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“It’s like we have a target on our back”: Black Italians face a surge of racism let loose by Matteo Salvini

“Now I don’t feel safe, especially with people I don’t know. I can’t go out alone, I can’t go out at night. I don’t feel peace any more.”​

by Tim Hume
Aug 16 2018, 12:08pm

MILAN — Ahmed Mussa was sitting outside his home in the city of Turin one Friday evening in late June, when a passerby stopped and asked him for 50 cents.

Mussa, a 31-year-old Sudanese refugee who has lived in Italy since 2012, said he was sorry, but he didn’t have any change.

Then the conversation took a turn.

“Why are you here?” the stranger asked Mussa.

“I’m sitting here because this is where I live,” he replied.

“No: I mean why are you in Italy, you black piece of shit?” the man said, and began punching him.

Mussa frantically tried to avoid his attacker’s blows and take shelter inside, but another man appeared, wielding a switchblade and with a large dog in tow. Together, the men beat him savagely, spewing an endless stream of racist invective in the process. The attack lasted about 20 minutes until Mussa managed to run away for help; the only witnesses to the assault had quickly left the scene without stepping in.

“They told me they were beating me because I was black,” said Mussa, who was treated in hospital for injuries to his head and testicles.

Mussa is just one of the victims in a wave of violent racial attacks, mostly targeting people of African descent, that has roiled Italy since the new coalition government, including the far-right, anti-immigration Lega party, took power on June 1. Since then, according to a monitoring group and local media reports, there have been two murders, and at least 15 other assaults on minorities, 10 of which have involved firearms or airguns. Other reports have estimated the numbers as even higher.

"The message is: black is bad. Africans are bad.”

Human rights groups and opposition politicians, including former prime minister Matteo Renzi, say the wave of violence has been fuelled by Lega leader Matteo Salvini, whose xenophobic rhetoric has been given a more powerful platform since he took over as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister in Italy’s new government.

Since entering office in June, Salvini, a populist strongman who has delighted in baiting his critics by tweeting thinly-veiled Mussolini quotes and mocking anti-racism protesters, has become Italy’s most influential politician. And he’s risen to power by singling out illegal immigration as the country’s most urgent problem.

Salvini has vowed to close Italy’s borders to illegal immigrants, and deport up to 500,000 of those who are already in the country. His rallying cry, to reporters, at rallies, and on Twitter, has been variations of “Send them home.” “Get ready to pack your bags,” he warned migrants while speaking at a June 2 rally, days after he tweeted a video to his 836,000 followers of an African migrant plucking a pigeon on the street. “Go home!!!” he wrote.

While Salvini insists he is only against illegal immigrants, who he views as dangerous and a drain on Italy’s resources, opponents say his rhetoric has unleashed an unprecedented and undiscriminating torrent of hostility towards black people in Italy, whatever their immigration status. “Since they started this campaign, Italians view all blacks as illegal immigrants,” said Modou Gueye, who came to Italy from Senegal 28 years ago. “They see you as illegal as long as you have dark skin.”

“Before, I felt Italian – a foreign Italian – but Italian,” Mussa told VICE News. “Now I don’t feel safe, especially with people I don’t know. I can’t go out alone, I can’t go out at night. I don’t feel peace any more.”

Rather than take heed of the mounting concerns, which have also created tensions with his party’s coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, Salvini has cavalierly dismissed the spike in racist attacks as “simply an invention of the Left.” Amid warnings of growing racism, his party has even floated a move to scrap the country’s hate crime laws.

But for Italy’s minorities, and specifically black Italians, the change in the racial climate is all too real. While anti-black racism has deep roots in Italian society — even in recent years, black politicians and footballers have faced appalling racial abuse — many black Italians told VICE News that, since the new government came to power, they have experienced overt acts of racist aggression for the first time in their many years in the country. And they attribute the hostile new environment to Salvini’s xenophobic rhetoric, which has now emboldened racists to feel they can act with impunity.

“It’s because of the message Italians are hearing right now. The message is: black is bad. Africans are bad,” said Stephane Ngono, a 34-year-old actor and musician from Cameroon who has lived in Italy for 15 years. “It’s like we have a target on our back.”

Many, like Mussa, no longer feel safe. Six weeks on from the assault outside his home, one of his alleged attackers, a 51-year-old, has been arrested, and his physical injuries have largely healed. But Mussa remains deeply affected. He sees a psychologist twice a week, feels scared to leave his home, and has been left with a profoundly changed impression of the country he once saw as a safe haven from the trauma he had endured in his homeland.

“Before, I felt Italian – a foreign Italian – but Italian,” Mussa told VICE News. “Now I don’t feel safe, especially with people I don’t know. I can’t go out alone, I can’t go out at night. I don’t feel peace any more.”

“This is Salvini’s country”

Those fears appear backed up by the data on recent attacks provided by the Observatory for Security Against Acts of Discrimination (OSCAD), an office within the Interior Ministry dedicated to monitoring hate crime, as well as provisional figures gathered by Lunaria, a group that monitors racially-motivated attacks in Italy.

According to OSCAD, which counts attacks reported directly to the office by victims or witnesses, there have been 24 possibly racially-motivated violent attacks in the year to early August, two of them fatal. That compares to 13 in all of 2017 (none fatal), and 19 in 2016 (including one murder).

By Lunaria’s count, which tallies cases reported by the media as well as direct reporting, there have been 40 racially-motivated attacks so far this year, compared with 45 in all of 2017 and 28 the previous year. The group says that hate crimes are greatly underreported, and the true figures are likely significantly higher.

Grazia Naletto, Lunaria’s manager for migration and racial discrimination policy, told VICE News that the new government’s campaign to crack down on illegal immigrants — who are predominantly black Africans — as well as on the Roma minority, had further stigmatized those groups and given a degree of “institutional legitimacy” to acts of aggression towards them.

While prejudice towards these groups had deep roots in Italy, she said, what has changed in recent months was that “hate speech has become more aggressive and more recurrent.”

In at least two recent attacks — when two Malians were shot at with airguns in the city of Caserta in June, or when two railway porters beat a 20-year-old Ghanaian at Venice station the following month — the aggressors invoked Salvini’s name. “This is Salvini’s country,” the attackers reportedly said.

“There’s simply no precedent for this kind of thing.”

The trouble started in early February — one month before the election, in the heat of a campaign dominated by the issue of immigration — when a 28-year-old right-wing extremist went on a shooting rampage in the town of Macerata. Targeting Africans exclusively, he wounded six people before surrendering himself to police, draped in an Italian flag, giving a fascist salute and yelling “Italy for Italians!” Investigators later found extremist material at his house, including a copy of “Mein Kampf.” He had stood as a Lega candidate in local body elections the year previous.

But racist motivations are not always so easy to identify. When police investigating the non-fatal shooting of a 33-year-old Cape Verdean in Cassola on July 27 searched the assailant’s home, they found nothing to suggest the man harboured racist views, so are not treating the shooting as racially motivated.

Many, from migrants’ rights groups to the Italian media, have questioned the police’s approach, arguing that the alleged shooter’s account for his actions — that he was trying to shoot a pigeon from the balcony of his apartment — was hardly plausible. But Lega has used the lack of concrete evidence of a racist motivation in some of the attacks to dismiss any and all concerns regarding the spike in racist incidents and violence.

This tactic was on display in Salvini’s response to one high-profile recent attack, when an Italian athlete of Nigerian descent was pelted with an egg, injuring her cornea. When it emerged that the aggressors had confessed to throwing eggs at other people, regardless of race, Salvini seized on this as proof that the racism narrative was a fiction whipped up by a hysterical media and opposition. “I’m waiting for apologies,” he tweeted. “They sounded a racist alarm and instead it was three idiots.”

But for black people in Italy, the alarm bells can’t be quite so easily ignored. “Any black person walking the street right now has reasonable grounds to fear that something is going to happen,” said Udo Enwereuzor, a Nigerian-Italian who has lived in Italy for 40 years, and works as a senior adviser for Cospe, a Florence-based nonprofit that advocates for migrants’ rights. “There’s simply no precedent for this kind of thing.”

“Racism has become normal,” said Pietro Massarotto, president of Naga, a Milan-based organization that advocates for minorities. “A lot of people are telling us they’re in fear – especially if they’re black.”

“We’re really in danger, I think.”

For Edna Lopes, a 41-year-old immigration consultant of Cape Verdean and Portuguese descent, the moment she felt things had changed came on July 27. She was paying some bills at an ATM in the town of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, about 40 kilometers southeast of Milan, when the man behind her in the line began muttering that she was taking too long.

Edna Lopes, a 41-year-old immigration consultant, was recently racially abused by a stranger in an exchange that left her in tears. “This was the first time that something like that has happened to me,” she said. (Tim Hume)

“Why don’t you go waste time in your own country,” grumbled the man, who Lopes described as a regular looking guy in his 40s, wearing a Lacoste shirt. She didn’t respond, but his insults swiftly escalated to overtly racist speech, with the man calling her a “bruta putana negra” – an ugly black whore – before storming off, yelling: “Thank goodness now Salvini will sort you all out.”

“I always thought if you’re educated, if you have a good job, that keeps you safe. That was proof that’s not true,” she said. “We’re really in danger, I think.”

The altercation left Lopes, who has lived in Italy for 25 years, in tears, and perplexed that none of the 10 or so other people at the scene had spoken up her in her defense.

“This was the first time that something like that has happened to me,” she told VICE News.

“Before, I was sure somebody would’ve spoken up in this kind of situation, because Italians are like this. But they’re not doing that any more. They’re starting to see the Legisti” – the supporters of Lega – “have too much power.”

Lopes, who is also Cape Verde’s honorary consul in Milan, said she had always felt her professional status had kept her largely insulated from racism.

“I always thought if you’re educated, if you have a good job, that keeps you safe. That was proof that’s not true,” she said. “We’re really in danger, I think.”

Ngono, the Cameroonian actor and musician, had a similar experience two weeks ago, when he was out for dinner in the northern Italian city of Lecco. He was standing outside the restaurant, checking his phone with his back to the street, when he felt something hit his back.

It was two fish that had been thrown at him from a car, whose occupants were now leaning out of the window, eyeballing him menacingly. As racist gestures go, it was a weird one, but for Ngono, there was no ambiguity about the message they were trying to convey.

Stephane Ngono, a 34-year-old actor and musician from Cameroon, has lived in Italy for 15 years, and says the climate for black Italians has changed dramatically since Salvini came to power. “It’s like we have a target on our back.” (Tim Hume)

“They wanted me to look at them and see them,” he told VICE News, adding the men drove off once he made eye contact.

Ngono lives in the town of Pavia, about 60 miles away, but had spent his university years in Lecco and had always felt welcome there, considering the town “my second home.” “But from that moment outside the restaurant, I thought: ‘we’re in danger’.”

“Now, with the new government, they think we have the right to be racist.”

Michele Francine Ngonmo, a 30-year-old Italian citizen of Cameroonian descent, told VICE News that she was racially abused while riding her bike to the supermarket one afternoon in early June in her hometown of Vercelli, near Milan. Unprovoked, a woman in her 50s began hurling abuse at her, calling her a “bastard negro” and telling her to go back to her own country.

Ngonmo, who has lived in Italy for 20 years and runs Milan’s Afro Fashion Week event, said there had always been an element of racism towards black people in Italy, but that racists seemed to have been dramatically emboldened by the new government.

“Before it was ‘I’m racist but I don’t want my neighbor to know I’m racist, because they’ll judge me’,” she told VICE News. “Now, with the new government, they think we have the right to be racist.”

Nearly 93 percent of Italy’s 60 million people are ethnically Italian, making it slightly less diverse than the comparably sized United Kingdom, where 87 percent of people are white British. In many respects, the country’s racial politics has lagged behind more diverse Western countries; even in 2018, black footballers complain of Italian fans making monkey noises at them on the pitch.

But race relations have been strained even further by the arrival of more than half a million illegal immigrants in recent years, brought by human traffickers across the Mediterranean from Libya. Salvini’s brazen politicization of the issue, critics say, has added a veneer of legitimacy to deep-seated prejudices, and emboldened racists to act more assertively.

“Racists feel they would have no problem in cursing migrants in the street or doing things that, until a few years ago, everybody in Italy would be ashamed to do,” said Andrea Costa, coordinator of Baobab Experience, a large transit camp for migrants in Rome. “Now it seems everybody can say whatever he wants.”

READ: Doctors are furious at Italy’s populist government for approving a dangerous anti-vax law

Despite signs that the racism scandal is causing strains with Lega’s coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement — at least one Five Star lawmaker has spoken out calling for politicians to stop the attacks — there’s no indication that Salvini, who declined repeated requests for comment for this story, has any interest in reining in his divisive rhetoric.

Instead, he’s struck a defiant pose, tweeting last month “So many enemies, so much honor,” a barely disguised reference to one of Mussolini’s most famous quotes, on the occasion of the dictator’s birthday. Doubling down on the controversy, one of Salvini’s ministers recently called for the scrapping of hate crime laws altogether.

None of the people spoken to by VICE News were optimistic that there’s any prospect to reverse the shift that they feel has happened in Italian society, and put the genie of racism back in the bottle. Rather, they see more and more signs that things are changing for the worse for them.

Three weeks ago, Lopes’s eight-year-old son came home one afternoon crying, having been sent home while playing at another child’s house by the boy’s mother.

When Lopes went over to ask the woman what had happened, she told her she had sent her son home because of his bad manners. Lopes acknowledges that she wasn’t there to see what happened, but said she didn’t buy that account; her son, who along with his brother are the only black boys in their town, had a generally shy and polite disposition, and was the only one of the group to be sent away.

“It’s the first time something like that has happened,” she said with a sigh. “There’s too many things happening to us for the first time."