It was a particularly mild and pleasant autumn Saturday afternoon in Rome, so I took my camera and set out to photograph Romans taking their pleasures. I expected to see people dining al fresco, couples in parks, people strolling with their dogs. I was mistaken.
Somewhere in the neighborhood just north of the Termini train station, I saw police cordoning off streets. In my pitiful Italian, I asked a man who was leaning against a barricade, smoking, what was going on. "Manifestazione," he shrugged. "Per che?" I asked. He shrugged again. I don't think he really cared.
I followed the sound of a beating drum toward the ruins of the baths of Diocletian. Walking up the Via Luigi Einaudi were thousands of demonstrators, waving flags of red and black. It was not the slice of La Dolce Vita I had set out expecting, much less Anita Ekberg bathing in a fountain, but I suspect that Fellini, were he still with us, might have been there, recording the scene for background material in a movie about Rome circa 2013.
The demonstrators appeared to be the Italian cousins of the Occupy Wall Street protestors from 2011. My command of the language was not sufficient to decipher all the banners I saw. But I think it is clear that if the protestors had their way it would be basta to capitalism, basta to the European Union, and basta to austerity. Basta as well to high-speed trains, for reasons I cannot begin to understand. But there was a significant faction waving banners against them. And judging by the number of people wearing Yasser Arafat signature model kaffiehs as scarves, I don't think the protestors included many Likudniks.
That is not to say that the protestors felt like basta to everything. Beer, it seems, will still be okay after the revolution; there were a few vendors pushing carts full of cold Peronis alongside the demonstrators, and they appeared to be doing a brisk business. Tobacco is also likely to make the cut in the new order of things. And whistles. The crowd was full of people with whistles. They seemed to take particular pleasure in blowing them as they marched through residential areas. Perhaps the idea was to notify the bourgeoisie that it was time to wake up. The bourgeoisie representatives whom I saw standing, silently watching demonstrators go by, did not seem particularly grateful for the disturbance of their weekend. (See them at left, bottom.)
I noticed a distinct gender difference among the demonstrators. Women seemed almost casual about the whole thing. Some of them wore grim faces and a few even had bullhorns, which they used to lead chants and songs. But there were many others who could have been attending a block party.
Young men, on the other hand, were grim, as if they were soldiers marching into combat. Some wore kerchiefs pulled up over their noses, like stagecoach robbers in an old Western. Some of them carried their motorcycle helmets, as if they expected the carabinieri to pounce at any moment, swinging guillermo clubs. When they saw me raising my camera, they would shout, "No photo!" as if they really believed that the police had cleverly disguised one of their number as an aging American tourist, whose photos would be used to identify the protestors and send them to jail.
Could it be that they thought the women in the crowd might be impressed by a little macho display? ("Look at me, ragazza. I sneer at danger in my quest to build a more just world for your bambini, a world without the curse of high-speed trains.") Or am I just being cynical?
Certainly it did not look to me as if the police were itching to bust a few heads. They were out in force--not just the carabinieri, but the Guardia di Finanza, or tax police. Italy is the only country I am aware of that has a tax police force equipped with helmets and clear plastic riot shields. (That's them, on the right, standing in a side street near the marchers' route.) I believe this is because Italians like paying taxes as much as your average Tea Party Texan.
The difference between Italy and Texas, evidently, is that Texans express their disdain for taxation by shutting the United States government down, bringing the world to the brink of financial catastrophe, and holding their breath till their faces turn blue on the floor of the House of Representatives. Italians, on the other hand, express their disdain for taxes by evading them and, where necessary, beating up the Guardia di Finanza. Thus, perhaps, the helmets and shields issued to the Guardia police. And thus, perhaps, the austerity measures the European Union has imposed on Italy. But I did not see any banners calling on Italy to let the tax collectors do their jobs. In Italy, tax evasion seems to be an idea that builds bridges across the political spectrum.
In any case, I did not think the crack force of the Guardia di Finanza looked particularly eager to wade into the fray against the anarchists. Look at their faces. If these are not men thinking wistfully of the pasta and pinot grigio they thought they would be enjoying with friends and family on a Roman Saturday night, I am badly mistaken.
I heard some booms and saw some smoke and for a moment I thought that police more steeled than those of the Guardia di Finanza had opened fire with tear gas cannisters. But on closer examination, it appeared that the smoke was coming from the kind of flare you would carry in your car in case it broke down, so you could alert oncoming traffic. The flares burned a bright red for a few moments in the encroaching darkness, then guttered out.
The demonstration was still going on, but I didn't have any equipment to enable me to make good pictures in the dark. So I headed back to my hotel, stopping for pizza and beer in a cafe. As I ate, a couple of demonstrators, their banners neatly furled, took the table next to mine and ordered a bottle of wine. The German tourists sitting at the next table showed no indication they had any idea what sort of company they were in. Somewhere a church bell pealed. Rome, it seemed, had returned to its normal Saturday night pursuits.