Italy's students have taken to the streets this week, creating commotion in cities from Bari to Bologna, Palermo to Parma. And, of course, in Rome.
Yesterday, more than 2,000 students marched on Rome's Senate building, throwing tear gas and eggs until they were attacked by the police. Students also blocked the train tracks in Siena, keeping any trains from moving in or out of the city, took over the Leaning Tower of Pisa so tourists couldn't enter, and occupied 16 schools in Palermo... to name just a few of the demonstrations taking place in more than 100 Italian cities this week.
In Rome, at least, the protests today seem to be a little tamer than yesterday* -- when I saw the students march from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum at 2pm, it looked like only about 200. But here's the interesting thing: That still was enough for the police to close off each street the students took over, completely snarling up the already-bad traffic on a rainy Rome day. Carabinieri also blocked off a section of the street to keep anyone from getting even within a literal stone's throw of Berlusconi's Palazzo Grazioli.
And for a city with so many police that on a normal day it already looks like it's preparing for imminent attack, well, today Rome looked like an actual war zone. Police cars and ambulances screamed down the streets, their sirens blaring. Huge trucks silently carried carabinieri and guardia di finanza from mysterious point A to mysterious point B. And everywhere, everywhere were uniformed, gun-toting officers, of some kind or another. Below, a blue-helmeted crew at the Colosseum, where the students stood out front, peacefully chanting and banging away at their drums. Why are students so ticked? Well, because of budget cuts, of course. The Parliament's currently debating a bill that would cut 9 billion euros and 130,000 jobs from the education sector. Ouch.
But it is -- of course -- about more than that. Anger with the Berlusconi government seems to be at a boiling point, and that's not just true for students.
So while all the police around the city right now might just be there to make sure that another government building doesn't get attacked the way the Senate did, I think there's something more to it. Because they must realize that, by putting every street the 200 20-somethings walk down under virtual lock-down, they're just making the protesters seem even more powerful. It's as if they think the handful of students protesting in Rome today are just the frontrunners, or symbols, of something much, much bigger.
And maybe they're right.
Stay tuned. In the meantime, read this for an Italian academic's take on the whole thing.