The Sack of Rome: Indignati Protests Turn Violent

Cars burning on Via Labicana during 15ott indignati protests in Rome

While I usually try to keep this blog a bit more upbeat and travel-focused, I'm too, well, indignant over the (hoodlum subsection of the) indignati here in Rome not to share.

Yesterday, October 15, Rome joined in the worldwide "Indignati" protests. In itself, a demonstration in Rome is hardly unusual. There's one every few weeks. (Never mind the strikes!).

This protest, though, seemed a little different. First of all, there was the sheer number: Between 200,000 and 300,000 people marched through the streets, many of them bused in from other cities, even countries. (A journalist friend of mine in the States said estimates there said there were 10,000 protestors in Rome. Hell no. It was way more).

And secondly, the violence. Shops were looted, cars were burned out, and even a government building was set alight; the city's saying it's 2 million euros in damages, although I'm guessing the actual number is higher.

No, riots aren't new to Rome. But if the horrified looks on the faces of Romans walking around, surveying the damage, today say anything, it's that it's not usually this bad.

Update, Oct. 16: My column on the violence has just been published in The American magazine; check it out if you just can't get enough of, you know, destruction and horror.

Shortly after the demonstration began, a car was set on fire on Via Cavour while several stores had their windows smashed in. At about 4pm, I walked down to the Colosseum to see what was going on. I could see a column of smoke on the other side of the Colle Oppio park; I later learned it was from Via Cavour.

Where I was, though, everything seemed fine. Thousands of people were walking up Via Labicana, a mix of youths, families and adults. There were very few signs of any kind, or really much organization at all—there wasn't even that much chanting. Typical Italian protest.

So I stood at the Colosseum and watched. A man next to me leaned against the fence, smoking a pipe and holding a newspaper. An Italian woman was on my other side, also just watching. Not much was going on, and there was an intense line of police at the Colosseum, keeping the protesters on their assigned path up Via Labicana. Police at indignati protests, Rome Oct 15

At that point, though, the crowd changed. Suddenly, it wasn't youths and families walking by chatting. It was people—mostly men—with motorbike helmets and masks on. Maybe two, three hundred. The atmosphere changed. And then they passed on by and up Labicana.

Hoodlums in indignati protests in RomeThat's when the sound of a bomb went off.

People shrieked and ran. "Che e' successo?" the woman next to me asked, frightened. I had no idea, but decided it was time to move. By the time I got back to my apartment, smoke was pouring up the other side of my building. People walking up my street towards Piazza San Giovanni, where the demonstrations were supposed to end, had scarves over their faces to keep out the smoke.

I arrived at San Giovanni just in time to see the dozen police trucks that had been sitting there turn on their sirens and take off down Via Merulana; police themselves started running down the street. At the corner of Via Merulana and Labicana, I saw it: Just down the road, four cars were completely on fire. Explosion sounds kept going off. Farther down, more cars and a building—the annex building of the Ministry of Defense—were on fire, too. Smoke was everywhere.

Via Labicana=war zone

Needless to say, I hightailed it back home. For the next hour, our apartment thudded with the sounds of bombs and cars' engines exploding. It felt like a war zone. Here's a short video of what greeted me at my building.

By that night, everything had quieted down. I retraced part of the protest route this morning; car skeletons, burned-out dumpsters, destroyed banks, an ATM that looked like it was bleeding thanks to the red paint that had been splashed on it. And everywhere, graffiti.

Many are saying today that it's pretty fishy that the hoodlums were allowed to do this much damage. And videos show police just standing by as they lit cars on fire and destroyed banks. I'm not convinced it's a conspiracy myself; after all, even Italy's most numskulled officials would have to know that this does more to make the government look weak than it delegitimizes the protestors. Then again, who knows. Crazier things have happened.

But the really crazy thing might just be even worse: that with all of the horrendous problems Italy has right now, with all of the anger there should be against the government (although not, obviously, expressed in this particular way), this is the first time, at least in recent memory, the riots have gotten this violent.

And the fact that that's surprising… might just be the saddest part of all. Riots from indignati protests Rome
Click here for more photos of the riots and the aftermath. But at the risk of sounding overdramatic, brace yourself. I'm guessing this is not the Rome that you—or I—know and love.

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  1. Judging by what is going on in other cities around the world, including here in Atlanta, these are largely “outside agitators” as the shock troops, along with the sort of disaffected and/or aimlessly violent one can always collect. The group here has been allowed to camp out and trash one of the few green spaces in downtown Atlanta – with the sort of quixotic note that the protesters are all camping in high-tech tents, etc. I doubt any of them could survive without the corporate infrastructure they say they want to bring down.
    I’m not sure what the rationale that the various city governments have for letting these spoilers run rampant – the group here has been ordered out of the park by tomorrow – will be interesting to see what happens.

  2. They’re not ‘outside agitators’ – they’re employed by the (dark side elements of) the government to detract from the cause of the protestors. This tactic has been deployed many times, for many years. For a late 20th-century US example, google ‘Tommy the traveler’ and see how the CIA enticed students to bomb buildings in their universities. Yes, there are ‘disaffected youth’ who mask up and cause chaos, but when masked and helmet-wearing people show up and the police do nothing until there’s extensive damage, especially to banks and gov’t buildings, then we know the ‘bad boys’ are being paid by the government.

  3. Thanks for the eyewitness account. I think I would’ve been anxious if this had happened so close to my apartment! I went on my first trip to Rome last month and stayed very close to via Merulana (your blog really helped me prepare for what turned out to be a great trip, by the way). You mentioned that people came in from different parts of Italy and even from other countries for this protest; do you think most of the agitators came from outside of Rome? Or are there a lot of discontented people in Rome…?

    I realize that as a tourist I shouldn’t make sweeping generalizations, but I found Romans to be some of the most laid-back and friendly people I’ve encountered, so it was surprising to see all this in the news.

  4. Well, that bunch of people is called “Black Block”. But they are not protestants, they are masked people that cause mess purposely to delegitimate the protest.

    And the police is never touching them, so we suspect they are “working” toghether.

    And it’s working good to turn the opinion against legitimate protests… 🙁

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