‘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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Italy eases Covid measures ahead of new government

Italy's outgoing government is easing measures against coronavirus from Saturday despite an increase in cases, weeks before handing over to a far-right administration that has criticised the tough restrictions.

Italy eases Covid measures ahead of new government

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government said it would not renew regulations requiring FFP2 face masks to be worn on public transport – these expired on Friday.

However, it has extended for another month the requirement to wear face masks in hospitals and other healthcare settings, as well as residential facilities for the elderly.

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By the time that rule expires on October 31, a new government led by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni is expected to be in place — with a very different attitude to Covid-19 restrictions than Draghi’s.

Italy was the first European country to face the full force of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and has had some of the toughest restrictions.

Last winter, it required certain categories of workers to be vaccinated and demanded proof of a negative test, recent recovery from the virus or vaccination — the so-called Green pass — to enter public places.

READ ALSO: What is Italy’s Covid vaccination plan this autumn?

The pass was strongly criticised by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which swept to a historic victory in elections on Sunday.

“We are against this certificate, full stop,” the party’s head of health policy, Marcello Gemmato, La Repubblica newspaper on Friday.

He said it gave “false security” because even after vaccination, people could get and spread coronavirus.

Gemmato said vaccines should be targeted at older people and those with health problems, but not be obligatory, adding that the requirement for healthcare workers to be vaccinated would not be renewed when it expires at
the end of the year.

READ ALSO: Italy gives green light to new dual-strain Covid vaccines

Cases of coronavirus are rising slightly again in Italy, likely due to the return of schools and universities.

More than 177,000 people with coronavirus have died in Italy since the start of the pandemic.