Ostia, Italy – Activist Diego Gianella says he has been attacked by fascists six times.
On a wintry day in early January, the 27-year old escapes the piercing wind and ducks into a time-worn bar outside a train station in Ostia, the poverty-hit coastal suburb of Rome where he lives.
Removing his jacket, he quickly orders a coffee and stands at the bar.
A charismatic man with a patchy beard, Gianella speaks with jubilance despite running through a laundry list of violence he attributes to CasaPound.
The self-proclaimed fascist party made landmark inroads in municipal elections in November when it obtained nine percent of the overall vote and hopes to make gains in Italy’s upcoming national elections in March.
Party supporters have slashed Gianella’s tyres five times, bashed his car windows four times and tagged graffiti on his car and apartment building.
CasaPound denies such allegations, but Gianella is one of several local anti-fascist activists and critics who have accused the group of violence.
He shakes his head as he recalls one of the most egregious assaults, which took place in February.
On that day, Gianella was “running late as usual” rushing to a city council meeting, he says, when he spotted CasaPound members posted next to the entrance.
Known in Ostia for his outspoken anti-fascism, he opted to enter the building from the rear entrance rather than risk confrontation.
But he hadn’t gone unnoticed. When a guard informed said he could only enter using the main entrance, he decided to make his way home.
However, a gang of five CasaPound supporters was waiting at his car.
Recognising one of the young men as a former classmate, Gianella asked what they were doing at his car.
“Then he hit me, and I fell,” he says.
Within seconds of hitting the pavement, kicks and punches thudded against Gianella’s sides as he put his hands up to protect his head.
His attackers left him on the ground with his lips busted, a mouth full of blood and three broken ribs.
“Go tell the police now,” they said, mocking him.
Born as a political movement in 2003, when far-rightists occupied a vacant municipal building in central Rome, CasaPound’s name is an ode to the American poet Ezra Pound, who was a supporter of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
In November, CasaPound clenched around 6,000 votes of the vote in Ostia’s municipal elections – a nearly 600 percent increase from the previous vote a few years earlier.
Its newfound success in Ostia came on the heels of the party securing eight percent of the votes in Lucca’s mayoral elections in June and recently landing its members on city councils in nearby Todi and the northern city of Bolzano.
With CasaPound’s Luca Marsella, a vocal fascist who has been accused of violent threats, now a district councilor in Ostia, the elections have prompted fear among political opponents and analysts who worry about the return of fascism in a country that toiled for 21 years under Mussolini’s rule.
Guido Caldiron, a Rome-based journalist and author of Extreme Right, a book that examines the growth of the far right in Europe and elsewhere, says the electoral results in Ostia are “very important because Rome is CasaPound’s core. For them, it’s a very significant victory”.
Describing a “militarised entity” whose supporters simultaneously carry out attacks while the party’s brass denies any affiliation with bloodshed, Caldiron tells Al Jazeera: “Even when they are involved in violence, they always try to cover it.”
The efforts at protecting its brand and presenting a respectable face to the public, Caldiron argues, distinguishes CasaPound from other far-right groups that openly celebrate violence against anti-fascists and migrants.
“They have people who are legitimate criminals, and they have to control that – it’s a controlled form of neo-fascism,” he explains.
“You can be violent, but you have to accept certain rules and not show off about your violence … It is all part of a package designed to maintain the façade of respectability.”
Despite regularly denying violence, CasaPound’s members and supporters have a lengthy history of attacks.
In December 2011, a 50-year-old CasaPound supporter in Florence shot dead two Senegalese street traders and injured three others before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.
CasaPound activist Alberto Palladino has been sentenced to two years in prison over an attack that hospitalised five activists from the centre-left Democratic Party that same year. The party claims that he was wrongfully convicted.
More recently, as locals in Ostia geared up to cast their ballots in November, local mob affiliate Roberto Spada head-butted and struck with a pipe reporter Daniele Piervincenzi when the journalist asked about his support for CasaPound.
Spada had previously proclaimed his support for CasaPound in a Facebook post.
The incident was caught on tape and led to national outcry.
CasaPound subsequently attempted to distance itself from the Spada Clan, a local mafia network active in Ostia.
On a chilly morning in early January, a self-described “militant” opens the door of CasaPound’s squat in central Rome. Inside, he points to the walls of the corridor, which are colourfully painted with the names of the party’s heroes.
Mussolini and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work was glorified by both Italian and German fascists, are honoured.
Less explicable are names such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late Afghan militia leader who battled the Soviets and the Taliban alike, and Jack Kerouac, the American novelist and pioneer of the Beat Generation literary movement.
Simone Di Stefano, CasaPound’s prime ministerial candidate in the upcoming national elections in March, insists that the party’s gains in Ostia are important in an area “that has been abandoned by the state” that has been unfairly branded as a “mafia city”.
Swaddled in a black winter coat, Di Stefano runs his hand through his short, grey-peppered hair. He sits in a conference room.
The walls are blanketed in party propaganda announcing conferences and celebrating visits by far-right parties from across the Europe.
One of the posters announces a 2014 meeting between CasaPound and party officials from the Golden Dawn, the neo-fascist party in nearby Greece.
On an adjacent wall, a framed CasaPound poster brandishes the face of Julius Evola, the Italian philosopher whose work sought to advance fascism.
Since its establishment 14 years ago, CasaPound has opened 106 offices across the country and boasts of 20,000 card-carrying members.
In recent years, the party broadened its base with increasing success by taking aim at refugees and migrants, capitalising on Euroscepticism and squatting buildings to protest Italy’s housing crisis.
While leftists and anarchists have for decades occupied buildings for people displaced by evictions and carried out social projects such as distributing food to the poor, CasaPound’s cooptation of these tactics come with an important distinction: Italians only.
Di Stefano does not deny its supporters participate in physical confrontation.
“If there were no anti-fascists, there would be no violence,” he says.
He points to an incident in January 2017, when a police officer was injured while attempting to defuse an explosive device outside a CasaPound-linked bookshop in Florence.
Referring to Gianella, the anti-fascist who claims to have been attacked, he says the accusations are “lies”, adding that CasaPound has attempted to sue the activist for libel in the past.
Di Stefano blames the media and anti-fascists for violence, dubbing them as agents of “globalism”, a term that critics say carries anti-Semitic undertones.
“There is no actual evidence [of CasaPound] doing physical attacks,” he claims.
Back in Ostia, local leaders and residents dismiss claims of CasaPound’s innocence.
Witnessing the party’s rise around him, Franco De Donno, a priest who has lived in the suburb since 1981, decided last Autumn to run in the municipal elections. Now a district councilor, he sits across the table from the fascist party’s Marsella in municipal meetings.
Explaining that he was born on June 2, 1946, the day that Italy became a republic, De Donno says: “Being democratic and anti-fascist is in my DNA.”
Sitting in a cafe on Ostia’s main square, De Donno recounts leaving the church after a sermon to find a band of CasaPound members holding up a banner accusing him of being a traitor for his open support of refugees and migrants.
The priest has helped form a network of solidarity activists and like-minded members of the faith community.
“If this mentality of exclusion [of migrants and others] continues, there will be no peace and no development,” he argues, “but the strongest enemy that needs to be defeated is indifference [to fascism].”
Carlo*, a 16-year-old Ostia local, smokes a cigarette and drinks espresso at a cafe.
Young people, he says, should get involved in the anti-fascist movement early on.
He has been twice assaulted by CasaPound supporters.
During the summer of 2017, a CasaPound supporter – an adult male – asked if he had been present in anti-fascist demonstrations in front of the party’s offices.
“What?” he replied, surprised by the question.
Then a fist crashed into his eye. “What the f*ck? I didn’t do anything,” Carlo said.
He decided not to press charges because he did not trust the police department.
“Then other people started threatening me,” he explains. “They said, ‘We’ll shoot you.'”
From that day on, when CasaPound supporters saw him in the street, they hurled insults and threats in his direction. “They called me a ‘shitty hippie’ and a ‘communist f*ggot.’.”
A few months later, when Carlo and his girlfriend were at a pub, a group of seven CasaPound supporters – all adults – called him over to their table. “What do you think about fascism?” one of them men asked him.
Fearing another attack, Carlo replied simply: “It’s an important part of our country’s history.”
He remembers: “I wanted to say, ‘Fascism is sh*tty,’ but I couldn’t.”
After a brief exchange, the man grabbed Carlo by the collar, pulled him close and threatened him. When Carlo broke free, a fist was thrown in his direction and narrowly missed his face.
One of the men yelled at him and his girlfriend: “You deserve to have c*cks on your face.”
Worried by the prospect of more violence, Carlo has changed his daily routine, avoiding CasaPound’s office and hangouts frequented by the party’s supporters.
But he insists that he will continue to protest.
“I’m not scared. Everyone fears being beaten up; but I can get over that because I believe in the [anti-fascist] cause and have my ideals,” he says.
“I will keep standing on the front line because I must do so.”
*Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym to protect the identity of Carlo because he is a minor.