ROME—There are only a few things that draw cynical Romans out to the streets on a Saturday during Christmas season, and they usually have nothing to do with fish. But on this Saturday afternoon, tens of thousands of Romans descended onto San Giovanni square in central Rome carrying pictures of sardines to fight against fascism.
The movement started in Bologna just one month ago when Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini held a rally promising to draw 6,000 people to spread his anti-immigrant message and capture the city ahead of regional elections in January. A group of four friends started sending messages on social media to stage a counter protest and “pack the piazza like sardines” to stand up to Salvini. Nearly 15,000 people showed up, and the movement was born.
Each time Salvini has staged a rally since then, the sardines have multiplied in number against him and against his message of hate and intolerance. But they insist they aren’t interested in politics as such.
One of the group’s founders Andrea Garreffa, a 34-year-old tour guide, said Saturday that the group is more of a phenomenon than a real political movement. They just want to start a conversation. “We are trying to get people to start talking about the direction of this country, to get them involved in politics and not give up,” he said.
One of the group’s other founders, Mattia Santori, 32, told the massive crowd that they want to “bring a new energy through a much freer and more spontaneous form than a traditional political party that will not be hierarchical.” But he didn’t explain exactly how that would work.
In the group’s short lifetime, they have already run into trouble. During an interview after a sardine rally last month, the group’s Rome-based spokesman, who was not part of the founders, seemed to inadvertently invite Italy’s most notorious neo fascist parties, Casa Pound and Forza Nuova, to join in Saturday’s demonstration. Tensions were high Saturday with the expectation fascist-leaning demonstrators would show up to what was billed as an anti-fascist event. They didn’t.
Salvini, too, has had a difficult time with his own reaction to the sardines. After the success of the first demonstration just one month ago, he asked his own followers to send photos of their pet cats eating sardines. He has so far been silent after Saturday’s massive turnout.
Whether the sardines can really turn the tide is yet to be seen. The Five Star Movement, which is currently in power and was previously aligned with Salvini, started in the country’s piazzas just like this and grew against all odds to a mainstream political party that has fallen as quickly as it rose.
“We aren’t like them, we aren’t a political party,” Santori insisted when he was asked if they are a new Five Star movement as he met with reporters in Rome ahead of the demonstration. “We are a phenomenon, we are just trying to start a conversation.”