The nonviolence of the march

Azione nonviolenta

ABSTRACT: The 6th antimilitarist and nonviolent march took place from Trieste to Aviano (26 July - 4 August 1972), despite the general incredulity and the various obstacles encountered, such as the provocative mobilization of the fascists (which failed miserably) and the conflicts between the carabinieri and the police. This great march has also convinced some militants of Lotta Continua (1), who went so far as joining in, the comrades from Il Manifesto (2) and the population at large, because it proved the nonviolent method's extraordinary capacity of action.
(NONVIOLENT ACTION, July/August 1972)

The antimilitarist and nonviolent march from Trieste to Aviano (approximately 150 kilometres, 10 days of uninterrupted demonstration) "occurred" in all its stops and according to the general pre-established program. In the climate and in the conditions in which it took place, it is this "simple" fact - even more than the march's specific elements of success - which stands out as an important aspect "of political value" to ascribe to the initiative. The inhabitants themselves of the places crossed by the march have underlined this fact with astonishment and admiration. "We couldn't believe that a march of this kind could take place in this area. And if ever you managed to start off from Trieste, we thought your march wouldn't have gone past the first stop, concluded on police vans or in ambulances".
There were sufficient reasons to buttress this belief. There was the peculiar, nerve-centre nature of the area: both from a patriotic point of view - the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, "imbibed with the glorious blood of the fallen of World War I", "sacred to the perennial memory of the Homeland", could not tolerate the profanation of an antimilitarist initiative; and also from a political point of view, which made that initiative extremely delicate, in an area where a good third of the Italian army and a considerable contingent of NATO forces are deployed. Moreover, there was a further, perhaps more important reason - the menacing mobilization of the fascists against the march, with fly-sheets and photographs attacking and insulting the demonstrators, inviting their followers, the local population and the army to intervene against the participants, explicitly asking the military authorities to prohibit the march with the use of force, if necessary, announcing a counter-march on the part of the friends of the armed forces. In spite of all this, the "miracle" has taken place. We have to acknowledge that the fascists themselves have favoured us with their silly move, asking the government to prohibit the march. The government's negative reply to such absurd request to expose itself (at a moment in which it still greatly needed to bear its mask as champion of the democratic order), preventing a priori the fundamental constitutional right to freedom of expression and demonstration of ideas, had the twofold effect of endowing the march with an official endorsement in the eyes of the public opinion and - still more important - of providing the demonstrators with a cover vis-à-vis the local police forces, which that endorsement prevented from hindering the march with the usual, illegitimate reasons pertaining to public order.


How could the "miracle" take place? It is a newspaper such as Il Corriere della Sera (3), which, though with a subdued description of the events, provides the key, given the enormous evidence of the fact. In a long article of 5 August on the march, it states: "The march started off from Trieste, on the evening of 25 July, under a hail of rotten eggs, tomatoes and potatoes. The eggs, among other things, struck the vice police commissioner and the head of the flying squad. Three arrests, which followed immediately, dissuaded the small groups of the extreme Right from resorting again to such ammunition. A massive and constant police service and the "nonviolent commitment of the demonstrators" (our underlining, editor's note) did the rest. For such reasons, except for a brawl which was immediately stifled, the march reached its conclusion without serious complications on Sunday 30 July in Udine".
Far more than "doing the rest", it is unquestionable that the nonviolent conception and techniques, that were guarantied all moments of the several dozens hours of demonstration, were the prevailing, essential and decisive element for the realization of the march.


The provocations and attacks of the fascists occurred not only in Trieste, during the demonstration that opened the march, in the evening. They occurred day after day, with every effort and intent, and were favoured by the tolerance, complicity and connivance of the police forces. Thus, the fascists were allowed to insult, riot, threaten and attack, throwing eggs and vegetables at every rally-debate of the demonstrators in the evening or at certain points of transit of the march. Except that - unfortunately for them - we didn't react with the usual, childish and suicidal reaction of retaliating: the demonstrators reacted neither with anger nor insults, nor by using physical violence and counter-attacks. Screams and threats were answered with a calm disposition and with a smile, and the hail of vegetables were welcomed with clapping (whenever possible the demonstrators even ate the vegetables that remained intact). The marchers themselves invited the police (in the event that the police wanted to...) not to stop the fascist disturbers and trouble-makers. Then they invited them to talk, to use our microphones: and this was the end for them: they were annihilated by their own incapacity to express any idea, and thus remained naked in their condition of poor devils prepared only for riots and violence, useful to those who manoeuvred them precisely for their intellectual misery.
Thus, while in the difficulty of the atmosphere of tension and in the constant effort to avoid clashes, the fascist parade itself favoured the march, stirring the attention and increasing the marchers' credit in the eyes of the public, which appreciated their peaceful behaviour and their honest, democratic inclination to dialogue. Deprived in such way of that repression which would have enabled them to play the victims, deprived of their congenial terrain of physical clash which would have excited them in their role of heroes, hampered in their attempt to cause a riot which would have authorized the police to intervene and stop the march, the fascists were reduced to impotence and lastly to that ghetto of isolation (in Trieste they were over 100, then progressively less) in which they had planned to relegate the participants of the march (possibly even forced to fight amongst themselves because of the humiliating defeat inflicted on them by those defenceless followers of nonviolence, that "bunch of queers, lesbians and drug addicts" which they had promised to "greet as they deserve").


Once neutralized the extremist provocation, capable of causing the march to degenerate into the explosion of street riots, the police, thus excluded from its favourite terrain, was ill at ease. After the crucial moment when the march began in Trieste, the march continued against all odds, thus obtaining a first, important political success; the police headquarters of the various cities continued to give space to the fascist provocative initiative, in order at least to support the police's role as guardians of the law between two opposed extremisms, thus justifying the massive, threatening deployment of forces and every sort of obstacle and prohibition which could somehow restrain the march's growing success.
At the fifth stop, in Udine, after the great success of the previous step of Palmanova, where hundreds of soldiers attended the marchers' rally-debate, the carabinieri (special units had been selected for the "police service" on the march, instead of normal policemen) tried to override the line suggested by the police headquarters (fundamentally neutral toward the marchers, whose nonviolent behaviour defused the fascists' provocative game and confined it to be the only extremism on the field), and to cause the suppression of the march directly. On entering Udine, the procession passed under the headquarters of the MSI (4). From the windows of the building, a furious hail of eggs and tomatoes and potatoes: the procession predictably comes to a halt, and the marchers react with smiles and clapping. The procession starts off again, but a small group at the end remained under the fascist headquarters. Marco Pannella (5) (acknowledged to be one of the march's "leaders") reached the group to urge it to move: in the meanwhile the fascists have come out of their headquarters, "overcome the cordon of carabinieri" and pounce on the group. Finally, physical contact with the marchers and the brawl. While some of these are being beaten up, the carabinieri suddenly strike Pannella repeatedly with their gunstocks and with particular violence strike him on the head (Pannella will have to go to hospital, where they apply four stitches). Blood is running, but the marchers do not react. At that moment, the police officials themselves intervene on the carabinieri, screaming, and prevent them from carrying out their plan. This intervention (it is important to underline it) is an immediate and spontaneous reaction: they are those police officials of the headquarters of Trieste, Gorizia and Udine who have spend entire days with the marchers in close contact, have discussed and fraternized with them, and finally cannot cooperate and on the contrary disagree with the repressive policy of their superiors. Shortly after, in the square, in front of the whole staff of the police forces, the head of the police, the vice head, the commissioners and the officials feel the need to express not only "regret", but also "indignation", and "disgust" for the accident occurred.
Something even more significant takes place: the head of the police of Pordenone, under whose jurisdiction the march is after Udine, orders to have a special unit of the police at his disposal, and subtracts the personal control of the demonstrators from the carabinieri; from that moment on, the latter assume a secondary role. Conflicts and open clashes continue to occur between police officials and officers of the carabinieri; a first, immediate example occurs in Codroipo, the stop after Udine. On approaching a barrack at the borders of the village, in front of which we were supposed to halt, someone had deployed a few platoons of servicemen with leveled machine guns: it then occurred (a very rare fact in these decades of democratic order!) that the police behaved in a clear-cut manner, in the respect of its institutional functions, forcing the officers of the barrack and those of the carabinieri to order the servicemen to re-enter the barrack at once. Therefore, from them on until the conclusion of the march, the carabinieri remain isolated and grudging, and we are in contact with the police, that now aim to avoid any possible accident (we have even obtained - a rare fact indeed - to have a head of the police to speak from our microphones, to give an honest account of the events and to justify himself for positions that are being challenged), the marchers have conquered a further space for the development of their action in a safer and more relaxed climate.


Without expatiating further (we might add many other episodes and references to these notes), we seem to have given sufficient demonstration of this fundamental lesson of the march - its greatest lesson, and the most fertile one: i.e. the nonviolent method's extraordinary capacity of action - of defence and struggle. Even those who are most skeptic as to the validity of this method, have had to acknowledge that the antimilitarists, armed with nonviolence, have succeeded in this march to leave a mark where every other solid political formation, acting in the traditional way of answering the opponent on his provocative and violent terrain, would not have succeeded in going on. Because this second method would have caused to fall into the usual booby trap of sterile clashes and of the alibi of the violent street repression; thus preventing the achievement of the effective political action they had planned: the conquest of their own right to public action, direct contact with the people, the action of propaganda and agitation, smothering itself in the contrast with the fake and artificial opposer of the system represented by the criminal rabble or with the mediated opposer represented by the police forces. However, the success of the march, in its specific objective of experimenting and circulating the nonviolent method, goes beyond the importance of having overcome the obstacle of such "opponents", fascists and police - unarmed and isolated in their impotent hooliganism the former, deprived of any pretext to stifle the march with their usual repressive method the latter. For us the most significant success regards the closest, most effective interlocutors: first of all, the other comrades of political struggle who, from our point of view, have much to learn as regards the acquisition of adequate methods of action, and also the public opinion generally.


A few precise examples regarding the former. A number of militants of "Lotta Continua" joined the march as participants or supporters. Their initial position vis-à-vis the march's nonviolent characteristic, which they did not share, was important during the first few days, causing moments of tension and dissent. Then, as days went by, and as the formidable experience of the march advanced, we saw the militants from Lotta Continua join the march from within, change their biased position and become followers of the nonviolent techniques. The external ones, who for the initial steps has sided the marchers, defending them from the fascists, saw their eagerness stifled by the revelation that there was no better form of defence and initiative than our nonviolent praxis.


The same is true for the comrades from "Il Manifesto". As a movement, Il Manifesto not only had not supported the march, but its paper had even published miserable attacks against the nonviolent policy. A few days after the conclusion of the march, which had direct repercussions on Il Manifesto ("a flood of letters was sent to the newspaper's offices), with convenient intelligence it tried an in-depth analysis of the confrontation, covering the subject of nonviolence and of the march's value with an entire page, with two columns containing a series of letters pro and against. According to Il Manifesto, "the crudeness of the positions itself" proved "the existence of a series of problems which the comrades perceive and which they have to come to terms with". Thus, to those who wanted to close the debate with the nonviolent antimilitarists, "shoving the pacifists in the enclosure of the outcast" - in the words of the editors - it answered that it considered it dutiful and useful to devote space to the debate "because it touches on something very profound".


Lastly, a few words on the nonviolent march's repercussion on the population generally speaking. Obviously we cannot pick up the population's reaction in an immediate, tangible way; but there is no doubt that, like single people of the areas crossed by the march felt the impulse to express their support for our creative way of conducting our initiative, in the same way for the multitude of people who followed it or heard about it, there was a lively reaction of reflexion and a more attentive consideration for this peculiar method of nonviolent struggle. The march has had effects which are not immediately calculable but which could have far-reaching effects.
One last remark. Among the participants of the march - for the first time summoned under the explicit aegis of the principle and of the method of nonviolence - there was no unanimity on this subject (the genuineness of the participation relied only on the implicit acceptance of the declared nonviolent nature of the initiative, in the absence of any preventive choice or control). Aware of this limit, the groups that organized the march, while preparing a text containing the principles, the recommendations and the techniques which the participants should have followed, called it "non-rules of the march", knowing that the concept of "rule" which rigidly bound the participants in a preventive stage not only would have had no practical effect, but would also have caused useless and unsolvable disagreements and contrasts. In practice, the followers of nonviolence were a small minority among the marchers (not even 20%) and maybe only half were those who fully accepted the techniques of nonviolent behaviour. In spite of this, the initiative was successful, and proved, with blazing evidence (once on the field and directly experimented) the validity of the method of nonviolent discipline.

Translator's notes

(1) LOTTA CONTINUA. One of the most important and widespread political movements of the extreme left, established in 1969 in Turin. In 1971 it created the homonymous newspaper, which became immediately popular. It detached the extraparliamentary Left from the laborite prejudicial, penetrating the youth and students' milieu, the conscripts, the prisons, etc. Its chief leader was the journalist and writer Adriano Sofri.

(2) IL MANIFESTO. Monthly magazine (and political movement) established in 1969 by exponents of the communist party (A. Natoli, R.Rossanda, L.Pinto, L.Magri, etc.) who were later expelled. In 1971, the magazine became a daily newspaper and supported communist formations not represented in Parliament.

(3) IL CORRIERE DELLA SERA. Italian daily newspaper, established in Milan in 1876.

(4) MOVIMENTO SOCIALE ITALIANO. Party founded in 1946 by former fascists, active in particular during the Repubblica Sociale Italiana which opposed the allied forces and the legitimate government, cooperating with the Germans (1943-1945). In 1972 it merged with the Party of Monarchic Union (PDIUM), and changed its name into MSI-Destra Nazionale: Secretaries: Giorgio Almirante (1946-50 and as of 1969), A. De Marsanich (1950-1954), A. Michelini (1954-1969), Pino Rauti and currently Gianfranco Fini.

(5) PANNELLA MARCO. Pannella Giacinto, known as Marco. (Teramo 1930). Currently President of the Radical Party's Federal Council, which he is one of the founders of. At twenty national university representative of the Liberal Party, at twenty-two President of the UGI, the union of lay university students, at twenty-three President of the UNURI, national union of Italian university students. At twenty-four he advocates, in the context of the students' movement and of the Liberal party, the foundation of the new radical party, which arises in 1954 following the confluence of prestigious intellectuals and minor democratic political groups. He is active in the party, except for a period (1960-1963) in which he is correspondent for "Il Giorno" in Paris, where he established contacts with the Algerian resistance. Back in Italy, he commits himself to the reconstruction of the radical Party, dissolved by its leadership following the advent of the centre-left. Under his indisputable leadership, the party succeeds in promoting (and winning) relevant civil rights battles, working for the introduction of divorce, conscientious objection, important reforms of family law, etc, in Italy. He struggles for the abrogation of the Concordat between Church and State. Arrested in Sofia in 1968 as he is demonstrating in defence of Czechoslovakia, which has been invaded by Stalin. He opens the party to the newly-born homosexual organizations (FUORI), promotes the formation of the first environmentalist groups. The new radical party organizes difficult campaigns, proposing several referendums (about twenty throughout the years) for the moralization of the country and of politics, against public funds to the parties, against nuclear plants, etc., but in particular for a deep renewal of the administration of justice. Because of these battles, all carried out with strictly nonviolent methods according to the Gandhian model - but Pannella's Gandhi is neither a mystic nor an ideologue; rather, an intransigent and yet flexible politician - he has been through trials which he has for the most part won. As of 1976, year in which he first runs for Parliament, he is always elected at the Chamber of Deputies, twice at the Senate, twice at the European Parliament. Several times candidates and local councillor in Rome, Naples, Trieste, Catania, where he carried out exemplary and demonstrative campaigns and initiatives. Whenever necessary, he has resorted to the weapon of the hunger strike, not only in Italy but also in Europe, in particular during the major campaign against world hunger, for which he mobilized one hundred Nobel laureates and preeminent personalities in the fields of science and culture in order to obtain a radical change in the management of the funds allotted to developing countries. On 30 September 1981 he obtains at the European parliament the passage of a resolution in this sense, and after it several other similar laws in the Italian and Belgian Parliament. In January 1987 he runs for President of the European Parliament, obtaining 61 votes. Currently, as the radical party has pledged to no longer compete with its own lists in national elections, he is striving for the creation of a "transnational" cross-party, in view of a federal development of the United States of Europe and with the objective of promoting civil rights throughout the world.