Monday, December 16, 2013

The kiss

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.


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

while i thank you for writing this, i disagree a bit with your concluding sentence - They signify our times - perhaps there have been times in which such events happened less frequently, but they are not rare no matter when and where you look - even the utopia of the american suburb of yesteryear, depicted in tv shows in black and white now available on retro cable channels, becomes a vie en rose only by leaving out big chunks of what was happening not so far away

Giovanni Tiso said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting there was ever a good old day of responsible and humane law enforcement. Just that these particular perversions of language and the justice system may be peculiar to our times (and connected to how we document cop activity). Give you another example. In the US, cops beat up an African American citizen during a traffic stop (this stuff: not new). A passer-by films them on her phone. One of the cops files a criminal complaint against her for illegal wiretapping (this stuff: possibly new).

Brett Davidson said...

We all know the famous line from Juvenal... but while they are now being watched, they're still unaccountable. What has been constantly signifying all times is unaccountable power.

Ben Wilson said...

Yes, every time a hard won right finally makes it onto the books, people who shouldn't use it certainly will. Hopefully common sense within the justice system makes it hard for any charges like this to stick, and any penalties handed down as light as possible, if the charge does stick.

Ben Wilson said...

At least that's how it sometimes goes here in NZ. My Dad served on a jury where the police were prosecuting a number of guys for inciting a riot during the events of 1981. He had to talk down one of the jurors who wanted an instant prosecution because there was no doubt that violence against the police had occurred (although, of course, the police were laying into them with batons at the time), pointing out that the charge was not assault or any of those other crimes against the person. It was a much more serious one, since struck from the books I believe. Inciting a riot would probably have been a crime of sedition and the sentence was very hefty.

The judge had been very explicit in his instructions to the jury as to what the conditions were for that charge, and Dad was determined that they would at least discuss it. Eventually they unanimously decided that the conditions had not been met and all the protesters were acquitted.

Dad had been worried the whole time that he should probably tell the judge he had been a protester himself (indeed he actually saw himself in one of the police videos, in the background, pushing with a massive press of people against barricades), but the judge also put these fears to rest preemptively, saying that anyone who had participated in protests should not feel that they were biased, that an unbiased jury could not be found in the country, that everyone had an opinion, and that their job was not to judge the righteousness of the protest anyway, it was to decide if the men accused had gone there "with the explicit intent of inciting a riot".

I guess I'm suggesting that even a charge that is designed to enforce state power can fail to do so when it has to go through a justice system and face "the reasonable person" weighing up whether the police ought to use it in this way.

Anonymous said...

The Diaz raid was a rather old-school piece of police represssion. The police came for us at night, with covered faces, using brute force backed by the resources of a supportive and well-resourced legal bureaucracy and media campaign. But with little intelligence. At times it felt like being in a comic book - they acted out the stereotypes of bad cops to an almost ludicrous degree.

I find the criminalisation of opposition to authority, and the manufacturing of a 'reasonable person' defined as somebody who assumes state power to be justified, much more worrying.


Sam Buchanan

Giovanni Tiso said...

Pretty amazing to think you were there, Sam. I feel like I should apologise to you somehow.

Anonymous said...

Why should you apologise? Were you moonlighting as part of the Rome Mobile Squad at the time, or something?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Occasional, misplaced sense of shared responsibility for conduct of compatriots.

Anonymous said...

Distinctly misplaced. If you are going to claim responsibility for the G8 policing, you will also have to take credit for pizza, Fellini movies, Lamborghini cars and the behaviour of pigeons in Piazza San Marco. If you really do want to account for all this, I'd say you'll come out ahead.



Giovanni Tiso said...

"The Renaissance - oh, yeah, I did that."