Protesters during the clashes in Naples on October 23. Photo: Giuliana Florio

The complexity of Italy’s anti-lockdown protests

  • November 3, 2020

People & Protest

Italian authorities have blamed “fringe elements” for the violence during the anti-lockdown protests, but the reality on the ground tells a different story.

I wasn’t surprised by what I saw, we have said this over and over: another lockdown without a welfare support system was a ticking time bomb.

—Alfonso De Vito, Napolitano activist
Interviewed by Sarah Gainsworth for Dinamo Press

Over the past weeks, the people of Naples have been protesting further public health restrictions proposed by the regional government to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Following months of relatively low case numbers during the summer, COVID-19 is on the rise in Italy, and the national government along with various municipalities are re-instituting closures of commercial businesses including cafes, bars, movie theaters, gyms and so on.

While past closures were accompanied by — often paltry — welfare payments to offset huge losses in income, now the government is offering almost nothing. In already impoverished regions such as Campania, of which Naples is the capital, this is cause for much discontent among the population. After a summer of travel lockdowns that wreaked havoc upon local economies that rely upon tourism, people are rising up to demand monetary assistance.

The demonstrations have a militant and insurrectionary character, with protesters clashing with law enforcement amidst clouds of tear gas, heavy beatings and other forms of violence. Like many other popular movements in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, in recent years, the ideological composition of the demonstrations is neither singular, nor easy to identify.

The following report by an organizer based in Naples analyzes the anti-lockdown riots and protests of October 23. This translation has been expanded and annotated to introduce the situation to readers and comrades outside of Italy.

— Giulia Sbaffi and Andreas Petrossiants

Report back from the streets of Naples

I was there on Friday night.

At first, I didn’t want to make any comments on social media since they always get misinterpreted or taken out of context and the situation in Naples — both socially and in terms of public health — is truly complex and fragile. But, as I read unacceptable and false comments on what has happened and continues to happen in the city, I feel the urge to try to help people — both here and elsewhere — understand what happened by answering some common questions. They may seem simple at first, but their answers are, in fact, very complicated.

What happened in the last few weeks?

In Naples, as in other places, the regional administration announced and threatened a potential shutdown of commercial activities for public health reasons without providing any economic compensation. This is why small retailers, especially those who run cafes, restaurants and pizza places, took to the streets. This situation is unsustainable and untenable, so they started to organize, advocating for the withdrawal of these measures — or alternatively — for the introduction of a welfare support system that can accommodate the massive number of working, poor, unsalaried, undocumented and economically precarious people in Naples.

Why are there riots?

There are several reasons why the protests turned violent. Firstly, during the past few months, people have completely drained their savings, if they had any to begin with. They are starved and burnt out. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, when coffins were piling up in Bergamo, in the North of Italy, many across the country feared the virus. But now, relatively low numbers during the summer months have given some people the illusion that COVID-19 is “just a flu.”

In March, the government introduced some social security welfare measures. But now, the money has finished, or rather, it is being funneled away from working people and into the coffers of industry and finance. In Naples, specifically, the regional administration flooded the region with money prior to September’s regional elections, but nothing is offered to the people now.

It is also important to note that over the past few years in Naples, groups of independent workers have demonstrated an aptitude for violent confrontation with the authorities. This has to do with a number of factors. Firstly, most independent workers come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, comprising a vast under-commons; many of them already lost their limited social mobility during the previous economic crisis.

Secondly, many work in the informal economy. Salaried workers, on the other hand, have been suffocated for years by a system of control and by unions who prevent them from organizing. In Italy, the culture of informal work is still predominant, if not hegemonic — especially in Naples.

Is the Camorra mafia responsible for the clashes with the police or are Neapolitans just “backward people,” as the corporate media would have us think?

Neither of the two, of course. The national media is acting like the worst conspiracy theorists, oversimplifying a complex and multilayered social dynamic. To be sure, the Camorra is part of the social fabric: it is woven into the systems of private healthcare services which are profiting from the current crisis and well as the construction sector that gained new contracts from the local administration and acts as an informal money lender as people fall further into debt.

It has become much easier for independent workers in Naples to be drawn into debt. Social services here are scarce and inefficient, people barely trust institutions, labor organizations and trade associations are weak and socio-economic pressures are high. Finally, there is a solid dynamic of exchange and proximity between the lumpenproletariat (those at the margins, those who live by their wits) and the middle class (those who own the means of production, who have access to some social mobility). It’s a fluid dynamic which preserves its social roots and has a certain proclivity towards conflict.

Are the protests justified?

Of course they are. The local administration must take full responsibility for this situation. Let us be clear. When we talk of “the middle class,” at the same time we mean small retailers who cannot bear the costs of this crisis to sustain their families as well as the sly entrepreneurs who exploit their workers by not giving them a lawful contract and earn thousands and thousands of euros every night. But, in the streets there were also undocumented workers, family business owners and people from the surrounding communities who are fed up with their living conditions.

Most of these groups are right to protest. Over the past eight months, the local and national administrations have done nothing to prevent the risks or protect people from this predicted second wave of COVID-19 cases. Now they want to shut down business again without any plans to provide welfare support. The unemployed, the flex workers and the undocumented have no options left — it’s either go hunger or to put themselves at the mercy of the Camorra.

What about the violence? Is that justified?

There is an internal struggle among the people on the streets. Those who have something to lose, such as bigger retailers or political leaders vying for favors, of course oppose insurrectionary violence and are determined to negotiate, to praise the police and to denounce militancy. Then, there are working class segments engaged in hooliganism with a certain inclination toward violent confrontations with the police.

This blend of mixed antagonisms exploded on Friday night, when the demonstration — already divided into two opposing sides — fragmented even further.

However, the point is not to criminalize the violence or to identify who’s right and who’s wrong. We need to ask a better set of questions: what’s the point of resorting to violence? Who coordinated it? To whom was the violence directed? It is clear that what happened on Friday night has taken the shape of a protest which can be understood only by the people who belong to that world, a protest that is a cry of despair, and that has produced counterproductive effects as people from other popular classes have expressed dissatisfaction with the “violence” of the demonstrators.

Wasn’t the far-right taking part as well?

Forza Nuova, a far-right party, declared they wanted to participate, but I saw no fascists in the streets. Sympathizers might have joined, but their impact in terms of presence and political content was null and void. Forza Nuova craves attention and I believe that they simply do not exist in Naples in any meaningful sense. We — and the media — make a stupid mistake by responding to these allegations and giving them any visibility at all. We should be more concerned about characters close to the center-right who are trying to act as intermediaries between demonstrators and local decision makers.

Isn’t this just another example the same, tired debate between the securitarian left and the radical left?

Tired, old debates have erupted on social between a “moderate” left, which stigmatizes the protest and decries its participants and a more militant left, which celebrates the riots and glorifies those who took part in it. We are fed up with this duality, a cookie-cutter political analysis that does not actually represent reality.

The moderate left, even before taking action, has simply cut themselves out from any nuanced understanding of the world and the economic situation for most people. The truth is that being present in a movement that has no space for confrontation or collective organization is hard.

There appears to be only two options left: rioting or negotiating with those who have hegemony. The retailers aim for negotiation. The people in the street, of course, are not interested in negotiating.

But perhaps there is another option for us to pursue, one that this pandemic and the responses to it have opened: mobilizing wider segments of the population, who will be proletaritized soon enough. We must gather our forces together, organize autonomously and protect each other along with everyone who has interest in rising up against the austerity, surveillance and security regimes in order to build a popular movement.

Naples gives us a platform. On Friday morning, workers from Whirlpool factories came to the streets alongside healthcare workers, families and teachers — all mobilizing together across class and occupation divisions. We now have a series of demonstrations ahead of us. We will protest against the unfair fines given by the local administration to residents and food delivery workers, then against Confindustria (the Italian industrial federation) and then in solidarity with workers in the logistics and entertainment industries.

Protester during the clashes in Naples on October 23. Photo by Giuliana Florio

Postscript: No space for fascists

Following the events in Naples on October 23, clashes have erupted all over the country, in Florence, Rome, Milan, Turin, Catania and elsewhere, with protesters holding signs reading “We are workers, not criminals,” and “If you close us down, you pay up.” Piazzas across Italy have become battlegrounds for different groups to mobilize and vie for visibility — among them socialists, communists, anarchists, as well as fascists, COVID-19 skeptics, and perhaps the most numerous group: not-yet radicalized or “politicized” workers and unemployed people.

This diversity has allowed for fascists and politicians to make sweeping claims for legitimacy in the media. A week ago in Rome, two piazzas were claimed by fascists before they were cleared by the police for breaking curfew. After the fascists were forced out, some left radicals reclaimed these piazzas to allow for a more diverse composition of demonstrators. It must be understood that in Italy the piazza stills play a major role in civic life as the urban space where the private and public spheres meet.

We do not advocate for any specific tactics — tactics, both “peaceful” and not, must be decided by demonstrators themselves and in the moment. However, it is crucial that fascists are not given any space nor legitimacy while the recomposition and re-subjectivization of precarious workers is taking place in the streets.

As Italians prepare for another national lockdown, following weeks of a forcefully and disproportionately imposed curfew, we felt it was important to translate and disseminate this report back from one of the first nights of civil unrest. We hope this report will start a conversation on the complicated situation that is unfolding in Italy and elsewhere.

Salvatore Prinzi

Salvatore Prinzi is the national coordinator of Potere al Popolo Napoli.

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