Dissent in Italian border town reveals ‘demonization’ of protest, activists say

“The TAV high-speed train won’t take us to Lyon in three hours, but to Athens in five minutes.” This slogan appeared at the Val di Susa “NOTAV” protest last Saturday in the valley of Italy’s Piedmont region on the border with France.

Despite numerous efforts by the Val di Susa community to stop construction of the tunnel, authorities went ahead with the 17 billion-euro project amid the Greek financial crisis and the worsening economic situation in Italy and other European countries.

Organizers said around 70,000 people marched in a peaceful demonstration to stop the TAV tunnel construction, which residents believe will affect their lives in the valley. It wasn’t long before police intervened to stop the protest.

On Monday morning, scrapers and cranes started surrounding the area where the 57-km-long tunnel is supposed be dug. As police forces approached the site to curb protests, Luca Abba, the 37-year-old owner of a piece of land now being fenced, climbed an electricity pylon to escape arrest by police for refusing to leave the site.

Abba reported to a local radio station from the top of the pylon about the scene but suddenly fell and was electrocuted. He was transferred to a hospital in serious condition.

An hour later, the cranes and scrapers destroyed a chalet. The NOTAV activists are now blocking the highway that leads to the city of Turin.

A high speed at a high cost

TAV — which stands for Treno Alta Velocita in Italian — started as an intergovernmental infrastructure plan involving France and Italy in 1991. The plan was meant to speed up the connection between Italy and France and push the market of goods between the two countries.

Val di Susa residents first organized a protest against the tunnel in 1995, fearing the transformation of an uncontaminated, beautiful valley in the mountains into a hazardous construction site for 15 years — only to become a noisy railway.

Activists and residents are critical of the fact that the train will transport goods even though the commercial traffic on this route has been progressively decreasing for 20 years, according to trade records.

Moreover, residents worry the excavation of the mountain, which contains asbestos and uranium, could generate an environmental crisis and increase health risks.

Protests and sit-ins have been organized throughout the country in solidarity with the cause of the small rural community that has become for many Italians a symbol of the fight to reclaim democracy.

But the way the regime and its media has depicted the demonstrations has alarmed many activists.

“As an inhabitant of the valley, I cannot stand to be depicted as a neo-terrorist, just because I live here and I want to discuss the problem with competent authorities. I am a scientist. If someone convinces me that this enterprise is worthy, I’ll accept it,” said Luca Mercalli, a meteorologist.

In the past years, demonstrations by the people of Val di Susa to stop the building of the tunnel ended in violent clashes. Diverse social groups took part in the protests, including families, children, students, farmers, the elderly and members of the religious community.

Even a coalition of mayors of Val di Susa’s towns supported the plight of the protesters, opposing the construction of the tunnel.

An independent committee of scientists, geologists, journalists and various experts has compiled several reports since 2003 against the huge infrastructural enterprise, highlighting the economic fallacies and the environmental and social damages that the operation will cost.

More recently, 400 university professors signed a petition addressed to Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister appointed by Silvio Berlusconi’s former government after a no-confidence vote and the European financial crisis.

Nevertheless, no political party in Italy’s parliament has endorsed the NOTAV activists’ cause. While some opposition parties said the issues of Val di Susa’s residents deserve to be addressed, they condemned all violent acts that “end up discrediting the peaceful movement and cannot be tolerated,” as Pierluidi Bersani, head of the opposition Democratic Party, said.

“There is a lobby of political parties that have economic interests in this project and have no intention to stop it. They have tools like the media and their political influence to be at war against us. But sometimes wars are lost,” a female protester told the Italian newspaper IlFatto.

After Saturday’s peaceful demonstration, Italian media reports focused mainly on the clashes at the station between the police and the “anarchist groups that vandalized the train,” as quoted in Italian dailies Corriere della Sera and Repubblica.

Val di Susa’s protests, alongside other protests in Italy throughout 2011 — the year of Arab revolutions and worldwide protests — have been dismissed by the regime.

Last summer, former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni warned “in Val di Susa, it was possible to taste the fresh outbreak of the insurrection phenomenon. The NOTAV protest is the ideal laboratory to experiment with guerrilla practices considering an expected hot winter [of protests].”

Last week, the head of the Italian police, Antonio Manganelli, warned about the growing dissent in the Val di Susa and all over Italy. In a speech to the parliament, he talked about the possible connection between Italian and Greek cells.

“There is a need for a new legal configuration, different from the simple association form or the armed band, to sue a type of organization that is not particularly structured and allows independent, spontaneous acts,” Manganelli said.

The narrative of the Val di Susa people being associated to terrorism dates back to the 1990s, when a small group organized bomb attacks in the construction areas.

Renowned Italian satirist and blogger Beppe Grillo, a strong supporter of the Val di Susa community, believes that spontaneous non-affiliated movements are deliberately associated with terrorism by the state because it is too difficult for political groups to control them.

“Anyone who no longer has hope, a job, a home, is a danger to the system. The demonization of movements is happening,” he wrote on his widely-read blog.

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