CIVICUS speaks to Andrea Garreffa, one of the founders of the Sardines movement (Movimento delle Sardine), a grassroots political movement that began in November 2019 in Bologna, Italy, in protest against the hateful rhetoric of right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini.
What inspired you to begin this movement?
Regional elections were scheduled for 26 January 2020 in Emilia-Romagna, our home region – and when I say our, I refer to me and the other co-founders of the movement, Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti and Giulia Trappoloni. On that moment there was a big wave towards the far right, represented by the League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini. There were very scary signs about the general political situation in Italy, one of which was the lack of respect shown to Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz and was the only survivor in her family. From the 1990s she started to speak to the public about her experience and in 2018 she was named senator for life. Segre received so many insults and threats on social media that in November 2019 she was assigned police protection. The situation was very scary; I am not ashamed to admit that I would often cry when I read the newspaper reporting such episodes.
How was the first Sardines demonstration organised?
As the election approached, my friends and I started thinking of a way to speak up and warn the League that the game was not over yet. We wanted to make this extremely clear, both to the far-right parties and to all citizens looking for a stimulus to empowerment. The League party had just won in Umbria and was announcing itself as the winner in Emilia-Romagna as well; they counted on this victory to destabilise the coalition government and return to power. We wanted to do something to stop that narrative. We started to think about this on 6 or 7 November 2019, just a week before Matteo Salvini, along with Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate to lead the regional government, kicked off their campaign with a rally at Bologna’s sports arena. We had in mind that the last time Salvini had come to Bologna he said that Piazza Maggiore, the main town square, could host up to 100,000 people, in an attempt to claim that was the number of people who attended his rally – something that is physically impossible, as only up to 30,000 very tightly packed people could actually fit into the square. In a way, we also wanted to draw attention to the information on the news and make sure he wouldn’t be able to cheat.
In short, our idea was to organise a flash mob-style demonstration on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, on the same day as Salvini’s rally, and we named it ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’ because our aim was to gather around 6,000 people and our tactic was to show we were many – so we used the image of crowds of people squeezed together like sardines in a shoal. In the few days we had to organise it, we set the main narrative and prepared some templates that could be customised so each person was free to express themselves and be creative. Ours was a message that anybody could understand, and the actions required were something that anybody could do. We wanted to get rid of all the negative feelings linked to existing political parties, so the initiative was inclusive from the very beginning. It wasn’t linked to any party but rather open to anybody who shared its core values of anti-fascism and anti-racism.
We sent out an invitation, not just through Facebook, which of course we did, but more importantly, we went out to the streets to distribute flyers and talk to people, so people could understand that the event was real and it was actually going to happen. It was surprising that just two days after we had launched the Facebook campaign, we were handing out flyers and people would say that they already knew about the event. Word of mouth worked incredibly well; in my opinion, this reflected a very strong need among people to do something to ensure Matteo Salvini did not win in Bologna and in Emilia-Romagna. People understood and felt the importance of this election. During the summer Salvini had destabilised the national government by ‘showing off’ in Milano Marittima, claiming pieni poteri – ‘full powers’, an expression used by Mussolini back in the day. Citizens could not stand the risk of such a poor show taking place again and really felt the call to action when the far-right propaganda started spreading messages such as ‘Liberiamo l’Emilia-Romagna’ (Let’s free Emilia-Romagna), as if people had forgotten their history lessons: the region had no need to be freed because that had already happened, at the end of the Second World War. People felt disrespected in their intelligence, and we stood up to make that visible and tangible. People are less stupid than what people in power tend to think.
How did you know people would come?
We had no clue. On the night of 14 November we found ourselves surrounded by this incredible crowd – the media reported there were 15,000 people – and we couldn’t quite believe it.
We had expected a number of people to attend; we started to believe in the success of the initiative when we saw that from day one we were achieving every goal we set for ourselves. For example, we set up the Facebook page with the initial goal of reaching a thousand people, and the next day we were already more than three or four thousand. That was mostly for two reasons: firstly timing, as people were ready for an initiative like this, and secondly, the fact that we live in Bologna, so we know a lot of people and could easily spread the message.
But on 14 November nobody knew what was going to happen. We told people there would be a surprise and managed to keep it secret until everybody had gathered, and at 8:30 pm we played a song by Lucio Dalla, Com'è profondo il mare, which translates as ‘how deep is the sea’. In one part of the song, the lyrics say that we are many, and we all descend from fish, and you cannot stop fish because you cannot block the ocean, you cannot fence it. This built up a lot of emotion, and people even cried because it was very powerful and could not believe it was happening for real. Older people felt young again, living emotions they thought lost forever in the 1970s. Young kids had the opportunity to participate in a massive and joyful party, which made them question the fact that politics is all boring and unemotional. I think the whole wave that came afterwards was born that first night. It built up from that initial emotion. We were not 6,000 but many more, and we sent out the message that the game was far from over and Salvini could not yet claim victory. This was key: whatever sport you play, if you enter the field thinking you are going to lose, you’ll lose. This was the general mood among left-wing parties and progressive citizens. We did what we could to make ‘our team’ believe in itself and its chances of victory. We may say that the Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics.
Who organised all the demonstrations that followed?
The emotion of the first demonstration spread thanks to an impressive picture taken from the municipality building, which shows a red minivan surrounded by thousands of people. The picture spread all over the internet and social media. It helped focus a lot of attention on the regional election. All the international media was there so we offered them the image and that was the start of everything. The picture reflected the fact that something big was going on, so when people from other cities and even from other countries started trying to contact us, we set up an email address so anybody could reach out to us.
We shared our experience and explained to anyone who contacted us how we set everything up in just six days: how we requested the permits for the gathering and for playing the music, how we took care of people, those things. We then organised all the information to share with whoever wanted to do something similar somewhere else. We also registered the name of the initiative, not because we wanted to own it, but to prevent its misuse and protect its underlying values. We spent hours and days on the phone with people from all around Emilia-Romagna, and then from other regions, until the movement was so big that we were able to announce a massive demonstration to be held in Rome in December.
For the Rome event we didn’t even have to do much, because there were people in Rome organising the demonstration by themselves, and we were invited to attend as guest speakers. That was actually a strength, because this wasn’t people from Bologna organising an event for Rome, but people from Rome organising themselves, mobilising their friends and neighbours and inviting people to join.
Right before the elections, on 19 January, we organised a big concert in Bologna, aimed at encouraging electoral participation. We didn’t want to pressure people to vote for this or that party, but rather encourage participation. Indifference had prevailed in the previous regional elections, and only 37 per cent of potential voters made use of their right. The higher turnout we achieved this time around, when 69 per cent of people voted, was by itself a victory of democracy.
You mentioned that the movement spread both nationally and internationally. Did it also establish connections with other justice movements around the world?
The movement reached an international scale in the very beginning, thanks to Italians living abroad who were reading the news, understood what was going on and got in touch with us. We reached out to people in dozens of major cities in countries around the world, including Australia, The Netherlands and the USA.
That was the first step towards reaching international scale, and also the reason why the four of us were then invited to participate in the Forum on European Culture, held in Amsterdam in September 2020. We attended the festival and had the opportunity to meet representatives from Extinction Rebellion in the UK, the French Yellow Vests, Million Moments for Democracy, a protest organisation in the Czech Republic, Hong Kong’s Demosisto and Black Queer & Trans Resistance, an LGBTQI+ organisation in The Netherlands. We connected with other realities and learned about other movements. We started talking and dreaming about an event to bring together a wide variety of protest movements in the coming months or years, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. We are now open and curious to find out what others are doing, but we remain independent. We do our thing, they do their own, and we collaborate when we get the chance.
The 6000 Sardine Facebook page displays various expressions of solidarity with movements such as the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, #EndSARS in Nigeria and Black Lives Matter in the USA. Do you organise in solidarity with them?
What we have done is get in touch with those movements, if possible, and let them know that we are going to send out a communication of solidarity, but that’s about it. We are busy enough trying to set up an organisation of our own to invest energy in trying to follow and understand what others are doing to build their own.
We also have a common agreement that the movement is not the Facebook page, but a lot more. To us, Facebook is a communication channel and a useful way to spread messages, but it’s not the core of the movement. Sometimes it functions rather as a billboard where people share and exchange things, and not everything there is the result of a joint, organisation-level decision. To be honest, sometimes I open our Facebook page and I do not necessarily agree with everything that I see there. And this happens because of delegation of tasks and openness to participation.
What are the goals of the movement now, and how have they evolved?
We have given this a lot of thought because it all started as a spontaneous thing that was specifically related to the elections but then continued to grow. So we felt responsible for handling all this energy. We did our best to spread the right messages while not feeding illusion. We are still the same people we were last year, regardless of the experiences we went through, but we were not prepared for all of this. Day after day we learned how to deal with the attention, the media and everything that came with it. We focused on the need to set goals and a vision.
We were at it when then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. On one hand it was very negative for us, as we couldn’t keep mobilising, but on the other hand it turned out to be a strange kind of positive, because it forced us to slow down. We took advantage of the lockdown to do the only thing that we could do: sit down and think. We managed to put together our manifesto, which was the result of multiple debates within our inner circle.
The manifesto was a milestone, and our next steps were to try and make each of its articles visible and tangible in real life, which is what we are focusing on now. Following the metaphor of the sea, after the high tide came the low tide, which is more manageable, and we are trying to nurture the movement so it grows from the roots, more slowly but less chaotic and unstable. We try to be a point of reference to anyone who is looking for progressive ideas, without being a party but pointing out the direction.
I would like to stress the fact that we started this movement with the idea that we should not point fingers at politicians or parties but ask ourselves what we are doing to bring into the world the change that we want. This means we don’t exclude approaches focused on little things such as taking care of your own neighbourhood. We include this kind of approach as well as more ambitious ones such us setting up the direction for progressive left-wing parties. We consider both approaches to be valid.
We don’t exclude any discourse that converges with ours and upholds our core values. For instance, right now there is a lot of talk about how progressive the Pope is, so we are inviting people to talk about that, not because we are a religious movement but to spread the kind of positive messaging that is currently quite difficult to find in the political arena.
A few months ago, we organised our first School of Politics, Justice and Peace. We held it in a small town, Supino, because it better fitted the model of local self-organisation that we want to promote. We invited people who are involved in the political arena to interact with activists in their 20s. The idea was to merge those worlds to create the kind of communication that social media platforms lack. We want to create opportunities for progressive people to meet with others and talk, not necessarily to find the solution to a specific problem but to make sure that there is a connection between people with decision-making power and people who are interested in participating and changing things, but don’t really know how.
How did you keep the movement alive while in COVID-19 lockdown?
We invited people all over Italy to focus on the local level because it was the only thing they could do. And we set the example to be credible to others. Many people in Bologna put their energy at the service of others, for instance by going grocery shopping for those who couldn’t leave their homes and getting involved in countless local initiatives, movements and associations. We encouraged this, because it was never our goal to replace existing organisations, but rather to revitalise activism and involvement in public affairs.
But we did ask people to stay in touch, so we would have calls and organise specific events. For example, for 25 April, Liberation Day, we launched an initiative in which we shared clips from movies showing resistance to fascism and Nazism during the Second World War and invited people to project them out of their windows and onto neighbouring buildings, and film the event. We collected the recordings and put them together into a video that we disseminated on social media. Our core message was that we could all be present even if we could not physically get out.
In early May we also organised a symbolic flash mob in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore: instead of people we lined up around 6,000 plants, which we went on to sell online. Our volunteers delivered them by bike, and all the funds we collected went to the local municipality, which had committed to invest the full amount, matched one to one with their own funds, to support cultural events over the summer. Before delivering the plants, we staged an artistic performance on the square; then we moved the plants around to draw the shape of a bicycle on the floor. As a result of this initiative, we not only marked our presence in a public space but also channelled about €60,000 (approx. US$69,800) towards cultural events. Later on, people from all over Italy either replicated the initiative or told us they were interested in doing so; however, some couldn’t because it involved some complex logistics.
And then one day the municipality told us that they had some unused plots of land that could potentially be turned into garden blocks and offered them to us. We organised volunteers who wanted to work on them so now these have become garden blocks in which vegetables are grown. People who invest their time and effort to work in these gardens keep half the produce for themselves and give the other half to communal kitchens that help people who cannot afford to buy food.
Even under lockdown, we thought of Bologna as a lab where we could implement and test our ideas and encourage other people to do the same, by either replicating our initiatives or trying something different to see what happens. If you try things that are potentially replicable and easy for others to implement, and many people follow through, then you can achieve change on a considerable scale.