Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Three very different types of demonstrations have taken place in Italy over the past few days and the pictures from one of these, of course, went round the world.

What did not go round the world - at least, not at first - was the information that those who caused Saturday's unprecedented violence in Rome were not marching in the main body of the demonstration, which consisted of peaceful protestors [gli indignati] who wished, along with demonstrators of the "Occupy" movement in other countries, to make their feelings about bankers and inept governments known. The demonstration was ruined by a highly organised group of masked and hooded individuals who have become known in Italy as the black bloc.  Estimates of the numbers involved vary but it is probable that around 3,000 black bloc individuals sabotaged the protest of up to 200,000 citizens who wanted only to assert their right to a future.

The BBC initially reported the violence without making any distinction between the two groups of demonstators but it is important that the distinction be made, for demonstrators in the main body not only applauded the police but handed them their photos and videos of the violent group.  As Italy recovers from the shock of what happened and counts the cost - an estimated €1.5 million worth of damage done to public property alone and 135 injured, 105 of whom were police or other public order officials - it emerges that the black bloc had organised their activities with military precision and that we are looking at a very sinister phenomenon indeed.

"How", asked a panel member on a political talk show on Monday night, "can such a relatively small group wreak such havoc during a demonstration that was intended to be peaceful?"  This is the question that most Italians have been asking themselves and the answer, when it came from a fellow panel member, was clear:  "In a democracy, easily."

And this is now precisely Italy's dilemma:  How, in a democracy, do you control demonstrations?  Not everyone, it must be said, is praising the police, who have been criticised from some quarters for not guaranteeing citizens' right to demonstrate peacefully.  But if they are to do this, reason politicians from all sides, their powers must be increased. Therefore among new measures being proposed as I write are:  the possible arrest of people who attend demonstrations in suspicious clothing or disguise, police powers to arrest in flagranza differita [on photographic or video evidence up to 48 hours after the fact] and, most controversially, a proposal to charge the organisers of demonstrations a deposit in case of damage to public property.  The Mayor of Rome has already banned demonstrations in the city centre for one month and this ban may be extended.

Now, clearly, you are in trouble, in a democracy, when you start telling people what they can wear, as countries who have tried to ban, or have banned, the veil have found out and, whilst we may all agree that attending a demonstration in an almost military disguise is extreme, who is going to judge what is acceptable and unacceptable?  In Britain, would going to a demonstration in a David Cameron mask be outlawed under a similar measure?  As for the proposed deposit, who is going to decide how much should be paid, what would be the criteria and to whom would the payment be made?  If no damage is done, I would not like to bet on the ease of reclaim of such a deposit given Italy's bureaucratic procedures, not to mention the fact that Italy would be the only country in the world to charge participants prior to a demonstration.

Two weeks ago, as reported on this blog, the online community fought a battle - not over yet but seemingly successful - to save the independence and neutrality of Wikipedia Italia.  This campaign was conducted purely online, first by the users of Wikipedia Italia themselves and then by their supporters.  So the question, it seems to me, is whether there is a new way of demonstrating.  No one in the West can now say that they do not have ways in which to make their voice heard via technological media.  And if there are enough voices, they quickly reach the mainstream media:  Three weeks ago, it was hard to find any mainstream media coverage of the "Occupy" movement at all and some of us wondered whether there had been a planned media blackout.  Now, thanks to blogs, twitter and other information and social networks, the movement is making headlines everywhere.

The right to go in piazza, as the Italians say, to demonstrate peacefully should be safeguarded everywhere but I think it now goes hand in hand with a new, online way of demonstrating which can involve everyone.  In these ways  we can change the world.

Tomorrow I will write about two other demonstrations which have taken place in Italy over the past week.


jams o donnell said...

The actions of the likes of the black bloc disgust me as do heavy handed police tactics.

But what restrictions do you put in place without over reacting massively?. Cameron was talking about blocking social media (and I thought we didn't live in Iran!)

Patricia said...

Very interesting thoughts, Pat. My husband maintains that much of the violence resulting in demonstrations everywhere...G8 conferences, Vancouver post hockey playoffs, whatever...are often instigated by "professional" rioters and not arising from the grassroot populace. I love the Italisn terms..."gli indignati" and "in piazza!"

Jenny Woolf said...

Oh don't start me on those semi professional activists - what "Private Eye" used to call "rent a crowd". But I agree with James o Donnell that it's hard to know what on earth you can do about it.

Whispering Walls said...

Oh no - the blackshirts are back!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, jams. I didn't know Cameron had said that. Will look it up now. Thanks, Patricia. I agree with your husband. "Gli indignati" originated in Spain - the "indignados". Hi, Jenny. I agree. Hi, WW. It has been suffested that they are fascists but I don't think it's as simple as that.

Rachel Cotterill said...

Charging the organizers sounds harsh - if you organize a peaceful protest, then it being hijacked by violent rioters is the last thing you would want :( I hope they can find a better compromise.

James Higham said...

"How", asked a panel member on a political talk show on Monday night, "can such a relatively small group wreak such havoc during a demonstration that was intended to be peaceful?"

Agents provocateurs - Italy has produced many over the years - G8 financial meeting in 2001 for example.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I hope so too, Rachel. But they are not only from Italy, James.


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