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Letters from Rome

“Salviamo l’Italia”. Demo Diary.

Judith Harris (October 26, 2008)
Walter Veltroni spoke to the crowd in Rome on Saturday, October 25.

Acres of people filled Rome’s enormous Circus Maximus to protest the government and listen to the leader of Italy’s Democratic Party Walter Veltroni. Government cuts to education are high on the demonstrators’ agenda; so are racism and xenophobia.

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ROME – Monday, September 15. Students and teachers in some 70 Italian schools showed up dressed in funereal black, in a protest against  Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, 35-year-old lawyer from Brescia and a member of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Gelmini plans to restore the old-style single teacher in all Italian elementary schools.

Placards carried by some protesters denounced her plan as “Jurassic Schooling.” The minister responded by accusing the demonstrating grown-ups for exploiting young children. The Government says that, of all the cabinet, Gelmini is the single most important figure after Berlusconi himself.

Mid-October. In Rome Minister Gelmini is addressing the assembled MPs. In the speech she defends the government’s planned school budget slashes of E. 9 billion ($12 billion) and the elimination of a large number of schools. Inadvertently she gives her critics poison for their arrows by mispronouncing the word egida (in English, aegis). From what the British would call the back-benchers come snickers, catcalls and guffaws. (Click here to hear a defense of her and to see her speak, in Italian.)

Friday, October 24, midday at the Pantheon. With each passing autumn day the students’ anger has increased, and today the tourists in the piazza in front of the Pantheon are stumbling over Rome University students, who are sprawled on the (not terribly clean) paving stones as their professor, standing and gesticulating, lectures. The students listen keenly despite the obvious discomfort and take notes. The same scene is taking place in front of the Senate building, Palazzo Madama, where the pro-government coalition senators seemed singularly indifferent to the student protest against the government’s deep cuts in school funding and inevitably in university funding as well. It’s a good thing for the open-air classes that the weather is holding warm and bright.

Saturday, October 25, 7:30 am. Protest day has begun. Police are setting up road blocks, and Piazza Venezia is already crowded with young and older Italians, obviously just arrived from outside Rome. They are clutching maps to try to figure out where they are to begin the giant, nationwide march that has been called to support the student demands. Placards in front of the Senate say things like “Roma Libera” (Free Rome), and “We are not afraid of  you” (of whom? Police? The government?) More interesting is the sign saying, “We [students] are not going to pay for this financial crisis.” Their final destination: the ancient Circus Maximus, where the leader of the opposition Partito Democratico, Walter Veltroni, will speak later in the day. But some demonstrators have moved on to the outlying Cinecittà, blocking traffic there. Police appear nervous.

Saturday, October 25, mid-afternoon. Inside the vast Circus Maximus the crowd is immense. Walter Veltroni and former Premier Massimo D’Alemma speak in turns, predicting that this demonstration signals “the end of the honeymoon” with voters which Premier Berlusconi has enjoyed since last Spring. University authorities and respected professors, like those holding outdoor classes on uncomfortable cobblestones, openly sympathize with the students. So does this reporter, but frankly, I muse privately, that honeymoon won’t be over until the anti-Berlusconi factions stop shooting themselves in the hoof, as per their open rift with the Italia dei Valori party.

Saturday, October 25, midnight. Most fortunately, the day is over without a trace of violence, and that is a true victory. Students are continuing their occupation of a building at the La Sapienza, the ancient University of Rome whose campus is in buildings designed under Fascism.

Sunday, October 26, morning. Left-of-center newspapers trumpet the success of one of the most imposing anti-government demonstrations in recent Italian history. The left claims a turn-out of 2.5 million, the center speaks of perhaps 400,000, and the right, no more than 200,000. Even if the figure is a “mere” 200,000, this is twice the size of the historic 1970’s metal-mechanics’ workers march on Rome.

“Berlusconi will make a mistake if he just shrugs this off,” concludes the authoritative Stefano Folli, deputy editor-in-chief of the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore. But then, he goes on to ask, does the left have an identity?  The answer is: probably not.

Meantime, my own thoughts turn elsewhere: to the Government’s proposal to have separate, short-term schooling for immigrant youngsters so that they can learn Italian and hence be better inserted into the Italian schoolrooms subsequently. It sounds rather a good idea—that is, until I hear, on Radio 3, a well-spoken schoolteacher from Venice saying, “Rubbish. We have had in Venice plenty of immigrants’ children in our schools, and they all learn Italian within three months. There is absolutely no need for such an expensive, useless and latently racist extra schooling, which will also add another layer of bureaucracy.”

In the light of the reasons behind the demonstrations, which is to say the budget slashes for schooling, her words make all too good sense. Is anybody listening?
 

Worried teachers

An invitation to the international press to keep an eye on the Italian situation.

Francesco Cossiga (former president of the Italian Republic, Prime Minister and Home Secretary, and now senator for life) on October 23, in an interview with the "Quotidiano Nazionale" (Il Giorno/Il Resto del Carlino/La Nazione), declared: “Maroni [the current Home Secretary] should do what I did when I was Home Secretary. First, leave protesting high-school students alone, because just think what would happen if a young boy was killed or seriously injured... Let university students continue to protest. Withdraw the police from the streets and universities, infiltrate the movement with agents provocateurs ready to do anything, and let the demonstrators devastate shops, set fire to cars and put cities to fire and sword for ten days or so. Then, with public opinion on your side, the sound of ambulance sirens will exceed those of the police and the carabinieri. In the sense that the police should not show any mercy to them and send them all to hospital. Arresting them is useless because judges would release them very quickly, but we should beat them up as well as the teachers who are stirring them up. Teachers above all. Not the older ones, of course, but the young female primary school teachers…this is the democratic recipe: putting out the flame before the fire spreads”. http://rassegna.governo.it/rs_pdf/pdf/JMS/JMSRA.pdf

After nationwide student protests against proposed government education cuts, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, organized a press conference last Wednesday to say: “Let me speak clearly: we will not allow schools and universities to be occupied. Today I will summon Home Secretary Maroni to consider police intervention. Minister of Education, Gelmini, is excellent. We will not withdraw the legislative decree. Left wing leaders are liars". Later he complained about the presence of violent people in the student movements, which, as the international press can verify, is in fact peaceful.

Some newspapers which support the current government (like “Il Giornale”, whose owner is Berlusconi’s brother) are fomenting a daily campaign against teachers and protesting students, and “Libero”, another Berlusconi supporting newspaper, even suggested clubbing demonstrators on their asses (“parti molli”, i.e. soft parts of the body).

In Italy the situation of teachers is extremely worrying. They are underpaid and often held in poor esteem by families and children, who instead are attracted by TV personalities, football players and rich entrepreneurs (their honesty doesn’t matter). These models have been spread, above all over recent years, by the current Premier. In particular “PRECARI” teachers (temporary teachers on short-term contracts) who often carry out their mission with great enthusiasm and love, are kept in a dramatic situation. Despite all having degrees, teaching qualifications and sometimes also master degrees for public authority employment, they are hired every year in September and sacked when the school year ends. Then they just have to hope to be hired again the following year. There are also many teachers in this situation of limbo who are no longer young and who have also been subjected to this treatment for over 25 years! Cuts in tens of thousands jobs in the school, which in Italy receives much less investment than other developed countries, will mainly hit these teachers, who have no have no contractual rights.

We ask you to look into the Italian situation where there is not a real free press because Premier Berlusconi, directly or indirectly, controls most TV channels and a large number of newspapers.

A group of worried teachers.

Link to list of signatures http://www.worriedteachers.com/sign/list/worriedteachers