Interview. We spoke with one of the founders of the ‘Sardines against Salvini’ movement in Italy. ‘Four regular people, who know how to use Facebook and who are interested in politics, can do it. It means we can all do something.’

The ‘regular people’ behind the groundswell against Italian populism

It’s not easy to find a free time slot to talk to one of the four young people—three men and one woman—who organized the “6,000 sardines against Salvini” campaign. The first event took place in Bologna on Nov. 14, followed by an avalanche of self-organized follow-up protests. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that they’ve been “overwhelmed” by the events. Mattia Sartori, 32, a researcher in the field of renewable energy, has somehow managed to remain calm and reflective, despite the extreme media exposure he’s had to face these days.

Anti-populism, a considered approach to using language, the ability to reframe the political discourse and to show Salvini as a frail leader. Tell us the truth: is there a theory behind the practice of the “sardines”? 

No, there’s just the normality of something that a lot of people were thinking. But there had never been the spark to set it all off. But if we look back, it was a physiological need: the social fault line that is being created across the country was going to explode.

What was the breaking point? 

There wasn’t a specific moment. It’s been happening over the recent years, every time any one of us suffered as a result of aggressive and violent language. It’s no coincidence that there are many conscientious citizens among the “sardines,” but also a great many people who have been victims of media bullying.

You came up on social media, but you are engaging with the materiality of the political relationship: standing together in a public square. 

It’s one of the things we created that we didn’t quite grasp the scale of. The experts point out that we have managed to connect the real with the virtual. It’s a powerful message. We used a specific strategy. The Bologna event was managed in a thoughtful way: first, just “click here,” then “show us that you’re a real person,” then sending out leaflets to turn the virtual into something real, and finally the real-life meeting. Our advantage was that we wondered until the last moment if we should leave “6,000” in the title of the event. Setting the bar so high forced us to work hard. That was the magic.

Who “weighed up” the strategy?

All four of us. At the beginning, I proposed it, but all of the following steps were reviewed by all four of us. We looked at all our ideas, discarded very many of them, modified some others.

Can I have your word that there’s no political communications guru behind this?

Yes. But this is our other disruptive message: four regular people, who know how to use Facebook and who are interested in politics, can do it. It means we can all do something.

In your “manifesto,” you say that populism is one of your main targets. Why is that?

We probably managed to speak to a part of the population that no longer felt listened to or taken into account. For years, only that part which is angry, discontented, fragile and frightened has been talked about, and no one has spoken to those who would have welcomed a more complex message. Our message is a complex one. It’s no coincidence that our anthem is “Come profondo il mare” (“As the Sea is Deep”) by Lucio Dalla, which is a beautiful song. But a very complex one. It was Giulia’s idea. When we read the lyrics and listened to it, we said: that’s the one.

To sum up, are those critics right who are describing you as indifferent to those who don’t understand complex messages, to the social inequalities on which the populists build their political fortunes?

The sardine events are full of people who hate inequality. And a great component is the LGBT sphere, feminists, immigrants. There’s a reason behind that. They are people who have suffered under the aggressive attacks from right-wing populist language and the Lega. It is clear that we are not yet at the stage of formulating a positive program starting from the people in the squares. In Rome, on Dec. 14, when we’ll finally do that, that’s when it will all come out.

“Not yet”? How far are the sardines planning on taking this? 

It’s a road with unexpected ups and downs every day. It’s an experiment, and every day we get one more variable to determine the solution. The issue we are now facing, in addition to the logistical and practical problems, is that of bringing out the positive content and trying to maintain continuity without “drying up” and becoming a political party. All’s well only if it ends well.

You are a franchise brand. Your events have common traits in different cities, such as not allowing party flags. But in Taranto, on Sunday, will you be able to stay just as quiet as in Bologna? 

Taranto was not organized at our initiative, but came from the coordination of the Apulian sardines, who decided to make the first move, take their “first swim” in Taranto. I had my doubts at first. Then I talked to them, and I knew the message would be a powerful one. They’re saying: let’s bring the style of the sardines to a land that has become divided in recent years by all the promises of bad politics. There is no politics which can unite mothers who have lost their children with workers who want jobs. We bring a different “medicine” to a territory sick with a disease caused by the populism of those who refuse complex answers. Without party flags, it will be easier for the people of Taranto to recognize themselves in a more serious idea of society and a more serious politics. For us in Bologna, the urgency is of an electoral nature, while for them it’s about life itself.

Do you feel like you are the needed “medicine”?

We are a physical, democratic and cultural bulwark against a possible dangerous social and political drift. That is why we have strong doubts as to whether we should become a party, since if we lose our independence, we risk that the message will be less powerful.

So you are thinking of a possible party.

Not us in Emilia Romagna, but we have to deal with the situation in the rest of Italy. Those who have less hope and less political representation than us will inevitably ask the question.

You say there are some politicians with a capital “P” supporting you. Can you give me a name? 

No, because these days everything gets exploited, even the brand of toilet paper you use. But in Emilia Romagna we are lucky to have a large coalition that has representatives of the left and of the civic sphere within it.

And you will go on the 7th to Bonaccini’s rally, but in a strictly personal capacity.

Yes, but we also went to the launch of the “Coraggiosa” list. We’re interested in everything that’s happening on the left. And two of us went to listen to Grillo.

Tell us the truth: are you actually an operation tied to the PD? 

No, we’re not. We communicate, but we are different. There is a component from the PD at the events with us, because they agree with our message, but the two roads we are following are completely different.

The Five Stars and the Lega make use of populism, but so does the PD sometimes. Is there a difference between one populism and another? 

The Five Stars have had a populist streak since the beginning, but there is a difference between this and the populism of the Lega. It’s not justifiable in any of these cases, but that of the Lega is more dangerous.

You’re calling for rationality in politics. Are you really young adults, or are you actually old people?

Actually, we’re not that young. We from the under 40 group are a part of an electorate that grew up with a daily dose of culture, and we would like to see this represented once more in the political discourse.

How is your relationship with other movements? Fridays for Future have invited you to their global strike.

We support Fridays, but a lot of us sardines are already part of them. There was a dialogue with the social centers in Bologna, but then they decided not to join us.

So, after the national flash mob in Rome, what happens next? 

There will be a consultation, from Sicily to the Piedmont. Those of us from Emilia Romagna and those of us from Calabria will need to return to our territories. Then we’ll try to figure out what happens after Jan. 27. We’ll try to come up with 5, 10, 15 points on which there is agreement.

Will you have to remain generic in order to remain united? 

That’s the challenge. That’s why we have to make a more careful choice about whether, or how, we want to go on TV. As we’ve done it so far, if I go on TV, I’ll say what I personally think.

Have sardines ever managed to defeat a shark at sea? 

What I know is that when a shark attacks a school of sardines, even if it manages to eat one, there are two thousand more. And the bigger the sea, the more sardines are there.

Are we talking about Salvini here? 

Not him personally, but his message.

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