The helicopters throbbed in the pink dusk above Rome. Police cars parked diagonally, blocking off the black-stone artery of Via Nazionale, usually clogged with cars and buses and motorbikes. You could hear the echo of chants, megaphones—see a crowd assembled, way down there, at the street’s end. The stone gleamed like water.
It was not a particularly Roman moment. Or maybe it was. At least, it wasn’t the Rome that the tourists thronging the sidewalk had come to see. But I suppose that’s the thing about Rome: it’s got all that history, but it’s been a continually inhabited city too. It’s not a museum; people still live there.
When I’m in Rome, I always think of that scene in Fellini’s Roma, when they’re trying to build a Metro stop and they find some ancient villa beneath the city. It’s a Catch-22: you can’t just bulldoze the shit, it’s got archaeological importance and is beautiful, beautiful—but fuck, it’d be nice to have a functional Metro system too.
“Entering the Underbelly”
In any event, I was taking an evening stroll, sat on a bench and noticed what we used to call a Ghetto Bird whomping around in the sky above the historical center. Hmmm, strange. Strolled more and reached Via Nazionale, which was largely shut off by police cars, men in uniforme standing around, waving traffic away. (You can only imagine the clusterfuck of Roman rush-hour traffic this created.)
Way down at the end of the street, towards the uplit splendor of the Palazzo delle Esposizoni, I could see a mass of people gathered, making a small ruckus. I moved down to check it out.
Around me, the sidewalks were swarmed with tourists. That’s the other thing about Rome: it is un-fucking-real to me how many Americans there are there. You know, they always talk about how Americans don’t travel, but you really wouldn’t know it from the looks of Rome. Or maybe it’s just that we only go to two places: Paris and Rome. I mean, Rome’s great, but it kinda makes me want to pull people aside, let them know, you know, it’s a big world out there. And with an American passport, you can go see a lot of it. But I suppose I understand the appeal—so much history, and for us, a country with so little, it’s mind-blowing.
Anyway, I spotted a guy with a big phat professional camera around his neck, watched him go out into the middle of the empty street and crouch down and get what I’m supposing were some phenomenal shots of the crowd. I wandered around and fiddled with the settings on my point-and-shoot and eventually gave up and walked through the crowd.
The steps of the Palazzo were littered with kids, 20-somethings, smoking and drinking and eating and talking and huddled up against a night that must have felt cold to them. Further down, near a makeshift mesh-fence of a police barricade, a couple hundred Roman young people milled around, toting signs and starting chants and calling into a megaphone and generally looking like they were waiting for something to happen.
Nothing ever did. A couple of the police vans had signs taped to them: “Yes We Camp.” A sit-in/camp-in, a protest. I stay vaguely abreast of world politics enough to know that the economic situation in Italy is fucked—not as fucked as Greece, but not great. Unemployment is high, the economy’s in the shitter, and that day, October 12, it was announced that the Prime Minister would face a vote of no confidence.
So people have a lot to be riled up about, a lot to protest and fight against. But it felt sort of anti-climatic, to be honest—all that great width of Nazionale shut off, the helicopter and fleet of cop cars, and the protest felt modest in comparison. Protesters were pretty well-behaved and I lingered for a good half-hour, without anything really happening.
But here’s the thing: it was oddly reminiscent of the protest I’d passed by the previous week—you know, that Occupy Wall Street thing. Some of the signs protesters toted had references to it, and the spirit seemed largely the same: young middle-class people upset and in the street. Of course, the “Yes We Camp” referenced the Obama campaign and, further back from the crowd, someone had hitched a tent in the middle of Nazionale, anti-capitalist signs out front.
All I could think was: Shit’s spreading.
What that means, I dunno. No one knows yet. And that’s the exciting thing, the thing that I gleaned the most from my visit to Occupy Wall Street: it’s not so much about the thing itself (which one writer likened to “the grass seats of a Dave Matthew’s Band concert”), which can be frankly underwhelming—it’s about the conversations it’s starting, the sparks it’s creating, the reaction it’s evoking from the powers that be: threatened evictions and street closures and a Ghetto Bird in the sky above the tourist center of Rome.
Shit’s getting stirred up, people are getting engaged for the first time in what feels like forever, and you can’t contain that. Especially not now, in our era of social media. It’s cool as hell.
But this fight wasn’t mine, and besides, it was largely in Italian. So I trundled off to the English-speaking meeting I’d come to Via Nazionale for, and later went back to my B&B and Googled the hell out it. Turns out it was a preview of coming attractions: bigger protests are planned for October 15, today. And I’m out of Rome now, in a quiet seaside town about to shut up shop for the season—but I can still follow along on the internet.
And that’s the thing about this era, this fight, which is so strikingly similar to the fights popping up all over the globe right now: it’s a living thing (like Rome), and you can follow along anywhere, and you can live it too.
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