archives of global protests

The Body As a Weapon for Civil Disobedience

Originally published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translated by irlandesa

La Jornada
Sunday, October 15, 2000.

The Body As a Weapon for Civil Disobedience

*Jess Ramrez Cuevas*

"Tutte Bianche" in Bologna

...The Tutte Bianche (white monkeys) went to Prague in order to participate in the protests against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Hundreds of young Italian activists from the Social Centers and from the Ya Basta Association, parliamentarians and even religious persons, carried out ingenious civil disobedience tactics in the face of the Czech police, who threw gas at them and beat them with their billy clubs.

The political imagination and clothing - or lack thereof - of these globalphobes caught the attention of journalists and surprised demonstrators from other countries who were accompanying them...

Two forces found themselves body to body on the Nusle bridge in Prague, each of them defending an idea of a different world. On one side, a contingent of men and women dressed in white suits, protected with foam rubber, helmets, gas masks, shields made from garbage cans and an entire repertoire of the most incredible instruments, from nets of colored balloons to barriers of tires. On the other side, a fence of police in Robocop uniforms, protected by tanks, tear gas launchers, shields and truncheons. An impassable wall blocking their way.

The police were there in order to protect representatives of the planet's financial and economic powers. The demonstrators were questioning globalization in the name of millions of persons who are suffering its consequences: hunger, poverty and death. In the middle of the two forces, a nude young men passed by, his body tattooed with denuncias against savage capitalism, in between each confrontation.

In the midst of the battle, Don Vitaliano, a parish priest from Avellino, was helping the demonstrators in their attempts to break the circle which was protecting the thousands of IMF and World Bank delegates. "With our bodies, with what we are, we came to defend the rights of millions, dignity and justice. Even with our lives. In the face of the total control of the world which the owners of money are exercising, we have only our bodies for protesting and rebelling against injustice," he said.

Luca, spokesperson for the Tutte Bianche, said to the journalists who had come to Prague: "We are not armed, we are acting as citizens, putting our persons at risk, in order to demonstrate that the democracy of the IMF and the World Bank is tanks and armed police. We are not criminals, they are suppressing citizens exercising their rights. We want to show that it is possible to rebel against the order using our bodies as weapons."

If, as Foucault wrote, the body is the object of the power's micro- physics, if all social and political control exercises its mastery of the body, if the market economy has converted the body into merchandise, the 'white monkeys' have called for a "rebellion of bodies" against world power, reflects Sergio Zulin, one of the organizers.

In the midst of the transformations produced by globalization and technological changes, in the face of the crisis of alternatives to the reigning model, in response to the weakening of the State, traditional parties and the ways of doing classic politicsthe 'white monkeys' have appeared, who call themselves Italian zapatistas. This movement is made up of old autonomous activists (tied to Toni Negri), members of the Ya Basta Association, young persons from the Social Centers of the main cities in Italy, ecology groups, campesinos and civil associations. They are all promoting a creative form of protest, active civil disobedience.

But where did these activists come from, with their ideas which shatter traditional political schemes and who show up dressed as if for a carnival?

The Search For a New Language

"Since Chiapas and Seattle, civil disobedience has become an international referent, a way of telling millions of people that we want to live within the new conditions of society, but fighting," said Frederico Mariani, president of the Ya Basta Association, one of the principal organizers of the action in Prague.

Although civil disobedience has its history with Gandhi, the civil rights struggle in the United States in the sixties and in peaceful statements of protests throughout the world, Frederico Mariani explains that "after 1994 there was a change. The zapatistas made a great contribution with their proposals for building a new politics, without fighting for power. We are trying to translate the message and the forms they are proposing."

"For us," said Mariani - who was one of the 140 Italian observers expelled from Chiapas in 1998 - "it was a very strong symbol to see an army of indigenous with empty rifles. To know an army that was waiting for the moment it could stop being an army. People who are fighting for the rights of their people. Zapatista women protesting who, under different conditions, could be compared with the white suits, helmets and shields in order to protect themselves from police blows and gas. That is our referent."

"At the beginning, we discussed previous experiences of direct action, of sabotage, of revolutionary violence. We concluded that under the new conditions of civil disobedience, using our bodies as weapons, we could unleash the force of those citizens who had not responded to the old schemes," he emphasized.

"It's an imaginative way," Mariani said, "of involving the other in a problem. With peaceful methods of direct action, the language of violence stays on the side of the police, of governments. Classic demonstrations no longer bother them. On the other hand, now we are disobeying as citizens, and they suppress, but we are defending ourselves. That attracts society's attention, which echoes our protest."

Frederico Mariani relates how they began practicing civil disobedience actions more than a year ago. "We trained ourselves to resist the police. We built shields, we collected old masks, tires to use as barriers, and we designed protection for the body. We use the body as a weapon of political struggle."

"Seattle came, and with it the confirmation of a new movement which had regained civil society's participation, even though it didn't have a program yet. In Italy, until a few years ago, the street fight was a monopoly of a few ultras who practiced exclusionary methods, groups who burned cars and broke shop windows. The majority of the people were scared to reach that level," he added.

"We added a new factor, a form of radical confrontation which went beyond classic demonstrations, and which presents us with the possibility of mass participation with secure methods," summarized Frederico Mariani.

Another of the great successes, Mariani concluded, "is the participation of young people, who are aware that their intervention with their own bodies, protected from violence by the police, has clear effects. The movement is growing. This is a great achievement, which the entire world recognizes, to the point that we were able to take a train to Prague. Great spaces are opening up to us. It's not a political group, it's a horizontal movement where each person contributes to the debate and to the organization in a particular way. Everything is interwoven, there are people of all ages, everyone is able to share equally. Old schemes of vanguards and leaders have fallen."

"When the World is For Sale, Rebelling is Natural"

The 'Prague Spring' of the 'white monkeys' of Rome, Naples, Bologna, Padua, Milan and other cities, put thousands of bodies and minds in the path of the illegitimate and unacceptable structures of international powers. No one controls them, they answer to no one. "We made Prague the capital of alternatives to the prevailing model, of the demands for a different future, for a new world," wrote the young pierced ones, greudos and punks of the Social Centers of Milan in a manifesto distributed in Prague.

"The 'white monkeys', inspired by the uprising of the indigenous of Chiapas, have set themselves a new challenge in order to emerge from the subsoil, and in that way to become involved in society, in order to promote the self-management and self-organization which has been being built over these last few years. In order to move from resistance to a new offensive in the arena of dreams, of rights, of liberty, for the conquest of the future, which is being denied to new generations today," they state.

Max, a youth from the Social Center of Padua, reports on the actions against MacDonald's in Venice, Padua, Rome and Milan, which they took in order to be in solidarity with Jos Bov, leader of French campesinos opposed to globalization.

Massimo, a singer for the rock group 99 Posse, which emerged from the Social Center of Naples, was in Prague with the Tutte Bianche in order to bring "our music and our presence to their music." 99 Posse has participated in many actions in support of Chiapas, for the legalization of drugs, against fascism and against the repression of immigrants.

Orlando, from the group Milk Warriors, a group of ecologists from Milan, recounted how they put on a peaceful performance in Prague in front of the MacDonald's, with corncobs and a flag with the emblem of a cow, in order to protest against the transgenetic foods being sold by that transnational company.

"We want to build a humanity in which we are all included, where no one dies from hunger, where no one suffers injustices," commented Don Vitaliano, who participates himself in active disobedience, organizing rock concerts and meetings in the San Miguel convent in Avellino, in support of immigrant rights, for decriminalization of drugs and against war and repression.

Vilma Mazza, of Radio Sherwood - an independent radio station headquartered in Padua which broadcasts in northern Italy - said that the radio broadcast live from Prague during the days of the protests. "It's our way of reporting what was happening to all those who were not able to come, but who were supporting us."

Vilma, a veteran activist of social struggles in Italy over the last few decades, explains that the 'white monkeys' movement takes in many sectors who share these issues of globalization and its effects in Italy.

After more than 20 years of organizing traditional demonstrations, including some very large ones, she pointed out that these actions had become stale. "That's why we went out with the white monkeys, first in a march for immigrant rights in 1999. We all confronted the police. More than 10,000 demonstrators stayed back, supporting without moving. Everyone participated from their position. We confronted in defensive ways, not offensive ones. That civil disobedience opened the space for people to participate who didn't want to confront the police, but everyone defied the police from their position," Vilma said.

"From that point on," she explained, "we have been carrying out actions to fight the effects of neoliberalism in our country, from closing the camps for undocumented migrants in Trieste, Milan and Bologna (to the shout of 'we are all illegal immigrants'), to protests against transgenetic crops in Genoa and Venice, opposing the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of women and men with work flexibility and unstable jobs."

"We have also opened social centers as solidarity spaces for young people. We have occupied factories and old buildings in order to provide shelter there for migrant workers who have no housing. We have also supported Albanian war refugees, and we took a boat to the Albanian coast in order to demand an end to borders and respect for the rights of everyone."

Another struggle which has been being fought of late is against privatization of public transportation and for its being a free service for students, the unemployed and pensioners. And a card for young persons under the age of 30 which guarantees access to specified services, to culture and to entertainment.

"In the same way that unemployed French persons assaulted the Paris Stock Exchange, we have been able to consolidate a new method of the more traditional political-social struggle, speaking to all of society, widening the conflict, invading communication channels, restoring a guarantee to all the excluded of all colors who are today sensing the fragility of their own future," wrote the 'white monkeys' in their opening manifesto last year.

The Radio Sherwood presenter explained that thousands of persons in Europe live excluded, without rights or a dignified life. That is why they are now promoting "the right to a universal citizens' salary." This is described in a document as "the weapon with which to attack the new millennium, the ideal demand to move into the battle for the reduction of work hours, for the right to services and quality of life, for the redistribution of wealth, in order to give birth to a great liberation movement of our being. We are talking about a salary and about free access to basic services and to culture, for everyone."

"We are next to those who are continuing the struggle begun in San Cristbal de Las Casas and Seattle, and which has now reached Prague. We are talking about the rights of the people as being above the laws of the market, of the rejection of the myths of public security, and we are talking about a real society, about horizontal participation, in order to decide our destiny," was one of the messages they left at the IMF meeting.

After S26 - ya basta interview
Date 20 Oct 2000

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

ya basta interview

An interview I did recently with a friend from the Italian Ya Basta network is at the following temporary URL -

Changing the World (One Bridge At A Time)?

Ya Basta after Prague

You probably saw them on TV: a phalanx of Michelin men and women trying to push their way through police lines at s26. With its origins in the Italian movement of self-managed social centres, the Ya Basta network is fast becoming known across the global anti-capitalist movement. From its decision a few years back to stand for municipal elections on green and communist party tickets, to its role in Prague, Ya Basta has been no stranger to controversy within the radical left. Here Steve Wright talks with Hobo from Radio Sherwood (, a media project that is closely linked to Ya Basta.
What are the origins of Ya Basta and the tute bianche? What are their connections to the social centres movement in Italy?

Ya Basta and tute bianche are not synonyms. The 'Ya Basta!' association ( is a network of many groups across many Italian cities. It was formed after Italian militants participated in the first Encuentro in Chiapas in 1996. It has the dual purpose of supporting the Zapatista struggle and of spreading the deep meaning of the struggles against neo-liberalism in Europe. In 1998, most Ya Basta militants also joined the emerging movement called the tute bianche (white overalls). This comprises young people from the social centres, unemployed and casual workers, people searching for their first job, all united against the pressure of neo-liberalism, asking for a universal basic income, but also asking for better conditions of life for everybody. White overalls were chosen as a strong image to symbolize the condition of invisibility imposed upon all those people forced to live without guarantees, without social security, on the margins of a 'normal' life.

How did Ya Basta become involved in S26? How was the demonstration organised?

As I said, Ya Basta is not only a support network of the Zapatista movement, but also accepts their principles of democracy, dignity and humanity as universal categories in an increasingly globalised world. So it wants to affirm these principles in Europe as well. Neo-liberalism is the same, the multinationals are the same, the few people (World Bank, IMF, etc.) who rule the whole world are the same . . . the battle we have to fight is the same, in Chiapas as in Seattle or in Prague. So s26 in Prague was the first important occasion to send a signal in Europe of a real resistance to the plans of globalised capital. Ya Basta and tute bianche were involved from last summer in the meetings held in Prague to organize the demonstrations and direct actions (by the way, some of the Italian were rejected at the Czech border because they had taken part in these meetings).

We decided to reach Prague by train, given the large number of people involved. We had done this for earlier Euro-demonstrations in Amsterdam and Paris, 'squatting' a thousand seats in a train and affirming our right to freely demonstrate wherever in Europe. This time we didn't want to spend most of our energy in defending our right to leave, so we negotiated an agreement with the railways and we paid a nominal 'political price' to get a train for Prague.
But things didn't go so well at the Czech border. The train was blocked for almost two days by the police, who wanted to reject a number of people as persona non grata. Finally, after international media attention was focussed on the case, the demonstrators were allowed to reach Prague.

What led to the decision to use padding and shielding at demonstrations? How successful has this tactic proved to be?

For years our practice of self-defence has been instrumentalised by the media. Every time the police charged a legitimate and peaceful march or demonstration, it was always the fault of 'the autonomists'. The papers would carry headlines like 'violence returns to the streets', 'the years of lead are back', or 'urban guerilla warfare again'. We realised that the communication of events often modifies things more than the events themselves. We decided to send strong images and signals that left no doubts as to intentions. So we invented, rummaging through ancient history, systems of protective apparel, like plexiglass shields used tortoise-style, foam rubber 'armour', and inner-tube cordons to ward off police batons. All things that were visible and clearly for defensive purposes only. We wanted people to understand on which side lay reason, and who had started the violence. When we decide to disobey the rules imposed by the bosses of neo-liberalism, we do it by putting our bodies on the line, full stop. People can see images on the TV news that can't be manipulated: a mountain of bodies that advances, seeking the least harm possible to itself, against the violent defenders of an order that produces wars and misery. And the results are visible, people understand this, the journalists can't invent lies that contradict the images; last but not least, the batons bounce off the padding. But the question goes beyond the purely practical aspect and is symptomatic of what we call 'bio-politics', the new form of opposition to power (cf. Foucault).

This is what Judith Revel writes in the first issue of Posse, a new Italian journal edited by Toni Negri: 'Comrades dressed up in inner tubes. The papers are wrong to talk of shields: that is, of a defensive armament. There were shields present, but what's striking is the attempt to interpose between bodies — the bodies of demonstrators, the bodies of police agents — an element that blocks both visibility and contact. That is, one that affirms its own political space as something no longer disciplinary, but rather bio-political. The bio-political is a form of politics that, from within the post-disciplinary paradigm of control, reconstructs the possibility of a collective acting. The danger lies in mistaking the epoch, returning to the only collective acting that we believe we know: that of face-to-face, the facing off which is so clearly a part of the old conflict-form of discipline. The padding on the comrades' bodies signifies instead the passage to another political grammar'.

How do you respond to those critics (e.g. who accuse Ya Basta of manipulating other demonstrators during the encounter with police in Prague?

I don't believe that anyone was manipulated by anyone else. There were affinity groups, and everyone freely and consciously chose what to do and with whom. We don't think that anyone, including ourselves, has a monopoly on the truth. Each does what they consider most useful and effective. Some sections of the demonstration, such of those involving these critics, were few in number, whereas during the demonstration our numbers grew. Other comrades chose to join our section: not only tute bianche or Italians, but also anarchists and trotskyists of various countries and nationalities. Clearly the vetero-communist vision of some, linked to a strictly marxist-leninist style of politics, has stopped them from seeing past their own noses. We have no grounds for reproaching other sections of the demonstration that engaged in direct action elsewhere in the city, just as most of them have nothing to reproach us for. On the contrary, we wish that there had been many more of them, so that we could have forced the police blockades. But probably even all together we wouldn't have succeeded. We did our bit, what we had decided upon in the joint assembly, committing a huge number of police in a face off on the bridge with continuous charges, resisting and advancing.

Can s26 be considered a success? What comes next?

In terms of Europe, it was certainly a success. The forum ended a day early because of the curfew atmosphere created in Prague. The movements from across Europe finally found themselves together, visible and determinate against an economic globalisation that threatens to create a dual society. For Europe Prague was the beginning, but in the minds of everyone were memories of Seattle, Washington, Melbourne . . . This begins to confirm the validity of a new way of finding ourselves side by side in the world's streets, confronting global problems.
The next leg for us will probably be Nice, where an EU summit is to be held in early December, to formalise a European bill of rights. A sort of constitution, although much more for economic investors than people, neglecting a good part of the social problems that afflict Europe.

What are Ya Basta's connections to other radical circles in Europe and beyond?

We have many contacts in several European countries: Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Finland, to name a few. Back in 1997 we held a European meeting in Venice, where we presented to others our program — borrowed from the Zapatista struggle — of fighting for a 'Social Europe', where people not money come first. In a sense, that was the first step in our current direction, trying to escape the isolation which many radical groups found themselves in, and to connect with vast parts of what Marcos calls 'civil society'.

Relations between Ya Basta and some other circles in the Italian movement became increasingly strained in the late nineties, with strong disagreements about orientation and activity. What were the terms of this debate, and have relations improved in the meantime?

We chose to abandon ideologies, others didn't. The split can be very simply defined in this sense. Our analysis of the current world has led us to consider some aspects of this society — like the profound modification of the production system, the dominant role of information, the importance of the environment and other themes until now considered more 'social' than 'political' — and to act accordingly, trying to cut the chains that tied us too tightly to marxist orthodoxy. We've always been heretics anyway, believing that you must have the courage to change and to follow new paths when you suspect that they could lead to results.

Other groups, more tied to traditional ways of understanding marxism and politics, don't agree with us. Some of them accuse us of being 'reformist' or 'media-fixated' (implying that we live in a virtual world). Recently, though, we have seen a point of commonality in the struggles we are doing together, a sort of re-acquaintance with people who can appreciate the big results obtained by our struggles, from forcing the closure of immigrant detention centres in Milan and Trieste, to the symbolic blocking of NATO bases in the Veneto — which reopened debate about the Balkans war — to the ship in solidarity with Albanians and against the criminalisation of immigrants (the first sailing demo!), to the recent Prague demo.

Within the Veneto region, Ya Basta and Radio Sherwood are two aspects of a broader network. Can you tell us something about the other organisations they're connected with?

Radio Sherwood has now evolved into something more complex: the 'Sherwood Communications Agency'. This involves a massive use of the internet (Sherwood Tribune), along with the ability to intervene in the media, so as to give voice and visibility to the whole network, from Ya Basta and the social centres to ADL and Razzismo Stop.

ADL (Workers Defence Association, is a bit like a union, although rather different from the traditional form of European unions. It has more than one thousands members in the region, organised in twenty workplace collectives, and is affiliated to the radical union confederation CUB. Its main activity is legal defence for workers, while its political activity is very similar to that of the tute bianche. Razzismo Stop ( is an association for the defence of immigrant rights; it works side by side with immigrants to spread a new culture. It offers legal advice and concrete aid, from Italian language courses to welcome camps for refugees from ex-Yugoslavia, as well as social and educational activities for detained immigrants. Over the years it's become a real reference point of anti-racism, even for some institutions. Razzismo Stop has always been in the front line opposing expulsions and detention camps for immigrants, linking its daily social programs to a strong political activity.

Uploaded 28 October 2000. This interview will shortly be appearing in the new web zine Aut.
S26 Prague
S26 Global Action Day
Tute Bianche