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No Dal Molin: The Antibase Movement in Vicenza | NoDalMolin

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23 aprile 2013

No Dal Molin: The Antibase Movement in Vicenza


In the United States, Vicenza is known primarily for its illustrious native son, Andrea Palladio, whose architectural designs inspired the planners of the White House, the US Capitol, and Monticello. But Vicenza, a small city not far from Venice, is also familiar to many US soldiers who have served in Europe. On Pentagon maps it is marked with the insignia of one of the most prestigious combat brigades, the 173rd Airborne.

In the United States, Vicenza is known primarily for its illustrious native son, Andrea Palladio, whose architectural designs inspired the planners of the White House, the US Capitol, and Monticello. But Vicenza, a small city not far from Venice, is also familiar to many US soldiers who have served in Europe. On Pentagon maps it is marked with the insignia of one of the most prestigious combat brigades, the 173rd Airborne.

When in 2006 the United States announced plans to expand its military installation in Vicenza, the decision was met with firm opposition from the local community, which mobilized a series of mass protests that continued for several years. The Vicenza antibase protests, which became a focal point in the Italian political landscape, constitute an innovative laboratory of participation and democracy that has served as an example to many other political mobilizations throughout the country.

The history of the U.S. military presence in this area spans several decades. US troops occupied the area at the end of World War II and opened the first military installation in 1955. Since then, the army has repeatedly expanded its presence and built a city within a city, Camp Ederle, endowed with command centers for communications, barracks, arms depots and facilities, a school, a university, a hospital, and commercial and recreational space. There is also a deep multistory bunker under the hills near the city (the Pluto and Fontega sites), where, during the Cold War, nuclear warheads were stockpiled; a town for the families of the soldiers, itself isolated and guarded by soldiers; and various depots. [1]

During the Cold War, the installations at Vicenza represented just one of many US outposts in Italy and Europe, but since the 1990s their mission has shifted, and over time Vicenza has become one of the principal instruments of the military projection in Africa and the Middle East. In this context the US high command decided to unify the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is divided between the bases of Vicenza and Ramstein, Germany, and build a combat team that, in the view of the Pentagon, should become the means to control the most crucial resources in southern Europe and manage its presence in the unstable regions of the Arab world and Africa. Gen. James L. Jones, commander of the US forces in Europe, explained to the US Senate in March 2005 that the 173rd Airborne Brigade was to be expanded into Brigade Combat Teams; that is, it would become a rapid deployment unit with the firepower of a division. [2]

In order to expand its military installation, the United States asked the Italian government to concede Dal Molin, the civilian airport of Vicenza, in the northern part of the city. Dal Molin is the only large green area within the city limits, and below its surface are important underground aquifers. The Dal Molin plan foresees the permanent appropriation of about 600,000 square meters of land. The contractors are constructing dormitory buildings to house 1,200 soldiers, two multistory parking structures, shops for vehicle repair and silos for storage of munitions and materiel, sports facilities, and a shopping center. Some studies have shown that the base, designed to house 2,500 soldiers, will consume an amount of water equivalent to the need of 30,000 residents, as much natural gas as used by 5,500 Vicentines, and electric power equal to the consumption of 26,000 inhabitants.

The Failure and Success of the Mobilization
One evening in late spring 2006, US Army representatives stationed at Vicenza presented to the city council their plan for the military installation; behind them were seated no more than forty people who had discovered only that morning on the local daily calendar the United States’ intentions to double its presence in the city. Little more than an hour later, the council approved the plan. [3]

During the summer the plan seemed to proceed quickly. But in the piazzas and streets of the city various social forces together formed the No Dal Molin movement and by fall had created a permanent assembly. The mobilization against the new US base brought together disparate social groups from all sectors of the city’s populations, and it was characterized primarily by its strong rootedness in the territory.

Various issues undergirded the mobilization. The first had to do with the land and environment: despite assurances from the US military, the Vicentines have been convinced that the construction of the new military base will endanger the main underground aquifer and damage the delicate ecosystem of the area, which had been preserved in recent decades thanks to the buffer provided by the airport. Linked to these issues is a strong pacifist ethos in the city. The plan was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and exposed the raw antimilitarist sentiments and convictions that were earlier the subject of café chatter, but had not yet given away to explosive social conflict. Embedded in all this is a question of democracy: not only have the citizens been kept in the dark for years about the negotiations, but at the moment of decision making, local authorities and the central government chose to exclude them from expressing their opinions, relegating them to the role of spectators in a process that centrally concerns their everyday life. This disdainful and often arrogant attitude in response to requests of civic activism created a deep fissure between the represented and the representatives, a divide that in turn laid the groundwork for an extraordinary experiment in political participation.

In early 2007, when the Vicenza mobilizations had become a daily event, the US ambassador in Rome, Ronald Spogli, delivered an ultimatum to the Italian government: it had only a few days to decide whether to accept his government’s request. When Prime Minister Romano Prodi quickly announced the support of the Italian government without having consulted the Council of Ministries or Parliament, chaos broke out in the center-left majority, and the same evening ten thousand people expressed their rage in the streets of Vicenza. That night the “Permanent Presidium No Dal Molin” was born: a large tent—then two—was put up in the field next to Dal Molin, where hundreds of people came to assemble every week.

In February 2007 a national protest was called in Vicenza and 150,000 people arrived to surround the city center. Various initiatives emerged in the course of the year. Hundreds of Vicentines began meeting every week in front of Camp Ederle to bang on pots and pans in protest. Soon after the first act of mass civil disobedience took place: hundreds of people lined up to cut the ducts for fiber optics cables that were to be part of the US military installation. But the most striking symbolic action in this period occurred in April when protesters occupied the Basilica Palladiana, the best-known monument of the city. The occupiers spent two days inside and unfurled banners from the columns. On the last evening thousands of people appeared to applaud and support them. In early September the first No Dal Molin Festival was organized: two weeks of debates, concerts, cultural events, and protests. The festivities, involving tens of thousands, concluded with a protest that finished inside the area designated for construction. Trees were planted on the land, and protesters demanded it be made into a park not a military base. After this event, local government representatives wrote the Italian Ministry of Defense asking for intervention to “eradicate the local components of the dissent” [4] that risked compromising the intergovernmental accords.

Protests and acts of civil disobedience continued into 2008 but were often met with violent repression. The protesters received some encouragement and hope, however, when the candidate for the center-right party, which had controlled local government for many years, lost the mayoral election as a result of the protests. The new mayor, Achille Variati, promised to hold a popular referendum on the military base expansion in October 2008. A delegation from No Dal Molin flew to the United States to meet with several Democratic senators, and in June, the Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale (TAR) put a halt to the project, declaring it formally illegitimate and expressing concern about the environmental impact of the plan. The suspension, however, did not last. With unusual solicitude, in fact, on August 1 the Counsel of State (which in Italy represents the highest organ to decide on judiciary matters) voided the TAR’s judgment and allowed the US military to continue. That same evening, security forces charged at a procession of two thousand people who wanted to occupy the platforms at the train station in protest. Police violence continued and increased against protesters at a series of other events.
In October three days before the proposed referendum the Counsel of State, in an unexpected and unusual decision, blocked the vote, declaring it illegitimate. The city responded with indignation: fifteen thousand people staged an evening protest and pushed Mayor Variati to declare that the referendum would be held despite the official ruling. Twenty-five thousand people waited in line for hours to vote at stations run by volunteers: 95 percent expressed opposition to the US military base.

The Americans, however, were not deterred by the referendum, and at the beginning of 2009 announced the imminent start of the construction. Protesters invented new tactics to block the construction. On one occasion about five hundred activists occupied some parts of the Dal Molin Airport and camped there for two nights despite the threat of removal by the security forces. On another occasion a hundred activists attempted to blockade the site and prevent the trucks from entering, but they were met by a phalanx of four hundred police agents who pushed them back. Protest actions, civil disobedience, and sit-ins continued until the end of the year, but without being able to chip away at the machinery put into motion by the contractors: the new US base grew before their eyes, under the guard of police officers in riot gear.

By January 2010 it had become clear that the construction of the new installation was inevitable. Nevertheless, the US plans continue to remain incomplete: at the moment, no runway has been planned on the eastern side of Dal Molin. The US military will have to give this up, because the mobilization at Vicenza has blocked the further enlargement of the military presence, and the area that was designated for the runway has instead become a city park: Peace Park, the most concrete result of the Vicentine mobilization. That area today continues to be a social laboratory of participation that combines antimilitarism with an affirmation of common goods. But the park is not the only result. Vicenza is no longer the same, and the United States has to reckon with a city ever less hospitable, so much so that holidays once important for friendly encounters with the local community—such as the Fourth of July or Halloween—are now occasions when the sites under the Stars and Stripes close up, forced to guard themselves against the antagonistic citizenry. The Dal Molin affair gave voice to an opposition that was previously silent but now does not stop speaking.

How the Vicenza Movement Transformed Politics
The Vicentine mobilization was organized primarily around a permanent presidium. In physical terms, the presidium was initially simply a large tent somewhat precariously erected in a farm field near Dal Molin. From the sociological point of view, the permanent presidium is a crucible for diversity: among the participants are people of every political and cultural persuasion, coming from the working-class quarters and residential neighborhoods, young and old, workers and professionals. They represent a diverse swath of the city of Vicenza that has come together for the first time. The unifying element, at least initially, was opposition to the US plan.

The permanent presidium has become an unusual laboratory for direct democracy. Every week, hundreds of people participate in the Tuesday assembly, work on flyers and direct actions, and investigate the technical data on the US project. They also meet over the subjects of common goods, war, forms of participation, urban planning, land, and diversity. The Tuesday assembly is only the “formal and institutional moment of the presidium. The occupiers keep discussing Dal Molin at home, at school, at work, in the gym, on the train, on the bus, at the stadium, in the café, in the pizzeria, at the cinema (sotto voce), during protests, and only in the end at the presidium. [5] Thanks to this capillary network of interpersonal relations, the mobilizations have existed for more than three years of weekly initiatives, blitz campaigns, and prompt responses to politicians. In short, the mobilization reinforces communal ties that, in the daily life of a city devoted to productivity, seem to have gone by the wayside. The permanent presidium is thus a new piazza. The assemblies and the initiatives of the struggle are held there, as well as cultural events and information sessions, dinners and parties. Since 2009, a monthly produce market is held there, which is the fruit of an awareness about the importance of the defense of the land and of the activities that valorize it.

The Dal Molin affair has shaken the foundations on which politics in Italy (and elsewhere) is conducted. First, the Vicenza movement refused the role of political representatives and affirmed instead the direct participation of the affected communities. The referendum, forbidden by the state and organized by the citizens themselves, is emblematic of this position and shows how weak the tie is between sovereignty expressed by the state and popular sovereignty. Indeed, the mobilized citizens invade a space that the government would prefer to administer, while claiming to represent the general interest. This is not a new dynamic, but the Vicentine experience—along with other “territorial movements,” such as the opposition to the construction of a high-speed train line in Val de Susa in northwest Italy—is particularly interesting in the Italian context because the actors of the mobilization are atypical. The streets are not filled with a homogeneous social group or experienced activists, but rather with representatives of a broad swath of contemporary society. After the Vicenza experience, the spaces of participation and mobilization have multiplied in Italy on a panoply of environmental, urban, and social issues.

Finally, legality is no longer understood to guarantee the neutrality of the state and its laws. On the one hand, legality becomes an instrument of imposition; in this case, the Counsel of State and the national government, instead of protecting local communities, created a juridical context in which to armor and render unassailable the decisions imposed in order to please US interests. On the other hand, illegal means of conflict came to be considered legitimate due to both the lack of legal means to oppose the military infrastructure and the growing awareness of the democratic limits of the representative institutions. Breaking through nets and fences, occupying public spaces and military sites, and violating bans imposed by the security forces have all been necessary to oppose the plan, but they have also quickly become political tools to clarify the contradictions of the established institutions and reclaim new spaces for democracy. The concept of legitimacy thus has replaced that of legality.

Conclusions: A Military Installation Besieged by the City
Vicenza was, for the second half of the twentieth century, an optimal location for the US Army, providing not only a strategically well-positioned location but also a social fabric little inclined to scrutinize the consequences and risks of such a massive military presence. [6] Over the years, the soldiers have transformed the city into a training camp of their own, doing exercises on the piazzas in the city center and marching in precision along the streets while the students went to school.

The proposed plan for the new US base, however, presented to the city as a fait accompli, constituted for tens of thousands the occasion to express their fears and opposition to a widening military presence. In order to avoid demonstrations and conflict, members of the US military have retreated to the base’s fenced areas. The Americans, who have traditionally done what they wanted without meeting strong opposition, have found themselves being besieged by the city. The military plans suffered a semantic overthrow, passing from being an economic and employment opportunity to a problem. Indeed, even those who support the construction of the new base speak today of sacrifice that should be compensated, thus recognizing that a foreign military presence represents a cost for the area and for the community forced to host, and it is not, as some tried to argue early on, an occasion for the well-being and enrichment of the area.
The other benefit of the movement’s success is the return of public space to the citizenry. Indeed, the mobilization has precipitated a great sensibility to the themes of democracy, environmental protection, and the defense of common goods. In the 2011 campaign for the referendum to privatize the national water supply, [7] Vicenza was one of the areas of the Veneto in which the greatest number of signatures was gathered. In other words, the Dal Molin affair has given social legitimacy to political participation on a wide variety of questions that concern daily life, renewing both the concept and the practices of democracy.

Written by Marco Palma, translated by David U. B. Liu
From South Atlantic Quarterly

1. Camp Ederle extends east of the city, currently covering an area of 612,000 square meters. Within a few hundred meters of the compound is the zone designated for soldiers’ families, which occupies 289,000 square meters. Adding the underground base at Fontega (Arcugnano), the underground military base of Pluto at Longare, the transport center at Torri di Quartesolo, and the logistics center for maintenance of military structures at Lerino, we get 1,326,000 square meters of territory taken away from the residents of Vicenza and given to the U.S. military.
2. A. Di Caro, “A Vicenza comanda Bush” (“In Vicenza Bush Is in Charge”), L’Espresso, September 22, 2006.
3. Besides the local government, the U.S. plan enjoys the assent of the provincial, regional, and national governments, as well as of the Italian military and all the economic sectors.
4. It is what affirms, in a letter addressed to the then Minister of Defense Arturo Parisi, the government commissar Paolo Costa appointed by the Prodi government—and confirmed by the Berlusconi government—the approval of the building of the new U.S. military installation at Dal Molin in Vicenza. G. M. Mancassola, “Tutto rinviato: La base Usa resta bloccata” (“Everything Postponed: The U.S. Base Remains Blocked”), Il Giornale di Vicenza, July 2, 2008.
5. G. Lanaro, Il popolo delle pignatte. Storia del Presidio permanente No Dal Molin (2005–2009), (The People of Pots and Pans: Story of the Permanent Presidium [2005–2009]) (Mestre, ITA: QuiEdit, 2010).
6. From the end of World War II until the end of the 1990s, Vicenza was governed without a break by the Christian Democrats, a center-right Catholic party firmly allied to the United States, such that the city gained the appellation “the sacristy of Italy.”
7. A referendum was held in Italy to abolish certain laws that permitted the privatization of water. After almost twenty years, the referendum has surpassed the requisite 50 percent participation, thereby canceling the law in question.