resistance to racism in italy

by Marina Falbo

Rosarno is a sleepy town situated in the the southern Italian region of Calabria. But on 7th January it was catapulted to the centre of a media frenzy when hundreds of African migrant workers rampaged through the town, setting fire to rubbish bins and conducting a street battle with the police. The riot was sparked after a gratuitous attack against the 26 year old Ayiva Saibou. When the local police told the immigrants they could not help the injured man, within hours as many as 2,000 immigrants marched on Rosarno’s town hall before being driven back by police.

The day after, protests continued. The protestors carried placards saying “We are not animals”, calling attention to their desperate situation. They marched to the town hall where they demanded to see a government representative. The riots provoked an unseen backlash against the immigrants in a mix of xenophobia, mafia and economic hardship. Local residents set up a barricade near a meeting place for the immigrants.

Media reports said that despite heavy police presence two immigrants were beaten with metal bars so ruthlessly, that one of the wounded had to be taken to hospital for brain surgery. Five other immigrants were deliberately run over by vehicles and two other immigrants were hit in the legs with shotgun pellets. In the wider unrest that followed, the official number of injured totalled 67, including 31 immigrants, 17 Italians and 19 policemen. About 700 were put in detention centres and bulldozers erased their shanties.

Immigrants in Rosarno

Before the riots, around 2,500 immigrant workers were living in and around Rosarno. Many have political asylum or are otherwise legally in Italy, but legal or not, the migrants are managed by a Mafia-run employment system, the caporalato, that operates like a 21st century chain gang. Immigrants were either living in abandoned factories or shanties made out of cardboard and wooden boards. For 1,000 workers living in an abandoned factory there were only 8 toilets and 3 showers, no electricity and until last year no running water. These workers’ living conditions were described by Médecins Sans Frontières simply as “terrible”. This is the result of a meagre income of around €25 for a 12 to 14 hour working day. According to The Economist , €5 of this goes to overseers suspected of links with the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia.

Economic hardship, quiet xenophobia and organised crime

The way immigrants are treated in Rosarno is not an exception but sadly an example of how, according to the CGIL trade union (the largest in Italy), about 50,000 immigrant workers around the country live.

Most migrants live in poor conditions similar to those in Rosarno and paid miserable salaries. In a sense, Rosarno is emblematic of the net of economic hardship, quiet xenophobia and links to organised crime in which immigrants, whether undocumented or legal, too often are trapped.

A local representative of the CGIL trade union pointed that the way farming is financed is playing a crucial role in the town’s social breakdown. On December 11th the Italian farmers’ confederation said that the local citrus industry had been made “unsustainable” by a flood of cheap Spanish oranges and Brazilian orange juice. Imported concentrate could be bought for €1.27 a kilo—53 cents less than production cost in Italy. Furthermore, orange farmers were no longer paid EU subsidies for the amount of fruit they produced but instead according to the amount of land they farm. This means less incentive to produce fruit. The Rosarno riots were thus partly caused by the failure of southern Italy’s economy to cope with the change in the European Union and globalisation. The use of an artificially (indeed, illegally) cheap labour force sought to guarantee steady profits. However, now it represents a burden and unaffordable commodity.

Rosarno is also a fortress of the local organised-crime group, the ’Ndrangheta. Well known for its international drug and gun-smuggling network, earning tens of billions of euros, it is also said to manage the illegal labour force that picks crops. Rumours say that mobsters knew that black immigrants were not needed anymore and their ‘expulsion’ would be tacitly accepted. The immigrants’ uprising led to the immediate expulsion of those involved. Investigators are also looking into possible relation between the unrest and a bomb attack four days earlier against the offices of the attorney general in Reggio Calabria, 60km from Rosarno. Police arrested more than 40 suspected Mafiosi, including 17 who could be affiliates of the clan from Rosarno.

Moreover, the riots took place amid a general climate of racial hatred and intolerance. Racism and xenophobia toward migrants, as well as members of the Roma and Sinti ethnic groups, is a serious problem in Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said that his government rejects the idea of a multiethnic Italy. A 2009 law made undocumented entry and stay in Italy a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to 10,000 euros, while a 2008 law made an undocumented stay in Italy an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime. Political discourse, policies, and legislation over the past two years have reinforced a perception of a link between migrants and crime, feeding a climate of intolerance.

Indeed, the interior minister, Roberto Maroni of the xenophobic Lega Nord party, claimed the tensions were a result of too much tolerance towards clandestine immigration, thus trying to place the blame on the African workers.

Primo Marzo Strike

As a result of the Rosarno riots, a non-violent collective Primo Marzo 2010, Una giornata senza di noi (‘1st March 2010, a day without us’), bringing together people of all colours, religions, genders, and sexual and political orientations, has called a migrants’ strike for 1st March. On that day, migrants across Italy will stop working to highlight their contribution to the Italian economy, said by some analysts to be 10% of the national GDP. On the same day, migrants in France will strike as well. The struggle for humane living and working conditions, to live in dignity and against every form of discrimination of skin colour, origin, race, religion or gender, is a focal point of the Primo Marzo movement. It is a call for resistance to racial hatred and violent attacks against migrant workers with an organised protest of both Italians and immigrants.

This protest action is also emblematic of the ongoing crisis of the left; the organisers of the strike state quite strongly that the strike must not be related to any political structure, organisation or ideology and they chose the colour yellow as a symbol of the strike precisely because it has no political connotations. Whereas it could be a day where the class struggle and fight against racial hatred are united, where immigrants and like minded Italians fight together for fair and just working conditions, the traditional parties of the left will neither lead the struggle nor be welcome in it. The Rosarno riots help pinpoint the shortcomings of Italian society: its quiet xenophobia, economic hardship, organised crime and inefficient political class. But could Rosarno become also a wake up call for the left?

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