The day after No-B Day, the anti-Berlusconi march in Rome, the war of numbers is in full swing. For the organizers, the demonstrators were over a million, for the police no more than ninety thousand. According to La Repubblica, one of the two Italian newspapers currently being sued by Silvio Berlusconi and arguably the most powerful force in the confused and fragmented opposition to the prime minister, the march attracted half a million. Il Giornale, the paper owned by Berlusconi’s brother and edited by Vittorio Feltri, Berlusconi’s pit bull, calculated a mere two hundred thousand. Well, as Mandy Rice Davies once said, it would, wouldn’t it?
As far as demonstrations in Rome go, I’m an old hand and I’d lean towards the organizers’ estimate. I’ve marched against the war in Iran (with two million others) and for index-linked salaries (over a million), against state violence and church interference and spending cuts, for women’s rights and immigrants’ rights, not to speak of more Gay Prides than I care to remember, but I’ve never been so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people taking part as I was yesterday afternoon. Overwhelmed in a physical sense, as the march moved out of a tightly-packed Piazza Repubblica and poured, like slow-flowing oil released, into not only Via Cavour, the official route, but all the surrounding streets, to converge further down towards the square behind Santa Maria Maggiore. Overwhelmed and, more than once, made anxious by the thought of being crushed as the marchers were funnelled into narrow streets and the pace of the march slowed down to a back-destroying shuffle; made anxious, as well, by memories of Genoa and G8, despite the apparent absence of police, because there were hardly any to be seen. Two hundred thousand? Five hundred thousand? A million and a half? Who knows? Midpoint along the two and a half mile route, when the speeches in Piazza San Giovanni were already under way, we were texted by friends who still hadn’t managed to leave Piazza Repubblica. With more than two miles of impassable city streets, I’d say the mass was critical, and leave it at that. Besides, numbers aren’t the only handle on a march. More intangible, but of equal import, is the mood. And the mood two weeks ago was benign, even festive, less carnival-like than Pride but with a similar undercurrent of frustration released, of an anger and sense of injustice both mitigated and nourished by being shared. Certainly, the level of political discourse was low, the most
popular chant near me comparing Berlusconi to a pezzo di merda, but there are times and places for subtlety and this wasn’t one of them. People were wearing purple, a colour without political affiliation, Berlusconi masks, fright wigs, balloons, improbable combinations of shell suits and pashminas. Banners were hand-made, hand-written. Protest was artisan, and inventive. Someone had cut a hole in the middle of a photograph of Berlusconi’s face and popped her finger through it in place of a nose. The caption on the photograph was Pinocchio.
And there were flags, the red flags of the various remnants of the Italian left, the green flags of ecologists, a sprinkling of rainbow flags revived from their last day out in the sun, the white flags of Italia dei Valori, the party founded by Antonio Di Pietro, one of the group of magistrates whose Clean Hands investigation in the early 1990s brought down the old system and, ironically, paved the way for Berlusconi’s rise to power. The government line today is that the march was hi-jacked, if not actually conceived, by Di Pietro, Berlusconi’s arch-enemy. Neither of these accusations is likely to be true, although there’s an undeniably strong coincidence of intent between the marchers and Di Pietro’s party and it probably hasn’t done Italia dei Valori any harm to identify itself with the event. It’s simply easier to attack a single public figure than a million private ones, each of whom has made a decision autonomously, without any idea of personal gain other than that of living in a country where some day, one day, certain kinds of behaviour will be recognised as intolerable, from its leaders at least.
Because what struck me most wasn’t the presence of political factions but the variety of individual faces, not only young and old – and with a heartening presence of the former – but ex-hippies and pensioners, new-agers and office workers, stalwarts of popular protest and people who might never have marched before but felt the need to do so yesterday; even, I’d guess, a significant number of people who voted for Berlusconi in good faith and can no longer tolerate being represented by the man. Not to speak of the range of accents, from the deepest south to the even deeper north; in a country that stigmatises, and allows itself to be stigmatised, in geographical clichés, from racist Northern Leaguers to Mafia-friendly Sicilians, it was uplifting to hear so many different voices being raised together.
Government papers made much of what they call the confusion of the opposition in Italy and, in many ways, the opposition has only itself to blame for this. But the No-Berlusconi Day march yesterday wasn’t confused at all. It had a single voice. It wasn’t – and wasn’t intended to be – a propositional event. Marches don’t make policy. Its purpose was to tell Berlusconi that, despite his often repeated claims, he hasn’t been elected by ‘the people’ at all, but only by a minority of the people, and that, in any case, election is no guarantee of immunity from the law. As purposes go, this isn’t even political, and the lack of official patronage from the Partito Democratico was a wise move on its part. Because electing call girls as local councillors, and bribing lawyers to keep their mouths shut in court, and maintaining contacts with organized crime, aren’t political positions in modern democracies, but offences to both the law and a public sense of decency. Marches like yesterday’s are a useful reminder to us all that, despite appearances, despite the shameful deceptions of the media and the even more shameful arrogance of power, such a thing as decency continues to exist.