Rome, Italy – A lecture by the former mayor of the “refugee town” of Riace, Domenico Lucano, triggered a day of protests in Rome after the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova announced their intention to oppose the appearance.
Forza Nuova had planned a demonstration in front of La Sapienza University on Monday. It was banned by the authorities for reasons of public order, but the party went ahead with it anyway.
“Police can’t block our election campaign,” said the group’s leader, Roberto Fiore, in a social media post.
“Anti-fascism and arrogance are a thing of the past, Italy has changed and Forza Nuova speaks how, where, and whenever it wants,” he added, concluding: “The only resistance is ethnic.”
Lucano, known as ‘Mimmo’ rose to fame as mayor of Riace, where he welcomed refugees and migrants, repopulating the southern Italian town and reviving its economy.
In October, he was put under house arrest for “aiding illegal migration” and later banned from the town. His trial is scheduled in June.
After news spread that the neo-fascist group would protest against the talk, hundreds of students gathered on Monday in front of the university campus to welcome the former mayor.
About 20 Forza Nuova activists unrolled a banner calling Lucano “an enemy of Italy” in a nearby square. Dozens of riot police were deployed and roads were blocked to prevent a direct confrontation between the two groups.
“We cannot tolerate intimidations by neo-fascist or far-right groups towards an institutional figure,” Tommaso I, a 25-year-old philology student among the counterprotesters, told Al Jazeera.
Denise, a 20-year-old sociology student, had also joined the counterprotest. “We want freedom of opinion, thought, and choice,” she said. “Lucano should be free to talk to students without this mess going on.”
Neither student wanted to provide their full name.
Neo-fascist groups have gained increasing visibility in Italy, particularly in Rome, where in the past month they have rallied residents – angry about a lack of housing and the state of decay of the city – against Roma families assigned social housing by the municipality.
Activists from one neo-fascist party, CasaPound, were given permits to set up a protest tent – eventually dismantled – in front of a Roma family’s new home. A member of parliament from the far-right League party showed up to offer support for local resident protesters and condemn the local council.
Italy’s Interior Minister and co-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, himself a right-wing populist who has ridden a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric, said he supported the former mayor’s right to speak at the university.
“I don’t agree with his ideas but as a minister and a man I guarantee my commitment that he be able to express them,” Salvini said in a statement. His League party is topping polls in advance of the European Parliament elections scheduled for later this month.
Salvini’s popularity has grown since entering a coalition with the beleaguered Five Star Movement, which received the largest number of votes in Italy’s general election last year but had no parliamentary majority to govern alone. He has since waged a war against NGOs rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean and curbed asylum rights.
Lucano arrived at the scene before his afternoon talk amid chants of “We are all Mimmo Lucano” from the students gathered.
“I am moved,” the mayor told the crowd. “I continue to chase a dream of humanity and democracy.”
Meanwhile, at the small “election campaign” gathering, activists sang the Italian national anthem. One Forza Nuova activist told a group of journalists he considered himself a fascist. “I am ready to face the penal consequences of that,” he said. Defending fascism remains a crime in Italy.