Italy: More Protests Against Austerity and Information Deficit

This post is part of our special coverage Europe in Crisis.

The many protest movements that followed the implementation of austerity measures in a number of European countries dealing with the sovereign debt crisis, should have taught us that when a national economy is left at the mercy of interest rates and financial markets, sooner or later you can expect its people to express their discontent. Especially in a country, like Italy, already strained by years of government mismanagement, and where to the budget and democratic deficits, an information deficit needs to be added to the equation.

Since mid-January, Italy has been swept by a wave of protests, which began in Sicily with the mobilisation of farmers, truck drivers and fishermen, mostly small business owners, later joined by the Sicilian population at large, including waged workers, students and the unemployed. The movement goes by the name of Forza d'Urto [it] (“shock force”), better known as “the Pitchforks Movement”.

The Pitchforks Movement, image from Facebook.

From January 16, trucks brought the island's roads and motorways to a standstillfor six days through at least 26 blockades, disrupting the circulation of goods and bringing business to a halt, with long cues for petrol and empty supermarket shelves.

The protests later spread to other regions [it], with strikes and blockades all over Italy. In Rome, during a fishermen demonstration in front of the Chamber of Deputies, three demonstrators were reported injured. A mass mobilisation against the austerity package implemented by Prime Minister Mario Monti and his cabinet, lamenting especially the steep rise in the price of petrol. However, during the first few days of the protests, the Italian media was largely silent, except for a few local newspapers, as Marco Cedolin points out in his blog Il Corrosivo [it]:

I media mainstream in queste stesse ore tacciono, reputando (e lasciando intendere) che in Sicilia non stia accadendo nulla che meriti attenzione, tutto tranquillo e nessun problema.
Davvero la protesta in questione è una vicenda d’importanza ed incidenza così minimale da non meritare neppure un servizietto di 50 secondi, di quelli che comunemente vengono dedicati perfino al nuovo tatuaggio sfoggiato dal vip di turno?

Mainstream media are currently silent on the issue, judging (and implying) that nothing worth of attention is happening in Sicily right now, everything is calm and there's no problem.
Is the protest of such marginal importance that it doesn't even deserve a 50-second report, one of those that are usually reserved to discussing the latest tattoo sported by some random celebrity?

The sectors on strike are protesting against the government liberalisation package, but are also united by a sense of disenfranchisement from the whole of the “political caste”: fishermen who claim to be no longer able to sustain the costs of running their business because of excise tax; truckers who can't afford to transport goods at the low fee determined by open market competition because of rising petrol costs. Because of this, the mobilisation was met with a lot of skepticism and accusations that it merely represents a set of narrow interests.

On Fuori Onda Blog [it] David Incamicia reflects this position, which tends to criticise the movement for putting all the blame on the current government, which last November inherited from Berlusconi a country with a broken economy and a shattered international reputation:

Le piazze in rivolta avevano certamente motivo d'essere fino a qualche settimana fa, quando l'irresponsabilità di “un sol uomo al comando” e la sua ostinata resistenza al potere hanno finito per rendere ancor più dura e di difficile risoluzione la pesante situazione sociale del Paese (…)

Ma oggi, proprio per evitare il tracollo definitivo, occorre che tutti giochino nella stessa squadra (…) Gli egoismi vanno rimossi senza se e senza ma. Così come l'ancora poderosa demagogia che arringa a destra e a manca.

Those taking to the squares certainly had every reason to do so until a few weeks ago, when the irresponsibility of a “one man-leadership” and his stubborn refusal to give up power only made a resolution even more difficult for the country's already tense social fabric.

But today, precisely in order to avoid an irreversible downfall, everyone needs to play in the same team (…) Selfish interests need to be removed with no ifs and no buts. The same goes for the strong demagogic discourse coming from right and left.

While those keen to seize the opportunity to voice criticism of the current government (like the far-right party Lega Nord, now at the opposition) seem to ignore that the farmers movement (or Pitchforks Movement) was actually born last summer [it], and that fishermen have been organising strikes since 2008, there persists an inability (or lack of willpower?) to define the nature of the movement, which paves the way to confusion and exploitation for different political ends.

During the strikes, mainstream media focused on alleged mafia infiltrations [it] and the death of a trucker in Asti [it], while on Facebook the pages devoted to or associated with the movement proliferated, revealing, among other things, a number of links [it] with the neofascist movement Forza Nuova, which supports the Pitchforks. Commonly used hash tags on Twitter were #fermosicilia, #forzadurto e #forconi.

The following comment by Veneti stufi [it] on what labels itself the movement's official Facebook page [it] is representative of this confusion:

Non capisco più nulla, pagine colme di rabbia e non di vera indignazione/protesta, ma quali sono i VERI FORCONI? Il sito non è attivo, ognuno in rete dice tutto ed il contrario di tutto, USATE la rete e coinvolgete le persone, non date modo di strumentalizzarvi.

I don't understand, I see pages full of rage rather than real indignation/protest, who are the REAL PITCHFORKS? The website is inactive, online everyone says everything and the opposite of everything, USE the web and get people involved, don't give anyone the chance to exploit you.

However, at the various marches organised in various cities around Sicily, including Gela (in the video) and Palermo, there were students, the unemployed and young people with all kinds of political affiliations, as demonstrated by the following press release [it] signed by the Studentato Autogestito Anomalia [it] (Anomaly autonomous student centre) e dal Laboratorio Vittorio Arrigoni [it] (Workshop Vittorio Arrigoni), two of the city's main social centres:

La protesta popolare che si sta diffondendo in Sicilia come tutte le proteste di questo tipo sono complesse, di massa e contradditorie, ma di sicuro parlano il linguaggio della lotta contro la globalizzazione, contro equitalia e lo strozzinaggio legalizzato che sta mettendo in miseria larghe fasce della societa’ siciliana , contro la casta politica di destra e di sinistra (…)
Noi, militanti di centri sociali e di spazi occupati della citta’ di Palermo, sosterremo la lotta di “forconi” e autotrasportatori perchè frutto di una giusta battaglia e perchè ricca di positive e “incompatibili” energie; per questo, come sempre, saremo al fianco di chi lotta contro la crisi e questo intollerabile sistema.

Sicily's popular uprising, as every protest of this kind, is a complex and contradictory mass mobilisation, but it surely speaks the language of the fight against globalisation, against Equitalia (the government body responsible for tax collection) and its legalised usury, which is reducing large chunks of Italian society to poverty, against the “political caste” of both the Left and the Right (…)
We, militants of the social centres and of Palermo's occupied spaces, will support the struggle of Pitchforks and truckers because is it the result of a just battle and because it is full of positive and “incompatible” energies; because of this, as always, we will side with those who struggle against the crisis and against this intolerable system.

According to Marco Cedolin [it], the protest deserves attention because it tries to go beyond the ideological divide:

Non so quanta “fortuna” avrà la protesta dei Forconi che sta paralizzando la Sicilia, così come non conosco le prospettive di una movimentazione che sembra manifestarsi (per la prima volta in Italia) realmente trasversale, abiurando i partiti e tentando di mettere nel cassetto le divisioni settarie fra “rossi e neri” che da sempre minano alla radice qualsiasi battaglia in questo disgraziato paese, conducendola ogni volta sul binario morto della diffidenza e dei distinguo.

I don't know what will be of the Pitchfork protest that has been paralysing Sicily, as well as I'm not sure about what to expect from a movement that (for the first time in Italy) seems to represent diverse political interests, rejecting political parties and attempting to set aside sectarian divisions between “red shirts and black shirts” that have always undermined every struggle from its very start in this wretched country, mutual suspicion and differences leading each time to a dead end.

The failure of public opinion to comprehend the nature of the protests is also, and perhaps especially, the failure of the mass media to tell the story, another legacy of the Berlusconi years (Italy is 61st in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index 2011-12, and one which politicians still hesitate dealing with [it]. For Davide Grasso, writing on the blog Quiete o Tempesta [it], the Pitchfork protest was:

l’ennesimo successo a metà del sistema italiano dell’informazione. Successo nel combattere le aspirazioni dei soggetti sociali che scelgono la strada della protesta ma fallimento (opposto e speculare) nel comprendere e riportare un rilevante fenomeno sociale.

yet another half-baked success of the Italian information system. Success in repressing the aspirations of those who choose the path of resistance, but failure (its opposite mirror image) in comprehending and reporting such an important social phenomenon.

Lastly, Nicola Spinella writes on Agoravox [it]:

Il celebre motto “divide et impera” rivela ancora oggi, dopo due millenni, la propria immortalità: è bastato agitare davanti al popolo il fantasma della mafia infiltrata nelle fila degli autotrasportatori, assimilarli a sigle dell'estrema destra, per ridurre la protesta ad un fuoco di paglia. Difficile pronosticare uno scenario futuro per tutta un'Italia scossa dal salasso Monti e da un ventennio di malgoverno berlusconiano.

The famous maxim “divide and rule” has today revealed, after two millennia, its timelessness: drawing people's attention to mafia characters infiltrated among the ranks of the truckers, and associating them with far-right acronyms was enough to reduce the protest to a flash in the pan. It is difficult to predict what the future holds for a country drained by Monti and twenty years of mismanagement under Berlusconi.

The dialogue between the government and the movement appears to have reached a standstill, and a new wave of protests was due to start on Monday 6 February, with sit-ins in a number of sicilian towns and cities. A few of these have been reported, but it looks like the planned occupation of seaports and oil refineries has been postponed. Long queues at petrol stations in Messina were reported on Saturday 4 February, allegedly in preparation for the strikes.

This post is part of our special coverage Europe in Crisis.

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