She kissed him on a cold November day. The gesture was captured by a photographer, and it looked tender. She kissed the visor of his helmet. He appeared to squirm, as if repulsed or perturbed by that unwanted attention.
She kissed him in the mountain town of Susa, the permanent theatre of a two-decade long protest, in the valley that bears the same name, where they’re laying the tracks and digging the tunnels for the high-speed train that one day will connect Turin, Italy, to Lyon, France, another stitch in the patchwork quilt of Europe.
She kissed him on the visor of his helmet, but it wasn’t a peaceful gesture, nor was it tender. It was a provocation. The kisser – a student by the name of Nina, who comes from my home town – said that she was thinking of another protester, Marta, from Pisa, who was molested and beaten by the cops earlier this year. After kissing the visor, she wet two fingers with saliva and reached for the cop’s lips, but failed to connect.
Now Nina faces two charges. The first one is for the very Italian crime of ‘causing offence to a public officer’.
The second charge is sexual assault.
Federico Aldrovandi, 18, was set upon and killed by four cops on the streets of Bologna in 2005. They beat him so hard that two of their batons broke in half. In July of this year, after the jail sentences against their colleagues were confirmed in the final appeal, the Police Officers’ Union staged a protest sit-in underneath the office in which Aldrovandi’s mother worked. Not even the Mayor could persuade them to move fifty metres down the road. So the mother came down and stood by the protesters, holding the enlarged picture that had been shown in court of her son lying dead on the side of the road after the beating. The cops, in response, turned their back on her.
This is the same union that is laying charges of sexual assault against the young female student from Milan. As the union's secretary-general has explained to the media, it was a decision motivated by the logic of reciprocity and an elementary sense of justice. ‘If a male police officer had done that to a random female protester, can you imagine? The third world war would break out if we so much as touched someone with a flower.’
|Effects of the violent application of flowers|
In 2001, the riot cop whom Nina kissed on the visor was 13 years old. He bears therefore no personal responsibility for the raid on a high school where anti-globalisation activists were spending the night during the G8 summit in Genoa. The operation was carried out by some 350 policemen, while 150 carabinieri encircled the building. Over 200 protesters were transferred to the Bolzaneto barracks, where they were tortured and forced to sing songs of cheer to Mussolini and Pinochet. Of the 93 eventual arrests, 65 people had to be hospitalised. Three were in a coma. None of the cops were injured.
It took weeks for the investigation to begin, whereupon amateur footage of the attack was sent by the detectives to Switzerland and Germany, ostensibly so that it could be transferred onto DVD, and never came back. The two Molotov cocktails seized elsewhere in the city and smuggled by the cops inside the school to justify the ferocity of the assault also disappeared from the evidence store-room in mysterious circumstances. After a five-year trial in which prosecutors tried in vain to wrangle charges of torture from the meanders of our penal code, short prison sentences were given to twenty-five mostly high-ranking officers. All the other cops walked free, largely due to the fact that no attempt had been made in the aftermath of the raid to ascertain who had done what, and no confessions or testimonies were forthcoming. For instance, in the case of British journalist Mark Covell, who was assailed outside the school and left in a coma, some officers were sentenced to pay him 4,000 Euros in compensation for having defamed him, but none of his attackers were ever identified, let alone tried.
This is the backdrop to the kiss. It’s barely history – the Aldrovandi trial ended this year, while civil suits for the raid on the Armando Diaz school are still pending. There are international echoes, too, in the attacks on the right to protest in Britain and elsewhere, or in the successful attempt to seek damages by the cop who pepper sprayed a group of sitting protesters at UC Davis, as well as countless other stories in which the agents of repression try to pass as helpless victims. Like when a cop in the Diaz raid ripped his own Kevlar jacket, to prove that someone had tried to stab him – a sham that not even his colleagues could stomach supporting. Besides, it was easier and safer to claim not to know, not to have seen or have taken part in anything, while their superiors took turns to blame prefect of police Arnaldo La Barbera – who in the meantime had very conveniently died of cancer – for the lies and the early attempts to pervert the course of justice.
And so, now, this charge of sexual assault for miming a kiss and daring to tease a riot cop, which nonetheless follows a precise logic: that of solidarity to powerful, and of mobilising in its name the institutions that are supposed to defend the weak. Like the cops who demonstrated against the mother of a victim of police brutality, as if pursuing a grotesque retribution.
To turn your back on the picture of a young man lying in his own blood. To call rape a gesture of defiance. These are themselves acts of violence, and their own kind of brutality. They signify our times.