I joked with close friends before I left for Italy that this trip would be my first international travel experience in which I would not be under threat of immanent danger. After yesterdays protest, I can no longer count this visit in that category. In Iraq, of course, I was living a day at a time thinking to myself “one more day survived.” In Israel, I was targeted by Palestinian militants and IDF soldiers alike. In Italy, I faced tear gas and rubber bullets from the swarm of police monitoring the rally in protest of President Bush, cautiously aware of the volatility of the world leaders’ mere presence.
The day began smoothly, my host had finished translating my last-minute speech into Italian, and we had agreed on and made revisions. After being stopped by a reporter for a national news distributor and giving a brief interview, he informed us that the national TV News station had scrolled across the screen (much like CNN’s news ticker) that an American Iraq veteran would be speaking against Bush as he strolled through the city. Phil Rushton, my host, and I shot raised eyebrows at each other and shrugged amazedly.
As we ran to catch up with the front of the march, crowds poured out from the alleyways, peered cautiously from balconies, and pumped fists in support of the demonstrations as it snaked through the historic city of Rome, a city whose citizens are well acquainted with imperialistic leaders. I darted along, trying as I could to take pictures and keep up with Phil. I couldn’t count how many times I was pulled at the shoulder by a curious bystander to read my IVAW t-shirt.
When we arrived at the venue, the Piazza Navona, I nervously scarfed a gelati (ice cream) to fill my growling stomach. The Navona is a popular tourist attraction, and to be honest, I was more nervous about encountering a patriotic American who would be offended by my address than I was at the riot-ready polizia (I had already been approached angrily after speaking at the Hawaii state capitol in October 2006). I envisioned a much smaller crowd, since as we past the march trying to catch up, I thought I had a good idea how many people would turn out. I didn’t.
Some estimates ranged as high as 100,000, but I think it was closer to 60,000 at most. I was the first scheduled speaker, and was told to keep my message under ten minutes (with translation, so I wrote a five minute speech). I glanced at my two pages of notes and took a deep breath. Before I knew it, I was hoisted up on a truck fitted with audio equipment and was introduced in a fiery Italian monologue by an organizer. Well, here goes nothing…
Mostly it went well, and I paused for applause at a couple points. Near the end, when I introduced the element of religion, a couple of people near the front became irritable. Apparently anti-Pope sentiment was high as well with some of the crowd. When I had finished, a few people shook my hand from the stage and I slipped into the background to finish that deep breath I had started.
During other speakers’ addresses, there had been scuffles somewhere in the large crowd that attracted people’s attention. There was no activity at the front, where I was, and it was hard to figure out what was going on. The polizia near us at one point all strapped their chinstraps, nearly in unison. That made me become slightly concerned. Then they toed an invisible line. That’s when I really knew it was going to get interesting.
Surprisingly, the fray remained localized wherever it had begun, and the rally slowly wound down and the tension seemed to lift. Crowds moved toward the nearest street and began to fill city buses and trolleys on their way home. Phil and I were patiently waiting for an Italian senator that had contributed to bringing me to Italy and who wanted to talk. As we waited, we meandered nearby until we could find an appropriate time.
We were swept by the exiting crowds out of the piazza and eventually found ourselves near a barricade of polizia. Shouts and the sound of trouble grew from a distant whisper to a low murmur. We chatted about which pizzeria we wanted to celebrate at. It became more dense, like we were being forced into a crowded elevator. Phil liked the idea of an Irish pub after going to see another demonstration that drew much less attention. A loud pop and the smell of flowers alerted me to what might have been tear gas.
Phil and I finally began moving away from the core of the crowd, abandoning our hope of seeing the Senator. We watched from a short distance (apparently too short for Phil, who stood several meters behind me, unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable with the experience of anarchical chaos). We watched nearby as polizia first swarmed the piazza, then withdrew, with more flowery tear gas smell and loud protests from the crowd not caught in the exchange. Hunger, and the knowledge that our presence may only add to the fluctuating intensity of the violence, drew us away from the fiasco.
Today I saw the headlines and front-page pictures throughout Rome. I walked by a bank window that had been smashed by protesters and plenty of graffiti attacking Bush. I had heard that the embassy in Rome had urged American citizens to avoid the demonstrations; for fear that they could become “targets of opportunity.” It would be horrific if US citizens were to be attacked without justification. Just as appalling as it would be to attack an entire country without reason or cause. Hmm.
Maybe I understand the frustration that the world feels when Bush strides through a foreign city, the avarice and ignorance he represents to so many across the world can be overwhelming. I have been amazed all week that one man could arouse such fervent anger and contempt wherever he goes. This morning, I read his response to the thousands upon thousands who have participated in protests throughout Europe. He said that the power of democracy is being shown, that they are enjoying their right to ‘disagree’ with him. Funny, the main idea I got about democracy from my 8th grade class on American politics is that a President is merely a servant to his people, not the other way around.
Am I worried about becoming a “target of opportunity?” Sure, plenty of Italians have already ‘targeted’ me for the ‘opportunity’ to thank me for speaking against Bush’s policies, for fulfilling my civic duty as an American by dissenting against a President who does not represent the interests of his people.
Here is a transcript of the speech I gave before several thousands of people in Piazza Novena, Rome, Italy;
My name is Logan Laituri, and I have been an American soldier for the last six years. I fought in Iraq without understanding the reasons that I was there. I knew that the reasons I was given to fight were false: Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were never a threat to the US or any other country. Only our own American WMD’s, many of which are stored here in Italy, pose a threat to countries worldwide.
After returning from Iraq, I began to learn more about the consistent fabrications the Bush administration used to justify and fuel the war. American soldiers and families have been lied to repeatedly by our president. The truth is always the first casualty in war. Deception and betrayal should never be the policies of any government.
The American people are waking up to the truth. According to a recent poll, over 63% of my countrymen disapprove of the Bush government. Also, more veterans, military families, and active soldiers are opposing his policy of indefinite war in Iraq. The voices in America are growing, saying No to Bush and No to War.
In the last year, numerous allies in the US coalition have initiated withdrawal from Iraq. Italy, Japan, Portugal, and the Ukraine all withdrew their forces before the end of 2006. The UK will be reducing their forces by over 2,100 soldiers in the next several months. Furthermore, Denmark and Poland have plans to withdraw completely by August 2007. Bush’s policy in America has been to increase troop strength with no clear strategy for the future.
Recently, Bush increased the length of combat deployments from 12 to 15 months. Now soldiers have 3 more months they must survive in order to return home to their families. With increasing deployments, many of my friends still in the military face multiple deployments and possible conscription even after they have been discharged.
I am a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organization made up exclusively of members who aim to end the very conflict they have served in. At IVAW, we believe that the war is wrong and that a military solution is unable to create true stability in Iraq. In 2006 alone, our numbers doubled, and this year we have already grown to 450 men and women who have served or who are serving in Bush’s “war on terror.”
Here in Italy as well, many anti-war groups are struggling with the question of whether to speak out in opposition to their own government. It is my own firm belief that a government should consider itself a servant to its people. If it’s people do not speak, how will a government know what is demanded of it? Especially in such dire times as these, a people should speak.
It is our silence that tells our respective governments that what they are doing may go on without question, without conscience. We, the people, are to act as the moral compasses for our leaders. If they act on our behalf, we are to inform them what they must not do in our name. Without using our voice, we suffer the consequences for their actions.
I will close with a final appeal to the shared faith of the president and the Pope, as I consider myself a follower of Jesus Christ as they do. I would ask that my president consider if love has motivated him to act as he has, as that is the fulfillment of God’s law. The Apostle Paul writes to the Roman Church of the first century that love causes no harm to its neighbor.
2,000 years later, I must wonder whether the God that the Apostle John calls “love” would approve of my country’s actions toward its neighbors. Perhaps it is in fact out of selfish ambition and vain conceit that my government has considered itself better than others. It has always been the prophetic tone of the dissenters who have been the voice of reason to the great powers in the world. Do not remain silent, but continue to speak truth prophetically to power.