a new way of finding ourselves side by side in the worlds streets, confronting global problems.
The next leg for us will probably be Nice, where an EU summit is to be held in early December, to formalise a European bill of rights. A sort of constitution, although much more for economic investors than people, neglecting a good part of the social problems that afflict Europe.
What are Ya Bastas connections to other radical circles in Europe and beyond?
We have many contacts in several European countries: Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Finland, to name a few. Back in 1997 we held a European meeting in Venice, where we presented to others our program -- borrowed from the Zapatista struggle -- of fighting for a Social Europe, where people not money come first. In a sense, that was the first step in our current direction, trying to escape the isolation which many radical groups found themselves in, and to connect with vast parts of what Marcos calls civil society.
Relations between Ya Basta and some other circles in the Italian movement became increasingly strained in the late nineties, with strong disagreements about orientation and activity. What were the terms of this debate, and have relations improved in the meantime?
We chose to abandon ideologies, others didnt. The split can be very simply defined in this sense. Our analysis of the current world has led us to consider some aspects of this society -- like the profound modification of the production system, the dominant role of information, the importance of the environment and other themes until now considered more social than political -- and to act accordingly, trying to cut the chains that tied us too tightly to marxist orthodoxy. Weve always been heretics anyway, believing that you must have the courage to change and to follow new paths when you suspect that they could lead to results.
Other groups, more tied to traditional ways of understanding marxism and politics, dont agree with us. Some of them accuse us of being reformist or media-fixated (implying that we live in a virtual world). Recently, though, we have seen a point of commonality in the struggles we are doing together, a sort of re-acquaintance with people who can appreciate the big results obtained by our struggles, from forcing the closure of immigrant detention centres in Milan and Trieste, to the symbolic blocking of NATO bases in the Veneto -- which reopened debate about the Balkans war -- to the ship in solidarity with Albanians and against the criminalisation of immigrants (the first sailing demo!), to the recent Prague demo.
Within the Veneto region, Ya Basta and Radio Sherwood are two aspects of a broader network. Can you tell us something about the other organisations theyre connected with?
Radio Sherwood has now evolved into something more complex: the Sherwood Communications Agency. This involves a massive use of the internet (Sherwood Tribune), along with the ability to intervene in the media, so as to give voice and visibility to the whole network, from Ya Basta and the social centres to ADL and Razzismo Stop.
ADL (Workers Defence Association, www.adl-cobas.org) is a bit like a union, although rather different from the traditional form of European unions. It has more than one thousand members in the region, organised in twenty workplace collectives, and is affiliated to the radical union confederation CUB. Its main activity is legal defence for workers, while its political activity is very similar to that of the tute bianche. Razzismo Stop (www.sherwood.it/r-stop) is an association for the defence of immigrant rights; it works side by side with immigrants to spread a new culture. It offers legal advice and concrete aid, from Italian language courses to welcome camps for refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, as well as social and educational activities for detained immigrants. Over the years its become a real reference point of anti-racism, even for some institutions. Razzismo Stop has always been in the front line opposing expulsions and detention camps for immigrants, linking its daily social programs to a strong political activity.
Uploaded 28 October 2000. This interview will shortly be appearing in the new web zine Aut.