After the Riots
After the protests in Rome left 70 injured and millions of damages, the Italian movement questions its own strengths and limits. Several readings of the event have considered the unleash of violence as a “defeat” for the whole movement, although there are different interpretations of the facts.
Charges from the police forced the nonviolent protesters to leave Piazza San Giovanni, the square where the rally was supposed to converge. Traditionally considered the largest square of Rome, San Giovanni is often the destination of massive rallies and demonstration; the ability of filling it is often taken as an evidence of the strength of movements. Commentators within the movement have dubbed this episode as a historical failure, whereas others have suggested that this will change the paradigms of what future protesters will be allowed to do.
“Side-actions” entailing non-violent protest (such as putting flowers at the entrance of a subway station) have been emphasized in the live coverage of “La Repubblica”, but it is the image of a smashed statue of the Virgin Mary that went viral, becoming a quite unwanted icon of the Italian indignados. Among the latter, many now invoke the necessity of isolating the extremist and facinorous in several ways – including the Orwell-sounding suggestion of using Facebook to identify and denounce “the violent ones.”
To which extent was Occupy Rome a failure? And, more importantly, does the failure of a day of protest automatically entail the failure of a movement? As it is easily understood, there is not a common answer to these questions.
The Black Bloc: A Scarecrow for Every Season.
The rioters have been dubbed as members of the “black bloc” by most mainstream media. But what is, exactly, the Italian black bloc? The black bloc was born in the early Eighties in Northern Europe as a riot technique, which included quick actions against symbolsof capitalism, such as banks or corporations buildings, usually avoiding direct contact with police and coordinating the groups to protect the other demonstrators from the danger eventually caused by their actions. Since the G8 in Genoa (2001), Italian mainstream medias have started using this name to call every group of rioters acting during a demonstration and to evoke to the public opinion images of destruction and fear. Many claim Italian “black bloc” to be nothing more than a void label, used to describe many different, unrelated phenomena such as uncoordinated rage explosions, coordinated groups that do not share the original black bloc philosophy or, at worst, fascist provocateurs. During the G8 in Genoa, the lack of police repression of such episodes of violence has generated many suspicions about the true nature of such “bloc”. Between conspiracy theories and political confusion, the status of the Italian “black bloc” is, to-date, one of difficult determination.
However, since the violent riots in Rome, on December 14, 2009, some have noted a change in the ordinary patterns, shifting from a general animosity against the “casseurs” to massive support or at least silent solidarity. In other words, a dissatisfied and disillusioned youth, faced with nothing more than promises or, even worse, blame, would be turning violent due to the lack of other political perspectives.
During the October 15 demonstrations, anyway, things seems to have gone in a more complex way: some small rioters groups who started to burn cars and buildings since the first meters of the march were insulted, pushed away and even beaten up by the protesters. In one case, a rioter threw a rudimentary bomb against some demonstrators, causing the loss of two fingers to a young man.
The Comments on the Left-Wing Press
Several commentators have underlined the difference between the rioters and the bulk of peaceful protesters that were voicing their anger at the bank system and their ideals of justice and equality. This is for instance the view voiced by the centre-left newspaper “La Repubblica,” the influential Italian newspaper that is directly related to the Democratic Party (PD). Although its views are quite moderate and not representative of the movements, it must be said that in the past months “La Repubblica” has endorsed some of its components (such as Popolo Viola, literally “The Purple People”), partially bending the more complex political agenda of the “Indignados” to its own anti-Berlusconian stance. Titles such as “Ci hanno rovinato la giornata” (“They have ruined everything”) voice well the general feeling at “La Repubblica.”
More radical voices have voiced different positions. Valentino Parlato’s Editorial on the communist newspaper “Il manifesto” largely sounded apologetic of the riots. While he dubs the protest as the beginning of a “New Era”, Parlato invites his readers to consider the clashes as the symptoms of an urgent need of change: “There have been riots and clashes against the police, in Rome. It would have been better if they hadn’t happened,” the journalist admits. But then he goes on: “However, within the current situation, with youth unemployment hitting a historical record, clashes were unavoidable. I would go even further, saying: It was good that they happened. It was educational. Those riots were symptoms of the urgency of exiting from a present which is the current continuation of a non-redeemable past.”
Another communist newspaper, “Liberazione,” (formerly the official organ of the Communist Party “Rifondazione Comunista) has expressed a different view. Checchino Antonini (a journalist and movement expert who was very influential in drawing public attention on the police violence against Federico Aldrovandi) wrote today that half a million of protesters were hostage of a few rioters. He also acknowledge the need of raising a difficult question, in order to be effective in opening up new spaces of democracy and participation: “Their scattering in many flows, due to the final outcome of the march, revealed the measure of mass participation. It was implicit that it did not have to be a party. Indignation does not call into cause playful dynamics, but rather the harshness of the present crisis, and its consequences on society. But these stagings of guerrilla, the ghostly columns of smoke, the blackened carcasses of burnt cars (often cheap cars) left behind by different parts of the cortege leave us with an unanswered question: Who does a rally belong to?”
The Debate in The Movement
A large debate took place on the web, among different actors and participants. The Italian writer Alessandro Leogrande expressed his criticisms of the riots on “MinimaEtMoralia,” the website of the Italian press minimum fax. Leogrande addressed the violent protesters and the rioters as “fascists” who made Berlusconi’s game, enacting an obsolete cliché which is useful only in discrediting the movement. In the opening section of his intervention, he writes: “you have outraged Piazza San Giovanni, an historical landmark of the Italian Workers’ movement”. Another passage of his article reads: “We’ve been repeating the same things for ten years now. Enough with this downward spiral, entailing the repression of the many for the violence of a few. Enough with these dead end roads. Enough with this choreographic display of violence, enough with the usual role-play between protesters and police, so staged that there’s hardly anything spontaneous left in it. And yet, here we are, repeating the same old things. And we are sick of it. We are sick of reasoning on your non-reasons. You are not ‘comrades who are mistaken’. You are fascists of the worst kind: systematical destroyers of all that could be born in a different way”. In conclusion, Leogrande claims that the whole movement is kept prisoner of this unleash of self-referential violence, positing itself as the only issue in the debate.
During the day of protest, Giap, the popular blog of the Italian collective of writers Wu Ming, was also offering live streaming from Twitter and from several grassroots radios, spreading news in real time to help those who were risking their lives in the street. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the comment section of the blog hosted a lively, and deeply variegated debate, which is still in progress.
It should be noted that the Italian collective of authors had been very critical of the modalities of the call to the streets; however, they later claimed that, during or immediately after the riots, criticisms should give way to critical debate, as well as to support of those risking injuries and arrest during the repression.
The debate is worth summarizing as it presents many of the aspects presented by the discussion on a wider scale: it therefore offers a set of questions that will be crucial for the future of the movement in its plural declinations.
First of all, the division between non-violent protesters and a narrow minority of violent rioters has been questioned, as it had already happened for the riots on Dec 14, 2009. However, this is controversial. While there are accounts of large sections of protesters applauding and supporting the violent actions against cars and banks, other ocular witnesses have, on the contrary, alleged a lack of support, and isolation of the rioters by the bulk of nonviolent, and peaceful protesters. The bulk of comments also seems to show the same discrepancy.
More in general, there is a wide-spread understanding that the violent actions were not only the result of a few, isolated elements. Some commentators have denounced the paradigm of “poseurs” (e.g. neo-fascist or even undercover agent posing as protesters) as a self-apologetic and false stance, preventing the movement from questioning its own relation to violence. Some even suggest that the emphasis on physical struggle is a consequence of an implicit male-chauvinist stance.
In the same thread, others have denounced the limits of a communicative-oriented approach, pursuing the “big event” rather than the building of a grassroots popular movement. Focusing solely on the street struggle, and more precisely on the physical confrontation in the street, foreshadowed the complexity of the reasons for protesting, while also reducing all debate to a problem of public order. Finally, other comments stress the difference between the Italian movement – adopting an Italo-centric form and focusing on Berlusconi – and the global movement, addressing the evils of finance and capitalism. The ritualism of the Italian forms (a national rally converging on Rome, based on the rhetoric of large mass gatherings unsuccessfully exploited by the movements in the past 2 decades) was also opposed to the creativity displayed by the hundreds of occupations world-wide.
However distant the positions may be, there is little doubt that for all commentators the violent episode of Rome appear as something problematic and controversial, that needs being discussed and analyzed to preserve the potential of the movement.
Some have commented that the violence has managed to make Mario Draghi (actually Governor of the Bank of Italy and forthcoming head of the ECB) seem, to the scared eyes of the public opinion, a good and sympathetic politician, when he declared to understand the reasons of the protesters but not to accept the riots.
It is impossible to predict the future of a large and varied movement from the outcome of a single day; especially with such an uncertain, and controversial situation. These episodes will unquestionably leave a heavy legacy, while the debate raised among the different political subjects is likely to continue for a longtime. Will the formula of national rallies be abandoned in favour of more creative and poly-centric forms?
Meanwhile, a police operation is in progress, and several suggestions seem to point to an authoritarian turn: Antonio Di Pietro, leader of the opposition party “L’Italia dei Valori”, has suggested reinstating the “Legge Reale”, an extremely restrictive bill passed in the 70s during the outbreak of terrorism, a law that allowed several violations of civil liberties. This proposal has already met the enthusiastic support of the Ministry of Interior, Roberto Maroni.