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The Vandals Occupy Rome, Briefly: How a Demonstration Was Hijacked

• Time via Yahoo!
(photo courtesy of The New York Post)
The protest had been planned carefully for months and, as the scheduled day began, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Italians had made their way to Rome from all over the peninsula. In a day of global demonstrations, it looked to be the biggest march in the world in solidarity with the indignado movement in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States. But in the end, it wasn't the authorities that derailed the protests in Rome, it was a small fraction of the protesters themselves.

In a city landmarked by monuments and churches, the plan was to march from a square near the city's central train station, past the Coliseum to the San Giovanni Basilica, a longstanding rallying point for leftist protest movements. Many hoped the demonstration would turn into a peaceful occupation of the plaza in front of the cathedral, echoing similar strategies from Egypt's Tahrir square and Zuccotti Park in New York City. (See photos from the Occupy Wall Street protests across the world.)

Instead the protest quickly fell apart. The march hadn't traveled far when groups of young men began pulling up sampietrini — the black cobblestones so characteristic of the Italian capital — and hurling them at shop windows. Others broke into parked cars and set them alight with Molotov cocktails, pulled down signposts to smash ATMs, and crashed through the glass doors of a supermarket. Soon, large parts of the demonstration had given way to skirmishes as men with masks over their face engaged the police with rocks and bottles.

By late afternoon, the protest route had devolved into a full-scale battle, with police vans engaging in charges against hundreds of rock-throwing protesters. Teargas floated like mist through the streets. Demonstrators barricaded the roads with metal barriers and dumpsters, and at least two members of the Italian paramilitary police escaped an armored van seconds before protesters set it on fire. A warehouse belonging to the ministry of defense was set ablaze and a statue of the Virgin Mary was pulled from a church and shattered on the street. Seventy people were injured, three seriously. While the vast majority of those who turned up that day remained peaceful — indeed hostile to those battling the police — only the most violent reached the march's planned destination. Indeed, they seem to have dashed there to preempt the rest of the march, engaging the police in about two hours of fighting in front of the basilica. The rest, blocked by the fighting, quickly dissipated, their banners crestfallen; many detoured to the enormous field that marks the remains of the ancient Circus Maximus.


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