Rome, Venice, Milan, Turin, Bologna, & Bari, Italy | In a dimly lit room at the back of a little independent bookstore, two dangerous radicals, members of the notorious Green Mafia, plot against the fossil-capital regime:
Johnny Frontline: [panicking] “Godfather, I don’t know what to do…there’s a climate and ecological emergency and the government refuses to act. It’s still just blah blah blah. I don’t know what do.”
Don Vito Climatone: “You can start by acting like a rebel!” [smacks Johnny across the face] “What’s the matter with you?! You gonna just cry?! “Oh, what can I do? What can I do?” Listen, you look terrible. I want you to rest. I want you to eat. In a month from now, this government big shot’s gonna give us what we want…”
Johnny Frontline: [shakes head dejectedly] “It’s too late. They start drilling in a week.”
If Extinction Rebellion Italy were to release this sketch it might be pushing the boundaries of creative messaging towards the absurd. Yet this flight of fancy didn’t need to be dreamed up by a young activist on TikTok – it was inspired by the rather more stodgy creatives over at the Government of Italy.
In a disturbing trend that has become the new normal in Italy, peaceful eco-activists are being branded a “danger to security and public order”, served with specious charges, banned from cities without trial, and criminalized under anti-terrorist laws intended to prosecute the Mafia.
While repression of dissent has been on the rise globally, from the use of terrorism (RICO) charges to intimidate Stop Cop City activists in Atlanta, Georgia to Milei’s anti-demonstration decrees in Argentina, right-wing forces within the Italian government are raising the bar, criminalizing any people who take to the streets to denounce the inability of governments to tackle the climate crisis.
Italy’s crackdown is no longer directed solely at the likes of Ultima Generazione, part of the A22 Network that includes Just Stop Oil and other vanguard direct action groups. Members of these smaller yet highly active groups have been continually hounded with illegitimate charges and regularly prosecuted to the maximum of penalties – and now the government’s tolerance for eco-activism of any sort continues to narrow.
Here’s the most recent example of what the Italian government considers so dangerous: On Dec 9th in a coordinated day of action, members of Extinction Rebellion turned the rivers of six cities green with a harmless dye to denounce the inaction of COP28, and used climbing gear to suspend themselves from bridges to show how life is hanging by a thread.
Papier-mâché houses were displayed sinking into the waters, while participants played music, made speeches, distributed leaflets, and engaged with curious pedestrians. Excited tourists flocked around with smartphones snapping selfies. The Don would be impressed with this level of brutal intimidation and hardcore criminal activity.
But this is no joke, especially for the Venice Police Commissioner. In line with right wing politicians like Venice’s Mayor Brugnaro and Infrastructure Minister Salvini, who has publicly stated that all activists should go to prison, the Venetian police claim they are defending the city from “a danger to security and public order”. In other words, people who simply participate in demonstrations are unilaterally deemed guilty of very serious crimes, formally designated “dangerous people” under the law, and are banned from entire cities.
During the action in Venice, 28 people were arrested, including a random tourist and members of the press. They were held for eight hours with no outside communication. Cameras, musical instruments, and other equipment were confiscated. 27 charges and five city bans lasting 4-years were served, though the police were forced to revoke one expulsion order because it illegally banned a student from attending her university. To top it off, two additional “DASPO” bans were served – these are bans from public areas originally enacted to prevent repeatedly violent soccer fans from accessing sporting events.
Quite a response for combatting some tracing dye, a bit of papier-mâché, and a cello.
The police overreaction caused a public outcry. Fifty teachers from Ca’ Foscari University wrote an open letter calling the response an “intimidating and unhealthy act for a democratic society”. In Turin, a petition signed by 2500 people, including many professors, asked the government “to guarantee maximum freedom of demonstration and to avoid the criminalization of dissent”.
Deaf to the voices of the community they supposedly serve, the Venetian police continue to dig in their heels. Two weeks later, everyone identified with the Grand Canal action was summoned for an “oral warning”, a prelude to special state surveillance usually reserved for members of the Mafia. Days later, two more city bans were served, also based on illegitimate legal grounds.
“These complaints are a clear attempt to scare, intimidate, and isolate those who express dissent,” explains one of the activists expelled from Venice. “They are trying to redirect us towards fighting off charges instead of fighting against climate change.”
The Italian government is attempting to construct a narrative that defines those who join climate movements as eco-terrorists and criminals. Yet the more the government bears down on this strategy, the more ridiculous and transparent the Orwellian doublespeak becomes.
For example, when Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro condemned the protest, claiming that public transportation had been halted as a result, he failed to appreciate the irony of his own statements and received significant backlash on Twitter from citizens more concerned with rising sea levels flooding Venice than with banners on bridges.
“Due to the acrobatics of self-styled eco-activists, or rather eco-vandals, we had to interrupt the public transport service and navigation in the Grand Canal,” Brugnaro wrote in a statement released by Venice city hall. “Venice is a fragile city, to be loved and above all to be respected. Enough is enough,” he added.
Right, enough is enough. Venice, like the rest of our planet, is fragile. For eco-activists, and increasingly for all citizens, that’s exactly the point.
Last year, Venice was hit by such an extreme drought that it was impossible for gondolas, water taxis and ambulances to pass through some canals. And as the sea level rises more and more, activists in Italy are asking their government: who will you accuse when the Grand Canal is truly blocked because the sea has invaded Venice?
Nicholas Klein, a trade union activist, once said in a 1918 speech, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you”. For decades, eco-activists have been ignored, mocked, and now more and more, attacked. Authorities beholden to uphold the status quo, which is simultaneously burning and drowning the planet, have become so reactive to civil disobedience and public demonstration precisely because it threatens their control. They’ve got it right that eco-activists are dangerous, but dangerous to who?
Such activism threatens only to expose the truth and mobilize demand for real change. This is the great crime of the Green Mafia against the henchmen of extinction. Their disruption is pushing the justice system and can end when the police do their job – stop criminalizing ordinary people and start investigating the real criminals fueling climate change.
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