The “Sardines” have become a symbol of protest against right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini, who served as interior minister and deputy prime minister in Italy's previous coalition government and cracked down on immigration.
In Rome's immense San Giovanni Square, retiree Roberto Piperno was among those joining the crowd, which sang the anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao, a staple of the movement's demonstrations.
He turned out because he did not want to see “hatred propagated” and to do nothing would make him “ashamed to be Italian”, he said.
Taking aim at “populism”, 32-year-old Mattia Santori, a founder of the movement, told the crowd the idea was to “bring out a new energy through a much freer and more spontaneous form” than a traditional political party “that will not be hierarchical” but would instead set “broad directions”.
Mattia Santori, one of the founders of the Sardines movement, speaking on Saturday. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
One demonstrator held up a giant sardine model, while others brandished drawings and posters.
The movement, only a month old, started in Bologna when a rally organised by four unknown activists to denounce Salvini's discourse of “hatred and division” drew a crowd of 15,000, surprising everybody.
Mission: make politics 'cool'
Since then, they have staged a series of rallies drawing tens of thousands in Milan, Florence, Naples and Palermo.
“The first was against Salvini and then it became a reaffirmation of democracy: we are anti-fascist, pro-equality, against intolerance, against homophobia,” Mattia Santori, one of the movement's founders, told AFP.
Santori, a researcher in economics, and the other co-founders — Andrea Garreffa, a 34-year-old tourist guide and Roberto Morotti, a 31-year-old engineer, say they want to make politics “cool”.
The movement's representative in the Italian capital is Stephen Ogongo, a 45-year-old journalist of Kenyan origin.
He set up the Facebook page of the Roman chapter of the Sardines announcing the rally about 15 days ago.
“The following day, there were 10,000 people who wanted to join in,” he said. “The next day 20,000.”
A man holds up a sign representing the “black sardines”. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
'We are tired of hatred'
Ahead of Saturday's rally, Ogongo said the “important thing is to see many people take to the streets to say 'we are weary of this culture of hatred. We will no longer tolerate language that is racist, fascist, discriminatory or sexist'.”
Ogongo received threats and insults when he got Facebook to erase racist messages from an account bearing Salvini's name with the title Prime Minister. Salvini, he said, had “allowed the worst forms of racism” to flourish.
Many Sardines also rally against climate change, the mafia and poverty.
A man dressed as a fish. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The movement is turning its attention to the small towns they say are “fragile territory”, susceptible to “simplistic ideas and populism”.
The Sardine Movement was a response to the growing strength in the north of the right-wing coalition led by Salvini's League.
In late October, the League won a historic victory in regional polls in central Umbria, which had been led by the left for half a century. Salvini is now campaigning hard to try to capture another leftwing stronghold, the wealthy northeast region of Emilio Romagna.
Regional elections there are set for January 26 and the polls suggest the League's candidates are running neck and neck with the current centre-left governor. Salvini has said he wants to conquer the regions one by one to bring down the current coalition between the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party, and thus force early elections.
Elsewhere, small rallies in support of the Sardines were held in Brussels, Madrid and Bordeaux in southwestern France.
“I'm here to say 'no' to fascist politicians,” Angelo Pirola, 43, one of around 300 people who gathered in Madrid, told AFP.