On May 1, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi launched the Milan Expo, a six-month, 145-country event on sustainable food production, held just outside the city. Just ten miles away, in the center of Milan, some 30,000 people (link in Italian) gathered in protest.
The “No Expo” rally included groups of workers, migrants rights activists and students. The mood was relatively positive, with brass bands from all over Europe playing music. But not everyone was there for peaceful political activism; an hour after the protest started, as many as 500 people dressed in black started rioting.
Anti-riot police responded with tear gas and water cannons. According to regional governor Roberto Maroni, significant damage was done; he has authorized an emergency fund of 1.5 million euros ($1.7 million) for the city (link in Italian). On May 3, at least 20,000 more people took to the streets of Milan—this time, to clean writing from the walls and to protest against violence.
Some “No Expo” activists say the violent protestors were members of what press have dubbed “Black Boc,” a rogue protest group first identified at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, USA. “Some individuals decided by themselves to practice riots while the No Expo assembly, which organized the march, had very different objectives,” said Massimiliano Goitom, a No Expo activist.
Despite the rough start, Andrea Cegna, an organizer of the No Expo assembly, told Quartz that he and others would continue to peacefully protest against for the next six months (pdf, Italian).
No Expo activists argue that the Milan Expo has wasted Italian public funds, without producing measurable benefits for the country. “The Expo never created jobs—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most of the work [at the Expo] is volunteered, with no adequate wage,” said Alberto Di Monte, another No Expo activist and author of Expopolis, an investigation into the event. According to Di Monte’s research, the Milan Expo cost Italy at least 10 billion euros ($11.2 billion) in public money, in the midst of a national economic crisis (pdf, link in Italian).
Despite the vast sums spent in preparation for the event, large parts of the Expo site still were not ready for opening day. The day after opening ceremony, a visitor was wounded by a cornerstone falling from the Turkish pavilion.
Criticism doesn’t come just from protestors in the street. Expo organizers have already faced a corruption investigation, and several lawmakers involved in the project have been arrested.
An independent study by Roberto Perotti, a professor at Milan’s Bocconi University and an economic advisor to the government, also draws negative conclusions about the Expo. Perotti criticizes Expo organizers and city officials (pdf, Italian) for making “risky economic estimates” and “overestimated results” about the Expo, and concludes: “Expo should not have happened in the first place.”
Milan officials, on the other hand, insist that Italy will benefit from the Expo. They expect the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to increase between 10-14 billion euros (US$11.2-15.6 billion) thanks to the initiative. Twenty million visitors are expected to attend the event and according to organizers, 11 million tickets have already been sold (link in Italian).
No Expo activists also argue that the Expo is wrongheaded on a much deeper level. Small farmers have been excluded from the event, complain activists. The Expo’s corporate sponsors also include McDonalds and Coca Cola, arguably poor models for an event about the future of food.
Pope Francis, who spoke via a televised linkup to the Expo’s opening ceremony, expressed a similar view. “In certain ways, the Expo itself is part of this paradox of abundance, it obeys the culture of waste and does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development,” he said. The Expo should instead focus on “the faces of the men and women who are hungry, who fall ill and even die because of an insufficient or harmful diet,” he added.