, Rome, Italy, Feb 24 – As night falls near the Piazza Vittorio, a crowd of men stand silently waving Italian flags and another, blood red with a black tortoise emblem.
The 50-strong group unfurls a large banner on this square in Rome’s city centre, reading: “Rape, theft, violence, enough degradation in this area.”
Patrolling the multi-ethnic Esquilino district, this is CasaPound: a neo-fascist grassroots group turned political party.
It is one of a handful of anti-immigration groups that have become household names ahead of March 4 elections in Italy.
In the eurozone’s third-largest economy, millions are still living in poverty after the 2008 financial crisis — and tension is high.
Cases such as the recent sexual assault of a 75-year old homeless woman, allegedly by a Senegalese man, have brought CasaPound into the streets.
“Italians can no longer walk around this area peacefully, because all the foreigners that continue to arrive end up here,” says one member, Carlomanno Adinolfi, 35.
– Neo-fascist attacks –
The arrival of almost 700,000 migrants on Italian shores since 2013 has thrust the issue to the forefront of the election campaign.
Authorities estimate 500,000 people are living here illegally. Many are impoverished or homeless, unable to work or integrate.
Racial tension has risen sharply in the election run-up, emboldening Italy’s far-right groups.
Over the past year there have been widespread reports in Italian media of neo-fascists attacking migrants.
Just over a week until the vote, a right-wing coalition headed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is leading in the polls.
The group, which contains two far-right parties, has promised to stop migrants arriving and deport hundreds and thousands.
“I don’t feel safe walking home by myself in the evening anymore,” says Giuliana, a 48-year-old Esquilino resident who would not give her last name.
“I’m not against foreigners, I just want immigration to be controlled. Those with criminal records should be kicked out, but our state has not taken care of this.”
An average of the last major pre-election polls published in Italian media indicated that one in five Italian voters is expected to vote for a far-right party on March 4.
– ‘Dangerous’ exclusion –
Not everyone appreciates CasaPound’s night-time neighbourhood patrols, however.
“CasaPound is dangerous because their political programme excludes a whole series of people considered ‘different’ and this leads to divisions in society that are damaging to everyone,” says local resident Michele Vacca, 32.
“To solve the migrant issue, we need progressive, reformist policies.”
Although polls indicate that CasaPound is unlikely to garner the three percent of the national vote needed to enter Italy’s parliament, the group has experienced a series of successes at local level.
They now have local councillors elected in several regions, largely thanks to their grassroots community work to help the poor.
– Food parcels –
On the other side of Rome, CasaPound has organised a community event at a council estate, dishing up pasta for locals despite the rain.
“Through the help we offer, we have made friends,” says CasaPound member Alessandro Calvo. “So we decided to throw a little party to celebrate this friendship.”
Calvo says its network of members distributes food gathered from donations, offers free legal support by volunteers and organises community activities for Italians in need.
The number of Italians living in absolute poverty reached 4.7 million in 2016, according to the national statistics institute (Istat) — some two million more than when the crisis began in 2008.
Calvo says that the group has seen an increasing number of families approach them for help.
“I’m unemployed. I’m waiting to receive benefits, which is a long process in Italy, and I found myself with absolutely nothing,” said Ana Maria, a 38-year-old mother who would not give her last name.
“CasaPound gives me food packages and organises events for our children,” she says, wiping away tears.
“It’s really important, they create a sense of community that has been lost.”
– CasaPound ‘family’ –
Paola Menegat, a local cleaner, says she and others received help and advice from CasaPound.
Now she is an activist for the party.
In her circle, “originally there were four of us here who wanted to volunteer with CasaPound. Today we could open a committee with over 50 people,” she says.
CasaPound is like a “family” for her, she adds.
“When you are abandoned by the state you have to find the strength to cope on your own,” she says.
“With CasaPound, you’re never alone.”