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Red Shadows – On the arrest of exiled Italian political militants of the 1970s in France

France. In the early hours of the 28th of April, French police descended upon the residences of 10 exiled Italian political militants of the 1970s. Seven were immediately arrested, an eighth would later turn himself in, and the whereabouts of two others remain unknown.

Originally published by Lundi Matin. Written by Alessandro Stella. Translated by Autonomies.

All were exiled in France and protected under what came to be known as the “Mitterrand doctrine” of 1985. Never accepted by successive italian governments, recent french governments, and now Macron’s government, have ceded to the italian demands for extradition. (Le MondeThe Guardianla Repubblica)

Those arrested now face life imprisonment in italy, in an active politics – on both sides of the border – of political-historical erasure: to expunge the memory of the “long May of 1968“.

Red Shadows

Is it a lapse in the police unconscious or a perverse joke of the representatives of an Italian State that will never stop demanding payment for the fear that part of its population made it feel at the end of the post-war period? The joint operation of the French and transalpine police forces, which targeted ten Italian political refugees, was codenamed: “Red Shadows”. Or, in the plural, the exact title in French of Cesare Battisti’s second thriller, published in 1994 (1), which had as a backdrop the situation of these survivors of the latent civil war of the 1960s and 1970s. To the need for “anti-terrorist” posturing inherent in a French state incapable of tackling the systemic reasons for individual jihadist terrorism has been added, as Alessandro Stella explains below, the ever-renewed need for the Italian state to erase the red mark of the most extensive and lasting social movement of the post-war period in the West. The war of memory is never more than an episode of the social war. As shown by the beautifully combative and applauded demonstration in Paris on the 1st of May, the fight for the freedom of our comrades has only just begun.

The operation which led, on April 28th, 2021 in Paris, to the arrest of ten former Italian revolutionary activists of the 1970s has been named by the French and Italian police, “Red Shadows”. The arrests were made in the early morning by the special forces of the French anti-terrorism police, assisted by their Italian colleagues; an idea that probably emerged from the police culture, along with John Wayne fighting against the “evil redskins”, with terms that refer to dark, disturbing images, where shadows take on the color of red, of blood. An image and a definition that says a lot, in fact, about the thinking of those who politically inspired this police operation. By hunting out, 40 or 50 years after the fact, former revolutionaries who had laid down their arms and who had lived normally in France for decades, with the promise that they will spend the last years of their life in prison, one cannot but ask what the political aim of the Italian and French governments is.

For 40 years, all the Italian governments, both on the right and on the left, have made the spectre of the return of “red terrorism” the means of control and repression of any social protest movement, of any form of collective anti-system struggle. It has been a red flag waved constantly by the rulers before the eyes of public opinion, reminding them of “les années de plomb” [the years of lead], which has become synonymous in the accounts of the victors with a dark and murderous time, during which the red color of communist flags stained crimes and misdemeanors. This is a spectre that haunts the sleep of all well-meaning Italians, of all supporters of the immutable order of society, of all supporters of the police order, of the authority of the State, of authority itself, a spectre embodied by women and men called Marina, Enzo, Roberta, Giovanni, Giorgio, Raffaele, Maurizio, Luigi, Narciso, Sergio. Today, they are all over the age of 65 and after a youth lived at full speed while pursuing revolutionary dreams, they had to accept to lead an ordinary life made up of work, worries, loves, small pleasures and routine. They are people with rich and complex lives, lives which cannot be reduced to a few years, let alone to a few episodes of armed struggle for which they are accused of having participated in. These are women and men presented as symbols to be toppled by States and their police concerned only about their strategies and without any qualms for the fate of imprisonment until death promised to those arrested.

The story of the victors of this “embryo of a civil war” (2) has been used for 40 years to install a pedagogy of fear among the Italian population, built on the phantasm of the return of the Red Brigades or their imitators. This has been a political machine well served by the media, judges, police officers, and which has moulded the compliant thinking of millions of Italians who today applaud the capture and confinement under a punitive regime, including the sadism acted out against the “monster” Cesare Battisti. This has been a machine of mass psychological influence rendering even the memory of the 1970s abhorrent, a machine that has become systemic, grounded in a distorted and partisan historical narrative. It erases and wants to make people forget that the 1970s were first and foremost years of great social struggles and of experimentation with new forms of relations between people, of internationalist, anti-militarist, anti-authoritarian struggles and finally feminist and LGBT struggles. These were years during which the red flag had the colors of the proletarian revolution and of freedom, behind which marched millions of old communist workers and other millions of young proletarians in search of a better world. During the long Italian May 68, the recourse to arms on the part of thousands of revolutionary militants was only the tip of an iceberg, only part of a series of struggles employing other weapons, from strikes to occupations, from demonstrations to experiences in self-management.

In the story of the victors, the vast revolutionary movement active in Italy in the 1970s is painted as a long series of murders committed by far-left activists in the name of a bygone ideology. While history tells us that long before revolutionary militants killed anyone, around two hundred demonstrators had been killed by the police since 1948. The first homicide committed by revolutionary militants, that of Commissioner Luigi Calabresi, is moreover emblematic. He was killed on the morning of May 17, 1972 by a commando from the Lotta Continua (3) group, which did what millions of Italians had been asking to be done for three years. The Commissioner Calabresi was responsible for the homicide of Giuseppe Pinelli, anarchist railway worker from Milan, unjustly arrested and accused of having planted the bomb at the Bank of Agriculture in Piazza Fontana, on December 12, 1969, a bomb which caused the death of 17 people, and which was in fact the work of fascist groups allied with police and soldiers of fascist ideology, setting the stage for a strategy of tension within a larger, government anti-communist and law and order objective. The Commissioner Calabresi homicide was political, a response to police and State violence, the execution of a widely shared popular will. We can also underline that this homicide was the only one committed by militants of Lotta Continua, who moreover carried out struggles inside factories (Fiat in particular), in working-class neighbourhoods and in universities, in barracks and in ports.

The 1970s in Italy, which dominant thought would reduce to images of death, were years of revolutionary enthusiasm shared by millions of people and expressed in a thousand initiatives that advocated change in the entire system of oppression. It is a period of rebellion and widespread protest against all pillars of the capitalist State that politico-economic rulers fear. These images of revolt are the spectre that haunts their minds.

For the French government and President Macron, who signed and sealed this villainous extradition pact on the skin of ten people, the spectre to be hunted out would be rather that of “yellow shadows”. The color can change, but the targets are always uncontrollable social movements. After a rising wave of anti-system insurgency in the four corners of France, the dissemination and sharing of collective experiences of self-organisation, of protest against the State, hierarchies, political parties and representative democracy, the fierce repression that the State and its police officers exercised against the Yellow Vests ended up restraining the movement. The regime of fear put in place by the State, with the LBDs [blast balls], grenades, batons, police custody, prison, have ended up thinning the ranks of the Yellow Vests and deflating the movement. But the leaders of the French State know perfectly well that all of the causes of the eruption of popular anger under the colors of the Yellow Vests are still there and have even worsened with the Covid crisis. They know that despite the confinement, the curfew, the state of emergency and all the legal-police arsenal put in place by the State to defend itself from the proletarians in revolt, the embers remain hot. And they are afraid that the “yellow shadows” will return to disrupt the dolce vita of the bourgeoisie of the well-to-do neighbourhoods, to demonstrate on the Champs Elysees instead of going there to window-shop. They are afraid that instead of waiting in a state of depression for the next elections, the Yellow Vests will once again manage themselves in each village, each neighborhood, at each crossroads and roundabout, collectively, without leaders, without any hierarchy, constructing daily a socially livable world.

Whether in red or in another color, a spectre haunts Italy, France, the whole world: the spectre of the Commune, of communism.

Alessandro Stella

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