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.
— Stefano Bellentani (@stebellentani) November 18, 2019
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.
— Such A Human (@SuchNigel) November 19, 2019
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.
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.”
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.
Italy turning blue as the centre-right/League coalition takes region after region from the left in local elections over past 2 years. https://t.co/Au6yLCZkso
— Clare Speak (@ClareinItaly) October 29, 2019
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.”
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.