Peter Popham: Don't try and predict the Italian police

Rome Notebook: The genial mass of police raised shields and billy clubs and marched towards the protesters

Monday 08 September 2008 00:00 BST

Italy has an unnerving ability to switch in a flash from being a kind and obliging country to a nasty place capable of ruthless violence. The latest to find this out was a group of activists protesting about the plan to build a of a new American military base in the city of Vicenza.

As part of their effort to monitor whatever is going on behind the walls of the planned base, the protesters decided to build an observation tower nearby so they could peek over. They told the local police in advance. One can imagine that in Britain they would have met with a firm thumbs down, but here the police gave every indication that they didn't give two hoots about the tower. After some negotiations, said Stephanie Westbrook, an American activist, they were allowed to proceed.

"Construction of the tower began," Ms Westbrook explained, "with mixing cement and cutting and mounting of scaffolding material. Everything was done out in the open and communicated by megaphone. Some of the guys took a ladder over to the fence of the base and tied a scarecrow to it so it could keep an eye on what was happening inside. The atmosphere was jovial." The tower was part of a 10-day anti-base protest programme, and around 1pm, a police officer assured them that the tower could stay up for the whole 10 days.

But then an officer from a different force showed up to say the tower had to come down at once. Suddenly the genial mass of police around the site put on helmets and gloves and raised shields and billy clubs and marched towards the protesters. The protesters sat down and the police waded in. By the end of the afternoon the tower was no more, and 20 protesters had been treated in hospital for their injuries.

A tear-stained cheek

The fashion designer Giorgio Armani and the football star Francesco Totti were among 60,000 Madonna fans who packed Rome's Olympic Stadium for the only Italian date of her "Sticky & Sweet" Tour. The singer couldn't resist reminding her audience of all the times she had made Italian Catholics blush, dedicating "Like a Virgin" to the Pope – "because he loves me, because I'm also a child of God ..."

Meanwhile, this is a country that has plenty of Madonna statues, with some said to shed tears, but the latest one is in honour of the singer and will be built in the Abruzzo region where her grandparents were born.

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