This past Saturday, an array of parties and political groups belonging to Italy's far left paraded angrily through the streets of Rome. They'd gathered to protest what they feel are destabilizing austerity measures brought in by the new coalition government helmed by Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi.
The demonstrators have been particularly enraged by something called the “Jobs Act," which Renzi believes will simplify the country's labor system and cut unemployment. Unfortunately, it seems he wishes to do this by eliminating some workers' rights that make businesses less inclined to hire employees on a full-time basis.
There's also a new housing bill, which seeks to deny squatters rights to certain public services.
According to local media, the nationwide demonstration—dubbed “Social Movements Spring”—was attended mostly by “house occupiers and squatters, migrants and young temporary workers, students and activists." Right in front of the Ministry of Infrastructure building in Porta Pia, central Rome, protesters had set up a small camp to prepare for the action.
When I arrived there at around 3PM, the atmosphere was tense. Earlier that morning, it was reported that 80 youths had been arrested for possessing weapons and other "dangerous" objects. The movement's Twitter page, however, claimed that those detained were "right here in the square with us."
Depending on whom you believe, anywhere between 12,000 and 20,000 protesters began their march at 4PM. On my right, I caught sight of a banner from the Committee in Support of the Communist Resistance hanging from a tree. "Socialism is the future of humanity!" it read.
Monitored by an impressive number of police, the parade made its way to the Ministry of Finance headquarters, where everyone celebrated by pelting the cops with eggs and oranges.
A little later, a group broke away from the major bloc and headed towards Vittorio Veneto Street, in order to "besiege" the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment.
Protesters threw eggs, bottles and firecrackers at the police, who for a while stood still without reacting. Meanwhile, those at the far end of the march dropped their caps, goggles and gas masks, while others put on blue windbreakers and got to fighting the police. I'm still unsure about the meaning of the blue windbreakers; it's something I've never seen at an Italian protest before.
Nevertheless, the mainstream Italian media has already taken to calling them the "blue bloc."
The standoff lasted for about 20 minutes. The first line of demonstrators launched smoke bombs and fireworks, to which the police responded with tear gas and a full baton charge, encountering little real resistance.
No one was able to escape the second police charge: anarchists, peaceful protesters, families, passers-by—everyone was at their mercy. I covered my face to save my tear ducts from the gas and tried to avoid a beating. In front of me, a middle-aged lady was knocked to the ground but was rescued by other protesters. I saw a mother rip her son from her stroller and take refuge in a sidestreet.
Several people fell and were arrested by the police.
Or just remained on the ground, like this couple.
The chief of police, Alessandro Pansa, described the baton charges as "pre-emptive." Nothing about the above looks very pre-emptive to me.
The main street had been turned into a battlefield covered with blood, shoes, scarves and other items. A rumor began to circulate that the police had “chopped off a man’s hand." Later, I discovered that the victim had in fact been injured by a firecracker he was trying to throw, and was a 47-year-old Peruvian named Juan Zabaleta, who lives with his family in an occupied building.
By that point, the demonstration was pretty much over. The procession returned to Porta Pia with no further moments of tension.
A certain weariness was in the air and the strong reaction by the police had left its mark. Dozens of cops and protesters had been injured (one of them severely), while six people were arrested.
The demonstration has split the Italian public. Some really didn't like seeing Vittorio Veneto Street—"one of Rome's most famous"—being "harassed and vandalized." The Minister of Infrastructure, Maurizio Lupi, declared the protesters to be "criminals and villains": "After facing the umpteenth clash in Rome, we must have the courage to say that whoever occupies a house without authorization is committing a crime," he declared.
Rome's Mayor, Ignazio Marino, warned of "a violence that is [...] capable of striking the whole city."
People weren't slow to criticize the police, either. Journalist Fiorenza Sarzani from the newspaper Corriere della Sera argued, "What should concern us is the behaviour of the police, who allowed the protesters to stay way over 15 minutes in Vittorio Veneto Street and then rushed the crowd instead of clearing them out. This is odd behaviour, especially due to the fact that in such a narrow space, with hundreds of people pressed up beneath the Ministry, it could have ended up in the worst of scenarios."
The leaders of the movement have declared that the 12th of April is just "the beginning of the protest against the Renzi Government"—a protest that "must grow" in the months to come. It seems Italy's new prime minister will receive at least a few more unsolicited visits to his front doorstep like the one on Saturday.