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Italy’s New Racist Storm

A fascist terrorist attack has highlighted the growing threat of Italy’s far right in the lead-up to the March 4 elections.

Refugees and migrants are seen waiting to disembark after arriving in port on June 12, 2017 in Reggio Calabria, Italy. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

One month before Italy goes to the polls, the conflict over immigration, and the future of migrant communities, has exploded. The European question has disappeared. For a moment, discussions around universal income and other forms of poor relief entered the stage. But these too have quickly receded in the wake of the attack on the morning of Saturday, February 3, when a fascist shot eight West Africans on the street in Macerata.

Faced with mass youth emigration and a stalled economy with seemingly no way out, practically all of the electoral parties have scapegoated immigrants for years. The days are over of praising migrant rescues at sea and the welcoming nature of ordinary Italians. For two years both the opposition parties and the government have shifted to the right, the former through ratcheting up racist, xenophobic rhetoric and the latter in criminalizing solidarity and all but closing the Mediterranean route, effectively condemning hundreds of thousands of people to the Libyan inferno.

In the Macerata attack, all the racism which has been fostered by the media and political class to create an ideological distraction from the material problems of the working class boiled over into a horrific act of fascist violence, in the process accelerating the tendency as the election nears: a train of hatred hurtling towards the end of the track.

A Saturday Morning in the Marche

On Saturday morning, at least eight young West Africans were shot on the streets of Macerata, near the eastern coast of central Italy. The worst hit was a twenty-eight-year-old man from Mali, Mahamadou Touré, who remains in intensive care with liver trauma. A second man, Festus Omagbon, from Nigeria, was buying some West African foodstuffs with a friend from Ghana, both of whom are residents of an asylum-seeker hostel in the town. They were shot in the ribs and arm, respectively. A young Gambian man, Omar Fadera, received a grazing wound.

Jennifer Otiotio, again from Nigeria, was the only woman shot. Only seven months in Italy, she lives in an asylum-seeker project, working occasionally as a hairdresser. Her left hand is fractured. She was waiting for the bus with her partner, who pushed her body aside from the direct line of the gun when he heard the shots. “The real wound isn’t the one you can see, it’s not the one on my body,” she told journalists. “I’m much worse inside than I look on the outside. I never did anything bad to anyone, I was smiling and chatting with three other people. Now I don’t feel I can go around in peace.”

Another young Nigerian, Gideon, was riding his bicycle and was shot in the hip. “I scream and scream before I went to bus stop, before they come and pick me and take me to hospital,” he says in a YouTube video. Having arrived in Italy from Nigeria four years ago, he now finds himself without the right to remain in the country. He checked himself out quickly, scared for his legal situation. Indeed, these are only the six people we know were shot on Saturday morning; there were at least two more who did not go to the police or the hospital.

The victims inadvertently form a snapshot of the new generation of migrants in Italy, the generation that now stands in the political crosshairs: Gideon, here for the longest time, now finds himself with neither documents nor a hostel. And of the six, only one was a woman, aptly reflecting the predominance of men in Italy’s most recent wave of migration. Furthermore, two people were shot but did not report themselves: and this is perhaps the most significant fact that the fascist attacker managed to bring to light, that even in the face of the most appalling danger, people will still make themselves invisible to protect their ability to remain in Europe, the condition for hyper-exploitation which, as we will see, underlines the entire process of division within the working class in Italy.

These young West Africans were all shot by Luca Traini, a skinhead with a copy of Mein Kampf in his bedroom and who ran as a candidate in the local elections last year for the right-wing Northern League party (he received no votes). After his drive-by shootings he stopped at the town’s fascist war memorial, wrapped an Italian flag around his neck, gave a fascist salute, and shouted “Viva l’Italia.”

Traini, unemployed and living with his grandmother, seemed to have turned to fascist views around three years ago, around the time he bought a Glock 0.9 with a sports gun license. His gym instructor says that over the past few years he has hung around not only the Northern League but also the explicitly fascist organizations Forza Nuova and Casa Pound. After making racist jokes and fascist salutes in the gym, he was kicked out in October. He has a fascist symbol tattooed on his head.

Despite all of this, most Italian journalists and politicians have been reluctant to call him a fascist, with Repubblica, the Corriere della Sera, and RAI instead opting for “racist,” “madman,” and “lone wolf,” following the established rituals by which European states and the US protect white supremacist organizations from public scrutiny. He has explained his motives as “wanting to shoot the blacks who sell drugs.”

Femicide and the Racist Turn

Before stopping at the fascist war memorial, Traini briefly drove to the site where two bags had been found three days before. Inside were the brutalized remains of a young Italian woman, Pamela Mastropietro. It is the events surrounding her death that provoked Traini to commit his attempted assassinations.

Pamela, originally from Rome, had moved to Macerata in October, to a rehabilitation center for drug addicts. She disappeared from the center on January 30. She met an Italian man who took her from her rehab center to Macerata, and apparently paid her €50 in exchange for sex. She subsequently went to buy a syringe from a pharmacy and then, it seems, went to the apartment of a Nigerian man, Innocent Oseghale. It is now known that she died of an overdose. Her body was later cut up and hidden. Oseghale remains under arrest and is charged with concealing evidence and desecration of a human corpse, though not murder. Traini has said that he originally thought of going to the court to attack Oseghale.

Pamela’s parents have made it clear that they want no part in this instrumentalization of their daughter’s death by the right-wing:

We only want justice. An exemplary sentence for the man who killed and cut up our daughter. But we strongly condemn the attack. We’re not racists and Pamela herself, if she were still alive, would be horrified by this hateful act. . . . We’re good people. Welcoming migrants can be done well, and on March 4 everyone can go to the ballot knowing how to vote.

These have perhaps been the most progressive words to have reached the mainstream media over the past few days. Indeed, the effect of the attack has not been a polarization of views but a sudden jolt to the right. Even while Touré and Otiotio remain badly wounded in hospital, Forza Nuova, a neo-fascist electoral front, expressed its solidarity with the shooter. This was an unpredictable and risky maneuver which sparked off a chain of political reactions. The next day, all the centrist and right-wing parties took a step to the right in their statements.

Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Northern League, whose party has played a central role in churning up racism in Italy for almost two decades (shifting from hatred of Southern Italians to Muslims to black people), has had a privileged position on the airwaves, blaming the attacks on “those who are filling up our country” and stating that “it’s clear that uncontrolled immigration, an organized, willed, and financed invasion of the the kind we’ve seen over recent years, leads to social conflict.”

But this time it was not only the Northern League that chimed in about deportations and security: the ostensibly center-left Democratic Party leader and former premier, Matteo Renzi, has declared that “Italy and Italians ought be defended by the police, not mad gunmen,” promising ten thousand more police on the streets. He thus curiously implied that somehow Luca Traini was defending Italians. The interior minister, Marco Minniti, claims that his plan to close the Mediterranean route was effected in order to avoid this kind of attack. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made a snap promise to deport six hundred thousand people if he returns to power, describing migration as a “social bomb.”

It ought to be reiterated: these are the reactions to an armed fascist attack on black people. In Rome, a group of ultras (far-right football hooligans) displayed a banner in solidarity with the fascist shooter.

The calls for police on the streets and migrants to be forced onto planes headed for Africa (already a weekly occurrence) are being supported through a conservative instrumentalizing of a weak feminism, as misogynistic in its chivalry as it is violent in its racism. Despite the many victims of the last few days, the figure to be protected after the events of the last week remains the white woman and not black people, men and women alike. The dog whistle calls for “justice for Pamela” are reflected in Traini’s own expressed regret for having shot Jennifer, the only female victim of his racist shooting spree.

In the context of Italy’s own violent misogyny, this is more than a rehabilitation of an old racist and fascist trope; it amounts to an attempt to neutralize the progressive and leftist movements calling for a politics that might confront the growing rate of violence against women. As the left-feminist network NON UNA DI MENO put it in a statement of solidarity with the victims of Saturday’s attack, “The femicide of Pamela M. adds to those committed at the hands of boyfriends, husbands and exes, the majority of which happen within a close circle of friends and family members. This is simply the tip of the iceberg of a general phenomenon: male violence against women.”

A Tide of Fascism on Italy’s Eastern Shore

There are four hundred asylum seekers in the hostels in Macerata. This is four times the number recommended by the Italian mayors’ association, in relation to the town’s population of forty thousand people. This apparently high number of asylum seekers, though in real terms extremely low, nonetheless has already provoked reactions from the far right in the area over recent months.

No doubt in order to address this imbalance, the local Prefecture gave permission for a private cooperative to open an emergency hostel for asylum seekers in the nearby town of Spinetoli. The town’s Democratic Party mayor, however, organized a demonstration against the opening of the center, creating an unlikely and disturbing alliance with Casa Pound, an extra-parliamentary fascist group. On New Year’s Eve, the building proposed to host the forty asylum seekers was burnt down in an act of arson.

The words of the right-wing local councilors to the mayor of Macerata express the sometimes accidental, sometimes purposeful, confusion between the mere existence of non-Italians in Italy and the state-funded reception system for recently arrived asylum seekers: “Suspend the reception system in the city. Everyone can see it isn’t working. We don’t know who we have here in Macerata, we don’t know who is sleeping in the tents and under the arches. . . . Enough of all this, get the irregular immigrants out of our city.”

In truth, less than 5 percent of Italy’s migrant population lives in the reception system. But this is not really what is at stake: the debate over migration is in truth a debate over skin color. For by now there is little talk of the great wave of migration from Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, to which the Macerata — being on Italy’s eastern coast — was a first-hand witness. Although violence against North Africans, who comprise Italy’s historic non-European communities, continues, they no longer represent the unique target of right-wing vilification. Indeed, Italy’s great “other” is now the black man.

And again it is in the Marche region that this was demonstrated. In summer 2016, Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi, a Nigerian refugee, was killed in Fermo, another coastal town in the area, halfway between Spinetoli and Macerata. He was murdered in the street by a football ultra, Amadeo Mancini, after the latter had started a fight by calling his partner an “African monkey.” The murderer received wide support from the Fermo Ultras. The judge later decided that Nnamdi had inflicted the first blow, and Mancini walked free in May last year.

According to ANPI, the organization founded by veteran partisans, and other antifascist associations, formal fascist groups are on the rise across Italy, especially in north-central regions. Certainly it appears that the near massacre last Saturday falls into this pattern of events.

Racialized Class Struggle

Yet it isn’t this that represents the real threat to Italian society: fascism in Italy represents the epiphenomenon of popular sentiment, the organizational moment in what truly is a social movement. For the Italian race struggle is, in the end, a particularly situation of a planetary class struggle being played out on a European peninsula, on the islands that reach further towards the Equator than Tunis.

The central elements of this struggle are the reception system and the work camps. The Italian reception system differs from many countries in that almost all support for asylum seekers (and that means 90 percent of those arriving by sea) is funneled through the public-private centers. These range from small hostels in cities housing fifteen or twenty people to camps and ex-army barracks housing several thousand in the middle of nowhere. The majority are ex-hotels and former homes for the elderly on the outermost edge of small towns and housing fifty to one hundred people.

Despite government efforts to the contrary, town councils are refusing to open up the small, more integrated hostels and instead end up having the prefecture (essentially the police) impose larger centers on them. The result is an exponential increase of an emergency system that makes profits for private businesses but does very little to help asylum seekers into jobs or even learn the most rudimentary Italian. But it also helps reinforce the racial division in the working class, maintaining a fierce separation between blacks and whites, the former being holed up in the hostels (without which they have no state support) and the latter stuck in a spiral of unemployment and reduced state services.

The Italian reception system thus manages to repeat the formation of race on a daily basis, and spectacularly so, inasmuch as the siphoning off of asylum seekers into hostels and camps also provides an image of racial division that goes beyond asylum seekers themselves: the Italian public increasingly see immigration as meaning black men in a state-run hotel, and not as men, women, and children making dangerous journeys to search for a better life.

From Venice to Sicily, protests by asylum seekers against the conditions and isolation of the hostels are a daily event. The violence caused by, and used to enforce, these divisions is not simply metaphorical: we might point to the death of Sandrine Bakayoko, a young Ivorian woman, who died at the isolated former army barracks at Conetta while waiting for an ambulance at the beginning of last year, or Bobb Alagie, a young Gambian man shot in the mouth by the manager of his hostel near Naples a few months ago (he survived, but is now literally voiceless).

Despite the consistency of the asylum-seeker protests, the Italian left has, for the most part, not come to their defense. Faced with rising right-wing sentiment that rejects the idea of state support for black people at all, the Left has been forced onto its back foot, having to defend the mere idea of immigration. The political space for criticizing the corrupt business of asylum-seeker accommodation is thus instead being taken by the Right — as can be seen in the reaction to Macerata, with one right-wing newspaper leading with the headline “Macerata’s Refugee Goldmine,” criticizing the cooperative that runs the hostel where Pamela’s supposed killer was once housed. This is despite the fact that many centers are run for the profit not only of the Mafia but also center-right politicians themselves.

The work camps provide the same division, but for black people who are outside of the reception system. If many sectors of the Italian economy are reliant on migrant labour (including industry, construction, services, and logistics), the agrarian sector entirely depends on it. Profits derive from hyper-exploitation in the countryside, in which black, Arab, and Asian workers live in tent cities reminiscent of Hoovervilles and shanty towns.

The system, again, leads to and is enforced by violence: only three weeks ago, Becky Moses, a young Nigerian asylum seeker, was burnt to death during the fire that swept through the tent city at Rosarno, where more than a thousand people lost their temporary homes and all their belongings. These are the invisible people who, even though they were shot on Saturday, never went to the police. The hyper-exploited.

The situation for many black women in Italy is even more ruled by violence and exploitation. The sex industry in Italy has even less union protection or working rights than the agricultural sector; though it is not always the case, extremely frequently black women are trapped in the sector through a spiral of debt combined with international networks of masculine violence.

Italy’s black proletariat is exploited across all sectors, from the business of “humanitarianism” and olive harvests, to the sex trade and drug cartels. In the province of Marchese itself, the expanding trade in the heroin arriving from Pakistan via the Balkans that ultimately claimed Pamela Mastropietro’s life (and has claimed many others in recent years) relies on the violent work of young Nigerian men like Innocent Oseghale — but to the profit of Mafia bosses like Andrea Reccia, who ran for office in Berlusconi’s party.

“The Real Wound Isn’t the One You Can See”

The violence to which migrants are now subjected in Italy stretches across cities and countryside, across men and women, Asians and Africans. It is not limited to the acts of tattooed fascists taking potshots on the street, but is part of a broad system of exploitation and racialization that is playing out every day across the country. And to reiterate, this is not a metaphorical violence: it is organized and armed, and either protected directly by institutions — as is the case with killers walking free — or indirectly through deliberate negligence, as is the case with the work camps and hostels.

For the first few years following Muammar Gaddafi’s fall and the reopening of the Libyan route, the Left managed to create a narrative of Italy as the maritime hero rescuing migrants at sea as an act of international and Christian solidarity. In 2013, the Mare Nostrum mission was the glorious statist version of the heroic Lampedusan fishermen. But the European border crisis of 2015 and the subsequent Hotspot system (enforcing the Dublin regulation) removed the pressure valve of newly arriving migrants being able to claim asylum in other countries. And it turned out Italy’s proud tolerance was built on the weakest of foundations.

The only opposition politician to have visited the wounded in hospital is the general secretary of the Communist Refoundation Party, candidate with the far-left list Potere al Popolo. But by this point, the Left has almost as little voice as Bobb Alagie: it has been shot in the mouth by the Mafia, fascism, and years of racist rhetoric and state policies that it has only barely managed to oppose, let alone push back.

Thus what the Macerata shooting has shown is not only that organized, armed fascism is still possible in Italy. This is a disturbing but perhaps not shocking truth. Many claim that fascism never died in Italy, and the violent history of the armed movements through the late 1970s and early 1980s showed a black thread as much as a red one. Far more than this, it is the reaction to the shootings — politicians, the media, and the Italian public — that has revealed something far worse: that Italian xenophobia has reached such intensity over the past few years that the actions of a fascist, in a country that has the prohibition of fascism inscribed into its constitution, can somehow be excused so long as the targets are black.

Whoever wins the elections on March 4, they will have to either contend with or ride the wave of Italy’s new racist storm. If we are to beat back the forces of racism and fascism, European progressives must show solidarity with the international working class in its daily battle in Italy’s work camps and hostels, for freedom of movement and a future free from exploitation.