Pitchfork protests underwhelm in Rome

Anti-austerity demo fills central square, but in small numbers

(ANSA) - Rome, December 18 - After days of anti-austerity protests across Italy, what was expected to be a large-scale culmination in the capital Wednesday failed to meet expectations with only several thousand people turning out. Protesters waving Italian flags were centralized in Piazza del Popolo, one of the city's largest squares, which never swelled to the numbers organizers had been promising. A prominent leader suggested a conspiracy was at work. "Curiously, many trains that should have arrived suffered delays for technical difficulties," said Danilo Calvani of the anti-austerity Pitchfork Movement. The largely peaceful demonstration was confirmed last week after the government of Premier Enrico Letta survived confidence votes in both the House and Senate, infuriating members of the Pitchfork Movement. The movement, which began as a group of farmers and truckers disgruntled by austerity-driven tax hikes, has since attracted disparate elements from Italian society who share anti-government sentiments, including some who have committed acts of violence in 10 days of nationwide protests, ranging from assaults on police to vandalism and looting. The fear of violence was cited as a reason for not appearing in Rome Wednesday by factions of the group. Those turning out Wednesday included members from the neo-Fascist CasaPound and Forza Nuova groups, who doffed their own insignia in favor of national symbols like the Italian flag. "There will be 2,000 of us in Piazza del Popolo," said Simone Di Stefano, CasaPound vice-president, shortly before the demonstration officially launched at 15:00 local time. In the end, Di Stefano, who was arrested over the weekend for stripping a European Union flag from EU headquarters in Rome, was one of only several hundred Casapound protesters, according to estimates. Hard-right groups operating within the Pitchfork Movement are believed to have soured some of its popular appeal. On Friday Pitchfork spokesman Andrea Zunino said Italy needed to free itself from "Jewish bankers" behind austerity mandates from Brussels, prompting a leader in the movement to call him "mentally ill". On the same day, an official in the northwestern Piedmont region, which has seen some of the densest protests in cities like Turin, denounced what she saw as a "neo-Nazi thread" in the Pitchfork Movement. "The Movement resembles Golden Dawn," said regional councillor and former Piedmont governor Mercedes Bresso, referring to the far-right nationalist party in Greece. "It worries me a lot. There's a neo-Nazi thread, which is extremely chilling". The stigma was perhaps enough to keep representatives of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) from turning out Wednesday in Rome, despite party leader Beppe Grillo's ardent support as of last week when he said the Pitchforks "could start a fire". At one point during demonstrations he called on the nation's police to drop their guard when it comes to elected officials. "I ask you not to protect these politicians any more," said the populist former comedian, whose M5S stormed to third place in February's general election in a huge protest vote. He said the Pitchfork rise was the result of "people exasperated at their living conditions and the arrogance, deafness and couldn't-care-less attitude of a political class that won't give up its privileges". On Wednesday, CasaPound called on M5S MPs to leave session in parliament and join the Pitchfork protests, an request that went unheeded. "If they're really anti-establishment like the say they are," said Di Stefano, "they should walk out of their 150 seats in parliament and come down to protest with us".