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Italy's 'sardines' have bigger fish to fry

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Italy's 'sardines' have bigger fish to fry
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Tens of thousands of people gathered in one of the largest squares in Rome this month under an unusual banner: the sardine.

The movement takes its name from the way it packs city squares with thousands of protesters – jammed like sardines with a common aim to shake up the country’s politics.

It was formed just a few weeks earlier, after a call to demonstrate against the League, the far-right party of Matteo Salvini, by a group of youths from the city of Bologna, capital of Emilia Romagna.

The Rome demonstration followed dozens of other rallies across the country. In just one month, more than 300,000 people took to the streets.

Mattia Santori, an economist and sports coach, is the movement's most recognisable figure.

He told Unreported Europe: "We have seen decades of obscurantism, fear, and anger. We would like to open in 2020, a new decade of light, of joy, and desire to be together. A decade of construction, solidarity, with a stronger social fabric."

Fishmonger Nicola Rosci says the "Sardine" title is appropriate.

"We say tight like sardines. So maybe they were inspired by that, this sardine movement because it's a large group that moves together, and that does things together. We will see how it develops. What will happen if someone else takes over, what will the sardines do next?"

For the sardines, the first priority is to occupy public spaces: a political gesture, but without a partisan label, they say.

It has attracted support from a wide cross-section of the community. Italians have come from all over the country to defend values they say are in danger.

Marino Aranci, a bookseller, told Unreported Europe: "Politicians, in my opinion, no longer go onto the streets to meet people, so we are making sure that the street goes to the politicians!"

Giuliano Melini, a lawyer, said: "We come from Urbino, in central Italy, the homeland of Raphael, the Italian renaissance. And we hope that this movement of Sardines brings a renaissance of consciousness."

Donatella Schiavi, a professor of history and philosophy, said: "We are here to demonstrate against an autocratic, populist and racist drift, against the will to hate. This is not the world we want to leave to our children."

Cristina Cecchetti, a real estate agent from Civitanova, said: "You can't do politics by saying ‘Italians first’ or ‘Everybody out’, with all this hatred that has truly transformed a whole population. We used to say Italians are good people. We got the impression that these people had disappeared. In fact, they haven't, they are there, we are here, the good people, it's us! "

Kenya-born journalist Stephen Ogongo has felt first hand the hatred and been subjected to an offensive social media campaign.

He also runs a human rights organisation fighting racism and discrimination, Cara Italia, and is the coordinator of the Sardine movement in Rome.

His latest campaign led Facebook to remove racist content from the pages of Matteo Salvini's League supporters, a move which led to retaliation against Ogongo on the party's social networks.

He says the mobilisation of the Sardine movement is vital for the future of the country

“The most important thing is to awaken people's consciousness, to make them realise that there is something very serious going on in the country. This artificial hatred that someone is creating, the danger of populism, the danger of the return of fascism. The movement also draws attention to the fact that human beings, respect for people and human dignity, must be at the centre of politics again. "

The spontaneous citizen movement is not meant to become a political party, its founders say. And they are cautious when asked about the future.

"This is the most difficult question," Santori says. “Until now, we have been trying to measure how much energy there was in Italy. Now that we know, we need to figure out how to funnel this energy

For the time being, the movement is focused on finding ways to counter Salvini's League Party campaign ahead of the regional elections scheduled for late January in Emilia Romagna, one

of the most important regions of Italy, and a traditional left-wing stronghold. The upcoming vote is deemed crucial for the political future of the country.

The day after the demonstration, some 150 sardine delegates gathered together in a community center in the capital.

Santori said: "The main aim of this meeting was to go back to the squares as soon as possible, and to mobilise parts of the country which have not yet been involved with the sardines. Pressed by journalists wanting more information on the content of the meeting, he concluded hastily:

“We did nothing special. We simply worked with people who want to bring an alternative message to populism and sovereignism in the country, in a very spontaneous and very free way."

The message echoes beyond Italy, among those concerned with the wave of populism that rose across Europe. A group of Spanish ‘sardines’ took part in the Rome rally.

Clara Berna, a Flamenco teacher, told Unreported Europe: “We came here because we are tired of vulgar, contemptuous politics, which only speaks out of demagogy, and doesn't really solve any problems. This is what is happening in Italy, and unfortunately, it is also starting to happen in Spain. And our wish is that the Italian sardines swim out to other parts of Europe, and reach all of Europe, and even the whole world!”