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"A Europe of peace and rights"

November 15, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

"UN EUROPA di pace e diritti! A Europe of peace and rights!" That was the message that rang out in Florence, Italy, November 9 as some 1 million people flooded into the streets for an enormous demonstration. The marchers brought many issues to the protest, but the overwhelming demand was: "No to a war on Iraq!"

The demonstration capped off the five days of the European Social Forum (ESF), a meeting of activists from unions, the global justice movement and different left-wing organizations from across the continent.

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports from Florence on the massive outpouring of opposition to George W. Bush's war--and the milestone meeting of the European Social Forum.

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ITALY'S RIGHT-WING Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pulled out all the stops to whip up a hysteria about the November 9 antiwar demonstration in Florence. He and other officials warned that "violent demonstrators" were coming from across Europe to wreak havoc, and Italian newspapers--especially those owned by Berlusconi--claimed that activists had the city under "occupation."

Police were everywhere on the day of the demonstration, and city officials had thrown up structures to protect statues such as Michelangelo's David--which demonstrators were supposedly determined to deface.

The reality turned out to be the exact opposite. In fact, protesters on the march remembered the real source of "violence" and "mayhem" at demonstrations against the Group of Eight summit in Genoa last year--Berlusconi's police force, which murdered 23-year-old protester Carlo Giuliani. Some marchers carried signs reading "Ciao, Carlo" to underline that tragic fact.

Not only was the protest nonviolent, but residents--who had been advised to shun the demonstration by local politicians--welcomed protesters as they marched down the streets. Peace signs hung from buildings along the route, and residents waved red scarves and threw confetti from their windows. The streets were a sea of people--dotted with the rainbow colors of the marchers' flags and banners. Members of Partito della Rifondazione Comunista--the socialist left wing of the former Communist Party--marched in a huge contingent, carrying red flags and singing revolutionary songs.

Even the media admitted that as the beginning of the demonstration reached the end of a nearly 5-mile-long march route, groups of protesters hadn't even stepped off yet at the starting point.

The mood was festive--but also defiant. With the march coming the day after the United Nations (UN) Security Council's unanimous vote for a resolution that the U.S. will use as an excuse for war, the sense of urgency was clear.

Many demonstrators said that the UN vote had convinced them that they had to turn out. "This war, when it comes, will be one of the most unpopular in history, and we have to do something to try to stop it," said Alain Krivine, a French revolutionary socialist and member of the European parliament. "Florence has shown that there is radical opposition, from young and old people, and from all different countries."

The feeling of unity was underlined by a huge showing from Italy's union movement. Young college students marched side by side with members of the left-wing union COBAS.

A contingent from the metalworkers union FIOM included autoworkers from the Italian car giant Fiat, where the Agnelli family dynasty is planning on slashing more than 8,000 jobs. The union has called two days of strikes, protests and sit-ins to protest the layoffs. On the march, chants of "Agnelli Out! Berlusconi Out! Bush Out!" echoed down the route. Other union marchers carried signs that read "I am illegal"--in solidarity with the immigrant workers scapegoated by Berlusconi and other political leaders across Europe.

Earlier this month, the country's biggest labor federation, the 6-million-strong General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL), decided to endorse the protest. Daniela Bosselli, a CGIL official in Florence, estimated that some 50,000 members of the federation were on the demonstration. "The CGIL is categorically against the coming war," Bosselli told Socialist Worker. "We are an important component and form an important contingent in this march. The struggle against war can be the most important element to unify the work of trade unions around the world."

Italian workers have been hit hard by the government's attacks on workers' pensions and labor laws protecting union rights. The CGIL responded last month with a one-day general strike--the second one this year. The huge turnout for the Florence protest showed that workers are connecting the attacks on their unions at home with Bush and Berlusconi's plans for a war abroad.

After the protest, organizations began making plans for future actions, including emergency demonstrations when the war begins. Some Italian unions are discussing calls for strikes when the war begins. These types of actions would have a critical impact on the struggle against Bush's war.

Activists in the U.S. can take confidence in the massive outpouring of opposition that was reflected in the streets of Florence--and inspiration in the potential for building the fight here at home.

Discussing the road forward

ORGANIZERS OF the European Social Forum (ESF) were hopefully predicting 20,000 attendees at their five-day political conference in Florence last week. In the end, nearly three times that number turned out.

The ESF was called as a follow-up to last year's World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Dozens of meetings and workshops took place during the five days, covering any number of topics--all with the aim of knitting together an opposition to the global fat cats and the politicians.

Attendees packed standing-room-only meetings to hear well-known speakers such as José Bové, Walden Bello, Tariq Ali, Christophe Aguiton and Susan George, among many others. Thousands came out to a special panel discussion on Palestine featuring Mustafa Bargudi, who was part of a delegation of Palestinians. Young people crowded the three floors of literature tables, which represented a broad range of human rights and political organizations.

At the same time, activists got to draw on the experiences of each other's struggles. At one labor meeting, unionists from the U.S. and Belgium spoke about their joint campaign to go after a sweatshop employer--and the need to build lasting international solidarity, not only among workers in advanced countries, but between North and South.

At the meeting, a Thai worker looked at the unionists around her--a Volkswagen worker from Germany and a railworker from Britain--and said: "There's no boundary of the South anymore. The 'South' is in Manchester; it's in Germany."

Noticeably absent from the week of discussions were representatives of the center-left parties that have been in and out of government in most European countries over the past decade--for example, the French Socialist Party or Italy's Olive Tree coalition of moderate left parties. These parties were especially fearful of identifying themselves with probably the most dominant issue at the conference--the struggle against the U.S. war on Iraq.

Throughout the week, the importance of opposing the war was a given for most activists and organizers. This is something that the global justice movement in the U.S.--where recent demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have tried to separate out the issue of the war--should learn from.

Ultimately, left-wing and revolutionary parties made a strong showing. The most prominent was Rifondazione, one of the groups to emerge from Italy's former Communist Party. Rifondazione has moved to the left since the defeat of the Olive Tree coalition, and its presence at the ESF is another sign of this shift.

The sheer size of the European Social Forum shows the potential for left-wing ideas to spread still farther--especially as the antiwar movement develops.

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