The risks of mayhem in Italy

Against background mutterings about global anarchism and agents provocateurs, Italian students protest against Italy’s university reform bill
James Walston
5 January 2011

Last week as Parliament was about to pass the controversial university reform bill, Rome braced itself for trouble. On 14 December, the week before, street violence had once again erupted with pictures of cars in flames in the Corso and Piazza del Popolo; masked and helmeted youths and policemen beating each other up. Thunderflashes and molotovs were much in evidence. Windows were smashed and ATMs broken. It took many people back to 1977 when there were similar scenes in Rome. Or to London or Athens over the last month.

Despite some loud bangs from outside the Chamber of Deputies while the no confidence vote was being counted, in the square there was a surreal quiet as police and carabinieri put a ring of vehicles and men around the sensitive areas. Walking home through empty streets, the only indications of trouble were a few gaping holes in the cobbles. Rome’s sanpietrini make an effective, abundant and easily available missile for any hostile crowd that needs one.

Most of the students had demonstrated peacefully, but there was clearly some sympathy for the demonstrators who showed their mettle. Talk of agents provocateurs or infiltrati, plainclothesmen who stirred up trouble, raised the temperature. The Minister of Defence, Ignazio La Russa walked out of a television talk show when some students refused to condemn violence while his colleague, the majority leader in the Senate, Maurizio Gasparri, seriously suggested ‘preventive arrests’. Both had been active in violent right wing groups when they were young so the irony was not lost on commentators. The Italian fascist right was born in violence through the ‘20s squadristi and again found expression in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The language of the left spoke with violence against fascism through the Communist partisans in the war and again in the ‘70s through the Red Brigades against the Italian Republic. Political violence, you could say, is as Italian as pasta.

La Russa is not known for his calm nor Gasparri for his legal acumen but they did present a united front of a government which was upping the ante. On 21 December, a pipe bomb was found in the underground but it had no detonator. The right used it as proof of trouble to come: the left presented it as a tension-raising plant.

So on 22 December there was nervous expectation with big demonstrations planned to coincide with the final passage of the university reform bill. Many shopkeepers in the centre decided not to open and the traffic was absurdly thin for the busiest shopping period in the year. There were police, carabinieri and finance guards everywhere in the centre.

And then… nothing happened.

The students demonstrated in various parts of the city and for a time blocked the ring road. They had decided very explicitly to avoid any provocation and succeeded. They even found some solidarity among the traffic jammed motorists. At the same time, President Napolitano invited a student delegation to the Quirinale to talk about their issues. He played the role of the firm but just grandfather who would still have to sign the bill into law but was listening to their grievances.

There was indeed violence in other parts of Italy and no one thinks that the implementation of the new law will be without hiccoughs. But for that moment before Christmas, violence was avoided and there was a lesson both for the authorities and for discontented students.

Italian (and British and Greek) students are not starving but they will have to pay much more for their education than their parents or forgo it completely and they have far fewer prospects of a steady job or a pension. One interviewer pointed out to the 37-year old Minister of Education, Mariastella Gelmini, in no uncertain terms that unlike her, many of her contemporaries still don’t have a job or job prospects and that her reform cuts budgets even further.

Then just before Christmas, there were parcel bombs sent to the Chilean, Swiss and Greek embassies all claimed by a so-called Informal Anarchist Federation. Yesterday, a couple of people threw thunderflashes at a section house of the Northern League in the village where its leader Umberto Bossi lives. There was an explosion outside a court in Athens today. All this has provoked a buzz about ‘global anarchism’ or, for Italy, ‘a return to the Seventies’. But in Italy, in particular, anarchism has always held far less appeal than more organised forms of revolt. It is not anarchist violence from a few small groups that is the worry. And last week’s lesson from the students is that politics does not have to be violent.

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