Black flags and crucifixes: Italy vaccine passport protests unite strange bedfellows

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ROME — It’s said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Protests in Italy against the strict vaccine passport rules set by the government to chart a course out of the pandemic are proving that adage right.

Demonstrations against rules mandating vaccine status checks, or at least negative tests, have brought together a disparate alliance, stretching from anarchists and trade unionists to neo-fascists and ultra-conservative Catholic groups.

The measures have sparked demonstrations across Italy. Last weekend anarchists clashed with police in Milan. In Rome, neo-fascists stormed a union building and a hospital, leaving dozens of police injured.

Sometimes both ends of the political horse-shoe have met. In an unusual sight for Italy’s hyper-partisan politics, protests in Milan saw anarchists shoulder to shoulder with demonstrators carrying signs dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Padre Pio, a popular saint venerated in Italy.

Italy has a history of political violence between the right and the left. During the so-called years of lead, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, hundreds were killed in clashes and terrorist attacks. While the violence has abated, it hasn’t disappeared entirely. And episodes still occur from both the far left and right.

But the backlash against the green pass has, temporarily at least, bridged this divide for some. It’s an interesting turn of events given that Italy is often seen as a “political laboratory” that anticipates political trends elsewhere.

Social frictions

Alessandro Orsini, director of the Observatory on International Security at Luiss University Rome and author of a book-length investigation into the far right called “Sacrifice. My Life in a Fascist Militia,” said it suited the radical left and right to work together to exploit social frictions around the government’s pandemic policies to destabilize the country.

“They did so in the 1970s. They can cooperate while they both share the same aims,” he told POLITICO. Some neo-fascist groups were also seeking to conceal their identity so as not to scare off new recruits, he added: “In this way Italians who are not fascists become sympathizers.”

Trieste has become the capital of the resistance since dock workers occupied the strategical port last week with protests bringing together radical left occupations and the extremist right from all over northern Italy. The Trieste authorities banned another demonstration on Friday that had been expected to draw a crowd of 20,000, and the fact that these groups are usually antagonists is contributing to anxiety ahead of the G20 summit being held in Rome next week.

Since October 15 all workers must be vaccinated or get tested every few days, as part of the toughest regulations in Europe. Those who refuse can be suspended without pay.

The vaccine pass has broad acceptance in the middle of society, with surveys suggesting more than half of Italians support the measures. Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government has made the case that vaccines will prevent further lockdowns and safeguard the recovery, with the Italian economy expected to grow 6 percent this year. More than 80 percent of over 12-year-olds are vaccinated.

Means of distraction

The opposition far-right Brothers of Italy party calls the measures a means of distracting people from the government’s failings. Draghi also faces dissent from the parties within his own government, with Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League, and Beppe Grillo, the founder of the 5Star Movement, pushing for the state to pay for coronavirus tests.

Outside parliament a vocal and eclectic minority remains skeptical or hostile. Giorgio Agamben, a well-known political philosopher, described the green pass as a first step towards a dangerous suppression of liberties.

Activists from across the spectrum taking part in the protests share that view. Sandro Bruzzese, a member of the Unione Sindacale Italiana, an anarchist-affiliated trade union, told POLITICO he saw the green pass as a way to privatize public health measures, for example by having vaccine-hesitant workers pay out of their own pocket for coronavirus tests.

Sandro Pescopagano, a life-long activist on the far left who was protesting with Trieste dockworkers, left the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) trade union — a militant rank-and-file union well to the left of the large traditional trade unions — because it was insufficiently opposed to what he described as the creeping threat of digital surveillance that was represented by the green pass. Now he has joined a newly created union called Sindacato dei Popoli Liberi — the Union of Free Peoples.

Pescopagano said he believed that the pandemic was just a pretext, and that eventually the green pass would be used to control where people were allowed to go, for example barring them in case of infractions.

The breakaway trade unionists now find themselves standing side by side with activists from very different political traditions. Dario Giacomini, a doctor who ran as a parliamentary candidate for the neo-fascist Casapound group in 2013, is working with union leaders in the new Trieste protest organizing committee. For Giacomini, who founded Contiamoci, an association representing healthcare workers who were suspended after refusing vaccination, the green pass is “an instrument of discrimination” and of no use as “it does not demonstrate the condition of health.”

‘We are all for freedom’

In this new climate it appears that old political affiliations matter less, as long as goals are shared. Giacomini, who now claims to be apolitical, said the old politics of left and right “are outdated”: “They have both always been welcome in my house. We are all for freedom.”

Pescopagano agreed. “Lately in Trieste there are many people that are coming together from opposite ends of the political spectrum,” he said. “We don’t care about that as long as we share the vision of opposing the dictatorship.”

But not all the leftist protesters welcome right-wingers with open arms.

Bruzzese said he would “never join a demonstration with right-wing protesters.”

“There’s a gulf between us and them,” he said. “We don’t exploit the green pass, we don’t exploit vaccines.”

Mindful of their image, some protest organizers have tried to distance themselves from extremist groups. Edoardo Polacco, a lawyer who organized the protests where neo-fascists were arrested in Rome, denied that there were any extremists in the movement. “There are no ideologies anymore of left or right,” he said. “Our movement is apolitical, transversal.”

With the G20 in Rome next week, security expert Orsini said that there were risks. Authorities will be anxious to avoid a repeat of the G8 Genoa in 2001, when anti-globalization and anarchist riots followed by police brutality overshadowed the talks.

“They must not let their guard down,” Orsini said.



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