The Pitchforks Movement gained notoriety in Sicily in January 2012 when a group of agricultural producers and trucking companies blocked highways on the island for nine days to protest rising fuel and fertilizer prices, a result of austerity measures instituted by the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti. In its original form, the Pitchforks Movement had a heavy Sicilian element; it criticized the central government in Rome and sought greater autonomy for the island.
Today, the movement has two key elements. One has a strong anti-establishment agenda. The movement is critical of Italian politicians, austerity measures and the European Union. The other element is staunchly opposed to taxes. Its recent protests have focused on the buildings of Equitalia, Italy's tax agency.
The movement's immediate goal is the resignation of Italy's government and new elections. Its most prominent member in Sicily is Mariano Ferro, a local farmer who ran for office in the island's regional elections in 2012 (when the movement got 1.2 percent of the vote). In the center and north of the country, the movement is led by local farmers and truck drivers, including Danilo Calvani, a farmer from the Latina province who coordinated the protests in central and northern Italy.
Over the past year and a half and for various reasons, the movement has expanded beyond Sicily. First, farmers in northern Italy have problems of their own. Italy's north is more industrial and less dependent on agriculture than the south, but still the agricultural sector has been affected by the crisis. In recent weeks, farmers in northern Italy protested food imports from the European Union and China. Sicilian truckers also have links with northern Italian truckers, who are similarly affected by the problems that afflict the agricultural sector.
Second, the movement managed to attract members of the lower and middle class who were affected by the crisis. The ongoing protests attracted students, artisans, small-business owners, street vendors, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, the unemployed and retirees — all of whom were protesting Italy's growing tax burden, rising unemployment and government corruption. The movement also has connections with several right-wing political parties, including New Force, Tricolor Flame and Brothers of Italy. Though these parties are relatively small, they have offices and members across the country.
Finally, the movement has ties to extremist groups and soccer hooligans — entities that are often connected. In Turin, the protests became particularly violent because of the participation of hooligans from Juventus, Turin's main soccer team and one of the largest soccer clubs in Europe. Hooligans from smaller clubs, such as Catania in Sicily or Atalanta and Brescia in Lombardy, also participated in the protests. In Rome, the movement has connections with CasaPound, a right-wing movement that protests Italy's housing crisis. These groups were responsible for the few episodes of violence that have occurred; they have mostly thrown bricks and bottles at public offices.
Failing to Channel Social Unrest
The Pitchforks Movement highlights an emerging trend in Europe. As the unemployment crisis lingers, political parties, trade unions and other representative institutions are proving incapable of channeling social unrest. In Italy, support for the mainstream parties is eroding. The center-right is in crisis because of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's corruption scandals, while the center-left is still struggling to find a consensus between its old and new leadership.
Italy's mainstream unions remained silent during the recent protests, and opposition parties reacted only once the protests proved relatively popular. Before the Pitchforks Movement became notorious, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement largely neglected it. However, during this week's protests, Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo praised the movement on his blog and asked Italian police to join the protests. (Indeed, during a protest in Turin, some policemen took off their helmets as a symbol of sympathy with protesters.) Something similar happened with Berlusconi, who supported the protests only after realizing that they were larger than expected. Berlusconi announced Dec. 11 that he would meet with the protesters.
This puts the movement in a relatively similar category to the Red Caps in France, a movement that emerged as an anti-tax group in the agricultural sector but became representative of a larger sector of the population that did not feel it was represented by traditional political parties and unions. The European crisis is widening the gap between voters and the traditional ruling elites. Anti-establishment parties are filling part of this gap, but grassroots movements are also arising in the Continent.
However, these grassroots movements face serious challenges. They often lack the cohesion, structure and funding to survive long enough to affect their country's political systems. In some cases, they disappear after achieving their original goals; in others, they disappear even sooner.
For the Pitchforks Movement there is another element: The more the movement is linked to violent groups, the more likely it is to lose the support of the middle class. Even though the leadership of the movement has denied any links with violent actions, the public could rapidly become alienated by the apparently strong links between the movement and the far-right. In some Italian cities, a few protesters attacked local shops and supermarkets, something that harms the movement's image. Moreover, there is a limit to the group's strategy of blocking highways and train stations. Blocking traffic for long periods often frustrates the rest of the population.
Even if the movement loses its cohesion and fails to affect Italian politics in the short term, its quick evolution from a protest group in the extreme south to a group that was able to channel popular anger across the country demonstrates the status of social unrest and the growing crisis of representation in Italy. In several European countries, such as France and Spain, these groups are gaining popular support and participation from already disgruntled youths, workers, retirees and the unemployed. The emergence of groups like the Pitchforks Movement will likely become more common, since the economic crisis in Italy is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Their biggest challenge is becoming coherent enough to produce a lasting impact.