The young man grips the megaphone, lamplight illuminating his features as he speaks animatedly in Spanish about the need to “find jobs and overthrow the government”. The ring of faces clap and cheer as he rounds off, beer bottles held aloft as someone in the crowd shouts out, “Bravo!” Because this isn’t Madrid, or Barcelona, or even Spain. This is the city of Bologna, in Italy, finally making its voice heard.
The significance of Silvio Berlusconi’s unprecedented election defeat on 31 May in both his home town of Milan and the usually safe seat of Naples cannot be overstated, as it points to the real possibility of political reform in the country.
But this result, rather than being a harbinger of change, merely marks the most recent (albeit most concrete) manifestation of the turning tide of public opinion in Italy. This is a tide that the population of Bologna – the student city in the ideological heartland of the Italian left – has been riding for years.
According to the national statistics office, in 2010 one in five young Italians was classified as Neet (not in education, employment or training), the highest proportion of “idle” youths in the European Union.
So is it any wonder that the push for change in the country is being driven by this generation of “lost” youths?
Corruption and philandering aside, it is becoming increasingly clear to the average young Italian that their prime minister has failed them. Miserably. And they have had enough.
Hope is in the air
While Spain’s “indignados” have made international headlines, there’s a quieter series of revolutions taking place in Italy.
One such “revolution” is currently running its headquarters from a pile of sleeping bags and cushions in the city’s main square, watched over by the erotic statue of Neptune, his strategically placed hand and entourage of scantily clad nymphs a favourite with tourists. But the tourists visiting now have something rather different to take holiday snaps of.
On 20 May, and inspired by events in Spain and the Middle East, several hundred protesters took to the streets of Bologna in a peaceful (and mostly unreported) occupation of Piazza del Nettuno, Neptune’s Piazza, in the city centre.
Squatting on the stone cobbles with the others, squeezed between the cold, naked statues and this beating mass of humanity, I too couldn’t help but be overcome by a feeling of hope. The atmosphere was jubilant; the crowd infected by their own sense of power and the sensation that they are taking control of their lives.
That was twelve days ago. They are still there, and as I write this post I speak on the phone to Antonio, one of the protest’s organisers, who describes the scene to me.
“There are 30 or 40 of us here permanently, sleeping in the street,” he says, “but during the day, and especially in the evenings, as many as two or three hundred people come and join us.
“People are tired of being on the periphery of their own lives,” he goes on. “Citizens want to feel that they are protagonists on the political stage.”
The system cannot hold
Scenes like this are becoming increasingly frequent in Bologna, where friends on the radical scene speak animatedly to me about recent demonstrations – numbering thousands of individuals – that shut down traffic around the city after protesters spilled out on to the motorway.
Across the rest of the country, too, copycat protests are springing up in the most unlikely places. A photograph in La Repubblica, one of Italy’s few newspapers that are not part of Berlusconi’s media empire, shows a protester on the Spanish Steps in Rome holding a placard that reads: “We are not against the system, the system is against us.”
The tide may be turning, but it is a slow and uncertain transition from a handful of committed activists sleeping on the streets to a full-scale political revolution. For those camped out in the squares of cities across Italy, Europe and the Middle East, one can only hope that the social and political winds that brought them there continue to blow in their favour, and do not turn against them.
“We need to do this,” Antonio tells me. “The people need us.”
Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.