Civil protests in the new decade: what lessons to draw from the Italian “Sardines”

26 August 2020 /

7 min

The last decade ended in protests. Asia, Europe, America: 2019 was the year when the civil society from all over the globe gathered against inequalities, corruption and bad governance. Some cases are more emblematic than others, like Hong Kong’s protesters. In the European panorama, the movement of the Italian Sardines has become a model of popular mobilisation. Why? Through a reflection on the peculiarities of the Italian case, this article proposes to depict possible similar scenarios in the coming years.   

2019: globally, the Year of Protests

When looking back at the 2010s, there is one social phenomenon which deserves special attention. This is not only because it marked the entire decade but also because it particularly changed the course of 2019, which has indeed become to be known as the Year of Protests. From journalists to academics, many agree on this characterisation. We have been struck by the images of Hongkongers filling the streets since the middle of March, first battling against an extradition law and then calling for a democratic turn of society. Hong Kong’s protesters are the most famous and symbolic example of a year which saw an incredibly high number of public demonstrations all over the globe. In Latin America, Bolivians protested against supposed election fraud and Chileans demanded more income equality. In the Middle East, Iran was shaken by a wave of protests against a raise of fuel prices that happened in the space of a night. But the spark reached the European Union as well. 

“…the Italian case has come to be described as the model of anti-populist mobilisation.”

Most EU Member States were touched by these phenomena for all sorts of reasons. The French gilet jaunes movement blocked off streets for most of the year in France and challenged the state’s authority, inspiring similar movements in its neighbouring countries. Czech Republic protested against the corruption of the government and Romania against the judicial changes, both fighting in the name of democracy. But among the numerous examples of Europeans taking to the streets, the Italian case appears as a special model of mobilisation. From November 2019 on, the Sardines gathered in the streets of most Italian cities with the sole intention of undercutting the far-right leader Matteo Salvini. What is so remarkable about this grassroots movement is that it managed to attract so much attention and appreciation in so little time, considerably impacting the political life of the country. Indeed, at the end of January, 2020, the Sardines praised the defeat of the League North party (Salvini’s party) in the regional elections held in Emilia Romagna, the region where the movement was born. For these reasons, the Italian case has come to be described as the model of anti-populist mobilisation. In order to examine whether  similar  movements could possibly  arise in Europe in the 2020s, the features of this special Italian case should be studied.

The Italian Sardines: a powerful social phenomenon  

First of all, the term needs to be explained: Sardines are the symbol chosen to represent the movement. They have two meanings. One, it refers to the crowded Italian squares, evoking the image of fish in the sea: thousands of people squeezed together in big or small piazzas appear just like packed up sardines. The second and more abstract meaning concerns the message the protesters want to convey: they intend to fight those “who shout the loudest” by “responding by being silent as fish, but in a shoal, packed one next to the other”, as explained by one of the founders of the movement, Matteo Santori. And indeed, the fact that Salvini and the other far-right Italian leaders were the target of the Sardines was clear since the first protest on the 15th of November. 

Via a Facebook post, Santori and three other youngsters from Bologna invited their fellow citizens to gather in the main square of the city and protest. Their strategy worked: between 12,000 and 15,000 people responded to the call and met together in Piazza Maggiore to send a message in view of the regional elections happening in Emilia Romagna in January, 2020. Maybe one could expect this to happen in a region that is traditionally run by left-wing parties, with Bologna being one of the bedrock of communism in Italy. Nevertheless, this spontaneous initiative soon touched other popular Italian squares: in Florence thousands of people met on the 30th of November, and about 25,000 packed up in a rainy Piazza Duomo in Milan on the following day. Within a short time, the Sardines grew to be a real phenomenon, capable of bringing together different generations across the country. Their message became so powerful that it even crossed national boundaries and reached several communities of Italian living abroad, with demonstrations in New York, Paris, Brussels. 

Finally, the biggest and most important event was organised on the 14th of December in Rome. With an estimated number of 40,000 to 100,000 protesters, the images of the Italian capital taken over by the “sardines” singing the famous anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao surely revealed how mature the movement had become at this point. 

The incredibly fast growth of the movement led to a controversial discussion about the Sardines, concerning their alleged lack of political colour, as a particular party affiliation was always denied. Naturally, the symbols used in their protests do have a political connotation: Bella ciao and some ideals shared by the groups (anti-fascism, anti-racism, solidarity, Europeanism) are traditionally associated with the left. However, this represents one of the strongest peculiarities of the movement:  the protesters intended to bring a change to the political landscape from the outside and fight  a “common enemy”, but this is done from the outside, back in the squares. No importance is given to the party Sardines had voted for in the previous elections: what counts is that all these people share a dissent against Salvini’s discourse and wish to oppose him and the other populist forces.  

Eventually, the movement did have a say in the political life of the country: the centre-left coalition won the 2020’s regional election in Emilia Romagna. Needless to say, the outcome was inevitably influenced by these protests: within just a few months, they achieved something that appeared impossible: to beat a seemingly unbeatable Salvini and his League Party. 

What lessons for the future decade? Protesting in the age of Coronavirus

The Sardine’s success comes from the simple strategy they have used from the beginning:  to spread their messages and launch initiatives on Facebook, the word of mouth doing the rest. In the end, this is quite an easy scheme to replicate: could this Italian story inspire other groups to emerge and act in the same way? In theory, yes. But in practice, the beginning of 2020 has put everything on hold: the Coronavirus health crisis has forced social movements to adjust to the rules of the pandemic. 

“The question then becomes how to protest in times where social distancing is the new normal.”

With the outbreak of Covid-19, the world has moved from witnessing a year of protests to a year of house confinement. The question then becomes how to protest in times where social distancing is the new normal. It seems that despite the obvious obstacles, people aren’t ready to give up to their wish to protest and have instead re-invented themselves to make their voice heard even in lockdown. When the Fridays for Future movement was encouraged by its leader Greta Thunberg to avoid gatherings for health reasons, its participants shifted to online strikes. Similarly, Coronavirus may have prevented Hongkongers from getting together in the first months of lockdown, yet it doesn’t seem to have stopped the battle nor held back the support and popularity of the pro-democracy movement: its activists soon planned to go back to the street. Europe may have already given the example of how political activism is possible during Coronavirus: in April, Polish women protested in front of the Parliament against the tightening of the abortion rules. Pictures of activists respecting social/physical distancing requirements, wearing masks and gloves, is something we may see more frequently in the upcoming months.

It becomes difficult to even imagine a successful movement like the Sardines in the future. We remain with a few certainties. First, the legacy of 2019 has been brought into the new decade with new expectations, confirmed by the Italian Sardines at the beginning of the year. Then, the wish to protest remains still prominent. How will people adapt their activism to the Corona pandemic and future health crises? What kinds of movements will emerge due to lockdown measures and dire economic prospects? One thing is clear: civil protests will mark the 2020s.

Francesca Canali is a second-year Master’s student at the Institute for European Studies (ULB).

This article is part of the “dossier” from our print magasine (#32). Read the full magasine here.

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