Monday, February 1, 2010

This Is Our Land!

It began on the 7th of January of this year, when they took pot shots at a group of them with air rifles. Or maybe in December of 2008, when 21 year old Ahamed Hagi was shot with a regular gun by the passenger of a Fiat Punto that sped off and was never identified. Perhaps it wasn’t even the attacks, perhaps it was the inhuman conditions that tipped them over the edge. The prison camp-style dormitories described by Médecins Sans Frontières in 2005 and then again in 2008. The 12 hour fruit picking shifts for a pay of 20 Euro, minus a deduction of two and a half Euro for the ride to and from the orchards.

Seven hundred migrant workers, black workers, marched peacefully through the streets of Rosarno in December of 2008. Another two thousand-odd marched again on January the 8th, but this time they were a little less peaceful, their voices louder, their rage more palpable. Yet they couldn’t bring themselves to stage a proper riot. As you can see from these images (at the 3:35 minute mark), no sooner a rubbish container was overturned that another marcher turned it the right way up. But they clashed, nonetheless, with police and with the locals, the homeowners, the good people of Rosarno. And then came the punitive squads, with the likely help of the ‘ndrangheta, the local mafia. Thus began la caccia al nero, the hunt for the black man, which continued into the night. And the police started rounding people up, but not on the basis of who was the aggressor and who was the victim. They simply took away the black men. For protection, you understand. ‘Remember this date,’ admonished journalist Gad Lerner. When such a thing happens for the first time in the modern history of a nation, it ought to be burned into the collective memory.

Rosarno has a history of poverty, of farm labourers protests drowned in blood, of successive local administrations dissolved due to infiltrations by the mafia. And it is the mafia that coordinates the caporalato, the illegal hiring of farm labourers by means of agents called 'caporali', corporals. This criminally underpaid (and absolutely essential) seasonal work accounts for the transient African population of Rosarno, comprising many legal immigrants and that yet has little or no contact with representatives of our public institutions, other than law enforcement naturally. The only people on the ground are the doctors and nurses of Médecins Sans Frontières through one of its emergency facilities. Not the thing you’d expect to find in a country of what goes by the ghastly yet always popular appellation of first world. And it is in this country that Roberto Maroni, Minister of the Interior, blamed the disorders in Rosarno to ‘years of toleration of clandestine immigration’.

‘This is our land!’ goes the warlike cry of Jake Sully in Avatar, the white man who claims native status on a foreign shore. In Italy, a country where different peoples have been sedimenting for millennia, the fictions of indigeneity are more complex, more nuanced, as many as there are words to indicate that we don’t want you here. Not you, terrone, southerner, nor you, zingaro, Roma, nor you, foreigner. And the black Africans are the least wanted of all. We call them after the only two words they need to utter in order to sell trinkets on the street, Vu cumprà (vuoi comprare, do you want to buy something), or marocchini (as if all Africans came from Morocco) or more simply negri, the black ones.

Meet Mario Balotelli, born near Palermo, Sicily, to Ghanaian immigrants in 1990. His family moved north shortly after he was born and eventually entrusted him to the Balotelli family, who lived near Brescia. In spite of having lived in Italy all his life, by law Balotelli was only allowed to become an Italian citizen at the age of 18. By this time he had already debuted for Inter Milan, the top team in the Serie A league, and was already routinely taunted by tens of thousands of fans of other teams with relentless racist chants. Following one such incident, the entirety of Juventus’ supporters were banned from attending the team’s following home game. A big deal, in a sport that has always tolerated extraordinary displays of organised racism and hatred.

Yet bizarrely the going explanation for this cowardly mass bullying of a teenager was that he was asking for it, due to his hot temper and brilliant but occasionally provocative, cheeky play. His own coach and his fellow teammate Clarence Seedorf, who is also black, said as much at the time. Apparently shouting 'negro di merda', shitty nigger, can be motivated by something other than racism. Nor have things improved since. If anything, Balotelli’s figure has become more hated, more polarising, more emblematic. Who is this talented black man who speaks in the northern Italian vernacular, a tongue more accustomed to lashing at people who look like him? How can he lay claims to citizenship by birth in this land of ours? It is really that raw, that primitive a public sentiment.


We have left Rosarno behind, we move north. Balotelli lives and works in Milan, my Milan, the fifedom of Forza Italia and the Northern League, one of the crucial reservoirs of votes of Berlusconi’s political coalition. It is not far from here that Roberto Maroni was born, it is here that his comments originate. It is in this, the nerve centre of the Right, that racism is being institutionalised on behalf of the rest of the country. Some of you may remember that at the tail end of my last visit there I compiled a short, crude and rather embittered photo essay. It included the picture of an ordinary city bus fitted with bars at the windows and used to round up people suspected of being illegal immigrants, which in Italy is currently a crime. What I didn’t know back then it’s that this bus - I saw it, my friends, and my heart sank - would be awarded the gold medal for services to the city, the coveted Ambrogino d’oro.

It is a proud city that loves its symbols.

On the weekend of my arrival Berlusconi’s party, the Popolo delle Libertà, was having its national convention at the Lido di Milano, down the road from the house were I grew up and Mum still lives. So I went and had a look.

The Lido is a sports and recreation facilty built during Fascism that includes a large uncovered pool and other amenities. On that particular Sunday morning, just ahead of the convention’s grand finale on national television, it was open for business but semi-deserted, and with a satisfyingly sad, forlorn look. The playground, which on any other Sunday would be full of kids, and especially kids of colour, had been adorned for some reason with Italian flags.

This is our land!

There were no children in sight. My beloved polar bear, which over the decades has survived many a playground overhaul, was still there, all alone.

Orso! How I wish you didn't have to see any of this.

I moved to the back, the pool area proper, and found it in much better condition than I remembered. The terrace was being prepared for the evening’s soiree, with signage in English for an extra touch of sophistication.

We are an ospitable people

The pool looked pristine, but again, nobody was allowed in it. The changing rooms, always impressively elegant, were eerily silent.

The whole complex on that particular day and in that particular company reminded me, quite aptly, of the ruins of Fascism, to which it had been restored. Hence the embittered photo essay, and the desire to get at some stage on to discussing here the Northern League and its remarkable myths of indigeneity, to my mind the closest we have come to date to replicating honest-to-god Fascism.

But it wasn’t all bleak, there were some things that gave me hope and that I ought to briefly account for. Firstly, and true to cliché, the kids. For people in predominantly white countries but with a different recent racial history it may seem extraordinary that as late as 2010 Mario Balotelli could be a trailblazer, but he is. And to see so many non white faces mixed with the white ones at that playground on other Sundays or at my primary school is to this day a source of surprise and joy. I was especially impressed by my friend Francesca’s daughter’s school. It is located in an enclosed park known as the Trotter, originally a nobleman’s stables and later a children’s summer camp (those ruins of Fascism, again) that my mother was sent to from her village in 1940. When I came back from my visit and told her about it - she hadn’t visited the park since - she told me that she had especially vivid memories of the siren tower, and sure enough, I had taken a picture of it.

The park, which is public outside of school hours, contains some brilliantly accessible and creative communal spaces used by a number of progressive organisations whose philosophy is an extension of the school’s. I am told it serves it gloriously mixed community very well and it was lovely to see.

Closer to the part of town where I grew up I was delighted to discover that an old cabaret joint that my parents used to patronise before I was born has been occupied and turned into a centro sociale.

My best friend from school and I turned up on its weekly closure night, but they let us in anyway, during one of their meetings. It transpired that they were students at our former school, no older than 16, which gave us a wonderful opportunity to ponder over our wasted youth over a couple of beers. More to the point, we discovered that the social centre is named after Abdoul Salam Guiebre, known simply as Abba, a young man from Burkina Faso murdered in the city in 2008 by the owners of a snack bar for stealing a packet of biscuits, and that the bulk of its activities are specifically anti-racist. It was an orientation that had only just begun to properly establish itself in the Left when I moved to New Zealand, and it has been heartening to follow it from a distance, but more so to see it up close.

Outside of those spaces, that is to say, nearly everywhere, it’s harder to muster one’s optimism, especially with the heightened sense of disconnectedness proper of a tourist or a media consumer. It’s harder to escape the feeling that from north to south, at Rosarno and elsewhere, it’s a continuous and unendurable everyday emergency, a ratcheting up of the pressure with every new episode that is bound to be blamed on the Other - for this must always remain our land.