Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roman holiday

We were on vacation in Rome this past weekend. The hotel clerk suggested if we were planning any daytrips, Saturday would be a good time to get out of town. A demonstration had been planned and travel within the city would be chaotic because of blocked off streets. “What are they protesting?” I asked. Berlusconi, banks, and the general economic situation, he replied. “Berlusconi?” I thought. “Count me in!”

I’ve been casually following the Occupy Wall Street movement and was aware that sister demonstrations had been planned for October. But I didn’t know when. This sounded like one of them. But even if it wasn’t, a chance to demonstrate against Berlusconi, a disgusting man who had survived yet again another vote of confidence that same day, was reason enough to show up.

We arrived at the designated starting point at the designated time and saw a few hundred people milling about. I was disappointed. Where was everyone? I’m angry and I don’t even live in Italy! We saw banners for what appeared to be political parties, unions, and other organized groups. That was okay, but I wanted to see everyday, unaffiliated people protesting – ordinary individuals who are fed up with the Berlusconi government and the general state of affairs in Italy.

We scanned the crowd and saw a middle-aged woman and a middle-aged man sitting on the edge of a large fountain with homemade signs around their necks. I approached the woman – I hoped she spoke English – and asked her what her sign said. For a better Italy, she answered and directed my attention to a newspaper she was holding with a similar headline. She explained she was a secretary from northern Italy near Berlusconi’s home town. She was a temporary worker who could not find a permanent job and this was the third year she had demonstrated in Rome.

I asked my perennial question: if people dislike Berlusconi, why does he keep getting elected? Because the politicians are too vested and have too much to lose if they don’t back him, she said. [This may explain parliamentary behavior, but it doesn’t explain why voters continue to support this outcome.]  I asked her about the various groups and what other homemade signs said. My favorite, held by a man, read “I’m here for my daughter.” I went over to talk with him and get his picture, but the crowd started moving so we joined the flow.

As we inched along, I noticed a little girl holding a sign. I asked her presumed dad what it said: "I vote, you vote. They say we’re a democracy but we’re not."  Along the periphery, I occasionally noticed one or two people wearing hoodies and black bandanas across their faces. I wondered who they were. A couple of them climbed a lamppost and I wondered what they were up to.

We soon entered a large public square and the march stopped. It was warm, and people chugged beer and chain-smoked. (After all, this was Italy!) The crowd soon became dense and we realized we were in the middle of it. I wanted to be closer to the edge so we pushed our way out to a side street. By now my youngest daughter had had enough – it was hot, her back hurt, and she was nauseous from cigarette smoke. She and my husband left, but my eldest daughter and I stayed.  

I spied three people with homemade signs and went to investigate. One of them explained they worked with public services and were protesting cuts to service programs. She herself worked with family planning.   

Half an hour later, the crowd seemed to be moving again and we eased our way down a main thoroughfare. Occasionally we heard sirens but I didn’t think much about it. Sirens are a way of life in Rome. We had progressed several blocks when suddenly people became very agitated and started shouting. I looked to my left and saw a group of maybe fifty hoodies. People backed away and hollered at them as they cut through the crowd. Several of the hoodies wore helmets.

I looked for someone who could explain. “It’s the Black Bloc!” a man sputtered indignantly.  Who are they? I turned to someone else. He spoke better English. “They’re troublemakers,” he said. “They just want to fight. I was yelling, ‘Show your face!’” We started walking together. “No one knows who they are. When you see them, you know there’s going to be trouble. Some people think they’re policemen.” I thought maybe fascists or neo-Nazis. But whoever they are, the man and I both agreed that in a democracy, people who protest in good faith have no need for masks.

I asked about his job. He worked for the foreign ministry. He was protesting because he was worried about Italy’s future. We discussed the Euro and the country’s financial state. He talked about Italy’s industrial decline. “The country had lost its steel and milk industries. All that’s left is tourism and design.” He also contended that education money is being channeled to private schools and that public schools are being bled dry. A few minutes later, he saw some friends and we parted.

About an hour after we left the public square, we came upon a dismaying scene. Five or six cars had been burned. The fires were out but an astringent odor hung in the air. We saw a store whose windows were smashed. It was named Élite. Several windows of a bank were cracked, along with those of a couple other stores.

We had now been marching for three hours. We had not reached the end of the route but my daughter and I had to leave. It was 5:00 p.m. About a quarter of the route, or an hour of walking, remained. We rejoined the family at the hotel and started chatting with a man who told us there was now rioting at the demonstration.  We turned on the TV and saw cars burning and windows being smashed. It looked very violent. But on closer inspection, I saw it was the cars and windows we had passed earlier in the afternoon. The perpetrators were the Black Bloc. It made for impressive TV but it was nothing like the demonstration we had just attended, although this may have been the reason for the sirens we had heard earlier.

We saw few, if any, shots of the crowd, which numbered according to subsequent estimates from 100,000 to more than 200,000 people. We also realized we were watching one of Berlusconi’s television stations, whose incentive was to downplay the crowd size and overplay the violence, although later in the evening I saw new TV reports that at the end of the route there had been nasty confrontations between the police and Block Bloc rioters with substantial property damage and one serious injury.

In the past when I have seen news reports of demonstrations that turned violent, I assumed an overzealous faction of the demonstrators was responsible for the mayhem. Now I know better: it may well be hooligans just out to make trouble. The danger, of course, is their actions undermine the right of peaceful assembly. It is a worrisome problem.

One Swedish newspaper I read today, Monday, reported that according to witnesses, a group that had partially masked themselves with hoods was behind most of the violence. This is not correct. I contend they were responsible for ALL the violence. When you come to a peaceful demonstration wearing a mask and a helmet, your intentions are not honorable. (See related story here.) The protesters I walked with were frustrated but ordinary, everyday people, like you and me.

© 2011 Kvick Thoughts. All rights reserved.

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