Tuesday, January 26, 2010

italy's african heroes


NYTimes | 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.