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Protesters hurl objects during clashes with police in Rome on Saturday. (Angelo Carconi/Angelo Carconi/Associated Press)
Protesters hurl objects during clashes with police in Rome on Saturday. (Angelo Carconi/Angelo Carconi/Associated Press)

Eric Reguly

Black eye in Rome won't derail Occupy movement Add to ...

“There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear”

-- Buffalo Springfield

The lyrics, from Buffalo Springfield’s hit 1967 song “For What It’s Worth,” could well apply to the Occupy movement sweeping the planet. What is clear is that Occupy went sadly wrong in Rome (where I live) on the weekend, sad because Occupy, from New York to London, has been largely peaceful and certainly compelling.

The Rome protests, involving as many as 250,000 people, started that way on Saturday, though calling them part of the Occupy movement might be a bit of a stretch. Public anger over Italy’s austerity programs, lack of job opportunities and the belief that no politician in the land has any sense of economic pressures facing the average family has been building for months, pushing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ratings to new lows. The protests came one day after Bunga Bunga Boy barely survived a confidence vote in parliament and as Group of 20 finance ministers met in Paris to devise solutions to the euro zone debt crisis.

The protests turned ugly when it was groups of hooded “Black Bloc” anarchist militants, dressed in black, threw petrol bombs, tore up cobble stones from the streets, torched cars, smashed windows and assaulted a church, turning a statue of the Madonna into rubble. The same rioters turned a peaceful student protest last December in Rome into a shambles too.

Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno estimated the damage costs at €1.6-million. About 135 people were wounded in the riots, according to ANSA, the Italian news agency, and a dozen were arrested. Several people lost fingers as petrol bombs exploded and cars burned. When the rioters were in full swing, some of the peaceful protesters yelled at them, urging them to stop.

Will the Rome fiasco damage the Occupy movement? Probably not. Occupy protests -- the “Day of Rage” protests -- were ubiquitous and peaceful, save Rome’s.

While they have been criticized as “unfocused” or “anti-capitalist,” my own sense is that the Occupy movement has legs. While it may be true that some of the protesters don’t know exactly what they are protesting, the broader theme -- that capitalism has gone horribly wrong when the richest 1 per cent always get most of the spoils -- is easy to grasp. Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore has called the protests the “primal scream of democracy,” which is a good summing up of the anger sweeping the planet.

It’s hard to argue that the 1 per cent versus 99 per cent balance is not worthy of rage. In his Oct. 15 column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, who is no Wall Street sycophant, said that “According to the CIA’s own ranking of countries by income inequality, the United States is more unequal a society than either Tunisia or Egypt.”

He noted that the 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans, and that the top 1 per cent possess more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent. The wealth-creation system grew even more lopsided during the George W. Bush era.

Unwealthy Americans, Canadians and Europeans increasingly believe that the finance industry exists only to feed itself, that its traditional role as the handmaiden of industry has become gruesomely warped. They want a fairer share of the wealth created by capitalism.

The Occupy movement is exciting because it is spontaneous and authentic -- and potentially powerful because it is being fired up by social networks. As my friend and Queen’s University business professor Doug Reid said, “there is a hint of Obama 2008” in it, something hopeful.

Speaking of the U.S. president, watch him exploit the Occupy movement with a shift to the left. But trying to define Occupy’s position on the political spectrum really is a futile exercise. Wanting a more just society doesn’t make them anti-capitalists, in spite of what happened in Rome.

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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