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Far-Right, Mafias In Italy Fuel Some Violent Anti-Lockdown Protests

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The alarming surge of coronavirus cases this fall has not been limited to the U.S. Several European nations have seen spikes, too. Italy has responded by preparing new targeted lockdowns. But there's been intense pushback, some of it fueled by the far right and organized crime. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this report.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: A week ago, the government ordered bars and restaurants to close at 6 p.m. and shut down cinemas, theatres and gyms.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

POGGIOLI: The first pushback came from inside Rome's central prison as inmates banged against cell bars, an ominous echo of prison protests during the first lockdown in March, when family visits were canceled. Those protests quickly led to the release of elderly mafia bosses serving long terms in isolation. Giuseppe Antoci, head of a Mafia research center, says mob bosses were behind the get-out-of-jail ploy, which severely damaged the government.

GIUSEPPE ANTOCI: (Through interpreter) Prison protests were all part of an orchestrated effort that also aimed at destabilizing the government. And it almost succeeded.

POGGIOLI: In Naples last week, violent clashes broke out between police and protesters. Officials believe four Camorra clans - the local mafia - directed the protests. Antoci says mob bosses are exploiting people's frustration over the pandemic.

ANTOCI: (Through interpreter) The aim is to make the government seem indifferent to people's suffering and to make the Mafia seem as their benefactor.

POGGIOLI: After being widely praised for its handling of the first lockdown, the government is now the target of protests from the entire spectrum of Italian society.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET PLAYING TAPS)

POGGIOLI: Restaurant owners in chef hats organized this protest in Rome. They laid on the cobblestones white linen tablecloths with elegant settings. Their posters proclaimed, we want to work, and the new restrictions harm us. The tune played on the trumpet signaled fear that their businesses are close to death.

(CROSSTALK)

POGGIOLI: On Saturday, the mood is less glum in Campo dei Fiori. It's 3 p.m., and a few young people are enjoying an early aperitivo (ph) at the pub The Drunken Ship. In three hours, it will close. Manager David Houston (ph) says business is very bad - 10% of what they made pre-pandemic.

DAVID HOUSTON: Normally, we have maybe 6,000, 7,000 students in Rome - study abroads (ph). This year, we have a hundred total, so it's a complete nightmare.

POGGIOLI: Minutes later, the square is lined with police. In the center, a crowd of people gather. Many are dressed in black and wear hoods. David Di Stefano takes the loudspeaker.

DAVID DI STEFANO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "We're here to say no to more lockdowns," he says. We want to take back our country and send this scoundrel government packing. Shortly later, Di Stefano tells the crowd to march to Parliament. The police block them. The mood worsens, protesters provoke and chaos erupts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

POGGIOLI: Protesters throw bottles and firecrackers. Police strike back with tear gas and truncheons. Italian media later reported that these protesters are linked to the neo-fascist group CasaPound, which has been very active in the recent unrest.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has announced an imminent 5 billion euro relief package for businesses. But with many workers without benefits since May and businesses shutting down, Italians no longer sing from their balconies, setting examples of resilience against the pandemic.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.