Carovane is an Italian word that means exactly what it means in English absent the final e. It is also the name of an event that has taken place each of the last four Septembers in Piacenza, a provincial capital on the river Po, about 40 miles southeast of Milan. Each year’s Carovane has a theme, which links most, but not all, the events and performances taking place within it. The theme of this year’s Carovane, which ran September 6-14, was Addio alle armi, which is the Italian translation of the title of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms.
Piacenza’s relation to this question is not abstract. In World War II four thousand of its citizens were killed or lost–a huge number for a town so small. Parts of the city were destroyed by Allied bombs, though you have to look carefully now to know that. Most of the reconstruction is seamless. It’s only anachronisms–like a 1950s date on the rose window of a Romanesque church–that reminds you that bad things happened here. Otherwise, Piacenza is like many other Italian towns that have layered modern life onto medieval architecture. High fashion shops line the medieval streets and sometimes it seems half the people you see are leaning into their cell phones. There aren’t many cars–you can only drive in the old town if you live there or if you’re delivering something, and for that you need a special permit–and it’s not uncommon to see a businessman in suit and tie bicycling by, his fine leather briefcase on a rack over his rear wheel or dangling from the hand that’s not steering the bike. Most people walk wherever they’re going. You can walk a diagonal from one side of the low ruins of the medieval wall still surrounding the old part of town to the other in twenty minutes or so.
A few Carovane events took place in nearby towns, or in a local theatre when it rained, and some photo exhibits were set in a local museum, but most took place outdoors in Piacenza’s piazza Duomo–the large square in front of the town’s 12th century Romanesque cathedral. The Duomo has terrific bells that ring the hour and the quarters. The bells often went off while someone was talking. Some speakers talked right through them. Others patiently waited for the hours to finish their toll.
Everything in Carovane was free. Some people seemed to attend every session from morning until midnight. Others wandered in and out. I saw people going by with packages, on their way home from shopping, or carrying briefcases, who would hear what was coming from the loudspeakers and would sit down and never rise until the session ended. Was the ice cream melting in that sack? Had the lawyerly-looking guy missed an appointment?
Many cities in the US occasionally use public spaces for concerts. Buffalo, where I live, has a rock concert on the green space by its downtown library every Thursday in the summer, and jazz concerts several summer Sunday afternoons on the steps of its Albright-Knox Art Gallery. But I don’t know any city (or university either) in the U.S. that turns one of its primary public spaces into a week-long forum for the open exchange of ideas–people talking about hard stuff, and other people giving that talk the kind of attention it requires. A living agora.
There were panels, lectures, speechifying, a literary award ceremony, two firebreathing performances by a street priest famous for working with drug addicts and lately for campaigning against the Mafia, concerts, poetry readings, public interviews of writers, dramatic presentations. There was a heavy concentration of writers and artists from South and Central America, many of whom had been political prisoners and exiles, and there were writers from Africa, North America and Europe as well. There was the great Argentine novelist Mempo Giardinelli, the famous Uruguyan singer Daniel Viglietti, the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, the Chilean human rights writer Patricia Verdugo. There were maybe a hundred participants and performers in all, plus dozens of students and other young people who worked as translators, gofers and drivers. Nobody got paid for anything. Every day at noon, Fahrenheit 451, a terrific bookstore on piazza Duomo and one of Carovane’s sponsors, sponsored an open reception at noon. Participants, staff and townspeople would hang out and fall into conversations.
One of the websites describes Carovane as “il Festival di Letteratura, Musica, Teatro e Impegno Civile”–the festival of literature, music, theatre and civil engagement. There are plenty of festivals that celebrate literature, music and theatre, but I don’t know any other that puts civil engagement as an art of equivalent value. By their categories, Foucault taught us, you shall know them. That fourth term didn’t only rationalize all the journalists and political writers at Carovane; it also said that Carovane was about art that was engaged, and that these actions of the mind and heart had more in common that you might suspect.
“Just tell them what happened at Attica”
I was there because my friend Alessandro Portelli–professor of American Studies at University of Rome and one of the editors of Acoma, Europe’s best American studies journal–suggested they invite me to talk about the September 1971 violence in New York’s Attica prison. I asked him what in particular he thought I ought to talk about. “Just tell them what happened at Attica and whatever else you think they should know. They want you to speak on September 11,” Sandro said. “The day about Chile, Attica, the World Trade Center.”
I was happy to be invited but I thought maybe I should tell Sandro or the Carovane organizers that the massacre at Attica prison happened the morning of September 13, not September 11. It ended an uprising by prisoners that had begun September 9. September 11 was the perfect middle of that grim affair. But I didn’t. When it comes to senseless slaughters like that, what difference does a day or two make?
So I pulled together some notes and printed 13″x19″ enlargements of 15 Polaroid photographs taken by New York State Police photographers during and after the September 13, 1971, massacre at Attica prison. But I didn’t know how any of what happened at Attica would fit Carovane 2003.
Other than conversations with specific people, about which I’ll have more to say in a while, the main thing I got out of the week I spent in Piacenza was an appreciation for how parochial and reactive American political discourse has become these past two years. It’s not just that almost no Americans are capable of speaking any language but their own or reading books or newspapers in any language other than their own–though there is that. Rather, it’s that when we talk about political matters our thoughts rarely go beyond our Atlantic and Pacific shores or our Mexican and Canadian borders. If we think about other countries it’s in terms of whether they’re for us or against us, with us or with some vague Them. Hardly anyone who spoke at Carovane parsed the world so such simplistic, narrow terms.
The U.S. political agenda these past two years has been nurtured and driven by September 11, 2001. It justifies, excuses and displaces everything. The flagging and defensive Bush administration took brilliant sustenance from it and has never looked back. They have waged two wars halfway around the world, gotten a lapdog Congress to pass without taking time to read the text the vicious and repressive PATRIOT-USA. They have passed a tax cut that cynically maims the poor and further enriches the rich. They have turned the Statue of Liberty on her head, pulled her skirts over her eyes and gangbanged her, all in the name of the ever-amorphous war on International Terrorism.
Those of use who haven’t mindlessly followed along have spent our time trying to find ways to undo the damage they have done and have kept on doing, which means we’re caught in their damned manipulative, opportunistic and jingoistic trap anyway. If we spend all your time opposing something, that doesn’t leave time for much of anything else. It’s the same agenda, only the signs are changed.
And most of the time we’re just talking to ourselves. For people who get daily briefings and kisses on the ear from God, mere editorials, petitions, phone campaigns and demonstrations don’t count for much. Congress called John Ashcroft in to chastise him for converting the Justice Department into the SS and he sat there with his born-again grin until the congressmen finished what they had to say, then he apologized for nothing but instead demanded increased powers of inspection, control, detention and punishment. And not one congressman had the cojones to say, “Weren’t you listening to a word we said, you fundamentalist lunatic?” Instead they thanked him for his testimony and off he went.
Another September 11
In the U.S., the date September 11 immediately invokes memories of the destruction of the World Trade Center, the fire at the Pentagon, and the downed passenger plane in a Pennsylvania field. But that date has a more distant and complex resonance elsewhere in the world, especially in Central and South America, where the year more likely to go with September 11 is 1973–the day the Salvador Allende government in Chile was destroyed by the golpe, the coup d’etat, supported and in large part underwritten by the U.S. government. Augusto Pinochet, the general who betrayed Allende, was Chile’s president through 1990 and commander in chief of the armed services until 1998. He ordered the slaughter of more than 3000 of Allende’s supporters and the torture of thousands more. During his 35 years of power, which the US never contested, uncounted numbers of Chileans were forced into long and bitter exile.
There were a lot of people who took part in Carovane who had spent time in prison, exile or had lost members of their families because of U.S. meddling. Almost everyone who talked about Chile ’73 mentioned that Allende had been elected president in a free and open election. The Chilean extreme right wing and the U.S. government didn’t like the idea that a socialist had been elected legally, but most Chileans were perfectly comfortable with it, until the CIA began destabilizing the Chilean economy. What right, they asked, did the U.S. have to first try to prevent Allende from becoming president and then, after he was elected, work very hard and in collaboration with the most evil political elements in the country, to destroy him and his presidency?
It’s not like that happened only once and only in that place. The US has a long history (largely unknown to most Americans) of meddling, undermining, oppressing and killing. When our presidents wax moralistic, few people beyond our shores assume sincerity. I met no one at Carovane there who didn’t think Saddam evil and worthy of replacement; neither did I meet anyone there who believed for a moment that it was Saddam’s evil or the possibility of weapons of mass destruction that drew the US and British military into that war.
That said, I must say what anyone who has taken part in any international political conference or symposium is always struck anew by: nations aren’t people and no sane persons assume they are. I didn’t meet anyone there who was angry at you or me. At worst, it was a sadness for us; at best, a curiosity about how we were coping.
Attica, though it is like that huge never-healing wound of Philoctetes, seemed to pale beside the litany of political murders and betrayals I heard through that week. I listened to survivors of and commentators on what happened in Argentina and Chile and other sites of war. I thought about the atrocities committed abroad now by the Bush administration and the mutilation of our system of justice by them and by sheep-like congressmen. And Attica seemed a minor incident.
Thirty-nine men were shot to death in Attica’s D-yard by New York State Police and various unnamed volunteers in Attica yard that bloody Monday morning in 1971, 29 of them convicts, the other 10 hostages. At first the state lied about the hostage deaths, claiming the convicts had slashed their throats and stuffed their dead mouths with their amputated genitals. That lie was printed by the New York Times and most other newspapers around the country, and some people still believe it.
And then I understood that Attica wasn’t minor at all, that there was indeed a lesson in Attica that was central to the week’s discussion. It wasn’t about the murders and the lies and the political coverup, but rather about the convicts’ civil rights trial, Al-Jundi et al v. Rockefeller et al, filed in federal court in 1974 on the last day before the statute of limitations expired and not resolved until the summer of 2000, 26 years after the filing and 29 years after the killings and tortures. It was the longest running civil rights trial in American history. The State of New York poured undisclosed millions of dollars into its defense. Year by year more and more of the plaintiffs died. No doubt some of the state’s attorneys hoped that by the time it got near resolution all of them would be dead.
But the convicts and their attorneys, working most of the time with little or no money, pressed on. Two of the lead plaintiffs–Akil al-Jundi and Herbert X. Blyden–said the same thing to me: the money damages meant nothing to them. What mattered was getting the story told, and the federal court was the only place they could force the officials who had hidden things and lied about them for so many years to answer questions and deal with evidence. The judge who controlled the case, a political associate of Rockefeller, seemed to fight them at every step, but they kept on, and finally they won. They won.
And that was what Attica had in common with the good people who did not give up in Chile and Argentina, and that is the lesson it has for us in America now.
So, after long and complex speeches introducing my subject by Gianni Mina (editor of the highly-regarded Italian quarterly Latinoamerica), and my friend Alessandro Portelli, I threw away the notes I had prepared and just told the story of Attica: how the takeover happened, how Rockefeller’s passion to be president led him to order the slaughter, how the state police came in shooting even though they couldn’t see who they were shooting at, the tortures, the coverup, and then the long and difficult civil rights trial.
At the end, I said this,
Let me tell you what I think are the four things that came out of Attica that I think are useful.
First, Attica made prisons visible. It took the trial to do it, but they did it. Long-hidden photographs like those [they had posted the 15 prints I’d brought with me on a board in the middle of the piazza], testimony, many other things came out that never would have come out previously.
The second thing is, Attica made violence specific. Those other deaths I mentioned earlier, those millions and millions are impossible to conceive. I don’t know what to do with a million dead people or two million dead people or a hundred thousand dead people. But I know the name of every man who died in the Attica yard.
Because death is never general. Death is always specific.
The third thing is, because of Attica there has not been one prison riot in the United States that has been resolved by gunfire since September 13, 1971.
And finally, this: the civil rights trial took 29 years but they won. The state and their lawyers had infinitely more money but the convicts never gave up and they won. They were threatened, they were pressured, they were poor, they were sick, they were powerless. They never gave up, and they won. Because of them we know those secrets the state wanted kept dark. Because they never gave up, and they won. They had justice on their side and they knew it and that is what kept them going.
I think about that when I look at what George Bush and his people have done to America and the world. I think: they have power, they have money, but we have justice on our side. Like the convicts of Attica, we must never give up. And we will win. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, next year. If not us, our children. We must never give up. And that for me is the lesson of Attica.
That is indeed the lesson of Attica, but it’s a lesson I only realized I knew after listening to those accounts of exile, repression, torture, prison, persistence, and bravery from so many of the participants in Addio alle armi. I needed the distance and the complex company to see the parallel of Attica and the inevitable transience of Bushism.
Three old jarheads and a stranger’s cigar
I remember two nights there in particular.
Sunday, my first night there, I fell in with Wayne Smith, a retired US career diplomat who had been a key member of Carter’s team trying to normalize relations with Cuba (“If we’d had just a little more time…”) and Sam Hamill, poet, translator and publisher, more widely known of late for organizing poets against Bush’s war.
We had been taken to dinner in the nearby town of Pianello Val Tidone. The restaurant had no signs: we went in by one unmarked door on a small sidestreet and came out another unmarked door on a totally different sidestreet. There were no menus either. They just brought platters of food and bottles of wine until we couldn’t eat or drink any more.
Then we sat in the piazza and talked. Sam told us about fleeing Mormon Utah at 15, being a street kid on drugs, then joining the Marines and discovering his pacifism while he was stationed in Japan. Wayne said that the Marines had gotten him out of Texas and that he had been a Marine drill instructor. They bonded for a moment over that long-ago youthful coincidence, then I said that I’d been in the Marines too. “You too?” one of them said. Wayne’s wife Roxy said “Did you go through San Diego or Parris Island?” I said I’d gone through Parris Island. “Well, then,” Roxy said. We all laughed at the absurdity of it: three ageing ex-jarhead pacifists with the wives of two of them in a piazza in northern Italy, courtesy of the managers of Addio alle armi.
I asked Wayne why the Cuban situation was so recalcitrant. “It’s not,” he said, “it’s the White House that’s recalcitrant, them and their neo-con advisers.” There is little opposition to reestablishing full relations in Congress, he told me, and American public opinion was strongly for it. Even the Cuban community in south Florida had shifted toward normalization. “Most everybody sees that it makes economic and social sense, except for the White House. But Castro’s no help now either. I don’t think he cares any more. He’s the only national leader I’ve ever met who doesn’t give a damn how he goes down in history. History is of no interest to him whatsoever. I think he figures that the next guy will put it all together and that’s fine with him.” Wayne and Roxy talked about having been in Havana when Castro took over in January 1959.
The five of us told stories, drinking local vino rossi frissante while an 80-year-old jazz singer named Nicola Arigliano sang what seemed a perfect blend of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Then he drifted: he sang Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” The five of us joined in, not the least bit in tune, having a fine time anyway.
The other night was later in the week. The Duomo was chiming midnight and I was starting back to the hotel from the restaurant in the piazza where we’d eaten outside at huge tables. I was thinking about something the Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah had said earlier: “War is a river of fire.” He’d been talking about water in Africa, then he talked about war, and then he said that astonishing line. I visualized a golden snaking river, coursing through broad landscapes, forming tributaries and streams, all of them consuming everything they touched.
Mempo Giardinelli caught up with me and said “It’s too early. You can’t go to bed yet. Let’s go for a drink and talk.” Bjorn Larsson, a Swedish novelist, and Feli Carman, an Argentine married to an artist who lives in Piacenza and who had been translating some of the sessions, were with us. “We’ll go to that great Irish bar Wayne and I went to the other night,” Mempo said.
We walked four or five blocks and found the place, “The Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
“That’s not an Irish bar,” I said.
“Bonnie Prince Charlie was Scotch,” Bjorn said.
“It doesn’t make any difference,” Mempo said.
“It does in Great Britain,” Feli said.
“What matters is that it’s closed,” Mempo said.
“I know a nice place,” Feli said.
“Is it far?” Mempo said.
“Nothing in Piacenza is far,” she said.
We walked on through the narrow rain-slick cobblestone streets. The street ended, became a wide stairway maybe eight or ten steps deep, at the base of which was a patio, beyond which it morphed into a street again. On the patio were three tables, each with a large market umbrella. Three men sat in huddled conversation at the table on the right. A man sat alone at the far table. The table on the left was empty, and that was where we sat.
The light rain fell, stopped, then started again, but the umbrella covered us perfectly. A waiter came out of the bar and handed us a list of things that might be ordered. The man at the far table got up and left. His shoes made light tapping sounds on the cobblestones, then faded into silence before he turned out of sight at the next corner.
Mempo wanted a bourbon, I think because he’d been around so many North Americans that day. He ordered Jack Daniels. Bjorn and I ordered Talisker. Feli had water. Other than our conversation, I heard no other sounds save the low unintelligible murmur of the three men at the table behind me.
We talked about writing and politics. I told them what Faruddhin had said about war being a river of fire and we talked about the difficulty of getting it right and the pleasure when you do. After a while, the waiter brought us another round and I asked if the bar might have any cigars for sale. I knew it didn’t; I was just hoping. In France and Spain bars and restaurants sometimes have them, but in Italy you can get them only at the tobacco stores. “Tabac,” he said, pointing down the street. I said that the tabac wouldn’t be open until the next day. He shrugged and went back inside.
We resumed talking. Then–maybe a minute later–a hand came over my shoulder and in it was a short conical cigar. I turned and saw that it was one of the three men at the other table. He pointed to a man the far side of his table. “From him,” he said.
“Toscano,” the man on the far side of the table said. A cigar from Tuscany. “Strong.” He tapped his chest with the thumb side of his fist.
“Benissimo,” I said. “Grazi.”
“Prego,” he said. They went back to their conversation and we went back to ours, while the light rain continued to fall on the umbrellas covering them and us, Mempo with his Jack Daniels, Bjorn and I with our Taliskers, Feli with her water. I smoked my strong Tuscan cigar. Mempo smoked his cigarettes. The three men at the table behind us continued their murmured conversation. I turned one time and caught the eye of the man on the far side of the other table, nodded to tell him that it was a very good cigar, and thanked him again. He gestured back that he was pleased I enjoyed it. Mempo, Bjorn, Feli and I continued telling stories and talking about politics and writing, about freedom and exile, about jail and the sea, and then, after a while, it was time to go.
BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org