ROME – Created as a social movement to help under-privileged Italians, a small neo-fascist group has been grabbing headlines and gaining notoriety with its fierce opposition to migrants arriving in Italy.
But CasaPound, which combines progressive policies such as gay rights and abortion with die-hard nationalism, is also attracting supporters across Italy, where fascism never disappeared despite the collapse of dictator Benito Mussolini's regime seven decades ago.
The group is riding a tide of anti-migrant sentiment as it seeks inroads into Italian politics with the ambition of entering parliament next spring and government in a decade.
While analysts doubt it can achieve broad voter acceptance, CasaPound is among a growing movement of nationalist, anti-establishment politics across Europe. Last week, the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party, founded just four years ago, finished third in Germany's election to secure seats in the national parliament.
Founded in 2003 as a group of squatters claiming housing for needy families, CasaPound takes its name from Ezra Pound, the American poet who was a Mussolini sympathizer and who identified rent as a form of usury, one of the group's founding principles.
The group's fierce opposition to the unabated arrival of migrants, along with its defense of marginalized Italians, has helped it grow in recent years from 5,000 members in 2013 to the 20,000 it claims today.
Long identified in Italy as a violent spark in larger protests, CasaPound has recently been active in disrupting efforts to house migrants. Earlier this month, CasaPound members violently clashed with leftists at a meeting about migrant housing in Rome. And in June, CasaPound activists attacked and injured volunteers inside Milan's city hall ahead of a similar meeting.
Members have patrolled the beaches of Ostia, near Rome, against migrants allegedly peddling goods illegally.
Leader Gianluca Iannone — a lead singer for the rock band Zetazeroalfa — says the party is redefining what it means to be neo-fascists in Italy.
"Here we are. It simply means that homeland, nation and community come first, because we are one people," he told The Associated Press. (what does he mean 'because we are a people'?)
CasaPound does not hew to the image first cast by Mussolini's black shirts. Members sport elaborate tattoos and practice martial arts, and the entrance to the group's headquarters is painted with the names of other figures it admires: the poet W. B. Yeats, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the writers Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkien.
While they align closely with other European populist groups in opposing the euro currency and closer financial integration within the European Union, they also embrace some progressive policies. Members back gay rights, abortion, and full-time salaries for mothers who work part-time, and send out volunteers after natural disasters.
Concerns about the rise of neo-fascists and the spread of other right-leaning propaganda in Italy have prompted the Democratic Party to introduce a new bill that would tighten legislation promoting fascism. The bill is opposed by the Northern League, which shares an anti-EU and anti-migrant platform with CasaPound, the populist 5-Star Movement, and Brothers of Italy, another right-wing party.
Still, observers say CasaPound's activist profile, including volunteering in quake zones, has managed to help soften its image. Emanuele Toscano, a sociologist who has researched the group, says that many are attracted by a sense of community without being fully aware of the political implications.
"Like all the populist and right-wing forces, they leverage on general fears: fear of invasion, poor management of the territory, fears tied to the loss of Italian identity, questions of general order related to security," Toscano said.
"But the difference in respect to the traditional right extremists in Italy is that CasaPound has managed to build a more acceptable image. ... CasaPound is in some way less scary than other extreme-right movements."
The group's political successes so far have been minor. It has seen supporters elected to local councils in cities as diverse as Bolzano, in the autonomous northern region of Trentino-Alto-Adige, and historically left-wing Lucca in Tuscany. But experts say it is far from being a player in the current political landscape, and is unlikely to pass the threshold to enter parliament in the next elections.
Political analyst Stefano Folli said it is unlikely to earn more than half a percent of votes in the spring. Attempts to align with the more well-established Lega Nord, or Northern League, have been so far unsuccessful, he noted.
"It is a very small radical movement, part of a right wing that is rather hard-line and already represented by two important parties — the Northern League and Brothers of Italy," said Piero Ignazi, a professor at the University of Bologna who has written a book about the radical right in Europe and Italy. "There is no space for them. It is a group without great appeal."