Rome — Central Rome was gripped with violence this weekend as thousands of protesters marched against the toughest new vaccine mandates in the world. All Italians will soon be required to show a coronavirus "," proving either vaccination, recovery in the past six months, or a negative test from the past 48 hours to enter their workplaces.
What started off as a restless but peaceful demonstration against the looming measure in Rome's Piazza del Popolo ended up sparking a tinderbox when an offshoot of protesters stormed the headquarters of CGIL, Italy's oldest and biggest labor union.
When they marched toward the prime minister's office, police responded with water cannon and tear gas. Dozens of police officers were hurt in the melee.
In a bizarre twist, the unrest created a security incident for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was in Rome for a meeting with foreign leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Pope Francis. She was attending Mass at St. Patrick's Church and scheduled to give a reading when the chaos outside moved Italian government officials to remove the speaker and her husband from the premises.
Loud chants of "liberta'" (freedom) echoed throughout the Eternal City. Freedom, the protesters demanded, from the national vaccine mandate scheduled to go into effect on October 15.
The Green Passfor anyone wishing to dine indoors, use long-distance trains or almost any form of leisure activity. But the new restrictions go further than any other country in the world, and some workers face suspension without pay if they fail to comply.
"I consider this to be criminal and cowardly blackmail by our highest institutions," said Maria Ballarin, a retiree who joined the march.
"There will finally be a revolution in Italy," said another protester, Carolina, who works in the fashion industry. "We won't go to work."
Some of the protesters accused of violence have been identified as card-carrying members of a neo-fascist political group. Roberto Fiore, the leader of the extreme-right group, was among 12 people arrested. Forza Nuova remained unapologetic after the rioting.
"The popular revolution will not stop, with or without us, until the Green Pass is definitively withdrawn," the group said in a statement. "Saturday was a watershed between the old and the new. The people decided to raise the level of the clash."
Some Italian lawmakers are calling for such groups to be dismantled, recalling the 20-year fascist rule of dictator Benito Mussolini, who took over Italy's government almost 100 years go.
"The events... take us back to the darkest and most dramatic moments of our history and they are an extremely serious and unacceptable attack on democracy," said Valeria Fedeli, a Senator for the center-left Democratic Party.
Police said they had identified about 600 people who took part in the violence after studying video.
Despite the outrage of some over the national vaccine mandates, however, it's a minority opinion in Italy, where 80% of residents over the age of 12 are already fully vaccinated — a government target that was reached on Saturday, the same day as the protests.
Only about 66% of over-12s in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated.
Polls show that most Italians believe the new rules will help ensure the hell of last year — when the country literally— never happens again.
Italy has registered 131,274 deaths linked to COVID-19 since February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the ninth-highest in the world.
Hospitalizations have been steadily declining since early summer.