The Vandals Occupy Rome, Briefly: How a Demonstration Was Hijacked

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

Occupy Wall Street protesters clash with police in downtown Rome on Oct. 15, 2011

The protest had been planned carefully for months, and as the scheduled day began, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Italians had made their way to Rome from all over the peninsula. In a day of global demonstrations, it looked to be the biggest march in the world in solidarity with the indignado movement in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street protests in the U.S. But in the end, it wasn't the authorities that derailed the protests in Rome, it was a small fraction of the protesters themselves.

In a city landmarked by monuments and churches, the plan was to march from a square near the city's central train station, past the Colosseum to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, a long-standing rallying point for leftist protest movements. Many hoped the demonstration would turn into a peaceful occupation of the plaza in front of the cathedral, echoing similar strategies from Egypt's Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park in New York City.

Instead, the protest quickly fell apart. The march hadn't traveled far when groups of young men began pulling up sampietrini (the black cobblestones so characteristic of the Italian capital) and hurling them at shop windows. Others broke into parked cars and set them alight with Molotov cocktails, pulled down signposts to smash ATMs and crashed through the glass doors of a supermarket. Soon large parts of the demonstration had given way to skirmishes as men with masks over their face engaged the police with rocks and bottles.

By late afternoon, the protest route had devolved into a full-scale battle, with police vans engaging in charges against hundreds of rock-throwing protesters. Teargas floated like mist through the streets. Demonstrators barricaded the roads with metal barriers and dumpsters, and at least two members of the Italian paramilitary police escaped an armored van seconds before protesters set it on fire. A warehouse belonging to the Ministry of Defense was set ablaze, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was pulled from a church and shattered on the street. Seventy people were injured, three seriously. While the vast majority of those who turned up that day remained peaceful — indeed, hostile to those battling the police — only the most violent reached the march's planned destination. They seem to have dashed there to pre-empt the rest of the march, engaging the police in about two hours of fighting in front of the basilica. The rest, blocked by the fighting, quickly dissipated, their banners crestfallen; many detoured to the enormous field that marks the remains of the ancient Circus Maximus.

The violence of the protests was reminiscent of similar, smaller skirmishes nearly a year earlier, when violence broke out after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived a confidence vote in December. The rioters, mostly young men of university age who have come to be known as the "black block," tore up cobblestones and battled police until nightfall. This time, according to the police, they turned up in far larger numbers, perhaps as many as 500, from cities all across the country. So far, however, only 12 arrests have been made.

As the rioting quieted, Berlusconi, whose government had faced and barely survived another vote of confidence the day before the protest, was quick to turn the failed demonstration to political advantage, condemning the "incredible levels of violence" and congratulating the forces of the law. "Only because of their calm and their caution were they able to avoid more serious consequences," he said. Taking to the airways, Rome's Mayor Gianni Alemanno added his voice to the condemnation. "In the heat of the moment, it seems that today in Rome we've seen the worst [violence] in all of Europe — very dangerous people," he said, later noting that the city suffered at least $1.4 million in damage, including the loss of 20 cu m of sampietrini. He was careful, however, to distinguish the violent minority from the bulk of the marchers. "I was very impressed by the reaction of the majority of the protesters," he said. "Never before have there been cheers when the police intervened."

Judging by comments on blogs and social media, many of the protest's young sympathizers share the mayor's analysis, condemning the violence as counterproductive. "It'll only get one result: to scare the vast majority of Italians and nurture in them a desire for a strongman," writes a blogger named Hassan Bogdan Pautàs, denouncing the tactics as having no place in an era of Twitter and Facebook. "We've remained in the era of radio and television," he added. Indeed, the rest of the protest movement's participants across the globe looked on the Roman violence with dismay.

Italian frustrations are much like those felt around the world. The economic crisis has pinched hard in a country where growth has been stagnant for more than a decade. Many no longer have patience for a government that has no legislative or policy consensus and has spent the past year lurching from crisis to crisis, coming together only long enough to push through a raft of unpopular budget cuts and tax hikes. There's a broad agreement among the populace, as reflected in recent polls, that the country is under assault by a financial industry that is profiting from its economic pain; among the young, there is a great deal of resentment that they're on the hook to pay for benefits that are almost exclusively going to their parents' generation.

Claudia Vago, a blogger who has been following the protests across the world and had hoped the demonstration would have resulted in the creation of a space like that in New York City, where protesters could begin to engage in a dialogue, was similarly disappointed. "At this point, it's finished — everybody home," she says. "Tomorrow we have to start and build again."