Perhaps the most beautiful country in the world, however….
Italy’s African Heroes
Roberto Saviano NYT
WHEN I was a teenager here, kids used to shoot dogs in the head. It was a way of gaining confidence with a gun, of venting your rage on another living creature. Now it seems human beings are used for target practice.
This month, rioting by African immigrants broke out in Rosarno, in southern Italy, after at least one immigrant was shot with an air rifle. The riots were widely portrayed as clashes between immigrants and native Italians, but they were really a revolt against the ’Ndrangheta, the powerful Calabrian mafia. Anyone who seeks to negate or to minimize this motive is not familiar with these places where everything — jobs, wages, housing — is controlled by criminal organizations.
The episode in Rosarno was the second such uprising against organized crime in Italy in the last few years. The first took place in 2008 in Castel Volturno, a town near Naples, where hit men from the local mob, the Camorra, killed six Africans. The massacre was intended to intimidate, but it set off the immigrants’ anger instead.
In Castel Volturno, the immigrants work in construction. In Rosarno, they pick oranges. But in both places the mafias control all economic activity. And the only ones who’ve had the courage to rebel against them are the Africans.
An immigrant who lands in France or Britain knows he’ll have to abide by the law, but he also knows he’ll have real and tangible rights. That’s not how it is in Italy, where bureaucracy and corruption make it seem as if the only guarantees are prohibitions and mafia rule, under which rights are nonexistent. The mafias let the African immigrants live and work in their territories because they make a profit off them. The mafias exploit them, but also grant them living space in abandoned areas outside of town, and they keep the police from running too many checks or repatriating them.
The immigrants are temporarily willing to accept peanut wages, slave hours and poor living conditions. They’ve already handed over all they owned, risked all they had, just to get to Italy. But they came to make a better life for themselves — and they’re not about to let anyone take the possibility of that life away.
There are native Italians who reject mafia rule as well, but they have the means and the freedom to leave places like Rosarno, becoming migrants themselves. The Africans can’t. They have to stand up to the clans. They know they have to act collectively, for it’s their only way of protecting themselves. Otherwise they end up getting killed, which happens sometimes even to the European immigrant workers.
It’s a mistake to view the Rosarno rioters as criminals. The Rosarno riots were not about attacking the law, but about gaining access to the law.
There are African criminals of course, African mafiosi, who do business with the Italian mafias. An increasing amount of the cocaine that arrives here from South America comes via West Africa. African criminal organizations are amassing enormous power, but the poor African workers in Italy are not their men.
The Italian state should condemn the violence of the riots, but if it treats the immigrants as criminals, it will drive them to the mafias. After the Rosarno riots, the government moved more than a thousand immigrants to detention centers, allegedly for their own safety, and destroyed the rudimentary camp where many of them had lived. This is the kind of reaction that will encourage those immigrants to see the African criminal organizations as necessary protection.
For now, the majority resist; they came to Italy to better themselves, not to be mobsters. But if the Africans in Rosarno had been organized at a criminal level, they would have had a way to negotiate with the Calabrian Mafia. They would have been able to obtain better working and living conditions. They wouldn’t have had to riot.
Italy is a country that’s forgotten how its emigrants were treated in the United States, how the discrimination they suffered was precisely what allowed the Mafia to take root there. It was extremely difficult for many Italian immigrants, who did not feel protected or represented by anyone else, to avoid the clutches of the mob. It’s enough to remember Joe Petrosino, the Italian-born New York City police officer who was murdered in 1909 for taking on the Mafia, to recognize the price honest Italians paid.
Immigrants come to Italy to do jobs Italians don’t want to do, but they have also begun defending the rights that Italians are too afraid, indifferent or jaded to defend. To those African immigrants I say: don’t go — don’t leave us alone with the mafias.