OnScene: Anti-U.S. Protestors Flood Rome's Streets

A general rule of thumb when dealing with protesters is that they don't like to be tricked. So when hundreds of would-be demonstrators from across Italy took advantage Saturday of discount train tickets offered to those participating in the peaceful anti-Bush demonstrations in Rome, they were a little more than miffed to find their discount wasn’t exactly a bargain. The trains with high numbers of discount tickets were significantly delayed and one was even diverted to a suburban station rather than Rome's central station near the starting point of the organized protests. Anti-riot police in Milan blocked a protester-heavy train heading to Rome on the tracks for nearly an hour, prohibiting a handful of protesters from boarding after finding fire extinguishers and other telltale violent protest paraphernalia in rucksacks. By the time everyone arrived and the antiwar march began—nearly two hours late—tension was high.

For the past week, many Italians have been grumbling about President George W. Bush’s visit. He enraged the residents of the medieval district of Trastevere where he had originally planned to visit the Community of Sant'Egidio, a volunteer organization that won a Nobel peace prize in 2002. On Friday morning, over 60 cars were towed from Trastevere at the owners' expense and two weekend weddings forcibly cancelled in the district's church of Santa Maria. Residents had their homes searched and were warned that they couldn't take their trash out for the entire weekend. When the American Embassy announced Friday that the Trastevere visit had been scrapped due to logistical concerns in the 11th hour, residents weren't sure whether to be relieved or angry that all the disruption was for nothing. In other parts of Rome, demonstrators papered the city with anti-Bush billboards and NO WAR signs encouraging Romans to attend the march from Termini train station to Piazza Navona or the massive gathering in Piazza del Popolo. Police, expecting protests similar to those in Rostock, Germany, this week, warned that anyone wearing a mask or carrying a stick could be arrested.

The activists—an estimated 100,000 by organizers' count—were protesting a variety of American policies. One group of Italian lawyers holding CIA FUGITIVE signs chided the United States for ignoring the legal trial that began in Milan on Friday, where 26 CIA agents are being tried in absentia for the extraordinary rendition of a Milan imam in 2003. Another group marched with images of the 21 Italian soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq. Yet another group chided Prodi's government, which faces a controversial confidence vote in the coming days that could see it topple completely. In fact, many of his own cabinet members joined the protest in Piazza del Popolo.

In the end, it was about 150 anarchist protesters whose scuffle with riot police near the Piazza Navona that captured the most attention. Twenty people were injured, including three police officers who were hospitalized, as masked demonstrators carrying umbrellas and planks overturned café tables and hurled cobblestones and glass bottles into the crowds and at police. Some broke business windows and shot fireworks, prompting riot police to hurl stones back at them before spraying them with tear gas. Finally, a group of convincingly grungy undercover Italian police officers, complete with their own masks and planks, were able to infiltrate the violent group and haul them away.

Bush, meanwhile, was far away from the protests, tucked inside the lush protected residence of the American ambassador to Rome. He met opposition leader and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for a late afternoon coffee where they reportedly discussed Bush visiting his old friend at his Sardinian villa when he's no longer president. For those still demonstrating in Rome Saturday, that couldn't happen soon enough.