Last Saturday in Rome, as 200,000 protested, a huge, colourful mass mobilization and a youth riot both took place at the same time. Leo Goretti looks at the background.

Last Saturday, no fewer than 900 cities all over the world have hosted demonstrations linked to the Occupy movement. The main targets of the protesters have been financial citadels such as Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange, where those who have caused the crisis but refuse to pay for it have their headquarters. The large majority of these demonstrations have taken the form of peaceful gatherings, culminating in acts of civil disobedience, namely the occupation of public spaces.

However, there was one demonstration – one of the largest, indeed, gathering some 200,000 people – that turned soon into a dramatic series of violent crashes between a minority of the protesters and the police– and amongst protesters themselves; the square where the final rally was planned became a real battlefield. This is was what happened last Saturday in Rome: a huge, colourful mass mobilization, and a youth riot, both at the same time.

The “Roman anomaly” was described in the media as the “bad” exception, compared with the “good” global Occupy movement. The degeneration of the Italian demonstration was explained in the light of an alleged Italian “national character” (prone to unbridled passions and irrationality), the tradition of radicalism and political violence in Italy, or… the Berlusconi government (which seems to be the all-explaining explanatory factor for commentators in Italy – whatever happens, it’s all Berlusconi’s fault). This reading is not completely meaningless: for example, there is no doubt that the squalid display of bribery and incompetence that was staged in the Italian Parliament on Friday (when the Berlusconi government survived a confidence vote, partly also because of the ineptitude of the parliamentary opposition) ignited the protesters. And yet, saying that the Italian demonstration was a black stain on the immaculate balance sheet of the Occupy movement is not entirely convincing. Instead, what happened in Italy sheds light on some issues and contradictions that the global Occupy movement will have to face, sooner or later.

The same kind of dichotomist representation informed the accounts on how the protest in Rome unfolded. A huge demonstration, involving hundreds of thousands of “good” outraged citizens and young people, has been hijacked by a tiny, organised, criminal bunch of “bad” (and hooded) hooligans – this is the narrative that Italian newspapers and politicians have adopted to describe the facts of last Saturday. Interestingly enough, there seems to be a broad consensus on this representation, both on the Left and the Right. The impressive size of the Rome parade makes it impossible a general condemnation of the protesters – it would imply the criminalization of hundreds of thousands of people.

Of course, the emphasis and the tones vary. While right-wingers focus on the need to repress with all means the rioters, left-wingers stress more the fact that there was a “99%” (again!) of peaceful demonstrators. A vignette that is going viral in Facebook depicts a pacific mass of protesters who call for honesty, jobs and equality but are ignored by journalists, because the latter are too busy in shooting pictures of the one and only looter. Plot theories regarding the infiltration of Neofascists and police moles are popping up like mushrooms among the militants of what remains (not much indeed) of the political Left. There are plenty of stories regarding heroic attempts of brave activists to stop the “hooligans”, to fight with them and even to hand them over to the police – like the case of the fifty-year-old man who engaged in a courageous fight with a young “hoodie” who had broken an icon of the Madonna.

But is this representation of the reality an exhaustive one? Probably not. Of course, most of Saturday’s protesters did not (nor were they willing to) take part in violent actions – otherwise the tally of the damage would be certainly higher than the estimated 2mn Euro. Certainly, amongst the “hooligans” there were also apolitical troublemakers and infiltrated people (this is an old tactics employed by the Italian police). And without doubts the focus of the media on the riot was disproportionate compared with the number of people who were demonstrating in Rome. And yet…
… and yet, reading the many “unofficial” accounts of the protest, sensing the feelings of many comrades, and watching the footage that was broadcast live from Piazza san Giovanni (the final meeting point), one is under the impression that there is also another, “ugly” story to be told. It is the story of a generation of Italian young people that has no jobs and perceives to have no future; a generation of young people who are not just “indignant” – they are bitter, resentful, and angry at a system that does not represent them. That this sense of frustration and marginalization can turn into the performance of violence against the system should not surprise.

Of course, in today’s Italy, violence can eventually give vent (for an afternoon) to the anger of some hundreds of young people, but is a dead end, as a political strategy. The only result that the Rome riot will bring about is repression, a number of arrests, new liberticide laws (the Italian Minister of Interior has proposed that from now on the organisers of public demonstrations have pro provide economic coverage for possible damage – and they have to do it in advance) and – probably the worst aspect – the isolation of the radical Left and the social opposition. From now on, the label of “black bloc” will be easily wielded as a weapon against anyone who dares to call into question “the present state of things”. Clusters of militant resistance relying on genuine popular support – such as the NO Tav movement, a group of activists of the val di Susa, in the Piedmont region, that since 2005 are fighting against the construction of a high-speed railway and who are strongly supported by the locals – risk to fall victim of the wave of hysteria that is spreading across the country.

The point here is that what happened in Rome is the result of the inability of the Italian radical Left, and the anti-capitalist/alter-globalist/indignant social movements, to build a united opposition front. Factional rivalries, widespread “anti-political” feelings and – the most important – strong disagreements (and to an extent, a lack of ideas) regarding what is the purpose of the mobilization – to put it more clearly: regarding what is the alternative to neoliberal capitalism – made it impossible to put together a platform for the movement that could go beyond the watchword of “indignation” (in fact, different movements and coalitions drafted different documents before 15 October). And if many people (also outside the traditional constituencies of the Left) are outraged and angry, indignation and anger are not enough. Better, they are the expression of a widespread social malaise, but they are not a solution, they are not a cure to it.

To an extent, the “good” occupy movement is a step forward compared with the “bad” Rome march of Saturday. There is not just widespread indignation amongst its members, but also a substantial agreement on the resistance practices to employ– not violence, but civil disobedience. At the same time, however, a question that was dramatically left unanswered in Rome hovers in the air also in New York, London and the rest of the world: what’s next? What’s the goal of these movements? What is the alternative to financial greed and plutocracy? Until the movement does not find a political answer to these “ugly” questions, until a shared sense of fighting together is not combined also with a shared sense of purpose, the risk of falling back into understandable, but minoritarian and sterile rage, as happened in Italy, will be there.

To conclude, as a young activist has put it in a brilliant letter sent to the heterodox Communist newspaper il manifesto, the riot of Rome resembles the fight of Captain Achab against Moby Dick: an “inescapable tragedy, which is superior to human will”. What happened in Rome “does not represent anything of what we believe is just, but it is the right representation for our impotence. And once more, the game of searching for those who were responsible for it will impair us to think about our impotence, and raise our awareness.”