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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rome is Burning: The People take to the Streets

A building burning ahead on via Labicana
On Saturday we found ourselves much too close to some of the violence in Rome’s “Gli indignati” (“the indignant ones”) massive demonstration.  We joined what we thought was a peaceful and lively march about 4 p.m. at the Coliseum (2 hours after the appointed starting time and about 2 miles into the route).  We were enjoying reading (and translating) the various banners, stickers, sign-boards, flags that the protesters were carrying… representing dozens of groups, including feminists, unions, the handicapped, the unemployed, Palestinians, Communists, and social and cultural organizations. (And see Bill's prior post on the camp-in and protests in Rome leading up to this march.)
What we didn’t know was that some violence had already occurred on via Cavour: four autos set on fire, two banks and a supermarket (to shouts of "riprendiamoci la ricchezza per distribuirla" [we're taking back the wealth to redistribute it]) attacked, according to today’s papers. 

Within a few blocks on via Labicana, moving uphill from the Coliseum, we saw ahead billowing black smoke and white smoke, and we could hear the booms of explosions and see the fire from what looked like Molotov cocktails in the air. The crowd in front of us turned and started running more than once.  We turned too, and ran, but then the crowd seemed to turn back and start up again.  This was not like any march we had ever been in. 

Riot police and marchers in confrontation on
via Labicana 

After a few blocks, we passed Carabinieri (State police forces) in riot gear, blocking the road, but not the sidewalks. 

We passed a burning building – later learning it was a Defense Department building, apparently used (perhaps in the past) as a storehouse--and a string of smoking cassonetti (garbage containers) (photo at right).  

As we made a right turn up via Merulana to Piazza San Giovanni, the endpoint and supposed focal point of the march, we saw more overturned garbage bins blocking the streets, some of them burning; forceful arguments between groups of demonstrators, including one episode in which people carrying Communist flags were threatened; and men in helmets, prepared for combat (photo at left).   

Smoke from fires at a via Merulana intersection
Although we saw people dressed in black with masks over their faces, it was hard for us to tell the “Black Bloc” people – described as evil-doers by most people, fascists or anarchists by others, or just thugs-- from those who were simply trying to cover their noses and mouths from the smoke and tear gas.  This is the first time we can recall inhaling tear gas and feeling that acrid irritation in the sinuses.  There were also people eating and sharing lemons – again, attempts to fend off the tear gas. 

Black smoke in Piazza San Giovanni, likely
from a Carabinieri van set ablaze
We made it to Piazza San Giovanni, where we found an enormous crowd.  (The piazza is said to hold nearly 1,000,000 for rock music concerts and seemed nearly full when we arrived, and there was a huge mass of people behind us, flowing up via Merulana.)  There were more black smoke clouds…clouds we did not want to approach but likely were from a Carabinieri van that was set ablaze. 

COBAS union flags held high in Piazza San Giovanni;
the Scala Santa (Holy Steps) in back.
We found our way to the steps of that immense basilica (San Giovanni in Laterano – St. John the Lateran), from where one can see for blocks, but we also could feel that we might end up pinned in the piazza – not a place we wanted to be if crowds started running or became more violent.

Looking forward to the revolution and a cup of beer
We decided at that point the rally—billed as an event without leaders--was not going to have the normal speeches and focus (in spite of some huge trucks moving through the piazza with loudspeakers and…beer), and that we had better get out of the piazza while we could.  We headed back down a smaller street, but one familiar to us, again towards the Coliseum. 

"We'll find the street or we'll open a new one" - banner
in peaceful section of the march around the Coliseum
When we passed the Coliseum, we saw what looked like even more of the march, now an hour and a half later…thick with people, banners, chanting, and completely peaceful.  These marchers, several hundred thousand, we estimate, were directed away from the route to Piazza San Giovanni, around the Coliseum and next to the Palatine Forum, toward Circo Massimo.  This part of the march seemed to have more of a happy ending, or perhaps just a fizzle out. 
To us, the length of the march, in time and distance, indicated close to a million people were in the Rome streets--and not that many riot police. 

Peaceful marchers with Arch of Constantine in back
Today, as we read the papers, listen to the politicians’ take, and talk to our Roman friends, the consensus is that a small group of “fascists” – the Black Bloc guys – ruined the march for Rome and the people protesting, that the media seemed interested only in the violence, not the political statements being made.  The Rome mayor, from a right-wing party, declared “i veri indignati sono i citidini” – “the true indignant ones are the citizens of Rome”, and that the “worst of Europe came here” – i.e., the Black Bloc members are, in essence, outside agitators.
Part of the "mess on via Merulana", the title of a
well-known Italian novel
We are left with many more questions than answers.  Why aren’t these Black Bloc folks arrested before they start throwing rocks (the large “sampietrini” or cobble stones that make up most of Rome’s streets) and fire bombs?  Or when they do it?  Why were riot police barely a presence?  Are the police complicit in “ruining” the march?  Does the State want some violence so it can crack down on the left?  Does the violence of a few “ruin” the political statement of many?  Does the concept of indignation about economic policies that harm millions of people get subverted into indignation on the part of politicians and merchants?  Can one have a successful march that is so “democratic” it has no leadership?  Is what happened particular to Italy or Rome?

Bill and Dianne

1 comment:

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

from a reader
I was sad to read the Internet and newspaper bits about the troubles in Rome. I'm glad your post described and explained it better. It reminded me of the two times when I was in Italy last December. The worst demonstration with cars burning happened a couple of blocks from my hotel near the Corso and Via Condotti. This happened the week I was in Florence.
However, about a week before that, a bus I was on suddenly went up a street and then back down to near Piazza Venezia. We had to get out of the bus and walk to wherever we were going. All streets leading into/from Piazza Venezia were blocked off by police vehicles. There were people there with suitcases trying to get to hotels I imagine. And many more people milling around.
Luckily I knew the back street way to my hotel near Piazza San Silvestre. As I walked I could see that police were blocking all ways to the Corso. When I arrived in San Silvestre I had quite a time getting the police to let me through to my hotel. I said several times Albergo Parlamento or Hotel, etc. Finally an older officer came up and asked me Hotel Parlamento? I said Si and he let me through to walk the block to my hotel. Evidently there had been a demonstration some where (I think about education costs) and there was no way there were going to get near the Parliament building, which is just across from my hotel.
Any way it was and interesting experience. I was very glad I knew that area of Rome. And I never before realized how many different law enforcement types there were in Italy.