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Italian demonstrators flock to Rome for anti-fascist protest

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Italy now, where leaders of the country's biggest unions have called on the government to outlaw neofascist groups responsible for violent demonstrations last week. Those demonstrations were held to protest the government's strict anti-COVID measures. This union call for government action came at another rally today attended by tens of thousands of Italians who flocked to Rome in support of the labor movement. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is with us now on the line.

Sylvia, thanks so much for joining us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: First, would you just tell us what happened last week that triggered today's rally?

POGGIOLI: Very violent protests against the mandatory green pass. It's a certificate that all private and public sector workers must have proving vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from infection. Police last week used water cannon and tear gas against hundreds of violent demonstrators, many members of a known neofascist group. Thirty-eight police officers were injured and couldn't stop the rioters from trashing offices of the main union. But the real target was the prime minister's office in what investigators say would have been an attempt to emulate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Two neofascist leaders were arrested and are still in custody.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us more about who these neofascists are?

POGGIOLI: Members of a group called Forza Nuova, New Force. It's repeatedly been accused of using violence against immigrants and police. Ever since the end of World War II, it's illegal to reconstitute the Fascist Party. Some violent groups were disbanded in the past, but they reemerge. That was the theme of today's Rome rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Italian).

POGGIOLI: These middle-aged men were singing the anthem of the partisans who fought against the fascist and Nazi occupiers. Organizers say the rally drew 50,000, 60,000 people. Many were young, carrying signs with the word anti-fascism, the foundation of the Italian constitution.

MARTIN: So tell me more about the mood of the crowd today.

POGGIOLI: I spoke to Daniele Lanni (ph), a 30-year-old trade union activist who believes new forms of fascism could emerge.

DANIELE LANNI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Fascism in the 1920s," he said, "started the same way, by attacking trade union members. Today, we have to respond to this aggression."

MARTIN: What are the chances of these neofascist groups being disbanded?

POGGIOLI: Well, there's growing pressure. Prime Minister Mario Draghi said this week, the government is studying the issue, as are Italian magistrates. Today, Maurizio Landini, leader of the biggest union, said, we ask for concrete acts, not just chatter. But he also said today's large turnout sends a very clear message.

MAURIZIO LANDINI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "This square, so calm, strong and determined," he said, "marks the defeat of those who thought through violence they could return to a decades-old past. We won't be intimidated," he added. "We're here to show our constitution was born through the war of resistance against fascism and Nazism. And it's the foundation of our country." You know, there's a very strong awareness in Italy that even if these neofascist groups are not big, they're very good at exploiting the malaise and hardships that been caused by this very long pandemic. They know how to stoke the fear and misinformation circulating over vaccines and the origin of the coronavirus.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, thank you so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZINUF'S "LOVE POTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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