A journal on my three days in Ferrara, Italy for the Internazionale Journalism Festival, October 5-7, 2012.
Driving in Italy in summer is like watching a film with the sound off. You’re left to pour your imagination into the images that flash by, jumping from one cut to the next. Or maybe that was because the radio in the car wasn’t working, and I had to keep my eyes on the road, the signs on the Autostrada, and evade the insane drivers who want to pass you even when you’re doing 160kmph and trying to take in a little bit of scenery. Gli Italiani guidono come pazzi.
The first sight upon entering Ferrara is a sign greeting you, saying “Ferrara: A City for Cyclists”. Cities weren’t made for cars, they were made for people. Especially when they were built out of warm orange bricks over a thousand years ago.
I was lucky enough to come to Ferrara on this occasion by the invitation of Internazionale, an Italian leftist intellectual magazine that translates and publishes articles from around the world in a weekly magazine, and hosts a yearly journalism festival featuring panels, debates, exhibitions, film, theatre, and more. They were gracious enough to provide for accommodation for 2 nights in a cloistered monastery-like hotel, a pass to the festival, and a few meal tickets for local restaurants. I felt lucky to have been afforded such an opportunity, but also with a tinge of ambiguity, since I’d been invited to speak on a panel about Occupy Wall Street, and it really just as easily could have been anybody else. While I’m sensitive to the issue of privilege when standing in the public view and speaking on behalf of the movement, I generally resist the self-effacing apologies and renouncement of any character that are common of OWS as part of an unwritten “no leaders” doctrine, because I view this as echoes of what I like to affectionately call the strain of anti-counter-revolutionary Maoist auto-iconoclasm. In double time; I think that everyone should do all they can, wherever & whenever they can, to share their experiences and spread the movement to others who have no other contact with it. You know how some people make the general argument that a Socialist/Communist (lumping them together) view of an egalitarian society is that we’re all made equal by some auto-reduction to a bare minimum? That’s what they’re talking about, and we should acknowledge when we’re getting in our own way. But this is an issue for another time, and deserves its own post, some day.
We arrived on Friday, my Italian traveling companion Claudia & I checked in at the festival’s registration office, and went out to meet some friends of hers. Claudia knows a ton of people everywhere she goes, especially if it’s got anything to do with the Italian journalism scene. We had dinner at a Hebrew restaurant in neighborhood called “the Jewish Ghetto”. (Everywhere else but New York, or at least in Europe, “ghetto” is positive nomenclature for a part of town.) We talked a lot about Italian politics, which from what I gather from all the information I’ve accumulating, is irredeemably hopeless.
Saturday was the main event. Several interviews had been arranged for me (by whom, I haven’t the slightest idea) starting from the moment I hurried to get dressed and rush out the door. The first one was this RAI Letteratura, who was doing interviews with several panelists to compile a daily video journal. They started off with a few heavy questions, about the economic crisis and its causes, and I elaborated that it’s not simply an economic crisis, but a political, social, and cultural crisis as well. Pretty sure I quoted the Declaration of the Occupation in saying “All our grievances are connected” (a favorite quote of mine) and that any social uprising has got to incorporate a holistic understanding of the intersectionality of connected issues into its analysis in order to really be revolutionary. Any revolution that doesn’t smash sexism & racism ain’t no revolution at all.
After that, I went on to meet another journalist who is also an activist friend and writes for Il Corsaro, a more radical-leaning independent editorial publication. It was a much more relaxing affair, to be able to talk to someone who’s writing a story as acquaintances, as a fellow activist who understands these sorts of things, and not having to worry about what they’re going to publish. We talked a lot about the global movement at year one (depending on when you’re counting from), about the media environment, and how Occupy has seen success in creating its own alternative media structures. I went off on a rant about the mental pollution of advertisements and a political environment where cognitive dissonance is a daily subjection, and how this is where we’re starting from, so it’s the first layer of mold we’ve got to break through to begin the formations of a social uprising. But there’s a lot of wild passion, beautiful & unbridled energy underneath that culturally conditioned apathy, if we can manage to break through it. It was over an hour-long conversation, and Il Corsaro is going to write an editorial about it soon, which I look forward to reading. Will post it here when it’s published!
Afterwards, at around 2:00, I met up with friends David & Laurie for lunch before they also had their own panels as well that evening. David has, of course, been involved in OWS in New York since before the beginning, and I had met Laurie on the bus to Chicago for the #NoNATO protests in May, and we stay in touch via twitter. (I’m being kind of modest, but they’re both really awesome activists with great minds.)
So around 4:00, I started heading over to the panel, which was at a big theatre called the Cinema Apollo. Earlier in the day, @MARYAMALKHAWAJA, a well-known Bahraini activist also at #INF12 tweeted something funny like “I’m at the world famous Apollo Theatre!” This wasn’t quite like that, but even several blocks away walking toward the cinema there were hoards of people waiting in line to get in, and I thought to myself, “These people can’t possibly be waiting to go inside for the festival…” – But sure enough, they were, and in fact there were so many that they had to set up a big projection screens & sound system outside so the people who didn’t get in could also watch. I learned later on that it’s always this way, because the festival is completely free and open to the public, so droves of people come prepared to wait in long lines. Another thing about Italian culture is that they’re ready to throw down by the thousands if it’s for something they really want, like free stuff or football. An Italian activist friend told me once that in Italy for a protest demonstration, if there aren’t at least 50,000 people in the streets, it’s considered a failure.
A little bit of info on the other people who were on the panel with me:
• Paolo Beni: President of ARCI, a network of syndicalist worker cooperatives in Italy.
• Malcolm Hayday: President of Charity Bank, a “_different bank for people who want a different world… finances social enterprises, charities and community organisations, with the support of depositors and investors who want to use their money to facilitate real social change._”
• Ugo Biggeri: President of Banca Etica, another ‘ethical bank’ that does advocacy through a project called “Not With My Money!” which seeks to demystify the confusion of the financial industry by helping people understand their role as depositors, and just what banks are doing with our money.
After introductions, the first question was directed at me; “What are the banks doing with our money?” I started by talking about the Financial Crisis, its root causes and major facilitating factors. A few days before the panel, I had also been asked to write an article for the “Not With My Money” project, in which I outlined some of my thoughts on the crisis and the banks, which I expanded on in the panel. In my mind, one of the most glaring problem is that we have a runaway financial system of disaster capitalism that the majority of the general public really fully understands. I referenced a Wall Street Journal I had read on the plane ride over to Italy, which reported that the IMF recently made a prediction that there won’t be a global economic turnaround until 2018. I asked people in the audience to raise their hands if they know what the IMF is, what it does, and how it works. A scattered handful raised their hands, among hundreds. Can we really accept a society so deeply rooted in a hierarchy of privilege and power that a tiny fraction of the population makes decisions that affect the entire world economy, and while the rest of us don’t even understand what it is they’re doing, we’re supposed to just sit on our hands and wait around for another 6 years while the experts tell us when the economy is going to get better? No, it was these experts who told us in 2008 that we needed to use public money to bail out these banks that had caused the financial crisis in order to save a financial industry that doesn’t serve us, and this is what the banks are doing with our money. Punto.
— alessandro busi (@lagentestamale) October 6, 2012
Malcolm Hayday and Ugo Biggeri also talked about the role of institutions in working with social movements, and we had quite an interesting back & forth – we agreed that they can indeed work as two sides of the same coin, both together and separately. The more reform-minded people can and should work to reach people from inside the system that a social movement doesn’t normally speak to, while an autonomous social movement like OWS must remain fiercely independent and work to put pressure on the institutions to radicalize them, because our power lies in fact that we can’t be tamed or co-opted. I managed to succinctly get out the ideas that I had been mulling over about a holistic analysis, and a revolution of values. We have to reject this idea that Occupy’s success can be measured in terms of statistics, number of people demonstrating in the streets, or if we’re electing politicians who are sympathetic to our platform, or passing reform laws, because what we’re aiming for is a revolution of values. The real measure of the movement’s success thus far is the extent to which it has incited personal transformation and changed our behaviors, the way we interact with the world around us and the people in it. If we support and believe in the movement, attend a demo or an action, but then go back to our old habits of apathy, consumerism, materialism, and ignoring systemic oppressions, then nothing will change.
So what is to be done? Organize. Take Direct Action. Stop waiting for someone else, stop listening to the media, stop listening to the experts up on the stage, including myself! I ended my statements with a call to everyone to self-organize and mobilize the movement to rise up anywhere and everywhere.