Rome Protests: Black Bloc Militants Turn Occupy Protests Violent

Hooded militants known in Europe as the 'black bloc' infiltrated student protests inspired by Occupy Wall Street in Rome Saturday, pelting cars and buildings with explosives. Barbie Latza Nadeau on the mayhem in the Italian capital. Plus, Mike Giglio on Julian Assange's appearance at Occupy London.

Mario Laporta / AFP-Getty Images

What began as a peaceful protest with reggae music and colorful rainbow peace signs in support of the global Occupy movement ended in what can only be described as total anarchy and urban warfare on the cobbled streets of Rome on Saturday.

Less than an hour into the organized demonstrations, which started at La Sapienza University with students legitimately protesting education cuts and their bleak future, a single car exploded on the Via Cavour not far from Rome’s historic Colosseum. From that moment on, chaos reigned and the Italian capital turned into a battleground.

Police say more than 500 anarchists—many who justify their violent acts under the mantra of those known as “black bloc”—infiltrated the otherwise peaceful protests. They were easily identifiable by their face masks and motorcycle helmets, not to mention the Molotov cocktails and paper bombs in their hands. One group known as Total Black was particularly ominous, dressed in all black with only their expressionless faces exposed. As the peaceful crowd shouted and waved their banners about joblessness, education cuts, and the dire state of Italy’s economy, the darker movement slowly stole center stage, breaking windows and torching cars.

By the time the marchers reached the Colosseum on the way to Piazza San Giovanni, where the march was destined to end, the situation had turned tense. Police in riot gear went head to head with violent street fighters. Explosions from Molotov cocktails and fireworks echoed across the city as helicopters hovered overhead. Anarchists set fire to a government building, destroying two floors before firemen could break through the massive crowd to contain the fire.

At one point during the march, peaceful protesters took megaphones and urged the anarchists to go home. “Please, this is a peaceful demonstration against legitimate government issues,” one woman yelled. “Go home, let us protest in peace.” Moments later, the peaceful protesters started kicking and pummeling the violent faction among them. “Go home!” they yelled, turning and spitting on them.

Still, the anarchists persisted until they reached the final police barrier in Piazza San Giovanni. There, police used water cannons and tear gas to keep them at bay until they could be cornered and arrested. Those who escaped started new scuffles throughout the city. The peaceful protesters tried briefly to renew their momentum and finish their demonstration and vowed to take to the streets again next week so their voices could be heard.

By the time the chaos ended, dozens of injuries were reported, including several police officers in critical condition and at least three people who lost fingers when the torched cars exploded. The burned-out carcasses of police vehicles and torched cars served as a reminder of the violent day.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who passed a slim vote of confidence on Friday in Parliament, was the object of much of the peaceful protesters’ ire. He wasted no time once the protests turned violent in saying those who instigated the mayhem would be caught and punished, though many on the streets of Rome wondered aloud if, in fact, he was fiddling in celebration while the city burned.