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Yes We Camp

It's the slogan of the citizens committees that have formed in the central Italian city of L'Aquila, hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on April 6, 2009. And it was on display for world leaders during the G8 summit being held just outside the city in an area off limits to the local people.

On the morning of July 8, as the Group of Eight leaders began arriving in L'Aquila, activists scaled the hill overlooking the red zone and laid out huge sheets of white plastic to form 10-meter high letters reading 'Yes We Camp.' As Mattia Lolli of the 3e32 Committee, which takes its name from the time the earthquake hit, explained, "We want to make sure the G8 leaders as well as public opinion in Italy know that three months after the earthquake there are still over 22,000 people living in tents."

The G8 summit was originally to take place on the island of Sardinia. On April 23, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's scandal ridden prime minister, made the surprise announcement that it would be moved to L'Aquila, saying it would put the world's spotlight on the devastated city. But that's not how it is seen by local residents, who are still mourning the loss of friends and loved ones – 300 people died in the quake – as well as their homes and their city.

Among the first events organized by the citizens committees on the occasion of the G8 summit was a candlelit march the night of June 6, the three-month anniversary of the earthquake, to remember the victims and "shed light on the responsibilities."

I arrived in L'Aquila with a group of over 40 people from Vicenza, Italy, where local residents have been working for more than three years to block construction of a new U.S. military base. Despite having worked tirelessly for weeks to organize a national demonstration just the day before on July 4 th , the No Dal Molin movement in Vicenza was able to fill an entire bus for the seven-hour ride to L'Aquila, intent on showing their solidarity with the local people who, like those in Vicenza, are working to defend their city.

The march started at midnight, with 5000 people holding candles illuminating what everyone remarked is now a ghost town. Only 23,000 of the 70,000 residents remain in the city – nearly all of them living in the tent camps – while the others have been sent to hotels on the coast. "L'Aquila is Italy's New Orleans" commented Francesca, a CodePink activist from California who was in Italy for the No Dal Molin demonstration.

Unlike most Italian marches, there were no signs, flags or banners, aside from one with the names of victims and another with two simple but effective words, 'Truth and Justice,' a demand seen as "the best way to keep the memory of those who are no longer with us alive." The silence was broken only by the inappropriate sound of helicopters flying overhead monitoring this most peaceful of marches.

The police and military presence in L'Aquila had been on the increase as the G8 approached. Officers with machine guns were present at every intersection and citizens are subjected to what one 70-year-old woman referred to as "check points." As I walked through the city in the pre dawn hours following the march, the number of police and military vehicles on the streets was overwhelming.

While waiting for a regional bus, I asked people what they thought of holding the G8 in L'Aquila. Not a single person had anything positive to say. The most common criticism was the inappropriateness of using the tragedy as a backdrop for the international summit, especially so soon after the earthquake. Others talked about how the G8 was bringing more inconvenience to people who were already suffering, with roads closures and the blocking of internet and cell phone service for the duration of the summit. In addition, the frenetic 24-hour work being done to prepare the city for the G8 took vital resources away from the reconstruction work that would help get people back into their homes before the cold of winter hits this city in the mountains.

However, it wasn't just with the G8 that more control and restrictions were imposed on the citizens of L'Aquila. As the residents of the tent camps began to recover from the shock of the earthquake and started organizing to demand a role in the rebuilding of their city, new rules came into effect. In an attempt to stifle dissent, distributing flyers was forbidden within the camps as was organizing assemblies and meetings. As Renato of the Abruzzo Social Forum noted, "The upcoming G8 summit was then used as an excuse to crush any dissent in L'Aquila."

But organize they did. In part thanks to the space set up in a public park by the 3e32 committee, the only place in L'Aquila where people can gather outside the tent camps and where everyone can come and go as they please – no check points! There is a main tent for events, meetings, concerts and theatre as well as an internet point and a fair trade shop.

On July 7, the day before the official start of the G8, the citizens committees organized an all-day forum. Local residents as well as people from all over Italy gathered under the 3e32 tent to talk about the reconstruction, both physical and social, of L'Aquila.

The central focus of the citizens committees is the 100% Campaign, which calls for 100% reconstruction of the city, 100% participation on the part of the local residents in the decisions that affect the city, 100% transparency regarding how reconstruction money is spent.

The funds thus far authorized by the Italian government are deemed to be insufficient to rebuild the city. If compared to the 1997 earthquake in Umbria, with more than twice the number of people left homeless, the government has authorized 20% less for the reconstruction of L'Aquila, or Euro 5.7 billion. Adding insult to injury, the Italian parliament just recently approved the purchase of 131 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets for a total of Euro 13 billion. It is not yet clear who Italy intends to bomb.

In addition, the Italian government has handed down a decision made with no local input to build new housing on privately owned property outside the city expropriated from small landowners, changing forever the urban makeup of the city and risking the abandonment of the historic center. In other words, creating suburbs around a medieval city! The local residents are fighting to keep their city in tact. In fact, the second part of the 'Yes We Camp' slogan is 'But we won't go away.'

Berlusconi, as owner of three private television channels and in control of the three public channels, has managed to create a very different image of L'Aquila. Antonello talked about a recent trip with his family to the seaside, where he was told, "You people from L'Aquila are so lucky! You get free meals. You're going to have free houses. Berlusconi has solved all your problems and you have the nerve to complain!" It was reminiscent of Barbara Bush's comments on the people living in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas after hurricane Katrina.

But the Yes We Camp protests have managed to garner media attention. As Obama passed through L'Aquila on his way to tour the damage in the historic center, activists were on hand with banners to greet his motorcade. And on July 9, as the First Ladies toured the same area, the women of L'Aquila organized the march of the "Last Ladies" and occupied an empty apartment building demanding that is be used for the people still living in tents.

There are some concerns that, as the G8 comes to a close, there will be no "withdrawal" from L'Aquila. In fact, throughout Italy, unpopular decisions handed down from the central government are increasingly enforced by the military, including the construction of incinerators at Acerra and mega-landfills at Chiaiano near Naples. Berlusconi has also threatened to use the military to enforce the construction of new the U.S. base in Vicenza and, more recently, for the construction of new nuclear power plants.

However, in each of these cases, the local people have succeeded in creating a movement to defend their territory and vindicate their right to dissent. And in this day and age of "representative systems" that are in effect killing democracy, what we see with the local citizens committees and assemblies are instead examples of true democracy.

Yes we camp. And we won't go away!

Stephanie Westbrook

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