Call Me a Sardine— Italy’s anti-Fascist, anti-Hate Response to Matteo Salvini’s League Party
Wearing a fish placard as a crown, google eyes to the right, finned tail to the left, one demonstrator among 35,000 in Rome Saturday, December 14th, spoke up, saying, “People were looking for someone to start this, and so many people wanted to say, ‘Enough’, ‘Enough to this way of doing politics… ”’
The night before, while on vacation in a medieval village, I accepted an invite to accompany Italian friends to another Sardine evening. Soon, wrapped up warm, I stood amidst a similar crowd all waving, wearing, and cutting out in real time the shape of little fish, sardines, the “everyman” branch of the sea world, as hundreds of people gathered in the Piazza delle Erbe near the shopping lanes of Viterbo, Italy. True to the goal of filling the square like a can of sardines, the crush of bodies made friends of us all as we applauded impassioned speakers, teared up at a unexpected call for John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and lit up the piazza with camera candles while singing Italy’s national anthem and a well known WWII resistance paean, “Bella Ciao.”
Comparable scenes have been occurring in piazzas all over Italy, with young and old citizens rising up and standing for an end to xenophobia, radicalism, and “to boorish, vulgar politics cultivated by selfies and fake news,” said Paolo Ranzani, one of the Turin Sardine event organisers.
The origin story of the Sardines extends back in time a mere month. It was in mid-November that a group of 30ish, professional flatmates in Bologna (Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti, Giulia Trappoloni and Andrea Garreffa) went on Facebook and rallied friends and acquaintances to gather, like sardines, in response to Salvini’s vow to bring his hard-right philosophy to power and to “liberate” the leftist and more moderate areas of Italy in upcoming elections . In their “call to the piazza”, Bologna’s youthful activists hoped to beat Salvini’s expected crowd of supporters by a few hundred peaceful demonstrators. Instead, they swamped his anticipated turnout by 10,000, proving that Italians are not ready to concede their collective conscience.
The Sardines declare themselves to be apolitical and, in truth, the crowd of several hundred in Viterbo were a mixed bag of the young, old, affluent, middle class, educated, and not so much. Yet, as a body, they reject the vituperative anti-immigrant, anti-European rhetoric of Salvini’s nationalistic right. In the past four years of Salvini-tainted politics, the complaints have focused less on “what’s wrong with Rome?” to “what’s wrong with Europe, the EU, and all those immigrants.”
Italian memory has re-awoken to its history and a time when that attack on the “other” wreaked havoc throughout Europe. Without a political platform per se, the Sardines collectively chorus a rousing call for less reliance on the more instantaneous, unverifiable, and unguarded social media realm and a return to the piazza, Italy’s historic location for discussion, debate, and one-on-one communication. “We feel very moved by what is happening and to see so many people understanding the message that we’re trying to send out,” said Andrea Garreffa, one the original housemates.
The message is that Italians, Europeans, and the rest of us can’t be silent and cede the future to those with the most callous, vainglorious message. The message is that we don’t have to hate the opposition but rather be a stand for and share a message of equality, connection, and inclusion one person to another. Sardines swim in schools. Humans have to likewise gather and express themselves clearly, consistently, and peacefully about the world they want to live in. Mattia Santori, one of those flatmates, has expressed the hope that the Sardine demonstrations will give birth to creative, workable ideas that can be worked into political platforms and written as referendums. It makes sense that in those tens of thousands of sardines, innovative world-relevant solutions will rise to the surface.