A history of hate crimes: migrants rise up in Italy

  • September 18, 2014

Borders & Beyond

Six years after the brutal murder of six Africans, the migrants of Castel Volturno are still faced with violence and discrimination on a daily basis.

In the warm days of July, history repeated itself when African migrants were once again brutally attacked by armed and xenophobic locals in the town of Castel Volturno, situated in the Neapolitan hinterlands. Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, it was not the violence against the migrant workers that made the headlines, but rather the uprising of indignant migrants that followed.

This uprising contributed to reigniting political and media debates about the dangers of the ghettos; the problematic cohabitation between natives and foreigners; the plague of organized crime in the Italian South; and the ever-alarming increase in the numbers of migrants arriving from the North African coasts.

This combination of frames directed public opinion towards the need to support policies that curb, contain, discipline and reject migrants, in the process silencing counter-hegemonic approaches that would seriously question causes, responses to and consequences of immigration. Moreover, it was easy to observe how the reports and analyses of the events depicted the migrants as the ones responsible for their own situations and held them self-accountable to their own ‘downfall’.

Few analyses addressed the events by questioning the conditions of marginalization, subordination and exploitation that produce and reproduce the lives and lived experiences of these people. Similarly, the reports ignored the conditions which make any human being in the same situation vulnerable to, and an easy target for legal and illegal acts of injustice, discrimination and violence.

It is still mostly from the storytelling of the migrants involved that we can recompose some of the articulated and comprehensive mechanisms of this intensive exploitation and the power of the relationships permeating them, which also underlies the migrants’ uprisings.

Last stop: Castel Volturno

We wait for D. at the petrol station next to the road connecting Castel Volturno to the locality of Pescopagano, where D. currently lives. He is on the bus, on his way back from Naples. We met D. a few months ago in Hamburg, at one of the demonstrations organized by the refugee group ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ to protest against the inhumane asylum and migration policies across Europe in general and in Hamburg, Germany especially.

Like many others, D. had arrived in Hamburg from Italy hoping to find better employment opportunities and a decent life. Neither of these he had been able to find in the three years he spent in Italy since his arrival at Lampedusa, despite having a refugee status.

When we heard from him again he had moved to Copenhagen. Here he stayed only for a short while because “accommodation is too expensive to afford and life on the streets is rough.” Besides that, the available work for a refugee without a working permit in Denmark is often unsafe and badly paid.

Eventually D. decided to get back to southern Italy where he moved into a small shared bedroom in Pescopagano, a few miles from Castel Volturno, with a friend from Ghana. From here he managed to find an occasional manual job in Naples, without contract and no insurance. The work pays about 30-35 euros for more than ten hours a day spent lifting heavy-weight beverage cases from transport trucks. D. describes his job as being physically “too much” and his life conditions “not easy”. The hard work eventually sent him to hospital for a back injury; but the need to survive and to pay for shelter in one of the illegally rented-out rooms in Castel Volturno left him with no choice but to continue working.

The vagrant and unsettled existence of D. epitomizes the experiences of many migrants and refugees in Europe today, living lives of marginality, destitution and denial. Their vicissitudes and efforts of emancipation often end up sending them back to start, where ‘back’ means in this case return to one of the poorest and most densely migrant populated urban areas in Italy. D.’s story also illustrates the fate of many migrants who transit through Lampedusa.

Here in Castel Volturno we also find the answer for the mayor of Hamburg, once prompting the refugees demonstrating on the streets to voluntarily turn back to ‘beautiful Italy’. If only Mr Sholtz would pay a visit to off-tourist migrant routes: Castel Volturno, Piana del Sele, Rosarno, the so-called ‘Great Ghetto’ Garganico, or up north in Saluzzo, and see with his own eyes what conditions many refugees are forced to come back to as a result of government policies and interests that prefers to see these people spatially immobilized, geographically marginalized and physically exploited.

The massacre and the African migrants’ revolt

Castel Volturno is a municipality in the Campania region, today mainly known to Italians for the violent episodes of mafia killings, narco trafficking and criminality that occasionally make the national and international headlines. Castel Volturno is a city of about 18-20 thousands residents, but this number doubles when taking into account the unregistered migrants who live in the many dwellings that until the 1980s were summer refuges for people coming from Naples and surroundings.

Today, many of these houses shelter migrant workers: sometimes more than 5-6 tenants paying 60-100 euros per person per month for a shared room. Housing conditions are often precarious: crumbling walls, window frames loose and broken, leaking roofs and lack of proper heating during the winter.

In the 1970s this was an area undergoing fast economic growth and even faster urban development because of its proximity to the coast and located only 35 kilometers north of Naples.  Adding to its importance was the city location on the river Volturno and its vast open fields. Anno 2014, Castel Volturno is a nearly forsaken place where the mafia, narco business, prostitution and the exploitation of the migrant labor force thrives almost undisturbed.

Driving along the historic coastal road known as Via Domitiana, which was built in 95 A.D. under the Roman Emperor Domiziano (81-96 A.D.) to improve the connection and trading activity between the adjacent Naples port town Pozzuoli and the rest of the Empire, it evokes nothing of the road’s great history. Rather, what the Domitiana brings to the traveler are images of decay; half or wholly ruined buildings, filthy spots, impoverished business activities and a wretchedness and neglect that hardly harmonizes with the earlier glories and former affluence of this contemporary stretch of the heavily trafficked artery.

Far more demoralizing, however, is what this manifest poverty and neglect tells us about the conditions of the many men and women living in this area, revealing how the stories of cities reflect the lives of the humans living in them, subjected to fluctuations of happiness and pain.

It is along the Domitiana that six years ago, on September 18, 2008 the local and powerful mafia clan of Casalesi killed seven people in cold blood – one Italian and six African migrants. After murdering the owner of an arcade, the killers went outside and slaughtered six African immigrants from Ghana, Togo and Liberia, leaving their bodies riddled with dozens of bullets each. Only one survived, helping later identifying the killers.

The murdered migrants had no connection with the organized crime of the area. They were among the hundreds queuing every morning for the early morning bus to Naples, often overstaying until the next, being too many to get into one.

The 2008 manslaughter sparked strong reactions from the locals, but it was mainly among the African community that the resistance and voice against the racist murders arouse strongest and most resolute — a clear message that people do not tolerate to be intimidated, nor silenced by acts of brutal racist violence.

In the late autumn of the same year the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba held her last concert here, in solidarity with the victims, their families and the whole community united against organized crime, against racism, discrimination and exploitation. Makeba fell ill after the concert and passed away in Castel Volturno, suggesting somehow a continuance between the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the fight in Italy and elsewhere in Europe against the mafia, racism, injustice and the increasing South-Africanization of the spatial relations in our urban areas.

Castel Volturno reloaded, six years after

Only a few days before we meet with D., another episode of violence brought Castel Volturno to the Italian breaking news. Two Africans were shot in the legs by two vigilantes. This time the shooting was triggered by the account that one of the Africans had tried to get away with a stolen gas bottle. An allegation without any evidence, but considered enough by the gunmen to shoot the two men.

Later reports revealed the two vigilantes are father and son who act as private security in the area, paid by local landlords to regularly patrol the streets of Castel Volturno and vicinity to prevent crime and stealing from the unguarded private properties. The two men have no authorization to go around armed; even so they feel it is their right to drive around town with guns, shooting innocent strangers for no apparent reason. On this occasion, just like in 2008, the African community in Castel Volturno responds with solidarity.

The taking to the streets and the rioting reminds one of the developments back in 2008, showing once more that in Castel Volturno the subalterns and dispossessed raise their voice against the conditions most of them are forced to live in. Their rage is powerful and their voices are feared and the motives of the spontaneous revolt go beyond the events that triggered it.

However, the Italian mainstream press was prompt to pack explanations into oversimplified readings pointing to the overweight of black migrants compared to the decreasing number of natives. This type of scaremongering can be clearly spotted in headlines referring to the ‘Inferno Castel Volturno and the reaction of the residents after the immigrant revolt’, flavored by accounts about ‘Far-West scenarios’ staging African ‘looters’ ‘armed with stones and fire and ready to self-revenge and self-justice’: Words and images that almost seemed to legitimize the shooting of the two Africans as a form of self-defense.

The Italian Minister of Interior, Angelino Alfano did not do better, pointing his finger to Europe and commenting on the events with the statement: “Italy is a welcoming country, but certainly cannot welcome everybody”, adding to this in a debate on public order and security a few weeks later that “if we must have the highest respect for everybody’s rights, the rights of Italian citizens and of the citizens of Castel Volturno, Mondragone and Caserta must come first”. No mention here of what had actually prompted the reactions of the migrant community, namely the extreme violence direct towards the two African men.

But for us Castel Volturno represents a micro-cosmos, mirroring at the same time many other similar realities and conditions elsewhere in Italy and beyond.

Working for a living, struggling to live

The recent uprising in Castel Volturno bears several similarities with the revolt of the African orange pickers that broke out in Rosarno, Calabria, in January 2010. Also in Rosarno, the reaction was triggered by the cold blooded attacks on two Africans who were injured by shots fired from a car on their way back from the fields after a day of work. As in Castel Volturno, the revolt of the Africans in Rosarno was met by the reaction of some of the natives, who wanted them to leave immediately.

Streets were patrolled and blocked by police; people started to hunt Africans in the district ‘to teach them a lesson’. Three days after the incident, all the working migrants who had been living in shacks at the outskirts of Rosarno were deported; buses sent by government authorities queued outside the area to transfer people to migrant detention centers.

Rosarno and Castel Volturno exemplify in our view forms of spontaneous rebellions initially induced by grave acts of violence but also involving the reaction from the subalterns against structural working, living and social conditions characterized by deprivation, dispossession, exploitation and discrimination.

The violent and direct confrontations with injustice, exploitation and racism lie at the core of these revolts, but cannot be understood without considering the particular set of social relations embedded into the advanced capitalist mode of production, accumulation and reproduction and the social relationships of production driving the market economy, heavily relying on this underpaid, exploited migrant labor force.

Only in Italy, over 700,000 migrants work in the agricultural sector, of which 400,000 without any regular working contract. Migrants are engaged in activities of planting, harvesting and processing on a daily basis and they support the informal economy not only in agriculture, but also in the construction, tourism and the care system.

It is a proletariat of non-possessors, who are denied also the minimal property allowed to other workers, namely the property of themselves and most notably the right to freely dispose of their own labor-power. But it can be argued, they are also such a consistent presence that with a general strike they could be able to seriously affect the production of goods and services, seriously influencing the economic activities from North to South.

Since the 1990s, the number of exploited migrants in the basin of informal labor has kept growing. However, it is worth noticing is that the numerous cases of labor exploitation, the oppression and the semi-slavery conditions rarely make the news unless they hit the streets en masse, often following brutal acts of violence such as in Castel Volturno, Rosarno, San Nicola, Nardò, to mention only a few examples.

The migrant protests very rarely include the use of force, and often consist of demonstrations, collective acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins and peaceful occupations of public spaces that give migrants their own unmediated voice and visibility. History shows that change can be obtained by the subaltern classes, such as the migrants involved in these struggles, protests and actions aimed at shaping, conquering and also maintaining (indeed the most difficult task) political visibility and agency, as long as they defend their rightful place within the public arena, and refuse to be silenced by acts of violence and intimidation.

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Susi Meret

Susi Meret is assistant and associate professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University. She is affiliated with the COMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group.

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