ITALY: A story of repression of social dissent

By Osservatorio Repressione  (Translated with DeepL

The repression of all social struggles has been taking place for decades in Italy through the emergence of strict (and usually swift) justice from broad sectors of politics and society. The price paid by social movements and activists resisting and dissenting in public squares – often alone – is high in terms of violence suffered, denunciations and sentences received. Not to mention that denounces and convictions represent an obstacle also for the job market and constitute the precondition for the application of odious measures such as oral notices, expulsion orders and special surveillance. These trends have been observed and captured by Osservatorio Repressione since 2007.

 The numbers

With the escalation of the economic and social crisis (2011/2017), Osservatorio Repressione recorded: 15,572 social activists denounced, 852 arrests, 385 expulsion orders and 221 special surveillance. These numbers add to the final judgements for the crimes of devastation and looting for the events that took place during the G8 in July 2001 in Genoa and for the clashes in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome on 15 October 2011.

 These numbers tell us that we are now in an emergency. The intensity and the ubiquity of repressive and preventive attacks against mere social dissent are increasing every day. Social conflict is being reduced to a mere matter of public order. Citizens and activists are faced with beatings, lawsuits and mass profiling. Governmental measures that have been taken to the extreme by the military occupation of entire territories. 

 More and more often, judges justify the charges based on the “hypothetical” social danger of the individual who protests: the extraordinary legal measures are applied to activists framed as troublemakers and have a repressive-preventive function (expulsion order, forced domicile, ban). In some cases, they are introduced even by suspending some principle of the rule of law (emergency laws), to the point that it is annihilated by the denial of inviolable rights. Some jurists have denounced this “criminal law of the enemy” as a shift from a legal system based on the rights of the person to a system based mainly on the “reason of State”.

 Public order as a response to political and social crises

Public security has slowly replaced politics on the social level. The police and security apparatus and the public order in the broad sense (as protection of the State and the status quo) now appear as a hybrid: political entity and police apparatus at the same time. In this way, a political-police subject has been constituted with the task of controlling and containing social discontent and dissent, without limits nor accountability. This governmental activity is carried out on several levels and involves multiple relations of powers: for example, the information system serves the police and security apparatus and, at the same time, constitutes an essential articulation of the government, acting as a megaphone and as a guarantee of the truthfulness of the work of this apparatus.

 On the one hand, politics have become meaningless, filled up only with the repressive universality of the category of public order. The condition of citizenship is no longer defined by the provision of services as a universal right, but as a function of being subject to rules. On the other hand, the apparent neutrality of the law is instead filled with politics, since the law (and the legal means that guarantee its respect) becomes the main instrument to face the different social emergencies. 

 A quick empirical check: if we look back to the last 20 years, we can see that most of the measures concerning security and public order come from proposals made by the Minister of the Interior, then approved by decree law. For example, in 2013, the decree on femicide allowed prefects to request a police force to deal with public order needs prepared the ground for a scheme that envisages a war with an internal enemy. In addition, the police were recently supplied with the Taser. Moreover, the Security Decrees 1 and 2, proposed by the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, nearly concretely prohibit the organisation of demonstrations of dissent: “roadblock” is now punishable by imprisonment for up to six years; lighting a flare during a march can cost up to 4 years in prison. These measures are also accompanied by the production of administrative provisions, such as expulsion orders, or the rule that prevents those who occupy buildings from obtaining a residence.

 Toward a militarisation of the police

To make everything even more complicated, there is the creeping militarisation of the Italian police – ongoing for at least ten years, despite the demilitarisation decided with the 1981 reform. Before, the police, like the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Finanza, was a military corps of the State. Law 121 of 1981 opened access to the police forces to civilians through public competition with the objective to demilitarise and democratise them. It also allowed organising their own trade union representations. In the meantime, the possibility to enlist auxiliary agents to serve in the police remained viable. The situation changed in 2004 when compulsory military service was abolished. To encourage recruitment, a law was passed reserving roles in the police (State Police, Carabinieri, Guardia di Finanza, Penitenziaria, Forestale) to soldiers who have served between one and four years of voluntary service in one of the armed forces. These are people trained to face war.

 The economic repression

To these series of repressive laws and regulations, we must also add an “economic repression” that seems to have become more and more popular in recent years. It takes a variety of forms, the most important of which is the imposition of criminal or administrative fines and orders to pay damages in connection with criminal conduct. All of these are well-known arrangements in judicial practice. However, if we speak of economic repression against political activists, it is because it seems to us that in this case there is a more deliberate use of the above mentioned financial measures as part of a more overall strategy of neutralisation of the “enemy”. 

 It is becoming clear that for the state apparatus “hitting the wallet” is a very effective way of repressing and preventing practices of self-organisation and struggle, especially in a phase in which economic pressure on the weakest social subjects is heavier. The pecuniary penalty very often goes to strike as an act of transversal revenge as it involves parents, wives and children. In other words, it forces anyone who takes to the streets to reflect on the consequences that their actions could have on those around them. Moreover, in this phase, the recourse to them increases not only with regard to the “political” trials, but more in general as a translation on the judicial level of a global tendency to the monetisation of all the social relations, exacerbated by the policies of austerity.

 What is happening teaches us how the legal sphere does not only shapes technical aspects but also profoundly political ones: the continuous redefinition of the boundaries of lawfulness and unlawfulness, of legitimacy and illegitimacy, that sort of pendulum that is legality. The sphere of the legal is a field of conflict where today, however, only one of the parties is equipped.