‘Enough hate’: Who are the protesting ‘Sardines’ packing into Italian squares?

Thousands of protestors calling themselves 'sardine' (sardines) sang Bella Ciao in the rain in the centre of the city of Modena on Monday, after a similar rally in Bologna last week. But who are Italy's 'Sardines', where did they come from, and what do they want?

'Enough hate': Who are the protesting 'Sardines' packing into Italian squares?
"Bologna isn't biting": The first 'sardines' protest on Thursday in Bologna's Piazza Maggiore. Photo courtesy of 6000sardine/Facebook

It wasn't their first gathering. But after an estimated seven thousand people packed into a square in the northern Italian city of Modena on Monday night, Italy started to sit up and take notice of the protesters calling themselves “sardines” who seem to have appeared almost from nowhere.

One of the organisers said the idea was born last week when he and three old friends, while eating dinner together, decided to protest against the politics of right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini and his planned visit to the city.

The group requested “no flags, no [political] parties, no insults” at their “flash mob” protest in Bologna's main square, Piazza Maggiore, and asked that any banners should depict only their chosen symbol: sardines.

“We wanted to give the message that we will be packed tight like sardines, because we will be many,” one organiser, Mattia, told Italian media.

Sharing details of their planned protest via Facebook, they said they aimed to meet Piazza Maggiore's stated maximum capacity of 6,000

But the protesters were packed in even more tightly than they'd imagined. Between 12 and 15 thousand people turned up on Thursday night, despite the pouring rain, filling the main square and the surrounding streets.

Salvini's own rally in the city meanwhile attracted a crowd of 3,000.

There were similar scenes in the nearby city of Modena on Monday night. Some 7,000 protesters gathered at Modena's Piazza Grande as Salvini, a prolific social media user who often claims his supporters fill squares wherever he goes, arrived to campaign for regional elections in the city.

Videos shared on social media showed the square filled with people singing anti-fascist anthem 'Bella Ciao' in heavy rain.

Salvini, whose populist right-wing League party was until August part of a coalition government, is known for his policy of closing Italian ports to rescue ships saving migrants at sea, as well as for his “Italians first” rhetoric, stirring up feelings of insecurity and euroscepticism in the country.

READ ALSO: How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy's PM

People joining the protest in Bologna said they had wanted to show that “hatred is not the only thing that can fill a square in Italy”.

21-year-old Ana, a student at Bologna's university who attended the first protest, told The Local: “People go to his rallies just for the novelty of seeing this guy who's on their TV screen every night, or to get a selfie.”

“He probably likes that we're protesting against him, because he's an attention-seeker,” she said. “But in reality, he's not important. It's the idea we reject, the hatred and division pushed by some politicians, and that is nothing new.”

“We've had enough of the hate.”

READ ALSO: Italy's democracy ranking plummets due to far-right policies

Salvini said his party would “free” the region of Emilia-Romagna, which has long been a left-wing political stronghold, from the left.

In other regional elections this year, the trend so far has been for historically left-voting regions to swing to the right.

But the region of Emilia-Romagna, and particularly Bologna, often nicknamed la rossa, or “the red”, because of long prevailing left-wing political views, is not expected to be easy for the League and its right-wing allies to win over.

Salvini, along with Italy's right-wing newspapers, quickly dismissed the sardines as being affiliated with Italy's left-wing political parties.

While some of the protesters on social media are open about having left-wing political leanings, they insist the movement is made up of people with differing views, as one Facebook commenter put it, “united by their disgust at Salvini.”

READ ALSO: As racist attacks increase, is there a 'climate of hatred' in Italy?

Sardines supporter Giovanna Grillandi, in Ravenna, described it as “a non-partisan initiative.”

“They are only people who want to express their thoughts,” Grillandi told local newspaper Ravenna Today. “Taking to the streets at this time, against the desire of some political party to take us backwards, is very important,”

61-year-old Grillandi has been crocheting sardines for protesters ahead of a planned flash mob protest in the city.

“I wanted to make my contribution, because I don't know if I'll be able to participate in the event by going down to the square. I'm pleased to give them to people in my area,” she said of her creations.

This isn't the first time there have been widespread protests against Salvini and his politics in Italy.

In May this year, there was a wave of anti-Salvini protests in cities he visited on a previous regional election campaign tour, while he was still Italy's interior minister and co-deputy prime minister.

Those protests, which were sparked when Salvini reportedly ordered police and firefighters to remove protest banners telling him “you're not welcome”, were smaller, and seemingly not part of a coordinated movement.

The next protests are planned for Friday in Palermo,  on Saturday in Reggio Emilia and Perugia, and on Sunday in Rimini.

A Facebook group for those organising a protest in Ravenna has attracted some 8,000 likes within 24 hours after it was created on Tuesday morning, despite it not yet being known if Salvini will definitely visit the city or not.


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Italian PM Meloni refuses to back down on reporter ‘defamation’ trial

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday she will not withdraw her defamation suit against anti-mafia reporter Roberto Saviano, despite growing criticism that her position of power might skew the trial in her favour.

Italian PM Meloni refuses to back down on reporter 'defamation' trial

On Tuesday, the hard-right leader told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that she was confident the case would be treated with the necessary “impartiality”.

Meloni sued anti-mafia reporter Saviano for alleged defamation after he called her a “bastard” in a 2020 televised outburst over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but took office last month after an electoral campaign that promised to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the trial, which opened earlier in November, to be scrapped.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia reporter on trial for ‘defaming’ Italy’s far-right PM

“I don’t understand the request to withdraw the complaint on the pretext that I am now prime minister,” Meloni said.

“I believe that all this will be treated with impartiality, considering the separation of powers.”

She also added: “I am simply asking the court where the line is between the legitimate right to criticise, gratuitous insult and defamation.”

Saviano, best known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

The case dates back to December 2020 when Saviano was asked on a political TV chat show for a comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea in a shipwreck.

On the occasion, he railed at Meloni, who in 2019 had said that charity vessels which rescue migrants “should be sunk”.

Saviano is not the only journalist Meloni is taking to trial. One of the country’s best-known investigative reporters, Emiliano Fittipaldi, said last week the prime minister had sued him for defamation.

READ ALSO: Italian PM Meloni takes another investigative reporter to court

That trial is set to start in 2024.

Watchdogs say such trials are symbolic of a culture in Italy in which public figures intimidate reporters with repeated lawsuits, threatening the erosion of a free press.