Sunday, December 18, 2011
“New Italians”, Old Racism and New Violence
Back in July, the Northern League European MP, Mario Borghezio made a clumsy attempt to explain and justify the Norwegian murderer, Anders Breivik’s motives for his killing spree. “Some of his ideas are good, excellent”. He was forced to apologise but ended up claiming that the Norwegian chargé d’affaires had “thanked him” for the apology.
Racism in Italy is nothing like as virulent as it has been in the past in Britain, France and Germany, but it is there and not far below the surface.
Over the last week, it erupted into open violence in two episodes and was prevented in a third. Last Saturday, a group of angry Turinese turned a protest march into a lynch mob when they attacked a Roma camp at Continassa, because a 16 year old girl said she had been raped by two gypsies. As it turned out, the girl had lied but even if it had been true, it would not have justified the Piedmontese pogrom. The attackers arrived with flares and clubs and set fire to the camp.
Then on Monday, a 50 year old Tuscan right wing radical, Gianluca Casseri, killed two Senegalese street vendors in piazza Dalmazia in Florence. He went on to the market piazza S. Lorenzo and shot three others, seriously wounding them; surrounded by the police, he then shot himself. He had a long history of militancy and had written articles for the extreme right wing cultural centre, Casa Pound (which exists in many cities in Italy and tries to present itself as a “moderate”, “concerned” and “non-violent” right, inspired by Ezra Pound).
As a result of the attack, police in Rome arrested Maurizio Boccacci, leader of an extreme right wing group in Rome, Militia, charging him and others of planning attacks on the president of the Jewish community in Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, and some Romanians. Ironically, they were also accused of planning attacks on the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno and speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, both former right wing militants. Both, though, have made their commitment against racism very clear.
All these episodes are a long way from mass violence against new immigrants or the old “other” (there have been Jews in Rome for longer than there have been Christians) but they show how easy it is to rekindle old hatreds or create new ones. Italy introduced discriminatory laws against Jews in 1938 and had had similar racist legislation before then in the colonies. There was never any violence to match the Nazis or even the colour bar in the US and European colonies (and some home countries too)… but then until the 1990s, there were in practice no people of colour…
The risks for the future are not just from the extremists, including some supporters of the Northern League, part of the government until last month. The real risk is from moderates (real and fake) who make low key racism respectable or increase tension, sometimes without realising. There is Berlusconi who said in 2009 that Milan “looks like an African city because of the number of foreigners”. That was an overtly racist remark but there is a much more subtle and dangerous form of language.
This week there were presentations of research on migration to coincide with International Migrants’ Day today. In one of them, the Transatlantic Trends on Immigration 2011 report was presented. TTI is sponsored by the the German Marshall Fund and the report was presented by the international relations thinktank, the Istituto Affari Internazionali at the Chamber of Deputies. It was all highly respectable, light years away from any racist radical. And yet the presenter, Pierangelo Isernia from the University of Siena, started by talking about “the problem” (others used more neutral terms like “question” or “phenomenon”) of immigration. Orally and in the report, the phrase “illegal immigrant” was used despite recommendations from the ILO internationally and Italian journalists to use “irregular”. Worse, in most of the discussion that followed, there was a constant confusion between “immigrants”, “asylum seekers”, “refugees”, a distinction which is crucial in informing the public perception of migration.
Magistrate and former junior minister of the Interior with responsibility for immigration, Alfredo Mantovano, bundled together the European Commission, the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights, France and Greece as “Europe” which according to him was not helping Italy deal with immigrants. As a man of law and political practitioner, he knows the differences much better than most, and admitted as much afterwards. If someone like that and people much more open to migration do not make these distinctions, then we cannot expect the broader public to do so. It is not pedantry or political correctness – words create assumptions and reinforce perceptions so we must all be careful how we use them.
For today’s celebration of Migrants’ Day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s message was very clear.
“Migration affects all countries – and so do myths and misperceptions about its impact. There are many false assumptions surrounding migration. One such myth is that migrants are a burden. In reality, migrants make vast contributions to host countries. As workers, they bring skills. As entrepreneurs, they create jobs. As investors, they bring capital. In advanced and emerging economies, they play an indispensible role in agriculture,tourism and domestic work. Migrants often care for the youngest and oldest members of society. People view irregular migration as a crime. Many think migrants who lack proper documents are a danger to society and should be detained, or that all women who migrate to take up low-skilled jobs have been trafficked”.
Yesterday, there were demonstrations in Florence and across the country to show solidarity for the two murdered Senegalese. Thousands marched to show their condemnation of all racist violence. It was an important sign, but as important as the numbers (of Italians and immigrants), and more important than the usual speakers from the centre-left, was the presence of a minister from the previous government, Gianfranco Rotondi, and the Northern League mayor of Verona, Flavio Tosi. Neither is representative of his party, but their example is a start to curb the old racism and prevent a new one growing.