Can Europe Make It?

American riots, and when pacific protest became political terrorism in Italy

“Americans could experience terrorism of the most horrifying kind, given that the enemy is perceived as internal – it is America itself.”

Simone Redaelli
22 June 2020, 10.24am
Italy: the Years of Lead Revisited.
Screenshot: France24. YouTube.

The whole world recently witnessed the dramatic death of the black man George Floyd in Minneapolis, after Derek Chauvin, a white policeman, pressed his neck to the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Despite the lockdown measures imposed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the case has initiated mass protests in the US and far beyond, with the city of Minneapolis as the initial epicentre of the outburst. While these protests were initially of a peaceful nature, some of them took the form of violent riots, such as the protest leading to flames devouring the 3rd precinct of the Minneapolis police department.

In the midst of this crisis, American politicians – with the mayor of Minneapolis Jacob Frey and the President Donald Trump at the forefront – found their scapegoats. The former blamed white supremacists, members of organized crime groups, instigators coming from other US states and possibly non-American players – in 2016, Russians is said to have created fictitious Black Lives Matter pages to instigate violence among American protesters. By contrast, the latter, supported by General Attorney P. Barr, blamed the radical left.

Their reaction comes as no surprise, given that these declarations, especially those on Twitter, have the ill-concealed aim of polarizing public opinion. While Trump looked desperate – literally run over by the Covid-19 situation – Frey had to face an escalating social riot. However, he is also a Democrat, and for him blaming the far-right is the perfect political first-aid strategy.

Polarization in political narratives intermingles with real facts. Chris McGreal for The Guardian reports that “young white people dressed in black, who at times did not seem to know their way around the city [of Minneapolis], were among the most aggressive with the police.” However, he also points out that “very large numbers of people attacking buildings and looting were from the city, if not from the Lake Street neighbourhood that suffered most”, concluding that different types of people could be spotted, from young white individuals, to African Americans and Latinos. They eventually protested together or, at least, side by side. The idea that the essence of such protests might be substantially more spontaneous and fluid, rather than hierarchical and well-organized, is supported by Hanna Allam, who writes for NPR, concluding that there are no clear proofs supporting a major involvement of either far-right or far-left movements in the current protests.

The consequence of the polarization of political discourse is all too often the loss of the drive and power of the original meaning of these manifestations. We are standing up against black discrimination, against racial inequalities. Although this voice is still loud, it may become enfeebled in social debate, given the strong divide we are witnessing between the political left and right.

After the death of George Floyd, President Trump’s public discourse didn’t touch upon the pressing theme of racism or systemic racial disparities in the US. His first tweet about the case was released only two days after Floyd’s death. Then President Trump tweeted “[...] when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, an exclamation historically used in the late sixties by a police chief accused of using brutal tactics to keep violent riots in predominantly black Miami areas under control. Meanwhile former Vice-President Joe Biden publicly released “Lift Every Voice”, a plan aimed at addressing the issue of racial inequality that permeates American society. Biden also vigorously accused President Donald Trump of inciting domestic violence. He went on to say that Trump’s declarations and tweets have significantly contributed to inflaming the protests, initially restrained by the police.

In this polarised context, the eruption of violent acts among the demonstrators helps undermine any chance of holding a rational debate: from being protesters with rights to be defended, rioters become criminals to be punished. At this point however, a less obvious concern should be discussed more vigorously. What are the long-term sociological effects of this turbulent situation?

The United States is currently at a delicate turning point. George Floyd’s death is not the sole nor the primary reason for the current protests. It was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. History testifies that socio-economic disparities emerge as a structural issue only when all social classes hold civil rights. In the US, the fight against slavery officially began with Freedom Day in 1865. However, when this essential fight against racism entered the twentieth century and the struggle for civil rights captured public attention, the fight for socio-economic equality remained one step aside. The Coronavirus pandemic has precisely revealed that in 2020, the most tangible racial discrimination is of the socio-economic sort, and that these disparities have been ignored, consciously or unconsciously, for far too long.

The historical and socio-economic momentum that the United States is currently experiencing is reminiscent of the turbulent Italian protests of 1968. In Italy, manifestations were, at first, peacefully driven by university students. They were unhappy about the backwardness of the Italian education system, and called for university reforms that were in step with the times. Simultaneously, the Italian working class – the same class that had actively contributed to the economic “miracle” of the previous decade – began to demand higher salaries and a more humane work/life balance. On the wave of the workers’ struggle, Italian students took to the streets. Driven by the vision of a “forthcoming Marxist revolution”, on one side leftist students confronted the police, and on the other their usual enemies, the fascists, resurrected themselves in university halls across the country.

While the Italian socio-political background of that period is very different to the American one of present times, these situations have in common the main structure and developments of the protest. In a context of institutional backwardness and chaos, and in the light of dramatic economic disparities, the most liberal face of the country leads peaceful but turbulent manifestations, which then escalate into violent demonstrations. In these protests, extremists of various political backgrounds and ideologies blend into an indistinguishable crowd. But in the “revolutionary” moment that takes place when it seems that all parties are equally involved, and no one can be called responsible, this is also when political terrorism seeks out and finds fertile ground.

But we should dismiss suggestions that terrorists are leading the current American riots, as repeatedly alleged by president Trump. Violent revolt, as Italian history testifies, is only the dangerous, preparatory stage – a damaged society provides the necessary background for the plot to unfold.

Anybody with historical awareness sadly remembers that the protests of the Italian 1968 were the antechamber to the most terrible season of the Italian Republic: the so-called Years of Lead, which saw recurring internal episodes of political terrorism, beginning with the bombing of Piazza Fontana in Milan, 1969 and lasting for a couple of decades. It took innumerable years to identify the perpetrators, and some questions are still without answers.

Today is not only the day when a white policeman assaults a black civilian. It is the day when citizens may feel that their own fellow citizens are against them. Americans could experience terrorism of the most horrifying kind, given that the enemy is perceived as internal – it is America itself.

In the pandemic era, in the middle of a socio-economic crisis and on the eve of new elections, the United States should not only worry about its citizens’ loss of trust in institutions. Citizens may soon start to look at each other with terror and with anger. This potential escalation must be avoided at all costs.

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