How Populist Scaremongering Unleashed a Wave of Anti-Black Racism in Italy

Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant political campaign coincided with a surge of racist abuse and attacks. Black Italians fear another oncoming wave.
May 29, 2021, 9:42am

In February of 2018, in the midst of a heated election campaign, a racially-motivated shooting spree stunned Italy.

Luca Traini, a 28-year-old right-wing extremist, went on a two-hour rampage through the city of Macerata, deliberately targeting people of African descent. By the time he was arrested, after giving a fascist salute and yelling “Italy for Italians” with an Italian flag draped over his shoulders, six people had been seriously wounded.

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Traini, who sported a fascist-inspired facial tattoo and had a copy of Mein Kampf in his home, was a hate-filled extremist. He told investigators he had been targeting Africans to avenge the horrific murder and dismemberment of teenager Pamela Mastropietro by a Nigerian immigrant in the city just days earlier.

But many observers also saw a link between the shootings and the febrile anti-migrant climate that had gripped the country, whipped up by right-wing politicians in the lead up to national elections due to be held the following month.

The loudest of those voices belonged to Matteo Salvini, the pugnacious leader of the right-wing populist Lega – or League – party, for which Traini had previously stood as a local candidate.

Seeking to capitalise on growing public anxiety over irregular immigration to Italy across the Mediterranean, Salvini, a former talk radio host, had built his campaign on an explicitly anti-migrant “Italians First” platform. He vowed to close Italy’s borders to illegal immigrants, deport hundreds of thousands already in the country, and campaigned heavily on Mastropietro’s murder, along with other crimes committed by illegal migrants.

Critics had warned that the intemperate rhetoric from Salvini, labelling illegal immigrants as thieves, rapists and drug dealers, was demonising minorities unfairly.

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“You know, it's very funny to hear in the country that invented the mafia, Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, to hear that migrants commit crime,” Andrea Costa, coordinator of Baobab Experience, a large transit camp for migrants in Rome, told VICE World News.

With the shootings in Macerata, Salvini’s opponents believed that the dangerous consequences of his xenophobic campaigning were starting to manifest. Laura Boldrini, the Macerata-born President of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, called on the Lega leader to apologise and change tack, saying that “inciting hatred and clearing the way for fascism, as Salvini does, has consequences: it can provoke violent actions”.

Salvini, however, remained unrepentant, responding that while he condemned all violence, the responsibility lay with those who had turned Italy into “a huge refugee camp”.

Despite the criticism, Salvini’s tactics worked at the polls. Lega won 17 percent of the national vote and formed a coalition government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), with Salvini taking the powerful role of Interior Minister, and sharing the role of Deputy Prime Minister with M5S leader Luigi Di Maio.

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Yet Salvini’s newfound power didn’t lead to any let-up in his xenophobic campaigning, which was now given an even more prominent platform. Now Italy’s most high-profile politician, Salvini continued to single out illegal immigrants as the country’s most urgent problem, gleefully vowing to deport them en masse.

“Get ready to pack your bags,” he taunted at migrants while speaking at a rally in June, just days after tweeting a video to his 836,000 followers of an African migrant plucking a pigeon on the street. “Go home!!!” he wrote.

For Black people in particular, the relentless campaign of demonisation had a huge impact, unleashing an unprecedented wave of racism that manifested from verbal abuse through to physical assaults.

In some of the violence – such as when two Malians were shot at with airguns in the city of Caserta in June of 2018, or when two railway porters beat a 20-year-old Ghanaian at Venice station the following month – the attackers explicitly invoked Salvini’s name. “This is Salvini’s country,” the assailants in Venice reportedly said.

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“The climate changed,” said Udo Enwereuzor, a Nigerian-Italian who has lived in Italy for more than 40 years, and works as a senior adviser for Cospe, a Florence-based nonprofit that advocates for migrants’ rights.

He said Salvini’s harsh rhetoric emboldened both members of fringe fascist groups, as well as ordinary people, to express hateful racist views.

“The impression … I’ve had in recent years, is that …it's [become] acceptable to be openly, openly racist,” he said.

Costa agreed. “Fascists had to hide in this country until a few years ago,” he said. “Now they can claim … ‘If Mr. Salvini says it on television, why can't I say it in the street?’”

While in power, Salvini made good on his promise to shut Italy’s ports to NGO-run ships that rescue migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, accusing them of effectively encouraging human trafficking. The policy resulted in several high-profile, high-stakes standoffs at sea, as authorities refused to allow the rescued migrants to disembark, and has led to prosecutors laying criminal kidnapping charges against Salvini, which are due to be heard in a trial in September.

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While Salvini could potentially face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty at the end of the protracted judicial process, he has remained unapologetic for his actions. “I am going to trial with my head held high, in your name as well as mine. Italy first, always,” Salvini tweeted in April after a judge ruled he must stand trial. Despite the frequent controversies, Salvini’s hardline policies have played well with the public, and helped shift the political mainstream to the right on issues like immigration.

That popularity, however, ultimately helped bring about the downfall of the coalition. In August of 2019, the fractious coalition government collapsed amid Salvini’s opportunistic efforts to trigger snap elections in order to exploit his party’s soaring strength in the polls and become prime minister.

The gambit failed to trigger an election, sending Lega back into opposition until it returned to the corridors of power as part of a national unity government earlier this year. But while Salvini is no longer a powerful government minister, and Lega’s popularity has dropped since 2019, the party continues to top the polls – with a rival populist anti-migrant party not far behind – and he clearly covets the country’s top job as much as ever. 

For many Black Italians, the fear is that as soon as he returns to campaign mode in earnest, it will send another wave of racism surging their way.

“Salvini’s language constantly incites hate against immigrants,” said Enwereuzor, who recalls the antagonism of the 2018 campaign all too well. “There was a climate that kind of legitimised the public expression of hate. It was terrible.”