On Saturday, October 3rd, I found myself torso-to-torso with a crowd of 80,000+ protesters in one of Rome’s largest and most famous squares, Piazza del Popolo. My assignment: talk to as many Italian protesters as possible to touch on the main thrust behind the demonstration against Italian Prime Minster’s control of Italian media, and the culture of intimidation that exists between newspapers and municipal governments.
My editor instructed me to phone her every 20 minutes with a new, juicy quote, translated from Italian to English of course. Did I mention I was torso-to-torso with 80,000+ people?! To simply strong-arm my way to an area quiet enough to understand someone took 15 minutes. Then talking to the protesters in Italian, recording their ramblings, then replaying their comments to myself to where I could extract the most on-point quote, 20 min? Please. The pressure was higher than in any other experience to date.
The first detail my editor wanted was a crowd estimation. Both of us knowing that the cops weren’t going to even look at me let alone entrap themselves in a crowd estimate, it was up to me to guess. After one outlying cop told me the square could hold roughly 60,000 people, I knew what I had to do.
I spotted the highest, seemingly accessible wall in the square, overtaken by intently perched observers, much in the same way their ancestors must have when Imperial politicians came to grand stand back in the day. I then sized up the sea of people separating me from this key panoramic point. I rolled up my non-existent shirt sleeves, hoisted my incredibly heavy and inconvenient bag on my hip, and dove into the crowd.
I wrestled with at least 20 ‘passionate’ mob members (angry mob members sounds so negative). For every person I grappled with, three more physically handled me. I clawed, I shoved, I sweated right through my prim button up blouse, I shot my camera in the air and snapped anything that would grace my lens. I wanted to give my editor visual perspective upon my return to the office.
Finally, I reached the wall, and at once was overwhelmed by a single thought; how the hell do i get up this thing? Then I saw it, the access point where the wall dwellers were hoisting up anyone who had the nerve. Pity, I was so close to sporting my army fatigues that afternoon.
I squared my shoulders and shoved my way over to the gate-keepers. “Mi puoi aiutare?” “Can you help me?” I asked expectantly once facing the high marble wall, trying to shed the oppressive feeling of meekness I had accumulated after my third body-slam in the crowd. As true comrades, they did not hesitate, they took my bag first, of course I choked back fears of robbery since they were about to hoist my person up in the same manner. I stand at 5’8″ bare foot, with my arms fully extended I barely grabbed their hands. I silently prayed that one or both of them were cirque du soleil performers with super human strength. One, two, HEAVE!
I tried to ignore the veins bulging out of their necks and arms. Note to self: pizza and pasta do not a light person make. They got me up to my rib cage and from their I yanked myself up on the wall. Again, in comrade fashion, the gentlemen to my left returned my bag to me. I immediately ripped my camera out and started snapping the square. It was overflowing, the fullest I’d ever seen any mass-organized event in all my life. I phoned my editor to report that the crowd well exceeded 60,000. Later estimates from the police would approximate the crowd at 80,000.
While perched, I stowed my camera, whipped out my recorder, and chatted up my acrobatic partners. Of the 10 or so people from whom I took down quotes, opinions were pretty varied, but everyone agreed that intimidation and fear of physical harm were inflicting the most damage to Italian journalism. I can only imagine what new meanings the word “death threat” takes on when you live down the block from a mafia boss. No boys and girls, the mafia is not a myth, it’s very real and very well-connected in Italian politics.
I learned the value of steering your sources to a concise comment in the context of man-on-street interviews. I tended to let people go on and on as they pleased, taxing my already strained time limits and muddying their own points with unusable anecdotes and fringe examples. If ever faced with the same situation, I think I should emphasize the need to reduce their point down to a sentence, and then right it down. When speaking in English this isn’t so much of an issue, but when your working your brain to translate in real-time, 5 minute monologues are hard to decipher in a timely manner.
I hopped off the wall and spent the rest of the afternoon escaping the crowd to phone my editor, and re-entering the crowd to find the next quote. It took some serious stamina on my part, and I savored every minute. I’ve joked to family and friends about belly crawling in a jungle one day in order to get the scoop, but the truth behind the joke is that at times physical prowess can pay off in journalism.
I have no illusions about my own physical performance that day, if anything I was an awkward turtle, but it awakened me to not only the multidimensional demands of journalism, but the multidimensional fun of it as well. I personally like getting on a scene and facing physical, or bureaucratic obstacles. I really feel my worth, or lack their of, in such situations.
Not to mention, I gained a whole new appreciation for the journalists covering that protest that were filming, photographing and writing all at once. It seems like organized chaos to be straddled with all that equipment and having to factor in so many elements into a single sound bite or a minute of b-roll, or a quote with precisely the right amount of color and information.
At the end of 4 hours, I was exhausted and starving. I zipped back into the office, typed up everything I had, and passed it along. I got no complaints that day, which was the highest praise I could ever have hoped for, and was allowed to leave early. After such a huge experience there is only one thing to do; call up a buddy and decompress over a couple of beers, which is exactly what I did.