Quiet Italian town thrust to forefront of migration debate
Dressed in black bomber jackets and black T-shirts, the fascists surged into a main piazza ringed by pavement cafes.
Scuffles broke out as the demonstrators, from a far-Right party called Forza Nuova (New Force), shoved against police, chanting Benito Mussolini slogans and giving stiff-armed salutes.
The confrontation happened in Macerata, a quiet town tucked away in the eastern Marche region that rarely intruded into the minds of Italians - until last weekend, when a 28-year-old Italian man went on the rampage.
Luca Traini allegedly used a Glock pistol to randomly target African migrants in the town, shooting six before surrendering himself to police beneath a fascist-era war memorial.
The shooting spree was reportedly in revenge for the death a few days earlier of Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old white girl allegedly killed by a 28-year-old Nigerian drug dealer named Innocent Oseghale. The gruesome attacks have pushed Macerata to the forefront of Italy's election campaign as the country heads to a vote on March 4.
The bloodshed has crystallised fears of, on the one hand, the half a million migrants and refugees that Italy is struggling to deal with, and, on the other, the rise of the Right, in a country where the ghosts of fascism and Mussolini lurk in the shadows.
"We don't condone what Traini did but he should not be turned into a monster," said Roberto Fiore, the leader of Forza Nuova, as his supporters clashed with police last Thursday night. "He too is a victim of this uncontrolled migration."
While the centre-Left government and the Catholic Church expressed horror over the shootings, the anti-immigration party League (formerly the Northern League) has seen a small rise in support.
Traini, who had an Italian flag draped around his shoulders when he was arrested, was cheered by inmates in the prison where he is being held and ordinary Italians, as well as neo-fascist groups, have offered to pay his legal expenses.
Other parties were quick to sniff the national mood - the Five Star Movement, which is Italy's most popular party, with about 28pc of the vote, was markedly slow to condemn the shootings.
Macerata has a strong Left-wing tradition, but there is still a profound unease with the number of migrants who have been billeted in and around the town.
"People are exasperated and it's striking that there has not been an outright condemnation of the shootings," said Cristina Ricci, as she played with her 20-month-old daughter in the Diaz Gardens, a local park. "The government has let in all these migrants and that creates delinquency.
"It is not an issue of race, it's a social issue. I think the politicians made a big mistake."
Traditionally a supporter of the Left, Ms Ricci said she had lost confidence in the ruling Democratic Party but was also disappointed by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. "I'm confused. I don't know who to vote for," she said.
In a piazza surrounded by medieval churches, Francesco Baldi was just opening up his delicatessen for the day. "Since the shootings, people are afraid to go out," he said.
"There are many, many migrants in the town and there's nothing for them to do. There's no work for Italians, let alone foreigners," he said.
Migrants say they too are fearful to walk around the town, feeling that they have all been branded as potential drug pushers and murderers.
"Before the shootings, there was no problem. But we're scared now. When you get on the bus, people stare and point at you," said Dauda Collins (23), from Liberia, who arrived in Italy nearly three years ago and is still waiting to hear if he will be granted asylum.
A Muslim convert, he said he left Monrovia because his Christian family objected to his change of religion.
Sparo, a 22-year-old mechanic from Ghana, sleeps in a concrete stairwell in an underground car park on the edge of Macerata's historic centre.
Each morning, he carefully rolls up his duvet and hides it behind an abandoned hut in a patch of scrub. If the police find migrants' blankets and sleeping bags, they burn them, he said.
Italy won international praise for rescuing so many migrants at sea, but it is now left with the seemingly insuperable problem of what to do with them.
The tension is fuelling a furious blame game between the centre-Left government and its centre-Right challengers.
While polls suggest the Five Star Movement will be the most popular party, it is likely to be trumped by a centre-Right alliance that consists of the League, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and a far-Right party called Brothers of Italy.
If they can win 40pc of the vote, they will form a government. If, as polls suggest, they garner only 35pc to 37pc of the vote, they will have to do a deal with a rival political force, a complex process that could take weeks - or might fail altogether.
The situation remains highly fluid, given that around a third of Italians say they are unsure how they will vote.
Meanwhile, the people of Macerata attempt to heal the wounds of a tumultuous week.
"It's been really tough - things like this have never happened in the town," said Mauro, a 53-year-old tobacconist. "Twenty years ago, people would leave their keys in their front doors. Not anymore."