Tens of thousands of people on Saturday crammed together in Rome as part of the growing “sardines” movement against the leader of the far-right League and former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and his allies.
Protesters converged in Piazza San Giovanni early in the afternoon in a bid “to further shake up the country’s politics and battle xenophobia,” in what was billed as their biggest rally.
“We are very happy and reached our goal,” said one of the movement’s founders, Mattia Sartori, 32, as more than 100,000 people were expected to march in the capital.
“We are anti-fascist, pro-equality, against intolerance, against homophobia,” Santori told Agence France-Presse, as protesters sang the anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao.
“We are weary of this culture of hatred,” the movement’s representative in the Italian capital, Stephen Ogongo, a 45-year-old journalist of Kenyan origin, said. “We will no longer tolerate language that is racist, fascist, discriminatory or sexist.”
The Sardines movement began last month after Santori, from Bologna, sent an urgent message to three friends late at night telling them to meet the next day.
It was a couple of days before Salvini and his coalition partners, the smaller far-right party Brothers of Italy, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, were due to launch their campaign for the Emilia-Romagna regional election at an indoor sports arena in Bologna.
The four friends hatched a riposte to Salvini’s boasts about filling Italy’s squares with supporters. The sports arena had a capacity for 5,700 people, and via an announcement on Santori’s private Facebook page, the group invited people to a counter-rally at Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, with the aim of attracting 6,000 people.
What happened next confounded their expectations: 15,000 people filled the Bologna square.
As Salvini’s far-right electoral alliance pursued its campaign, the Sardines converged in other Emilia-Romagna cities before spreading across Italy and beyond.
Hundreds of migrants also joined the Sardines in Rome on Saturday to protest against Salvini’s hardline immigration policies.
Before being ejected from government in August after his failed gambit to collapse a coalition with the Five Star Movement and bring about snap elections, Salvini’s main achievement when in office was to introduce draconian anti-immigration measures, including closing seaports to migrants.
“They told us that immigration is a problem in order to hide real problems,” said Pietro Bartolo, a member of the European parliament who is known as the “doctors of migrants” and who has dedicated years of his life to addressing the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
“We have to resist,” added Bartolo, who joined the protest. “Laws that criminalize those who save people are laws against our constitution. These laws are a shame.”
Salvini has mocked the movement, writing on Twitter that he prefers kittens because “they eat sardines when hungry.”
However, in a poll in November, 40 percent of Italians said that the movement now represents Salvini’s “most dangerous enemy.”
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