Anti-fascists on the march
As the far right becomes more emboldened, Toby Abse reports on the disgraceful attempt of the PD leadership to ban leftwing protests
The last few days of the campaign in the run-up to the March 4 general election have seen a turn away from economic issues to the much more emotive question of immigration.
Previously the obvious demagogy of the rightwing politicians, with their wild promises of a mixture of tax cuts and increased expenditure (at least for some targeted sections of the population), might perhaps have been exposed through rational analysis. But in July 2017 the Partito Democratico turned against the NGOs attempting to rescue migrants from the Mediterranean and effectively abandoned the Ius Soli, which would have allowed the children of migrants born in Italy to take up citizenship. This disgraceful stance has meant that the racists and fascists have effectively been setting the agenda for the election campaign.
This need not have been the case if the PD had been willing to call the February 3 shooting of six Africans in Macerata by its proper name: neo-fascist, racist terrorism - the man arrested for the attempted murder was Nazi sympathiser Luca Traini. The PD should also have denounced the leader of the rightwing Lega, Matteo Salvini, as Traini’s mandante morale (moral instigator), as the internationally renowned anti-Mafia writer, Roberto Saviano, so rightly called him.1 But the response of PD leader Matteo Renzi was cowardly, defensive and utterly counterproductive. In aninterview with La Repubblica, he said of Salvini: “I don’t consider him the ‘moral instigator’ - and I don’t label him as co-responsible” (February 9). Of the shootings themselves, the PD secretary said: “I do not speak of terrorism - I measure my words. I didn’t speak of war after Bataclan [the 2015 massacre in Paris] and I don’t speak of terrorism today.” Presumably, the ideologically motivated shooting of random civilians only counts as terrorism in Renzi’s eyes if it is carried out by dark-skinned Islamists.
Interestingly, he had first been publicly challenged on this issue within the PD leadership not by a known leftwinger from the social democratic minority, but by someone who shares his Christian Democratic political background and his neoliberal economic outlook: Graziano Delrio, the minister for infrastructure. Perhaps this is not so strange, as Delrio had already attempted to counter interior minister Marco Minniti’s anti-migrant and anti-NGO line in July 2017, before Renzi threw his full weight behind Minniti.
Delrio had had no hesitation in saying: “Whoever justifies episodes like that of Macerata opens the door to the return of fascism” - a remark clearly aimed at Salvini. He argued, in reply to Silvio Berlusconi’s call for the rapid mass deportation of 600,000 migrants: “To think that the phenomenon of immigration was provoked by the left is madness. Immigration was caused by hunger and wars. To promise to drive out 600,000 immigrants in the twinkling of an eye does not help at all.” He concluded:
We are on the threshold of a neo-fascist season in terms of tones, attitudes and careless talk. Now violent episodes like that of Macerata come out. When they use the values of the “fatherland” against others, they are betraying the tricolour and the constitution.2 It is not enough that the pope denounces discrimination and hate. We need the voice of politics, possibly of all the parties.3
Delrio’s comments demonstrate that even somebody with a left-liberal outlook could take a clearer position against fascism and racially motivated terrorism than Renzi was prepared to adopt.
Given Italy’s long tradition of neo-fascist terrorism - particularly in the years between Piazza Fontana (December 1969) and the Bologna railway station bombing (August 1980) - the labour movement has, through bitter experience, learnt that the best response to it is large-scale mobilisation on the streets.4 Therefore it was no surprise that the ANPI (national association of ex-partisans) called a national demonstration to take place in Macerata on Saturday February 10, and the CGIL (the most leftwing of the major trade union confederations) and ARCI - the leftwing leisure organisation, originally closely aligned with the old Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) - rapidly endorsed the ANPI’s call.
One might have expected the PD to back the ANPI, however reluctantly or half-heartedly, since the three organisations making the appeal to the masses to participate in the demonstration represented the hard core of the PD’s traditional electorate, which it had inherited from the old PCI and successor parties. Instead, the leadership did its best to sabotage the demonstration, putting enormous pressure on the national leaderships of the ANPI, ARCI and the CGIL - in all of which PD members are heavily represented - to call it off. This they did on February 7, after a very animated discussion.5
Predictably, Renzi and his cabal did not have the guts to openly demand the cancellation themselves; they hid - and are still hiding - behind a call by the PD mayor of Macerata, Romano Carancini, for an end to all demonstrations in his city, claiming this was necessary to restore calm after the murder of Pamela Mastropietro, for which a Nigerian migrant has been arrested, and the shootings perpetrated by Luca Traini - in effect equating fascist and anti-fascist demonstrations (the far-right Casa Pound and Forza Nuova had shown no such self-restraint in sending their members from elsewhere in Italy onto the streets of Macerata). Anybody with any political experience would have realised that the local PD mayor could not possibly have issued this appeal in the middle of a general election campaign without consulting both Renzi and Minniti - the projected demonstration was being presented as a question of public order, for which the latter is officially responsible.
On February 8, the prefect6 of Macerata, Roberta Preziotti, after thanking the ANPI for its cooperation in calling off the demonstration in response to the mayor’s appeal, declared: “Planned demonstrations will be banned.” The very day on which Preziotti had announced her ban, a group of Forza Nuova thugs, led by their national leader, Roberto Fiore, marched towards the centre of Macerata in their usual intimidatory manner. Fiore shouted through a megaphone: “Forza Nuova, national pride, you are challenging the Nigerian mafia”, and when the police prevented them from marching on the city’s central square, the Piazza della Libertà, claimed this was “not a demonstration” - it was “a public meeting”.7 Although 10 of the more rowdy Forza Nuova members were taken off to the main police station - after injuring six police officers - and one seems to have been formally arrested, as usual no further action was taken against Fiore himself, although it was quite obvious that he had instigated the violence.8
In the light of the extremely indulgent approach of the security forces towards the fascists,9 it is worth pointing out that some of the inhabitants of Macerata were less keen on Forza Nuova. La Repubblica’s reporter remarked:
... at 8pm the anti-fascists had started to gather in the centre: not an organised demonstration, but ordinary people - male and female youngsters from Macerata and also ladies of a certain age. There was even a man of 70, who shouted against the attempt of the extreme right to conquer the territory of a city stained by the tragedy of Pamela and the Nazi madness of Traini.10
Liberi e Uguali (LeU - Free and Equal People), the left social democratic grouping standing in the general election, adopted a principled anti-fascist and anti-racist stance, and refused to be intimidated by Minniti’s attempt to keep the anti-fascists off the streets. Indeed, the secretaries of the three forces that make up LeU - Pippo Civati (Possibile), Nicola Fratoianni (Sinistra Italiana) and Roberto Speranza (Movimento Democratico e Progressista) sent a joint letter to Minniti, as well as PD prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, defiantly stating: “The choice to forbid the possibility of demonstrating next Saturday at Macerata is mistaken and dangerous.”
It was undoubtedly the LeU letter that made it impossible to continue with a total ban. LeU represents a serious electoral challenge to the PD, and is in a position to appeal to sections of the PD base on this sort of issue, even if many old-timers may still hold their noses and vote PD anyway.
Had the Centri Sociali (Social Centres - largely based in illegally occupied premises, and predominantly anarchist or autonomist in their political orientation) been left effectively isolated in their call for a national demonstration in defiance of Minniti’s ban, it seems unlikely that the march on February 10 would have taken the peaceful form it did - ugly scenes reminiscent of the clashes of 1977 in Rome and Bologna might well have ensued. Minniti has always on the slightest pretext encouraged the police and Carabinieri to crack down on the Centri Sociali and any marches involving migrants or housing activists allied with them - or indeed without any pretext at all.11 The support given to the call of the Centri Sociali by Potere al Popolo (Power to the People - the electoral cartel which includes Rifondazione Comunista) and the FIOM (the metalworkers’ union affiliated to the CGIL) would not necessarily have been regarded as having sufficient weight for Minniti to backtrack if the leading LeU parliamentarians had not sent their letter.
Minniti’s statement at a PD election rally on February 12 - “After acting as minister for 14 months, I have only banned one demonstration, that of Forza Nuova a few days ago at Macerata” - should not be taken too seriously. By the time he had made it, the peaceful anti-fascist march of at least 20,000 had already occurred and he needed to justify himself retrospectively.12 The belated compromise that was reached between the local security forces and the march organisers the day before the demonstration - and officially endorsed by Minniti on February 9 - was that the march should take a circular route outside the old city walls, and not enter Macerata itself in the way the Forza Nuova demonstration had.
The mayor insisted on closing all schools for the day13 and halting all public transport after 11am. Allegedly these precautions were to protect the citizenry, but in reality the mayor and the local bishop14 - who one suspects does not share Pope Francis’s sympathy for migrants - seemed to have done their utmost to spread maximum panic, leaving many shopkeepers to consider closing their shutters for the day. The local dignitaries or the security forces may well have been the source of the wild rumours that Forza Nuova would stage a counter-demonstration, and that large numbers of foreign Black Bloc anarchists were likely to appear on the scene.
The demonstration of “Movements against every form of fascism and racism” - to quote the words on the huge banner at the head of the march - was a tremendous success, with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people from a wide variety of backgrounds and organisations gathering in a small provincial city at short notice. This proves there is still a mass anti-fascist/anti-racist movement to the left of the PD. TheCentri Socialiwere joined by the FIOM, as well as the syndicalist trade union, Cobas, many left groups, plus black immigrants, students and ageing former members of Lotta Continua, including its old leader, Adriano Sofri himself.15 As Fratoianni - Sinistra Italiana’s representative in the LeU leadership - rightly said, “This is a defeat for the PD - its choice not to be here was incomprehensible.”
There was a similar response to an anti-fascist demonstration in Milan on February 25, where about 20,000 - mainly young - people marched. Here too the PD was almost totally absent - apart from Emanuele Fiano, who had attempted to bring in a law against fascist propaganda during the last legislature, and a former local councillor and representative of the Milanese PD left, Pierfrancesco Majorino. LeU’s Laura Boldrini commented at the Milan demonstration: “There is no place for apartheid in Italy.16 I am pleased Fiano and Majorino are here, but the PD has made a mistake in not attending.”
Inevitably, some of the slogans chanted or scrawled on placards on the Macerata demonstration were aimed at the PD - “Ministro Minniti, fascisti garantiti” (Minister Minniti, fascists guaranteed)17 and “Minniti uguale a Kossiga”.18. Some of the more extreme and blood-curdling chants were widely reported in the mainstream media: eg, “Close the fascist offices with fire, with the fascists inside - if not it is too little”.19 While one might argue that this was an understandable reaction to Luca Traini’s murderous shooting spree and the nationwide rise in fascist violence,20 its effect was highly counterproductive - even if, as one suspects, only very small groups joined in.
Renzi’s reaction to the demonstration in Macerata was predictably self-centred and self-pitying:
I’m embarrassed? And why should I ever be? I am fed up with the fact that everything is used against me. Now even Macerata - this is too much. That fascist shot straight at the PD offices, and people blame me and my party for not reacting adequately. Enough now.21
It is only fair to point out that the marginalised left of the PD responded rather differently. Gianni Cuperlo, who had refused to accept the parliamentary candidacy offered to him by Renzi, publicly embraced Vasco Errani, the local LeU candidate, at an anti-fascist vigil in Bologna held on the same day as the Macerata demonstration. Whilst Andrea Orlando, the current PD justice minister, felt it wiser to stick to the party line on the day of the demonstration, the fact that he, alone of the current cabinet, had visited the wounded Africans in hospital soon after the Macerata shootings is a clear indication that he does not share either the racist outlook of Minniti or Renzi’s opportunist indulgence of it.22
Praiseworthy as LeU’s actions in relation to the Macerata demonstration were, a subsequent event in Livorno has shown the limitations of these social democrats in terms of militant anti-fascism.
Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), had deliberately engaged in the most provocative action possible - going to meet shopkeepers and stallholders in the very heart of Livorno, not far from the old Teatro San Marco, where the original Communist Party of Italy was founded in 1921. Despite the timing of this impromptu visit - in the middle of a weekday afternoon - 200 people, mainly youngsters from the Centri Sociali, mobilised to heckle her, singing the Partisan song Bella Ciao and blocking her, an FdI regional councillor, Giovanni Donzelli, and the rest of her thuggish entourage in a side street. The anti-fascist demonstrators gave her car a ritual kicking and Donzelli melodramatically lamented: “They even threw plastic bottles, and two hit Giorgia Meloni” - as if these hardened fascists had not frequently dealt out far more than they received in Livorno.23
Sadly, Pietro Grasso, the LeU leader, chose to express his sympathy with Meloni for the alleged ill-treatment she had received, in the same way as Roberta Pinotti, the PD defence minister, even if he did not rush to telephone Meloni personally like her good friend, Marco Minniti (once again living up to the apt slogan “Ministro Minniti, fascisti guarantiti”). Whilst one could not have expected a social democratic speaker of the Senate to endorse the crowd’s rowdy behaviour (as Rifondazione Comunista leader Maurizio Acerbo did by warmly applauding “the anti-fascist people of Livorno”), a dignified silence would have been more appropriate; Meloni, despite her small stature and perpetual willingness to play the female victim, is a vicious racist of the Katie Hopkins ilk.
The next few days were marked by a series of clashes between fascists and anti-fascists - or anti-fascists and the police, as was the case in Bologna, Turin, Perugia, Palermo and Pisa. The general retreat from the traditional anti-fascism of the Italian left (especially the old PCI) on the part of the PD and Minniti’s own encouragement of the use of particularly aggressive tactics by the police and Carabinieri24 sometimes led to rather adventurist and ultra-leftist actions on the part of small groups associated with the Centri Sociali, but the constant equation of Forza Nuova and Casa Pound, on the one hand, with the Centri Sociali, on the other, on the part of most reporters in the mainstream media often makes it difficult to disentangle the actual course of such events.
In any case, the authorities were frequently much more eager to crack down on the anti-fascist than the fascists. The most obvious instance was the police reaction to the vicious knifing by a gang of Casa Pound members of a Potere al Popolo militant, who was sticking up election posters in Perugia - it looks as if charges will be brought against both the small group of bill stickers and their attackers. So far the authorities have not responded to a serious arson attack on the Centro Sociale building in Brescia - undoubtedly the work of one of the major neo-fascist groupings, although predictably neither Casa Pound nor Forza Nuova claimed responsibility.
There has been only one case of what one must call squaddist behaviour by the extreme left - in Palermo, where the local secretary of Forza Nuova was first tied up and then badly beaten up by about half a dozen masked autonomists. Without in any way endorsing this vendetta, it should be noted that the man in question had on at least two occasions in the past led Forza Nuova gang attacks against Bangladeshi or Nigerian migrants, for which he has twice been convicted (although, as so often occurs with neo-fascists, on one occasion the guilty verdict was overturned on appeal on a technicality). Some of the autonomists have now been charged with attempted murder - arguably a more serious charge than would have been brought against a fascist gang behaving in the same way.
Despite journalists’ predictions of a spiral of escalating violence,25 the belated official ANPI demonstration against racism and fascism in Rome on February 24 passed off peacefully. On this occasion, unlike the Macerata march a fortnight earlier, the PD participated, with the majority of its leadership group making a point of attending. Renzi himself avoided the actual march, fearing leftwing hecklers, and only appeared very briefly in the crowd at the final rally in Piazza del Popolo - to be photographed having a friendly chat with prime minister Gentiloni before rapidly disappearing backstage.26 There was a very large trade union presence on the march from the CGIL in particular, with general secretary Susanna Camussa part of the group at the head of the march. Once again, Camussa made her personal political sympathies very plain by choosing to be photographed with Pietro Grasso of the LeU rather than any of the PD leaders.
Although the organisers claimed that 100,000 marched through Rome on this rainy Saturday afternoon, this seems a bit of an exaggeration - which is not to concur with the ministry of the interior claim that theLega march in Milan, with 15,000 participants, was the largest of the 119 demonstrations taking place all over Italy that day. This was clearly inaccurate and could be seen as further evidence of interior minister Minniti’s hostility to anti-fascists.
Journalists noted that there were fewer young people on the Rome march than the Macerata one, which suggests that - despite the very temporary unity of the PD and LeU, who were marching separately, but in the same procession, behind the ANPI banner - the gulf between young militant anti-fascists and the PD has deepened over the last fortnight27 l
1. Saviano denounced Salvini on the day of the shootings, but his views on the matter subsequently became available in English in his article, ‘Fascism is back in Italy and it’s paralysing our political system’ (The Observer February 11). For a similar line of argument from a Palestinian born in Israel, who has lived in Italy since 1993, see Rula Jabreal’s ‘My beautiful Italy is being driven into the arms of fascists’ (The Guardian February 9).
2. Traini had literally wrapped himself in the Italian tricolour flag, whilst giving the fascist salute, at the moment of his arrest.
3. Interview in La Repubblica February 7.
4. Of course, even this has its risks - the Piazza della Loggia massacre in Brescia in May 1974, in which eight people were killed and 102 wounded, occurred when neo-fascists planted a bomb in the middle of an anti-fascist trade union demonstration.
5. There was internal debate within all the organisations. In the case of the CGIL, the national leadership wanted to go ahead, but yielded to pressure from officials from the Marche, the region in which Macerata is situated.
6. The prefect is the leading state official in each province, and acts as the commander of the Carabinieri (national gendarmerie).
7. Forza Nuova is standing in the general election and has been attempting to give all its activities an electoral gloss.
8. Fiore seems to enjoy a charmed existence. Although there is no real dispute about his involvement in Italian neo-fascist terrorism in the late 1970s, he was able to spend about 20 years in London from 1980, only returning to Italy when there was no risk of being brought to trial because of the statute of limitations. His sojourn in the UK could hardly be called clandestine - he openly associated with Nick Griffin and engaged in property speculation.
9. On February12 Vincenzo Vuomo, the questore - chief of police (as opposed to the Carabinieri, which is a separate force) of Macerata - was removed as a result of a “chain of errors” over the previous fortnight, including his handling of Forza Nuova. However, on this occasion, the Lega’s description of him as a “sacrificial lamb” is probably correct: the police and Carabinieri have hardly been renowned for taking a tough approach to neo-fascists, especially since there are a fair number in their own ranks.
10. La Repubblica February 9. This report is interesting because it does not try to depict the anti-fascists as anarchist trouble-makers, as the Italian media so often do.
11. One incident, in which the Carabinieriphysically attacked migrants evicted from an empty property in Rome a day or two before, was recorded on video. But, although the principal offender in uniform could be clearly heard to literally urge his men to break somebody’s leg, no disciplinary action resulted.
12. Minniti’s comments in an interview in La Repubblica (February 14) were even more disingenuous: “Some days later, a demonstration took place of many thousands of people, coming from all over Italy. I believe the demonstration was necessary, and therefore I gave no instructions to the forces of order.” Sickeningly, Minniti is even allowed to talk of “those who today rot in concentration camps [sic] along the African shores” without the interviewer suggesting that Minniti’s own deals with Libyan politicians, generals, tribal chiefs and militia leaders make him morally responsible for the fate of these unfortunates.
13. In Italy, Saturday morning is a school day.
14. Bishop Nazzareno Marconi equated the fascists and anti-fascists, saying that on neither side was all the attention towards the victims the product of “a human or Christian solidarity”.
15. Sofri spent some years in jail, when he was accused of complicity in the murder of the Carabinieri officer widely believed to have pushed an anarchist out of a window of the Milan police station in 1969 in the aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing. He has had a fairly chequered record since he dissolved Lotta Continua in 1976, but his presence on the demonstration had some symbolic significance, at least for his generation. Commenting on the lack of involvement of the local inhabitants, Sofri said: “They have frightened the people with the alarm about possible disorder. I would have wanted to telephone Renzi and say to him, ‘Come in disguise, but come’” (LaRepubblica February 11).
16. This was a reference to the treatment of the children of migrants in the absence of the Ius Soli.
17. In Turin on the very same day as the Macerata demonstration, the police permitted a fascist march, jointly organised by Casa Pound and Forza Nuova, and allowed it to follow a route close to the anti-fascist march organised by the Centri Sociali. When, predictably, 20 anti-fascists broke away from the main march and tried to get close to the fascists, the police blocked them and arrested one. Given that, unlike Berlusconi’s allies in the Fratelli d’Italia, these two groups make no pretence to be anything other than fascist and have a long record of violence (and in the case of Casa Pound links with organised crime in places like Ostia), Minniti would easily have been able to justify banning this fascist march on public order grounds. Needless to say, he was very eloquent about the “grave events” at Piacenza on the same day, where there was a physical clash between anti-fascists, presumably of an anarchist or autonomist persuasion, and the Carabinieri, who seem to have been temporarily outnumbered before gathering substantial reinforcements to retaliate.
18. This was a reference to Francesco Cossiga, the Christian Democrat interior minister in 1977-78, who the Movement of 77 called “minister for civil war”.
19. This is widely believed to be a reference to a real event in the Primavalle area of Rome in 1973, in which premises belonging to a local secretary of the Movimento Sociale Italiano were burnt down and two young fascists killed.
20. Four north Africans in Pavia were beaten up by a group of 25 skinheads on the night after Traini’s arrest. On January 13, dozens of Forza Nuova members had attacked a Neapolitan meeting and wounded a female organiser. There have been 142 attacks by neo-fascist groups since 2014 - see The Guardian February 7 for more details.
21. These comments are taken from Corriere della Sera February 11, which claimed to be giving a verbatim account of Renzi’s private remarks to his inner circle.
22. Orlando’s humanitarian gesture gave rise to a massive social media campaign against him from the right, including death threats. (The Italian far right makes extensive use of social media - Forza Nuova’s Facebook page has more than 241,000 followers, almost 20,000 more than the PD, whilst Casa Pound’s has 234,000.)
23. On February 9, Giorgia Meloni and her usual entourage of tall and well-built FdI members appeared outside the Egyptian museum in Turin to protest against a three-month temporary discount on tickets sold to Arabic speakers. The museum director, Christian Greco, came out to face the mob and engage in a direct conversation with the poorly-educated Meloni. The highlight of this was Greco’s calm response to Meloni’s Islamophobic rant: “Is everybody who speaks Arabic a Muslim? Do you know there are 15 million Coptic Christians in Egypt?” Greco also pointed out that a student discount on Thursdays and free entry for couples on February 14 had not given rise to demonstrations by the general public in the first case or single people in the second - quite apart from the fact that these other discount schemes made a total nonsense of Meloni’s contention that it was discriminating against native Italians.
24. Teargas, water cannons, riot shields, helmets and police charges were used on every occasion that the security forces came into contact with the Centri Sociali.
25. These alarmist forecasts were encouraged by Minniti’s own statements. See La Repubblica February 22.
26. This was a PR exercise designed to counteract press reports about growing rivalry between the two men over who would be the PD’s first choice as prime minister, should the party emerge from the election with sufficient parliamentarians to lead a coalition government.
27. Minniti did not join his PD cabinet colleagues on the Rome march. He had gone out of his way to announce that he was going to spend the whole day at the ministry of the interior directing police operations.