'Hello mate... Yeah I'm fine... Nah you know, just the usual dickheads...' A burly Roman chap brushes past me, mobile clamped to his shaking head. We're on Via Del Fagutale, a raised side road that looms over Via Cavour, right in the heart of Rome.
Smoke billows from a car directly below us, and sirens wail as a fire crew tries to put out the blaze. Demonstrators in the capital for the Occupy Rome march pile up the steps to get a look at what's happening below, while various people are sat on the wall which separates us from the chaos, trying to get the perfect shot to show their friends, or their editor. I give in to the curiosity myself. We file quietly down towards the Coliseum, while some skip past the burning wreckage to join the bulk of the demo down the road at Largo Corrado Ricci, which overlooks the Forum. There the first big fight with the carabinieri kicks off soon after, no more than 500 metres away from where I found myself. Not that you'd know it: group after group of polite protesters stroll past me, many of them smoking the odd bit of weed. No-one mentions the burning car, or the violence that will soon consume every available second of TV news, and splash itself on the front pages of every newspaper. In fact if anything I'm a bit bored: I had been expecting to feel a lot more anger and urgency than I had up to this point, but instead it all seemed a bit, well, meh. There's no heavy air about the place; in fact if anything it's too peaceful, with people chatting and laughing amongst themselves. I look up past the Coliseum to see a phalanx of carabinieri hanging about, looking bored, and make my way slowly up Via di San Giovanni in Laterno, which brings you to Piazza di Porta San Giovanni, the march's finishing line. On the way up I glance over at Via Labicana, which runs parallel and was the subsequent scene of some of the most violent clashes – nothing doing. On arriving in the square I find it populated with the usual wimpy stripe of demonstrator, mostly young hippies and faux-anarchists who were there to bang bongos and dance instead of incite the revolution. So I hang around, bored, lumbered with the impression that nothing of interest was going to happen. I wait some more, and eventually come to the conclusion that I've spent nearly five hours wandering around by myself, waiting for nothing. So I go home and turn the telly on, only to find that full-scale civil war has broken out at the exact spot where I was stood only half an hour previously: police cars ablaze, men armed with bats and molotov cocktails laying siege to the Ministry of Defence, pacifist demonstrators beaten up, and hundreds of thousands of people left cramming the streets around the square. In short, a writer's wet dream. I put the kettle on, and over a cup of tea I curse myself, and my lousy journalistic instincts.
Over the course of the evening I remained glued to the news and current affairs shows that are running wild with the story. You could almost see the news anchors and analysts from hiding their erections: after months and months of Silvio Berlusconi hogging the headlines (being blackmailed by a pimp for hundreds of thousands of Euro, telling a female opposition MP to have a shag, calling Angela Merkel an 'unfuckable dog', etc.), and boring parliamentary slanging matches, they finally had some action to report. Every minute some new atrocity was being committed, with the carabinieri taking a fearful beating from the hundreds, maybe thousands of well-organised and well-armed young men who had come from all over the country with the objective of causing as much disorder as possible. Meanwhile the peaceful protesters, whose numbers approached 300,000, were either scattered all over the square or forced back into the roads that led to it. A carabinieri van is set on fire, with officers still inside it; ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) is scrawled on the flaming wreckage. In short, the whole area is utterly devastated by a relatively small group, who the press immediately identify as 'Black Bloc', destroying what the day's demo was supposed to be about. Later on current affairs programme In Onda, a small group of idealist pacifist demonstrators are repeatedly asked by the talking heads to denounce the violence, and it's obvious that they're still in shock at what happened. They want to know why the coverage isn't focusing on the number of people who came to protest, and the reasons why they did so, rather than the borderline psychopathic actions of a violent fringe. 'I hope we don't end up just talking about them,' said one. 'Because that would the real defeat: we want to talk about building something, rather than destroying.' That quote more or less sums up the difference not only between the violent fringe and the rest, but also my experience of the demonstration and that seen by millions of people worldwide.
I'd arrived at the start of the student march, at La Sapienza University, at just gone midday. It's tucked behind Termini station, towards the San Lorenzo neighbourhood, one of the historic centres of the Roman Left. (It's also the home to Boys, the extreme Right Wing ultras group from Roma's curva sud.) On my way there I saw a large group moving from the Acrobax centro sociale (social centre), a communist/anarchist group which occupied the disused dog track on the other side of the Tiber from my neighbourhood, and which is very popular with students from the nearby Roma 3 university. They, like other centri sociali came to the march with a big float, from which they pumped out appalling Italian reggae and sold beer to passers-by. Outside La Sapienza there are already a couple of thousand people, all of whom make me feel very old.
There are an eye-catching number of good looking women about, and many of them surround the leading activists; there's an awkward but strong hint of sex in the air, brought about partly because the sun is blazing high in a cloudless sky, and as a result boys and girls are strolling about in skimpier outfits than October should allow. Banners with revolutionary intent flutter about in the light breeze; one reads: 'Arab Spring, European Autumn – Occupy Rome'. A young girl hands me a leaflet explaining why Italy's LGBT community is taking part and to my left I spot a banner written in Macaroni English: 'You Pay Debt, We Make Sex Revolution'. The atmosphere is jovial, almost party-like; a chap on one of the floats tries to incite a response, by listing the reasons why we're all here, but he has a horrible nasally voice and no charisma, so no one pays any attention to him, even when he tries to build to a insurrectionist crescendo. His voice cracks and strains under the weight of concepts he can't articulate – after his third go at inciting the crowd, he gives up and puts on more reggae. Some people start to dance, but it doesn't catch on. And it's just as well too: Italians are the Whitest, most rhythm-less people on the planet, and a mass outbreak of rigid boogie-ing would have been enough to send me home.
If ultras from the curva sud were involved there's a high chance that there was fascist involvement.
It wasn't until I got near to Piazza Della Repubblica that I noticed the first small groups of lads clearly out for trouble: a little gang of four, none of whom could have been older than 18, each of them with their scooter helmets attached to their belts. One of them was wearing a West Ham ICF hoodie, a clear sign that he and his mates came from either the curva sud or Lazio's curva nord, and the first signal I got that this wasn't an entirely Left Wing demonstration. The square itself was too big to hold everyone that was arriving, and with people spilling out from Termini station the whole area, right up the edge of Via Cavour was completely full. Communists and Socialists of every type were there, and small groups of African immigrants held banners aloft, protesting against multinational exploitation of their countries.
In amongst the crowd I started to spot more groups of football fans, this time older and more conspicuously dressed in the 'casual' style: lots of Ben Sherman and Adidas, as well as caps and Kangol-style heagear. I try to follow them as the march takes off down Via Cavour and on to an afternoon of destruction, but I lose them in the crowd. Further down the road small groups of younger lads, this lot too with their scooter helmets at the ready, start running down the road, ducking in and out of various groups, making them very hard to follow. This turns out to have been a deliberate tactic: one of their number gave an interview to Rome-based national paper La Repubblica, in which he explained that they wanted the police to think that they were smaller in number than they were, and that they wanted them to think that smashing up Via Cavour was the limit of their actions; once the initial group of 500 were attacked by police in Via Labicana, the second group of 300 then showed themselves and took the coppers by surprise, putting them on the back foot. The same lad, a certain 'F' from the Puglia region, explained that they had left a Fiat Ducato van full of arms near Piazza San Giovanni on Friday night, 'arms not to win a battle, but a war'. It's clear that whoever these people are, they are very well-drilled and know what they're doing. Above all they're determined, and don't care if they upset peaceful protesters: one was quoted by the Sunday edition of the same paper as saying to a group of pacifist demonstrators who had tried to stop them: 'You're the middle class, you only know how to chit-chat. We're going to fuck this day up.' The rest of the march tried to isolate them, and were even heard calling them fascists. At this point it's hard to know whether that was supposed to be an insult or a statement of fact; other reports suggested that the extreme Right organisation Casapound Italia – whose headquarters are nearby where the rioting kicked off, just off Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II – had their boys involved, and frankly if ultras from the curva sud were involved there's a high chance that there was fascist involvement.
The aftermath is sure to bring more repressive laws down on the heads of wannabe revolutionaries: Roberto Maroni, the Minister of the Interior is already promising new measures to curb the risk of violence, and the police are preparing a maxi-operation against anarchist groups believed to have been involved; six people were arrested in Florence after returning from Rome, and Maroni wants to 'create a specific special legislation' which 'will broaden police powers of detention and arrest'. Whether it will work, or simply inflame peaceful protests as police inevitably arrest and detain the wrong people is another matter altogether. All of which says something positive about the use of political violence: it appears to garner a frightened reaction from the authorities. I can't tell you how many demonstrations I've been on here, and not one of them has ever helped change a thing, and for all that Saturday's fighting was – in my opinion – tactically mistaken, it's seems to me to be the only way to get rid this country's corrupt, entrenched political class. In a country where the disconnect between the actions of parliament and the desires of the people is so marked, what else is there to do? Small groups of nihilists attacking the police, another impoverished group of workers, a large number of who earn €1,300 a month, certainly isn't going to charge anything except bring down harsher legislation on everyone's heads, but the pacifists must surely know that there is no working together with the authorities if they want the horizontal democracy that they're asking for: in a state where people get into politics to get a cushy salary and as many bribes as they can handle, not to mention a very generous pension, getting the representation you want isn't a matter of sitting down, smoking weed, playing bongos and asking for it. You have to take it.
Last night I went for a drink with a friend I play five-a-side with. As is often the case here the conversation turned to politics: we'd just watched the Rome derby together, and were both expecting it to be a hostile occasion; not just because Rome derbies always are, but because Roma and Lazio's ultras see eye-to-eye on many issues, and after Saturday's events I was expecting an aggressive police response. Luckily nothing happened. After the match we walked to Campo Dei Fiori, lamenting the rioting. My companion, in-between laughing at the Laziali clowns trying to dress like English hooligans, expressed a sentiment that I'd heard plenty since Saturday afternoon: 'Yesterday wasn't the right time: you can't go beating up peaceful protesters. If we want to get angry and violent we have to do it right outside the parliament building, or outside Palazzo Grazioli (where Berlusconi resides when he's in Rome). We need to fight against the actual power, like last December. That was right.'
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