A victory won by a joint resistance on land and at sea
I’ll try and sum up Saturday’s extraordinary events, though it’s not easy… Zero Boats #14: CATANIA!
The 177 have landed. First the 27 minors, then 13 people with suspected TB, in ambulances. Finally, late last night the announcement came that the remaining 137 people had permission to disembark. The flight and resistance of these 177 women and men, together with the solidarity of the activists and humanitarian workers, has brought the dynamics of the new Italian politics into yet another crisis point.
The migrants had been detained on board the Coast Guard ship the ‘Diciotti’ for 10 days, five of them at the port of Catania. The vessel had picked them up in international waters but within the Maltese ‘search and rescue zone’. The closest European port, however, was Lampedusa. The vessel made its way to Lampedusa but was refused entrance by the Italian government, who insisted that Malta accept the passengers. Malta responded that its responsibilities ended with the identification of a secure port and coordination of the rescue. The vessel then made its way to Catania as a technical stop (under the orders of the Ministry of Transport), where it remained blocked for five days, the authorities – under the direct command of the Minister of the Interior, Salvini – refusing to give permission for the landing of the 177.
Over the past week, every part of civil society, including many political parties, have moved to force the government to give permission to land: the Democratic Party, the trade unions, the extra-parliamentary left, the Church, even important parts of the centre-right (including the astonishing statement by Berlusconi’s man in Sicily, declaring “Salvini, you’re not a racist, you’re just a dickhead”). On Friday, the passengers – almost all Eritreans – declared that they would be going on a hunger strike, despite their long period of malnutrition in Libya, on the sea, in the port: a final desperate act of resistance by over a hundred people who have already fled an authoritarian, violent dictatorship. (It should be recalled that Eritreans have often called hunger strikes in the past, often in Lampedusa – notably back at the end of 2015 when the Hotspot system was introduced, in refusal of being forced to give their fingerprints in Italy).
On Saturday, the situation came to a head. A protest was called at the port, bringing together activist groups and political parties from across Sicily. Around a thousand people were present, perhaps more (“3,000” officially…). From Palermo we were about a hundred – small groups in separate cars, no central organisation, just people flocking to the city port, responding individually to the call-out. It was a genuine protest, an expression of the rage we’re all feeling in the face of this government, the outlandish, preposterous, inhumane statements of Salvini and the inhumanity he is inspiring among so many. To put it simply, a few years’ ago it was normal to hear a young Italian in a bar or at the school gates saying “we’re a welcoming country, refugees are welcome here, poor people”, and now the same person will say “there are too many, let them drown.” And at their head, Salvini spouting off soundbites such as “let them come and arrest me”, “I alone take the moral and historic responsibility for what is happening”. When the Eritreans announced their hunger strike, Salvini tweeted a picture of himself digging into a sandwich, commenting how many Italians are in poverty and go hungry.
There was a rally at the harbour, next to the quay leading to the Coast Guard ship and its human cargo in the background, thought too far away for the passengers to see or hear. Contemporaneously, the migrants with TB and some of the women were disembarked. At the end of the speeches – including an excellent speech by a West African mediator for MSF, about Europe’s responsibility for its colonial past in Africa – we all moved a different quay, on the other side of the harbour but closer to the Coast Guard ship across the water. From here we could clap and cheer, we set off paper lanterns and fireworks, we cheered ‘freedom’, libertà, حرية, ሓርነት. We knew from people on board that the passengers could hear us, that they appreciated the solidarity. (Over the past week there had been a series of smaller protests, not only from dedicated anti-racist activists in Catania but also from some right-wing groups).
We stood around for a while, things seemed to be coming to a close when two moments kicked off within a short distance of time. A concert was meant to close the rally, but the police had occupied the space next to the first quay, forming a line – kitted up with shields and helmets – to stop anyone from making their way down the jetty towards the Coast Guard vessel itself. A confrontation had begun between groups of mainly local activists and the police line, as there had been the declared intention to try and approach the vessel. During the face-off, which had involved a small amount of physical contact, one of the police officers lost his head and charged into the crowd, beating and several students. It was an unprovoked attack, and in the footage you can see quite clearly that even his fellow officers then ran in and yanked him back behind the lines, clearly aware of the fuck up. Three people were taken to hospital, including two with head wounds. The young girl’s mother was beside her when she was beaten; she literally had her blood on her hands and fury in her eyes.
While the furor broke loose at the first quay, however, a group of activists stripped off and dived in at the second quay, swimming over the harbour and towards the Coast Guard ship. The eight swimmers managed to make their way to the ship itself, evading the motorboats of various police agencies, and even managing to call up to the detained passengers on board. Most of the crowd then made its way over the the second quay to cheer them on. As we made our way over, the news came through that Salvini is being officially investigated for the illegal detention of persons and abuse of office (which I’ll return to below). The swimmers finally made their way away from the Coast Guard ship, and some other protesters began to strip off and dive into the water as well. At this point in all the chaos however, a further announcement came: that the landing had been authorised for all of the passengers!
The swimmers made their way to the first quay, where an expectant crowd heaved them out of the water, forming a cordon around them to prevent the police from making any arrests. They were met with the news of victory, a victory won by a joint resistance on land and at sea. The deal supposedly struck for the disembarking of the Diciotti reveals much about the current situation: 20 people to Albania, 20 to Ireland and the remaining hundred or so are to be hosted by the Catholic Church. The Irish contribution is almost certainly present only because the Pope was on an official visit to Ireland over the last few days. The importance of the Catholic left in this fight cannot be under-estimated: earlier in the day rumours had circulated that the Italian bishops were discussing coming to the port of Catania en masse to welcome the passengers of the Diciotti. The Catholic hierarchy, and the congregations they bring with them, are possibly the main threat to Salvini’s attempt to gain greater power over the Italian state.
The Albanian contribution, however, is a new development – a deal over migrants with a non-EU country, clearly a sign of good will from one of Italy’s long-standing weaker allies, but also the expression of a threat from the Italian government to EU states that they are willing to make deals outside of the EU if they do not win out in negotiations. This is important inasmuch as it also expresses the real battle being played out on the backs of the African working class: the tussle between the Italian state and the EU in view of the upcoming budget, in which the government will either need to make massive spending cuts, increase VAT or split from the EU. In all likelihood Salvini and Di Maio (if the coalition lasts that long) will attempt to renegotiate Italian state debt and their obligations. But if the examples of Greece and Britain are followed, their attempts to negotiate will not bear much fruit.
Where are we left now? Salvini – Minister of the Interior and self-baptised head of state (inasmuch as he acts in that role) – is now under criminal investigation for illegal detention of persons and abuse of office. For the investigations to go further, the Senate will need to vote them through (a draconian process, through which Berlusconi was protected by his parliamentary majority for years). Salvini’s party, the League, will no doubt oppose the vote. The question remains over their coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, which has campaigned for years against corruption, abuse of office, and often called for the resignation of ministers. But of course, now that they’re in power, everything’s changed: this morning the party leader, Di Maio, claimed that Salvini has transgressed the code of ethics of neither the Italian government nor the Five Star party. This show of hypocrisy is not only shameful, but it simply another nail in his party’s coffin.
Everything remains unstable. Perhaps Salvini’s plan all along was to be investigated and play the victim, increasing his vote share. Perhaps we went too far, and didn’t count on the strength of the Church, nor the persistence of the left in maintaining the spotlight on the Dicioitti case. Perhaps everything is going to plan, the coalition will collapse, the Five Star vote will be wiped out, and in a coming election Salvini will gain a clear majority. But for now, the 177 passengers can disembark, along with the crew and humanitarian workers who have accompanied them these past two weeks. There will be more rescues and more landings, more hostages, stand-offs and indictments. More life-jackets and ambulances. Whoever remains in government or fills their place, the dynamics for a new chapter are being set, in which the Italian ports are closed, Europe is the enemy, and a deep racism within the Italian population has been let loose.
To finish, simply the words of a comrade from Catania, standing on the quay staring out over at the Diciotti. When someone asked “They’re strong swimmers, right?” she replied: “They’re good militants is what they are!”
Photo by: Naomi Morello
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