Minister of the Underworld
Who is responsible for instigating the recent spate of racist attacks? Toby Abse points the finger at interior minister Matteo Salvini
The first two months of the rightwing coalition government of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega have produced a new wave of racist shootings - an escalation which president Sergio Mattarella described in his July 26 annual address to parliamentary correspondents, as a “Far West”.1
On July 28, Lega interior minister (and deputy prime minister) Matteo Salvini dismissed the notion that there was any such wave of racist violence as “an invention of the left”, before adding fuel to the fire the next day by saying: “I remember the 700 crimes committed by immigrants in Italy every day - a third of the total … this is the only real alarm against which I am fighting.”2 Salvini’s attitude of total denial of the existence of any racist emergency was endorsed by M5S deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio and M5S infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli, both of whom claimed such notions were being used “instrumentally” against the government. M5S premier Giuseppe Conte claimed that an attack on the Italian champion athlete Daisy Osakue3 did not have a “racist matrix” and disgracefully proclaimed: “No to the psychosis that where there is a black person [under attack], there is racism” - doubtless fired up by his friendly meeting with Donald Trump in Washington earlier in the day.
Arguably, the precedent for the wave of racist shootings had been set during the campaign for the March 4 general election, with Luca Traini’s shooting spree against six Africans in Macerata in February. Although a racist murder of a Senegalese man by gunfire in Florence immediately after the election may have been triggered by the political climate, hate crimes in the next few months seem not to have involved firearms, so it is hard to believe that the recent wave of shootings following the installation of the M5S-Lega government on June 1 was purely coincidental.
As Repubblica (July 28) pointed out, there were nine such incidents involving firearms reported between June 3 and July 27.4 These shootings have not been confined to any one town or city, or even any one region. In none of these cases was the shooting the result of any quarrel that got out of hand - they were all unprovoked attacks, generally on random victims.5 A number of the attacks were ‘drive-by’ shootings by young men in cars, and a large proportion made use of air-guns, rather than conventional firearms. In all but one instance, the victims were people of African origin,6 and the variety of countries of origin is an indication that the assailants were picking people at random on the basis of skin colour.
A report in Corriere della Sera (July 28) indicated that the police acknowledged a pattern in the eight incidents that had occurred between June 11 and July 27 - although their principal hypothesis was one of “emulation” (ie, copycat crimes), even if they did acknowledge that “some attacks” could have been motivated by racial hatred. The authorities are concentrating their investigations on the possibility that somebody could have been fomenting the attacks via social media, and are examining profiles and websites in search of clues that might lead to a single instigator.
Whilst there is no reason to doubt that far-right activists have made very extensive use of social media - just as they have in the UK, the US and many other European countries - to whip up racial hatred, the prime instigator is nearer at hand: the man in charge of law and order, Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini.
The acquiescence of the M5S premier, Giuseppe Conte, in putting Salvini in this immensely powerful position, was equivalent to a British prime minister agreeing to appoint ‘Tommy Robinson’ home secretary. Salvini’s regular - often more than daily - venomous Tweets against migrants, NGOs and gypsies make Donald Trump’s daily outbursts on Twitter seem quite moderate, and were bound to provoke violence on the part of his more fanatical followers. We have already seen this with the self-confessed Nazi, Luca Traini, a former Lega candidate who was photographed with Salvini. In the case of the shooting of two young men from Mali in Caserta on June 11, there is absolutely no doubt that Salvini was the attackers’ inspiration - the three white men in the car from which the shots were fired were rhythmically chanting, “Sal-vi-ni, Sal-vi-ni”, as if they were in a football stadium.
The indulgence shown by many politicians of the official ‘left’ towards Salvini - a man who very deliberately cited Mussolini’s famous phrase, “So many enemies, so much honour”, on the Duce’s birthday (July 29) this year - is positively nauseating. Former Partito Democratico (PD) leader Matteo Renzi refused to endorse Roberto Saviano’s description of Salvini as “the moral instigator” of Traini’s shooting spree in Macerata, and such figures expressed excessive concern for the welfare of neo-fascist leader Giorgia Meloni when a few plastic bottles were thrown at her in Livorno. There has been no fundamental shift in attitude since the formation of the M5S-Lega government - of which, in practice, Salvini, not Conte or Di Maio, is the leading figure.
This slavish adherence to the conventional courtesies of the parliamentary game is best illustrated by the reactions of the PD and the left social democratic Liberi e Uguali (LeU) to a recent incident in Florence. On July 28, three men whom the FlorentineLega described as “extremists”, came up to a Lega street stall and shouted, “You are racists! Nazis!”, tore up their posters and threw their leaflets into the street. It should be stressed that the anti-fascists did not physically attack the Leghisti, and were in any event rapidly arrested by a police patrol. Whilst expressions of solidarity from various prominent Lega politicians towards their Florentine members were predictable, the reactions of the official representatives of not only the PD but also LeU were rather shocking, given the weeks of anti-migrant and anti-gypsy actions7 - not just inflammatory statements - by the Lega’s leader. Dario Nardella, the PD mayor of Florence and a close crony of Renzi, pompously proclaimed: “In politics, as in life, the important thing is respect for others. Full solidarity to the victims of aggression” - as if the Legashowed any respect for “others”, even those drowned in the Mediterranean.
As for Enrico Rossi, the self-professed ‘socialist’ who is LeU regional president of Tuscany, he issued a statement which declared: “Actions like these must be condemned. Always and regardless of whom they are aimed at. Those responsible ought not to have any legitimacy, and are outside democratic culture.” Presumably, the leaflets with such charming slogans as “Sign for the closure of the Roma camps”, which the Florentine Legaregularly brandishes at passers-by on their Saturday stalls, are part of “democratic culture” in the eyes of Rossi.8
To be fair, president Sergio Mattarella has shown more guts - in a speech about the 80th anniversary of Mussolini’s racial laws on July 25, he was clearly aiming his remarks at Salvini when he mentioned fascist discrimination and the subsequent genocide aimed against gypsies, as well as against Jews. In the ‘Far West’ speech referred to earlier, Matarella specifically referred to the attack on the gypsy baby on July 17 as marking a descent into “barbarism”.
The most intransigent opposition to Salvini has not come from either the PD or LeU, but from sections of the Catholic church and from Roberto Saviano. Saviano is an anti-Mafia writer and journalist who gained an international reputation from his book Gomorrah (and the subsequent film of the same name) about the Neapolitan Camorra, one of Italy’s main criminal organisations, which had previous received far less international attention that its Sicilian counterpart. The book’s publication led to serious death threats from the Camorra, and Saviano has been under constant police protection for more than a decade.
Saviano has not only been forthright in his criticism of Salvini’s racist policies towards migrants and NGOs (whilst at the same time, unlike many centre-left writers, not hesitating to point out the extent to which former PD interior minister Marco Minniti paved the way for him by his own attack on NGOs and his disgraceful deal with Libya’s rival politicians, warlords and militias), but has also labelled him the “Minister of the Underworld”. Salvini threatened to withdraw Saviano’s police protection some weeks ago, but this has only reinforced the writer’s opposition, since he understandably regards such a threat as a Mafia tactic. Salvini has subsequently issued a writ on ministerial notepaper, suing Saviano for defamation, which in Italy is a criminal rather than a civil offence.
The reason Saviano has labelled Salvini ‘Minister of the Underworld’ is the apparent link between key figures in Salvini’s 2018 election campaign and the Calabrian Mafia, the’Ndrangheta, which is probably now more important that the Sicilian Cosa Nostra in terms of the international drug trade and some other fields of criminal activity. Anybody who has followed Italian politics in any detail will realise that there is something very odd indeed about a leader of a party formerly known as the Lega Nord (Northern League) and, until 2012 at least, notorious for its rabid hostility to southerners, managing to get elected in a constituency where the Lega had got a derisory vote in the 2013 general election, since the region of Calabria is in Italy’s ‘deep south’.
A series of articles in Repubblica in early June (and one in The Guardian more recently) have provided details about various local politicians in Calabria previously associated with other parties transferring their allegiance to the Lega in 2018. It is suggested that they did so on the prompting of the ’Ndrangheta, which felt its old links with other sections of the right (Forza Italia and, over a much longer period, neo-fascists of various stripes) no longer yielded a dividend in terms of political protection from the attentions of the police. It is certainly the case that figures linked to the’Ndranghetawere sitting in the front row of at least one of Salvini’s election rallies.
Repubblica also hinted that these gangsters may have been behind the murder of Soumaylo Sacko on June 3, two days after Salvini’s appointment as minister of the interior. Sacko had been an effective trade union organiser amongst grossly exploited black agricultural labourers in Calabria, and came into conflict with unscrupulous employers, widely believed to have links with the ’Ndrangheta. Therefore it seems a little unlikely that Sacko was shot merely for collecting scrap metal from a disused factory, with which the man charged with his murder had some previous connection. Since the accused man denies any involvement in the crime, he is very unlikely to furnish the police with any details of a wider conspiracy; any hit man connected with the ’Ndrangheta would be expected by his superiors in the organisation to observe a similar code of silence (omertà) to that current amongst the Sicilian Mafia, on pain of death.
Sections of the Catholic Church have also adopted a more robust attitude towards Salvini than that associated with the PD. The most notable instance of this was the very striking front cover of the magazine Famiglia Cristiana (July 29), which proclaimed: “Vade retro, Salvini” (Get thee behind me, Salvini). Needless to say, Salvini took offence at the obvious comparison with Satan, but the more progressive sections of the Italian church have been provoked not only by the obvious inhumanity of his policy of letting refugees drown, but also by his repeated use of rosaries and copies of the New Testament as props at his election rallies. In this he is clearly aping his counterparts in Hungary and Poland - countries in which the local clergy are more inclined to look very favourably on ultra-nationalism and regard the pro-refugee stance of the Argentinean pope with barely concealed hostility.
The July 29 issue of Famiglia Cristiana quoted criticisms of Salvini made by six bishops (those from Milan, Bologna, Palermo, Turin, Noto and Perugia - the last of whom is the president of the Italian Bishops Council). Salvini has claimed that large numbers of the clergy have privately endorsed his views, but, regardless of whether this is true or not, the only one who has publicly endorsed his views about “Christian identity” - which in essence conflates Christians and white Europeans - is an obscure defrocked priest closely associated with Steve Bannon.
The PD is now talking of a national anti-racist demonstration in September, but, unless it adopts a more forceful oppositional stance and dumps Renzi (who, despite Maurizio Martina’s official election as secretary in early July, still dominates the party apparatus) and his zombie-Blairite neoliberal policies, it stands little chance of undermining the government of Salvini and his M5S accomplices, who collectively command around 60% support in the opinion polls.
1. This English phrase has been used by Italians in the place of ‘Wild West’ for decades.↩
2. Salvini, since his appointment as interior minister, has been pictured on social media wearing a T-shirt saying, “Offence is the best defence” - a slogan associated with hard-core neo-fascist thugs.↩
3. She received a black eye as a result of an egg thrown from a speeding car. This is rather less serious than most of the recent violent attacks on black people, but received far greater media attention because of her celebrity status.↩
4. It is likely that this figure is incomplete, since those without legal immigration status would be reluctant to have dealings with the police.↩
5. Although the killing of Soumaylo Sacko on June 3 was undoubtedly a targeted assassination of a trade union activist. Shots were also fired at his companions - two other migrants whom he was helping to collect scraps of metal from a disused factory in order to create a dwelling with more security than a wooden hut, vulnerable to arsonists.↩
6. The exception was a 13-month-old gypsy baby being carried in her mother’s arms. The attacker, who fired from his balcony, claimed that his gun went off accidentally.↩
7. Eg, the Aquarius episode (see ‘Age of Aquarius’ Weekly Worker June 25) and the more recent forcible closure of the ‘camping river’ gypsy camp in Rome, which Salvini personally coordinated with the enthusiastically compliant M5S mayor, Virginia Raggi, in defiance of a European Court of Human Rights ruling that attempted to block it.↩
8. Given that LeU was essentially an electoral cartel, and has not yet cohered into a party, it is not at all clear whether its more leftwing component, Sinistra Italiana, shares the sentiments of somebody like Rossi, who until 18 months ago was a leading figure in the Tuscan PD. Sinistra Italiana leader Nicola Frattoianni has put himself in the front line against Salvini by sailing on board NGO vessels trying to pick up refugees in defiance of Italian government policy.↩