“They wanted to reach the institutions,” confirmed the judge who signed the orders of six of the 12 people arrested for the attack. The union assault was indeed just meant to be the start. A reported 10,000 people gathered for a rally protesting the government “green pass” mandate for all workers that takes effect Oct. 15. A mixed crowd of anti-vaxxers, far-right activists, well-known neo-fascist leaders, angry business owners and conspiratorial types of all sorts convened in a major city square for an authorized rally against what has been labeled a “sanitary dictatorship.”
Soon, the situation got out of control. The chats on WhatsApp and Telegram between the organizers show the original plan involved leading the crowd outside the perimeter of the square, turning a peaceful protest into a coordinated attack. A widely shared audio message recorded by the neo-fascist activist Pamela Testa, who was among the people arrested, said, “we will change path at any moment,” informing participants that the day would not involve just chanting slogans and cheering dubious speakers raving against the government. From the stage, another infamous neo-fascist leader openly incited the crowd to assault the union headquarters. Less than two hours later, throngs of protesters broke down the union doors and vandalized the premises.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol looms in the background of this chaos. With the plan to target Parliament, the masterminds of the violence in Italy took a page from the playbook of the siege on Congress. In Rome, there was no Donald Trump-like figure instigating the mob, but the images of the violent protesters taking over a major symbol of democracy have settled in the imagination of extremists all over the world. The assault on Congress set a new benchmark for any subversive action against democratic institutions.
Damiano Palano, a professor of political philosophy at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, argues that the Capitol siege fundamentally changed the populists’ psychological landscape. “Images like the ones from Capitol Hill were unseen and even unthinkable in the last 70 years in the Western democracies. The events in Rome were very different, of course, but the riots at the Congress set a precedent that changed the perception of what’s realistically possible to achieve through violent means,” Palano told me.
Protesters in Rome did not manage to storm the Parliament, eventually settling for a more modest, yet still highly symbolic, objective. The videos shot while rioters were devastating the union’s offices look eerily similar to the footage from Jan. 6.
The “Capitol effect” was also evident in the rallies of the past few months against covid-19 restrictions. The assault in Washington was a constant reference for protesters. In April, a restaurant owner showed up in front of the Chamber of Deputies dressed like the “QAnon shaman” Jacob Chansley. The Trump-fueled violence was also praised by the neo-fascist leaders who led the riots in Rome. Roberto Fiore, a co-founder of Forza Nuova who was also arrested last weekend, said Ashli Babbitt, killed during the assault, was “the first heroine of the American people’s revolution.”
Italian authorities largely described the event as a classic fascist attack, and the center-left Democratic Party even filed a motion in Parliament to dissolve Forza Nuova. Italian law forbids any “movement that pursues undemocratic aims that are in line with the dissolved Fascist party.” But some observers point out that the violent mob in Rome mobilized more people than the traditional neo-fascist gangs ever could.
“It is reductive to frame what happened simply as a fascist attack. In Rome, some neo-fascist groups were the catalyst of a larger, heterogeneous populist crowd whose uniting force is the distrust of liberal principles and institutions,” explained Sofia Ventura, a political scientist at the University of Bologna, pointing out the rioters were chanting “freedom!” before storming the union offices. “Freedom is certainly not the most common word in the classic fascist vocabulary,” Ventura said.
It is this explosive, 21st-century mixture of illiberal populism and outright neo-fascism that benefits most from the “Capitol effect.” If these trends continue, what happened in Rome could be just one example of many.