Italy isn't exactly a gay-friendly country. Same-sex marriages are basically a taboo and the Parliament never managed to draw up a legislation in favour of civil partnership. There is also an entire galaxy of homophobic groups, from ultra-Catholics to extreme right-wing parties, who fight against the rights of individuals who like to have sex with genitals that look like their own.
Among these homophobic groups we find the Standing Sentinels, who have been attracting attention while hanging around public squares lately. Inspired by the French Manif pour tous, the association (who claims to be nonpartisan and apolitical) periodically organises silent vigils in Italian public squares to promote the “resistance of citizens that watch over what happens in society and over actions of those who legislate, denouncing every situation trying to destroy mankind and civilisation.”
The Sentinels present themselves as a peaceful and tolerant movement, based on the recognition of freedom of expression. The truth is, however, that the positions of the group are quite homophobic. The Sentinels’ main objective is to defend the “natural family based on the union of men and women,” to carry on the battle against gay marriage and the Scalfarotto bill, which establishes increased prison sentences in the event of aggravating circumstances for homophobic and transphobic crimes.
On Sunday 5th of October, the Sentinels gathered in many squares around the country to hold one of their usual vigils. LGBT associations and left-wing movements were obviously not too happy about that, so they also showed up to demonstrate against the Sentinels.
The most hardcore protests occurred in Trento (where two Sentinels were hospitalised), Turin, Naples and, above all, in Bologna, where actual beatings occurred between the demonstrators and militants of the neo-facist party, Forza Nuova. In Venice, two guys kissed in front of the Sentinels and, as the local newspapers illustrate, they have been “identified by the Carabinieri [Italian police force] and could now be accused of ‘non-authorised demonstration’.”
In Bergamo – a city in Northern Italy – a young man showed up and stood in front of the Sentinels wearing an Illinois Nazi outfit and an armband with the symbol used by Chaplin in The Great Dictator, while also holding a copy of Mein Kampf and a cardboard that read: “Illinois Nazis stand with the Sentinels.”
Standing Sentinels in Milan. Photo by Zoe Casati
That man was Giampietro Belotti, a 29-year-old student at the University of Brescia. His satirical idea was not welcomed by the Sentinels and the Special Operations Division [DIGOS], who identified Belotti before taking him to the police station. Ironically, Belotti could now be charged with apology for fascism (a crime, according to Italian law).
I called Belotti, with some astonishment, to talk about his close encounter with the Sentinels and the cops.
VICE: Where did the idea of dressing up as an Illinois Nazi come from?
Giampietro Belotti: I’ve taken part in historical reenactments in the past and I have always been fond of fancy dress parties and absurd costumes. I haven't been able to digest this whole ‘_Standing Sentinels’ issue _– I see it as pulling the wool over people's eyes. So, I thought I'd combine the two.
How did the Sentinels react when you got there?
They stood still, frozen. When the organisers of the event saw me, they ran to the special General Investigations and Special Operations Division [DIGOS] agents to seek help. One minute later, I was going through my wallet for my ID card.
What happened at that point?
A small assembly of people formed around me – a few were applauding, others were taking pictures with their phones. When the cops asked me for my documents, some people intervened to say that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Two people pulled out their IDs when they realised that the cops were going to take me to the police station.
Let’s just say I wasn’t eager to be taken away, either. The DIGOS cops were actually quite well-mannered, though – within the limits imposed by their job, of course. Only one of them grabbed my arm and started tugging at me. I said, “Would you mind keeping your hands off?” At that point he stopped because he realised that he wasn’t standing in front of a rioter. The people who were there to defend me started to raise their tone, so I preferred to follow the cops.
What did you talk about with the DIGOS agents during the ride?
That was a scene that bordered on the absurd. The cops totally got the references to the Illinois Nazis and Chaplin's The Great Dictator. In the car we started talking about The Blues Brothers. I was quite puzzled by the whole situation.
So you basically discussed cinema while riding in a cop car?
Honestly, I never thought something like that could happen. The astonishing thing is that the cops were getting all my references, while many journalists haven’t. Some publications ran headlines like “Fake Hitler” or “Dressed as an SS.”
What happened when you reached the police station?
They filed my report, took my fingerprints and my mugshot. I am dressed as an Illinois Nazi in my mugshot. At first, they wanted to confiscate my cardboard and the Mein Kampf edition I was carrying with me. Then a third cop arrived who pointed out that confiscating a book that can be found in any bookstore made no sense.
Moreover, besides the outfit and the book, I also had a lot of pink paper triangles in my pocket – the ones they used to identify homosexual prisoners in concentration camps. I wanted to distribute them to the homophobes standing in that square, but unfortunately I didn’t have time.
Do you really risk being charged with defending fascism?
Well, the cops told me that they had to lay the report of what had happened, confiscate the cardboard and notify the judge. The only possible crime I could have committed is apology of fascism, which is quite a paradox.
My file was on the magistrate’s desk today and now I have to find myself a lawyer. They nominated a public defender yesterday as I don’t have my own. However, many people have tried to find me a lawyer that could defend me for free.
It's ridiculous. I showed up in that square with the intention of making a statement, but if I was ever asked to leave – something like, “Excuse me, could you kindly get the fuck out of here?” – I would have left. I truly didn’t expect what happened to me.