March to Athens
Day 121-XLVII, from Gravina in Puglia to Altamura, 12 km.
Altamura, March 7
The amount of stories is endless. I have preferred to talk to you a bit about the briganti while we crossed the mountains of Lucania. Because even though we are peaceful, we share their indignation against the state. And we have adopted their battle cry which we have sung whenever we found ourselves confronted by police or carabinieri… “Hey! Ho! Hahahaha!”
I could also have told you about Padre Pio, the local saint which is venerated all over Italy, but particularly here. I could have told you about local specialties and customs, about the practice of witchcraft…
None of it all. But there is one thing that I still want to touch upon before we march further into Apulia. It’s about the basis of our current economy. Petroleum.
The region of Basilicata – the official name of Lucania – is one of the few territories in continental Europe, maybe the only one, where there’s oil to be found.
I’ve seen the installations here, on one of my previous travels. I’ve seen the chimneys burning away the natural gas 24 hours a day.
It has only been a few decades since the drilling began, but since then things around here have started to change. Real estate values have dropped, the environment has been polluted, and the local underworld which hadn’t previously been active here, started to become attracted by this new ‘market’.
There’s a strong movement in Basilicata active against the oil industry. People are angry, mainly because they feel colonised. Big oil takes away their resources, but hardly any of the profits return to the local population. Fuel prices here are as high as anywhere else. So yes, times have changed, but one way or another the south has remained a territory of exploitation.
We reach Altamura, the ‘city of bread’, and we take the central square.
Police arrive. They had been informed by their colleagues from Gravina for a change. They start off on the wrong tone.
‘You weren’t supposed to occupy this square. We had agreed you would put up your tents elsewhere.’
I know nothing of such an agreement, and neither do the people of the vanguard. I answer that we decide ourselves which square to occupy. In this case we put our tents right next to the cathedral.
“And who are you, the duke of Altamura?”
Not quite. I’m a modest person. But the officer doesn’t like me. On the phone with his commander he calls me sfacciato (insolent). At that point I change attitude. I have lived two years in Sicily, enough to take insults very personally.
When the commander and the rest of the local police force arrive, I make it clear that respect is the basis of a fruitful dialogue. “I will not talk to you,” I say to the officer in front of his superiors, “you have failed to show me respect.”
Honestly I don’t like to humiliate someone in public, and in this case it was mainly theatre, but it worked. Police were a lot more reasonable after that.
What followed was the same old story. They don’t want us to camp here. They want us to show documents. They forbid us to make a fire, etc.
The fire is lit under their noses. We refuse documents. They try to insist, they menace to use force. “We can still come to an agreement, but if our superiors in Bari give us the order, we will take you in.”
In the meantime a crowd has gathered around us. They like us. They talk to us. They bring us food and blankets.
“As you wish. But do tell your superiors that if they decide to use force against peaceful citizens, it will be broadcast live on the internet. It will go around all the social networks. The whole world will be able to watch it. So with all the bad publicity that would result from it, your superiors should think twice if it’s really worth the effort.”
It wasn’t, of course. Like many of their colleagues before them, the police very silently retreat, and leave the square to us.