WRITTEN BY MARY RIZZO
When one has the opportunity of having two events in Rome on the same day concerning Syria, it provides an chance of seeing not only the focus of our campaigning and the current state of the “narrative” in our relationship to what everyone can agree is a debacle, but it crystallises the strengths and weaknesses that we have as activists.
Even with a war going on, with the crackdown against protests in areas that are still under control of the regime, and with the enormous dangers and risks that protesters in liberated areas face, we can’t seem to truly mobilise the European public to come anywhere close to making a mass solidarity movement that will have any kind of echo. We have to deal with perhaps a bit of expense or inconvenience, but we pretty much can be assured there is no one that might kill us for going to protests. We have to follow a procedure to get the permits and do some work to mobilise people, but in comparison, we have nothing to hinder us, so our turnouts should reflect our effectiveness in reaching a critical mass in the public opinion. We have of course had some great marches, there have been countless events, conferences, exhibits, but we have not really engaged the general public that is not already highly politicised or directly involved into any kind of meaningful action. There are a very few people expending a great deal of energy and in essence, singing to the choir. And this is true ON BOTH SIDES.
So we take into consideration Saturday, 15 June. Back in April, a group labelled “European Front for Syria” called for an international march in Rome, the poster reading (in screaming capital letters): DON’T TOUCH SYRIA! EVERYBODY TO ROME / 15 JUNE RALLY. In the call to the event, they prospect that there will be thousands of lions to sustain their President and Army (and if we trust their promotional videos, their Secular Socialist State) against those they label as Rats. Yes, they actually do make a long list of who the Rats are, and of course they don’t forget who their friends are: beacons of freedom Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Venezuela and Cuba, and naturally, a party that is anything BUT Secular or Socialist, Hezbollah. Who exactly is the European Front? I don’t know, but they “joined Facebook in January of 2013”, evidently after 2 years of war and probably combining parts of various pro Assad groups.
Given that in a free society, such as is the Italian one, the right to assemble is guaranteed by the constitution, and all opinions are constitutionally protected. However, given that in order to achieve this free society, Italy was forced to undergo the a long and painful war to overthrow two decades of Fascism (a totalitarian system with no tolerance of dissent and no guarantee of rights). Therefore, a Constitution was written by the constituent entity that had to build a democracy from the ground up, incorporating segments of provisions that place some limits on rights that would be essentially a threat to democracy. Thus, in Italy, our constitution prohibits the reorganisation of the Fascist party, and the Scelba Law (known as the law against the crime of Apology of Fascism L. 645/1952) was introduced to implement its enforcement. The text of the law punishes “whoever constitutes an association, a movement or a group having the characteristics and setting the objective as the reorganisation of the defunct Fascist party, or whoever publicly exalts the exponents, principles, facts or methods of Fascism, or its anti-democratic objectives.”
One can and should ask if this provision though present in the Constitution, and subsequent Law place limits on freedom assembly and expression, actually violating constitutional legitimacy, given that freedoms of opinion are guaranteed by the articles of the Constitution and this constriction does not regard any other ideology, since in modern times, no other ideology had been effective in undermining freedoms and pluralism in Italy. But, leaving the rhetorical question to the side, the Italian government, given that it protects our rights of assembly must however guarantee that assembly meets constitutional and legal requirements. Any assembly in a public space, a rally, a march, even the setting up of a stand to sell oranges, requires the obtaining of permits. In the case of a political rally or demonstration it requires the approval not only of the Municipality but of the State Police. Whoever has organised any event in Italy has spent time at Police Headquarters and contacted the Cabinet of the Mayor. The state provides permits and public security (in many cases escort, officers in riot gear and a motorcade). Most marches in Italy have a massive presence of police, and like it or not, they help with the traffic flow for the streets being closed off, they serve as a barrier in case there are elements that threaten the public safety; at times they are discreet and at others, they are omnipresent.
So, with all of that in mind, if a march/rally is called, with the cost and inconvenience it is going to bring to the general public, it is conditional upon being within the law.
In the call for the Pro Assad rally, the associations that supported it were the bulk of the extreme right of Europe, and this could never have surprised anyone that took even the most random of glances at any of their publications, promotional material or the sites where they held their meetings. Some Romans active for the rights of the oppressed people in Syria and Palestine came to the conclusion that the organisers are part of groups that perhaps are not reforming the Fascist party, but certainly are proud of their roots in Fascism and make no secret of it. It is time to face the fact that while not ALL those who support Assad are Fascist sympathisers, ALL Fascist sympathisers support Assad. Would there be a danger of a march turning into a Fascist rally? Indeed, the supporters of Assad sought confrontation during a pro Revolution march in April in Rome, with the police (upon their own initiative) identifying 19 of them and a pile of stones at their feet, documented by independent photographers, were what was left behind as they were asked to leave the premises. With such precedent, the activists in Rome issued a petition which was signed by hundreds of people, Italians and internationals, and presented to the authorities:
“Called for Saturday, June 15 in Rome is a gathering of European nazi-fascist movements that support the criminal regime of Syrian dictator Assad. The Italian organisations involved are the most well-known groups of the extreme right-wing, from Casa Pound to the archipelago of neo-Nazi movements and apologists of Fascism.
The support of the nazi-fascist movements towards the Syrian regime is the consequence of the shared identity of views with a repressive, murderous and corrupt system; one that has been oppressing the people of Syria for decades and has responded with unprecedented ferocity to the demand for freedom and dignity advanced two years ago with demonstrations and peaceful demonstrations. The current military drift is the result of the regime’s brutal repression against a movement that remained peaceful for many long months, despite the assaults, murders, arbitrary arrests, the widespread use of torture.
We believe that the Syrian people has the right to live in peace and freedom to determine their own future and that, to achieve these objectives, they have the right to resist oppression, just as the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the world. For this reason, we stand against the dictatorship of Assad and any imperialist military intervention, including intervention from the States of the region.
We are on the side of the Syrian people, the Palestinian and all the peoples who struggle for dignity and freedom, against the occupation, repression, torture and massacres, this is why we are anti-fascists.
A rally of rogue Nazis from across Europe in support of the dictatorship of the Assad clan is an insult to Rome, the Gold Medal in the Resistance, and an insult all freedom-loving people. Do not let this shame pass in silence, let us build solidarity with the Syrian people.”
In addition to the petition, a counter-rally was organised in a public square just outside the historical centre to express dissent with the issuing of the permits and to give another voice to the Syrian struggle, that which seeks the end of the Assad Regime. It added as a second theme the rights of Palestinian to self-determination and freedom. It certainly did not have 3 months to be planned, nor could it mobilise “thousands” from all over Europe to come, given the short notice during high season, when finding accommodation or economic transportation to Rome is nigh impossible. It had to adopt a local character, at the most people from the nearby regions could make it, and yet, calls were made through some posters and some messages on Facebook to bring activists and the general public to convene, no matter where their point of departure was.
Then…. The unexpected happened: two days before the Pro Assad rally, both the City of Rome and the State of Italy withdrew their permits to allow this event to take place in a public square. Not defeated, the group simply moved the rally into their Clubhouse, which is the space that is occupied by Casa Pound, a well-organised group of the extreme right, certainly not neutral or apolitical terrain! Definitely that would exclude that the message would reach the general public that did not already have an opinion on the matter, and definitely would restrict its scope. Any way one looks at it, it lost its character as a Roman Rally, and the hopeful descent of thousands of lions would just have to be more folklore along the lines of the popular mandate of Assad and the “millions” of lions in the streets of every city of Syria to support his regime.
So, absolutely, efforts made by those dissenting from the public rally were fully successful. Free speech was preserved, but NOT the violation of our spaces with the blessing of the authorities.
Our rally, as scheduled, continued and the speakers would also comment upon the successful efforts, as well as explaining the situation in Syria to the general public.
One can look at both rallies and one can make some observations: the first is, both of them were successful in some ways, and unsuccessful in others. The Pro Assad rally, while not drawing thousands, and most likely not a massive presence of Europeans, in the arc of an entire day it did several hundred, they claim on their page 400, maybe half of them were hidden since they certainly don’t appear in photos or videos, yet, in spite of that, whether 200 or 400, it is not a bad number. The Anti Assad rally, while not aiming at an international presence and in concomitance with some other major events for Syria the same day, drew around 100. There were many organisations that gave their moral support and adhered to the call, though they did not bring their numbers to the square.
The Pro Assad rally was highly professional, and it should not surprise anyone! As a matter of fact, in 2 and a half years of war, it is rare (and perhaps it does not exist at all) that these people have been engaged in any efforts to support anything but the permanence of Assad. While decrying specific horrors and lamenting of massacres and destruction at the hands of the rebels, these groups NEVER organise to bring any kind of humanitarian aid in. You will never see them raise funds for ambulances, clothing, medicine, food, blankets, tents and even water. Any efforts they make are solely and exclusively to support their own propaganda. In fact, their Facebook pages included all kinds of information so that people could donate to the Roman event. That, as you see, is the extent of their work, to win the information war with private donations. And they DO invest!!! They provide themselves with a fancy set, organise entertainment, video presentations, bring in TV troupes, have an infinity of gadgets, most of them bearing the face of Assad, organise press conferences and posters… they get loads of posters and banners out there! Definitely, they have economic leeway for these things. Which is what is the problem with the Anti Assad activism. Most activists are not just doing information work, but they are constantly raising funds for humanitarian relief. They are giving sometimes all the money they have to send a bit of goods here, a bit of money there, spreading it out to many projects, so that all the projects have some level of success and serve the Syrians in the refugee camps and the internally displaced. They are building field hospitals, supplying the Syrians with the basics that their own government does not supply them with.
You can watch some of these Pro Assad people go on and on about how Assad provides all, like a good father. They must certainly believe it, because they only open their wallets to find more ways to repeat those myths. Those against Assad are aware of the reality, and not only do they not “get paid” to go to rallies, as was the case with the sixteen models suing an agency that did not pay them for their participation in a march in a public square where they were to chant slogans praising Assad in Arabic and hold his picture and a Syrian loyalist flag. No, those against Assad open their wallets again to bring themselves to marches and rallies. They open their wallets to get a sound system, the minimum things necessary for a public assembly. Things are often on a shoestring budget, and often, met with resistance by others who are in the movement for the simple reason that, “our money has to go to the people who are suffering, not in marches”.
And, this is why, on a date when there was a fundraiser, most of the Syrian community attended that. This is why, while the political paradigm for Assad is almost the property of the extreme right, for their sharing of a common worldview, it also is shared by some in the extreme left who undersign the paradigm, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”: forgetting that whoever kills his own people is by definition an enemy of the people, whoever engages in arbitrary arrest and torture is an enemy of the people, whoever kills Arabs is an enemy of the Arabs and a danger for the entire Mediterranean.
Those misguided people probably didn’t go to the Pro Assad rally, as most of the pictures showed some families, with kiddies in strollers and grannies kissing the picture of Assad on a paper fan. The self-declared leftists perhaps would have felt more comfortable with the Revolutionary Socialists who were a large part of the Anti Assad rally than with those dressed up in military fatigues and praising the army. They perhaps don’t even notice that while they are screaming against the “Salafis”, they are praising the theocratic State of Iran, taking the words of a Nun and a Priest with regime links as gold dripping from heaven and raising Nasrallah up as some kind of resistance icon. They probably even think he runs a secular party!
But then again: the Pro Assad folks know how to fight their information war. That is because they do not need to disperse their personal resources in aid. They apparently either do not care about the humanitarian crisis, or since the millions of victims who have lost their homes and possessions are probably persons the regime would be happy to exterminate, they can feel legitimated in claiming to be pro Syria, but ignoring the suffering of the Syrian people. They can’t teach us any lessons about humanitarianism, or even about resistance. But they can teach us how to promote themselves professionally, despite the gigantic downsizing of their event.
CONCLUSION: The Pro Assad people have a different focus, it is on “winning the information war” and to hell with the humanitarian disaster in Syria. The Anti Assad people throw most of their energy into raising funds to provide Syrians with the basics of survival. The Pro Assad people, despite all that work and economic investment that crosses borders to create a massive international event, managed to gather together a very small crowd. The Anti Assad people didn’t have the same mechanisms and certainly haven’t got a political space to fall back on. We have to work harder at convincing people that these events are ALSO important to attend, by Syrians and anyone who is a freedom lover. They present us a chance to stand in solidarity with the Syrians, to discuss among ourselves and with the general public and to in that way build the movement so that the sole beneficiaries of ALL efforts are the Syrian people seeking their rights and freedom.
the two posters of the events: