Reflections on the Counsel of Italian Clowns, Anarchists and Social Movements

Ex Caserma Liberata, Bari, Italy — Some four years ago, a group of (mostly) anarchists occupied the premises of what was once a military barracks (caserma in Italian) in Bari, a port city at the top of the heel of Italy’s boot. They collectively took over 8 hectares (20 acres) in the heart of the city and began carving out a rather significant social center in the shadow of multi-story brick and glass apartment buildings. Soon realizing that 8 hectares in a large metropolitan area was a little too much territory for a few anarchists (and their fellow travelers) to occupy and defend or cultivate, they reduced their size to 2.5 hectares, which is still a hell of a lot. I suspect, from what I’ve seen here, that there are many political tendencies included among the residents and supporters of the Ex-Caserma besides the predominant anarchism, but as Pippo, says, “we are united by antifascism.”

Photo by Clifton Ross

Pippo, the poet, set up my visit to the Ex-Caserma Liberata and arranged for me to show Arturo Albarrán’s and my movie, In the Shadow of the Revolution, one week before I head off to show it at the London Anarchist Book Fair. Pippo is the founder of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of Bari and as he takes me through the city he laughs as he points out the poems along the way that he’s wheat-pasted on walls, electrical boxes, light poles and anywhere else they’ll fit. Pippo laughs a lot. But his English and Spanish are as minimal as my Italian, so our communication is done more by hand signals than anything. I’m relieved, then, when we return and Pippo hands me over to “Aurora” for a tour of the squat. Now I can give my hands a rest and talk in English with my new, fluent guide.

I’d guess the young pink-haired woman is still a teen-ager, but Aurora speaks with great authority as she walks me through the Ex-Caserma.  Over these four years they’ve painted murals on the low, ramshackle buildings, planted a small garden and taken in a “herd” of seven cats. They created various sleeping rooms, a kitchen, bathrooms, a break dance/yoga studio, a library, a bicycle repair and construction garage, a screen print shop and an indoor skate park that Aurora tells me is now closed due to lack of use.

Needless to say, it’s all collectively organized and managed by consensus, and that night I’ll see one of the biggest crowds to turn out for a showing of our movie, brought together pretty much by word of mouth among the community of supporters. Support in the community they definitely seem to have. And they’re going to need it now that the “socialist” government of the PD is giving the national police free hand to evict all squats. No doubt Ex-Caserma is on their radar.

Eventually Aurora and I arrive at the “palestra,” or the gym where “Giulio” teaches boxing. Giulio is a handsome young fellow whose light brown full beard is just starting to turn gray. He has an easy, sweet disposition that seems so incongruous with the sport he teaches, but I see a striking consistency as we start to talk about violence. After all, Giulio teaches people how to be prepared to meet fascists who are out looking for trouble, skilled as he is in the art of self, and other, defense.

“Sometimes you meet fascists on the street and you have to be prepared to defend yourself,” he says in his heavily-accented English. He also recognizes that there will be times when those committed to bridging borders and welcoming, and defending, immigrants will have to deal with the violence of the right, especially the fascist right. Recall that this is Italy where the term “fascist” was coined from the Italian movement of Mussolini, the socialist-fascist.

In the course of my conversation with Giulio, I decide to ask him what he thinks of the August 27th violence in Berkeley, which touched off a few weeks of intense debate over the proper way to respond to right-wing violence and hate speech. I describe the scene as it was reported to me by eyewitnesses, and by newspaper reports, and from what I could see in videos that were posted online afterwards since I refused to participate. When I’d discovered the Portland Antifa was involved, I decided I didn’t want to be part of a peaceful backdrop to what I knew would be their violent attacks, so I protested the protest.

I express my own views up front to Giulio (that I only believe in defensive force, not offensive violence) and then I tell him that the demonstration in Berkeley was thousands strong, and marched through Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement. This massive assembly was joined by a contingent of perhaps as many as 100 to 150 Antifa, said to have arrived from Portland, Oregon. As the demonstration converged on the Civic Center Park where Amber and Joey Gibson and a few others were gathered, the Antifa charged and began beating the “right-wing” gathering. None of the “right-wingers” fought back, but rather retreated. In one case a “right-wing” protestor fell and was kicked and beaten by a number of the Antifa before African American reporter Al Letson intervened and stopped the beating.

There’s a reason why I put “right-wing” in quotes: Joey Gibson appears to be something of a Christian anarchist or libertarian, but certainly in a very interesting interview, he denied being “right-wing.” Amber Cummings is a self-described “transsexual anti-Marxist” and also denies association with right wingers. No doubt, as organizers claimed, some people who may have been right-wing showed up, but the Antifa never allowed them to speak: they were beaten to the ground, in most cases, before they were even allowed to open their mouths.

So I asked Giulio what he thought of this.

Giulio shook his head. “No, I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree with fascist tactics.”

Ah, yes. That is exactly why I have such admiration for the Antifa I’ve met in Europe. We can actually have a conversation about these issues without anyone engaging in personal attacks. I don’t need to worry about them beating me up if I express any sympathy for victims of their attacks since, clearly, according to the Portland Antifa in Berkeley on August 27th, people they beat up are “Nazi” by definition, regardless of how the victim defines him or herself, right? Furthermore, Giulio and many like him recognize that fascism, more than an ideology, is a practice. It’s a way of doing politics by relying almost exclusively on the two main tactics of fear and violence. Anti-fascism, Giulio and others in the European Antifa might agree, would take the opposite tactical approach, relying mostly on courage and respect, backed up only when necessary, by defensive force. And after all, Europeans have painful experience with, and a long time to reflect on, fascism, and learn through that what does, and doesn’t, work.

Another group headquartered here in the Ex-Caserma has found a different way to deal with cops and fascists and other threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was the last stop on Aurora’s tour and as we paused while she unlocked the door, she smiled and looked up at me. “You’re not afraid of clowns, are you?” I wasn’t quick enough to get the joke and so responded earnestly that I wasn’t, and then we entered the headquarters of the Clown Army of Bari.

This would be my home for the next few days, their nerve center, and the arsenal of the Clown Army is all around me: plastic clubs, fly swatters, and ridiculous neon orange and green space guns. Their headquarters have mostly been painted pink, but it was clearly a job done by clowns, and the white undercoat shows through everywhere. On the walls are photos of some of their more intensive military offensives: one clown dressed up as a large pink pig being arrested and handcuffed by two policemen; a line of police in riot gear with shields, all painted pink by passing clowns; police arresting a giant penis, and the other indignities perpetrated with the most extreme and violent forms of humor.

And by the door is a little bucket for strange, frilly umbrellas, a little yellow plastic kiddy bat for plastic baseball, and several tubes that look like kaleidoscopes. Above the bucket is a sign that says “Bastoni in caso di FASCISTI” (Clubs in case of fascists).

At this point in my life, clowns are probably the only teachers I could take seriously, so as I settle into the clown headquarters I begin to consider what lessons I can take back to the USA with me from this experience in the clown headquarters, and in Italy as a whole. After all, we North Americans really understand so little about our own situation and we have so much to learn from the world.

So here’s the first lesson: in just a short time here at Ex-Caserma my new friends have made clear that we’re definitely not going to be able to defeat fascists by using their tactics against them. That would only guarantee our own transformation into fascists. And though we certainly need to fight the ignorance that breeds fascism, racism, and malignant nationalism, we also have to deal with our own ignorance about that “basket of deplorables” that seems to evoke so much fear and disgust among liberals and the Left. To do that, we’ll have to let go of our arrogance in thinking we’re somehow better than them because we know the “right” language, are more urbane, and hold more humane views. To achieve that, we’ll need to cultivate greater humility to open our hearts and minds.

Of course, as Giulio knows, there may also be times when we have to defend ourselves, our comrades and people with whom we’re in solidarity, by the use of force—not “by any means necessary,” but rather only when necessary. We’ll need to begin to develop a strategy rather than relying simply on tactics, but a strategy can only be developed when we have an objective, a vision, a goal. All of this is strikingly absent on the Left these days now that socialism, defined as the “state ownership of the means of production” has proven to be an unworkable concept and many of us are left scratching our heads and trying to come up with a viable alternative to transnational capitalism. We’ll have to be willing to completely let go of unworkable ideas before we can hope to come up with new ideas, objectives and aims.

All that will require us to leave the safety of our mental and social ghetto of the “Left” and move out into the big world where the real 99% live. And that 99%, in the USA, at least, is mostly made up of liberals, conservatives and people that many of us still insist on describing as “fascists.” Will it be possible for us to let go of our cherished identity as (self)-righteous Leftists and just become people again? Will we be able to open ourselves up to all those people thrown away like trash by the neoliberalism Hillary Clinton and the Democrats (and Republicans) have touted for the past few decades. I’m not so sure.

Perhaps that’s why, at the same time I’ve grown alienated from the “Left” I’ve found myself drawn increasingly closer to European anarchists and Latin American social movements. As the Chilean social movement activist, Edmundo Jiles, told Marcy Rein and me when we visited him in Paine, Chile a few years back as we worked on the final stages of a book we were putting together at the time: “Social movements have no ideology…they don’t have their own programs and there are no political parties at the forefront interpreting the social movements to channel the social aspirations.” A little further south in the area of Aysén you could see this in practice. The social movement there was making national news at the time, and in our book we translated and published an interview with the main coordinator of that movement, Iván Fuentes.

Ours is a movement that cuts across lines with deep criticism for the current political scheme. The country today is demonstrating against a system, not against politicians. People want to vote for persons, not for certain political parties. So this is a wake-up call for politics in Chile; Chilean politics are sick and they have to be healed. I’m not of any particular political party, nor is this movement political. The demands represent deep social feelings that cross lines. My compañero Misael Ruiz is right-wing, and a militant in the Renovación Nacional. I’m not a militant of any party, but my work is social. We want people to regain their faith in politics, in our way of doing politics, valuing people dedicated to doing the things they were born to do. These people have no wage nor title, but they work from their hearts and they’re able to give, to leave something for their children and work for their community. Those are the leaders.

That was back in 2012 and we found this ability on the part of the social movements to cross all political and social boundaries very inspiring. This phenomenon has also been the case in Venezuela (as our movie demonstrates) where an array of social actors were out in the streets every day for four months this year in a struggle to restore democracy to the country. And now I’ve found refreshing evidence of others thinking along the same lines here in Italy.

After showing the movie in Bologna, the event organizer, poet Pina Piccolo, and I went out with a couple of students who also had helped organize the event. “Piero” and “Sofia”were part of a group called “Hobo” who had come together a few years ago because they were disgusted by what went under the rubric of “Left” in Italian politics.

As elsewhere in the world, or I should say, as everywhere in the world, the Italian Left has seen better days. In fact, it might be more accurate to say it’s a shadow of itself, in many senses. As a result, the reformed Communist Party, now the Democratic Party (PD) is gradually losing ground to the various fascist and populist parties, even in traditional Left bastions like Bologna.

Piero and Sofia took us to a bar on a quiet back street for “happy hour” which, in the Italian case, happens around 9 p.m.. Piero is polite and clean cut, like most Italian college-age men. His perfectly trimmed mustache and glasses fit the image of the long-term resident of academia that he is, but Piero is definitely not an academic. Nor is Sofia. Sofia, a British-Italian who rolls her own cigarettes, is loquacious but not excessively so: she’s just excited about the work Hobo has been doing recently.

When a local bank went belly up the Hobo students decided to find out what happened to the shareholders and those who lost money in the debacle. Most on the Left around them couldn’t understand why they were so concerned about “middle class” people, many of whom were considered “right wing” and quite “backward” by the educated, intellectual Left. But the Hobos insisted and roused the courage to go out and meet the people. Sofia described the process as having been quite difficult. “Yes, some of the people were racists; sexists, and so on. There were times when in a group they would sing the old nineteenth century Italian National Anthem and I thought I would choke. But gradually we got to know the people as people, and we developed mutual respect as they realized we were really interested in their situation.”

I have no doubt these experiences of social movements are repeated daily by social movements all around the world. I wonder when we’ll begin to recognize their value in the United States. The situation there cries out for such an awareness, and that was brought home to me in one great moment in the run-up to the presidential election of 2016. In perhaps the most backward state of the USA, Oklahoma (a state where, incidentally, I have family and where I lived for five years), Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won the Republican and Democratic primaries, respectively. For me, that was an extraordinary revelation. It tells me that white “rednecks” are sick of the neoliberal politics of the likes of the Clintons, and they’re looking for alternatives.

Oklahoma, it should be recalled, was once “red” (communist and anarcho-syndicalist) of a different color than the “red” (Republican) of today. Back in the 1920s it had five socialist weeklies and it was also home of the now-forgotten Green Corn Rebellion when as much as one third of the state was flying red flags in a great grassroots revolution that was quickly stamped out by the Federal government. And what was the relationship between the government and the Klan? Racist populism clearly substituted for socialism…

The message of the last presidential election when Trump was elected couldn’t be clearer. The white working class has been ignored, and forgotten, but worse, it has been ridiculed and disrespected by neoliberals—and liberals, and left liberals, and the Left. This is the clear message that people like Arlie Hochschild (Strangers in their own Land) and Joan C. Williams (White Working Class) and others have so eloquently articulated. Only by patient and careful willingness to open our hearts to listen closely to people we find so terribly “backward,” “uneducated,” “uncouth” and even “unreasonable” will we be able to find common ground with people now entertaining political positions we (rightly, I think) find so counterproductive and destructive.

So perhaps Giulio is right, and we may find one day we’ll have to be ready to duke it out on the streets with fascists. This has been the case on many occasions here in Europe, and it certainly was an important part of the defensive force Antifa and others used in Charlottesville, Virginia this past August. At the same time, there’s also a need for education, dialogue, as well as the use of the best weapon the Clown Army possesses in its formidable arsenal: humor. But most importantly, we need to set our political, social and cultural differences aside to focus on problems that affect all of us. Like climate change.

I didn’t have time to hear how things turned out with Sofia and Piero. The subject turned to other things and Pina and I had to catch a train home. So let me imagine an ending, and say there’s probably great truth in my imaginary ending because I recall Sofia speaking with genuine affection about the people she’s come to work with recently when she dared to cross the lines of what she once thought was correct ideology to reach out to people so different from her. I do recall that the students and the aggrieved shareholders and former customers of the bank were able to demonstrate together for justice, crossing political and social boundaries that elites have thus far deftly managed to use on the 99% and keep it divided. Yet I imagine that eventually the issue with the bank became less important to everyone because a much deeper transformation was taking place. Gradually, in ways no one quite anticipated, and certainly no one really understood, people began to develop deep feelings of affection for each other and especially for those they once felt were repugnant, even deplorable. Now that’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it?

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela.

Read other articles by Clifton.