Flames in Rome

Riots overshadowing the "Occupy Rome" protests last Saturday showed how utterly unprepared both organisers and the police were for a predictable hijacking of the protests, while the government continues to turn a blind eye to the root causes of the discontent.
James Walston
18 October 2011

The most shocking aspect of Saturday’s riot in Rome was the fact that it did not come as a shock. For 10 years now in Italy, at least since the violence at Genoa’s G8 in 2001, there has been the strong possibility of protest marches being hijacked by relatively small numbers of very well organised, well prepared thugs.

It happened in Rome last year after the 14 December vote of confidence and for the whole of last week, all the papers were talking about the likelihood of violence on Saturday. I have no special sources but from very public ones, it was obvious to warn my American students wanting to show some solidarity with the “Occupy Wall St.” protest to be very careful as there were plenty of signs that something nasty was going to happen. As it happened, they were careful but they did come back with some good primary material for the course on political violence…

Yet both the organisers and the police had made no plans to deal with what was a very effective takeover of the whole demo. Most Italian demonstrations have their own servizio d’ordine, a group of people from the organisers who see that none of their own people cause trouble. Trade unions and more established protest movements have a long experience of managing crowds and acting as buffers between the demonstrators and the police or public. This time the organisers very explicitly had no internal security. When the violence began, there were many spontaneous attempts to contain it but mostly they didn’t stand a chance against well prepared and disciplined spoilers. One 52 year old tried to stop a gang starting on a bank, and lost two fingers from a hand; in another area, there was the paradox of the usually radical and anti-police, anti-establishment left wing Cobas getting help from the celerini, the riot police normally their antagonists.

On the other side, the different police forces were badly prepared, low on morale and in the wrong places. It could hardly have been worse. The close control and divisory tactics that other police forces have developed were not used on Saturday. There is footage of carabinieri, police or finance guards (the three main national police forces, all of whom were present), standing around in the midst of the melée uncertain of what to do next. Like other police forces, though, the Italian ones have had to deal with swingeing cuts in their budgets and like the British at least, they have been accused of being heavy handed in the past (and some suffered either financially or in their careers) so many were afraid of being too aggressive. Finally, the majority was deployed around the sensitive areas in the centre (Parliament, ministries, Berlusconi’s residence) rather than with the demonstrators so that when the violence began there were no police.

Those were the tactical errors. There have been much more longterm mistakes made too.

It is axiomatic that economic hardship increases social tension and might lead to violence. Some politicians and commentators have been warning government of the dangers for months. Antonio Di Pietro and the deputy and journalist Furio Colombo clamour like Cassandra. The response has been to accuse them of encouraging violence.

The clear message from the demonstrations across the world was that banks and governments had either misbehaved or been incompetent and that the young in particular were not prepared to give up their futures for others’ crimes or stupidity. Their expectations have been crushed and they are angry.

But on Saturday all the demonstrations apart from Rome were peaceful and here, the vast majority was peaceful and furious that a few had stolen the show.

Those few are usually referred to as the Black Block as if it was a single organisation. They aren’t – they are small numbers of mostly young people, mostly male who use left wing usually anarchist rhetoric and fascist methods. They use black block techniques developed and tried in Germany and elsewhere over the last 25 years; according to one interviewed in La Repubblica this morning, they have used the Greek unrest as a training camp. Wherever they learnt, they are extremely effective. Calm and unworried as they hack away at armoured glass or a police vehicle; prepared by donning protective clothing before beginning the mayhem and by leaving caches of molotov cocktails and ball bearing or paving stones – the ubiquitous sanpietrini which can be used as an instantly available missile in most of Rome; careful to destroy CCTVs and warn off cameramen but also sometimes oblivious of the hundreds of cameras around.

Those who are able and prepared to use the violence seen on Saturday are quite able to use more serious violence in terrorist attacks and we can only hope that law enforcement agency will be capable of dealing with the symptoms and more importantly, that government agencies are prepared to address the underlying causes and work with the majority on non-violent protesters.

Not very likely, I fear. The Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni was the only member of government who made a public appreciation of the non-violent protest. The new head of the European Central Bank (and until the end of the month head of the Bank of Italy) Mario Draghi said before the violence began that the protesters had a point.

But the rest of government tried to put all the blame on “the left”. Berlusconi did not go as far as saying that Bersani, Vendola and Di Pietro, the leaders of the main centre-left parties, were responsible but the innuendo was there – and no doubt will continue. Anything to move attention from fundamental economic difficulties.

They will return to the surface soon enough – but so will the prospect of political violence.

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