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In Italian politics, a grassroots effort called the Sardines movement is gaining momentum. It's just a month old, and already it's drawing big crowds to rally against populism and racism. Organizers are positioning the Sardines movement as a counterweight to a far-right, anti-immigrant wave. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli went to a rally in Rome this weekend.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Like a can of sardines, Rome's large St. John the Lateran square was tightly packed with people. Pensioners, teenagers and families with kids held fish-shaped signs calling for civility, inclusion and diversity. And they sang the anthem of Italy's anti-fascist resistance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLA CIAO")
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Italian).
POGGIOLI: Many said they don't identify with strident confrontations on TV talk shows and embrace the Sardines' moderate civic activism. Sardines reject political affiliations but welcome all who oppose populism, racism and verbal violence. One of the movement founders, Mattia Santori, described who they are.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MATTIA SANTORI: (Through interpreter) People able to distinguish politics from marketing and to recognize when consensus is built on solid foundations, not on social media deception. By taking a stand, we can create a new narrative, the first step toward a new reality.
POGGIOLI: Listening attentively, Tania Alessandri said she likes what she called commonsense proposals.
TANIA ALESSANDRI: (Through interpreter) I feel in unison with these people. Their ideals have reawakened my political consciousness and stimulated my need to participate in the political process. I feel vital again.
POGGIOLI: The movement was born a month ago in the Northern Italian city of Bologna to counter the growing popularity of Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant League Party. Bologna is the historic capital of Emilia-Romagna, for decades a center-left bastion. But attitudes are shifting, and polls suggest the League could win regional elections there in January.
Posting on Facebook, Santori and three of his friends announced an anti-Salvini rally. Hoping for 6,000 people, more than double showed up. Lorenzo Donnoli, who days later organized a rally in Ferrara, says the movement's name symbolizes civil society's strength in numbers.
LORENZO DONNOLI: Be a sardina means be part of a huge group, a sea, be part of a sea to defend you, defend our mutual ideas and values and use this energy to share these values around the country, around the world.
POGGIOLI: Days later in Rome, Stephen Ogongo opened a Rome Sardines Facebook group at midnight. By morning, 10,000 requested to join. Today it has 140,000 members. A native of Kenya, Ogongo says Italians were not racist when he first arrived 25 years ago to attend university. But as right-wing politicians exploited the immigration issue, he says, many Italians kept quiet.
STEPHEN OGONGO: This made racist politicians believe that they had a majority in the country 'cause they were so vocal, and their supporters were equally vocal - that people who were not racist, in a way, went underground.
POGGIOLI: Andrea Gareffa, one of the three original founders of the Sardines, says the movement has given an opportunity to those who've long been silent.
ANDRE GARREFFA: To gather and rediscover the beauty and the strength that feeling close to each other can bring to the political discourse.
POGGIOLI: League leader Salvini has mocked the movement, tweeting he likes kittens more because they eat sardines.
Santori does not want the movement to become a political party but says the Sardines are aware they've tapped into something potentially powerful.
SANTORI: (Through interpreter) How do we channel this energy? How do we reach our original goal to curb, hopefully stop, the populist wave and propose a political idea that's both serious and appealingly cool?
POGGIOLI: Meeting after the rally, the newly formed leaders agreed to focus next on regional elections in January, staging rallies mostly in small towns and rural areas more vulnerable, they believe, to the siren call of right-wing populism.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEKSANDIR'S "BEFORE, AFTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.