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.
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.
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.
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.
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.