Italians hit by the economic crisis rise up, vent their frustration in grass-roots protests

SOAVE, Italy – For the first time in the five years of Italy’s economic crisis, grass-roots protests expressing frustration if not deep anger at the political class are spreading across Italy.

Students are marching through cities and towns, small business owners are blocking highway entrances and demonstrators have even tried to close the border with France.

Their singular aim: To send all the politicians home in hopes of ending the country’s malaise.

“We are the economic strength of this country,” said Patrizia Badii, 50, a laid-off security guard who has organized periodic blocks this week at a highway exit east of Verona. “We have callouses on our hands, not callouses on our tongues like the politicians.”

The so-called “Pitchfork Protests,” — the name evoking a peasant uprising — moved into their fourth day Thursday. The protests reflect the deepening pain of Italy’s two-year recession, which has seen unemployment rise to a post-war high of 12.5 per cent, with youth unemployment running at a record 40 per cent.

These protests are not organized by any political movement or labour union, but are erupting from a collection of disaffected workers, business owners and youth who feel the nation’s politicians and institutions do not have a solution to the record slump that began in 2011.

“We all have sat at negotiating tables with these scoundrels. Nothing comes of it. They only want to pacify people,” Badii said. “We decided no one can go negotiate with politicians. They have to go away, all of them. The state must be reset.”

While it is early to gauge the potential impact of the protests, observers have expressed concern that the deep mistrust of all of Italy’s institutions being expressed could transform the demonstrations into something much more dangerous.

“They are anarchic. There is not a unified organization,” Stefano Folli, a political analyst at Il Sole 24 Ore, told The Associated Press. “These are protests that are beyond the unions. This is very dangerous because they envelop a huge anger against institutions.”

On Wednesday, police used tear gas to disband demonstrators trying to block the border to France at the northwestern town of Ventimiglia.

Tensions have erupted into scuffles in the northern city of Turin, where soccer hooligans have at times mixed with the protesters. Some demonstrators have even intimidated business owners into shutting down by threatening to break their windows, according to Italian news reports.

Similarly, protests in the southern town of Bisceglie forced stores to close for three days, including a local deli whose owner told Sky TG24 news that he lost money because some prepared food had gone bad.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told lawmakers Thursday there is growing concern among law enforcement that “the combination of social unrest could provoke a drift toward rebellion against the national and European institutions.”

He cautioned Italian politicians and bureaucrats against joining the protests, in which he said five people had been arrested and 55 cited.

James Walston, a political science professor at American University of Rome, said the protests were still “very inchoate.” Still, Walston said he was surprised it has taken Italians so long to react to the persistent economic crisis, noting the country’s previous history of violent protests.

“The weakness of the government is why it is now, and the instability that goes with it. But it could have been anything. It is just surprising it has taken so long,” Walston said.

Italy’s more populist-minded politicians have shown tentative steps toward embracing the protests — but it’s not clear that embrace would be returned.

Beppe Grillo, the leader of the opposition 5 Star Movement that shares the send-the-bums-packing mentality, urged police not to interfere with the protesters. His incendiary remark received a rapid reprimand from Premier Enrico Letta, who warned against an endorsing any violence in a speech Wednesday to lawmakers.

Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi looked like he was going to meet Wednesday with protest leaders in Rome but then backed away.

“He got scared. He understood that he can’t risk getting mixed up in this world, although the temptation was great,” Folli said.

At the highway exit east of Verona, Badii received authorization to erect a tent for demonstrators from the Veneto region, where construction work has dried up, many small businesses have failed and employers have laid off workers.

The tent has a laptop, a printer and a donation box — along with a small artificial Christmas tree. Mattresses are stacked in the corner for a handful of protesters who have been sleeping over. Demonstrators, including eight high school students, gathered there Wednesday, drinking espresso or tea prepared in huge pots on stoves outside. Space heaters kept everyone warm.

Gianluca Ba, 18, and his classmates skipped school — they say with their parents’ approval — to join the movement. Earlier in the week, San Bonifacio’s entire technical student body of 700 marched to back the demonstrations.

The protesters — who range from new vocational graduates with little hope of work to laid-off truck drivers with children — insist they are against violence. They just want a future in the country they grew up in.

“We want to have the possibility of work, to have a future without going abroad. We want to help Italy live up to its potential,” Ba said.