Anti-immigrant violence in Italy is a product of despair

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At the beginning of January, in Rosarno, a town of 15,000 people in Calabria in the south of Italy, there were violent confrontations between local and immigrant workers. On 7 January, air gun pellets were shot at African immigrants in broad daylight. Two of them were seriously wounded. The pellets were fired by some ‘youths' but behind them was the hand of the ‘ndragheta', the Calabrian mafia. They are the region's bosses and pay the wages of local agricultural workers. For years, they have been making use of cheap African labour, which is in plentiful supply. These immigrant workers work for long hours and miserable wages[1], and at night are parked in an insalubrious former cheese factory. This year, however, this cheap labour force has become an encumbrance.

Firstly, the economic crisis is hitting Rosarno as it has hit the rest of the world. The oranges and mandarins are not selling; right now it's more profitable to leave them to rot on the trees than to harvest them. The majority of the African workers are therefore no longer useful and have lost their jobs. At the same time, new anti-immigrant legislation has been adopted in Italy: it reinforces the witch-hunt for illegal immigrants and penalises bosses for employing them. For the little work that's left, the mafia has therefore turned to ‘legal' immigrants from Eastern Europe (in particular from Ukraine and Romania). 1500 Africans and their families, who have come to Italy just to survive, are therefore caught between super-exploitation and unemployment. Anger and tension have risen bit by bit in their ranks: these semi-slaves, hitherto fairly docile, have begun to hold demonstrations. The ndragheta then decided to scare them into flight by firing on them. From beasts of burden, the immigrants are now prey.

However, instead of just lying down and taking all this, these workers went en masse onto the streets, burning bins and cars, smashing windows and wrecking buildings. In reaction, hundreds of local inhabitants, armed with iron bars and sticks, began a hunt for black skins, shouting "get back to Africa" and "we want to kill them". These confrontations left 67 wounded (31 immigrants, 19 policemen and 17 local inhabitants). It would seem that here again the mafia played a central role in stirring up the local population and putting themselves at the head of these improvised militias[2].  It was not difficult to instil such hatred in a population hit by poverty and unemployment, which officially affects 18% of the working class in this region.

But poverty alone is not enough to explain why a part of the population allowed itself to be pulled into a nauseating racist vendetta, or why the immigrants responded by smashing up stuff belonging to local people. In reality, the primary cause of these clashes "between poor people", as the international press put it - in other words, between workers - is despair, the total lack of any perspective: "It was a hell, we couldn't understand anything; it's true that we smashed everything we could, but it was because we are so angry. We are desperate, and if you add despair to anger, it's easy to go off the rails. When we got back to the cheese factory, we looked ourselves in the eyes and we were ashamed of what we had done. I cried the whole night thinking about the terrified people" (Godwin, a Ghanaian day-worker, 28 years old, quoted in La Repubblica, 9/1/10).

Only workers' struggles can restore confidence in the future, can allow people to see that a different world is possible, a world not of hatred but of solidarity. If we contrast these events with what happened recently in Britain, in the strikes in the oil construction industry, we can see how the struggle of the workers can begin to question nationalist divisions. In the unofficial strikes that broke out at Lindsey and elsewhere last year, despite all the slogans about "British jobs for British workers", which were promoted by the unions but which many workers took up themselves, we also saw the beginnings of a challenge to nationalist ideology, for example in the banners calling for Italian and Portuguese workers to join the strikes. Such developments in consciousness, even if they were only clearly expressed by a minority, were possible because the workers were fighting on their own class ground. The pogroms in Rosarno, the clashes between Italian and immigrant workers, were a pure expression of a society in decomposition; but when workers fight for their own demands, the way is open to overcoming all such divisions and offering real hope for the future.  

Pawel/Amos 7/2/10


[1] The pay is one euro for a basket of mandarins and 6 cents for a kilo of oranges with a maximum wage of around 15 euro a day for 12 to 14 hours work

[2] Apart from the actual mafia, the cruelty and cynicism of the whole Italian bourgeoisie in these events should also be emphasised. The Berlusconi government has been profiting from them by launching a xenophobic campaign and justifying a whole series of anti-immigrant measures. The minister of the interior, Maroni, thus asserted "The situation in Rosarno is difficult, the result of a clandestine immigration that has been tolerated for all these years without anything effective being done ". In fact, the state, on the one hand, hunts down illegal immigrants and expels them in order to limit numbers, and, on the other hand, allows the bosses to exploit massively and shamefully (when it doesn't do it itself directly) a cheap labour force, thus improving ‘national competitiveness'. There are over 50,000 immigrant workers living in Italy in insalubrious housing similar to that in Rosarno. Getting back to the recent events and the ‘protection' offered by the state to immigrants who have been the victims of pogroms: when they intervened, the police injured a lot of the immigrants and afterwards, in order to ‘protect' them, found nothing better to do than push them into  ‘retention centres' in order to ‘control their situation' and deport all those whose papers were not in order! This is the inhumanity that the bourgeoisie is capable of, whether it presents itself in the guise of the mafia or of very respectable high officials of the state!