Migrants as Activist Citizens in Italy

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Migrants as activist citizens in Italy
Published on openDemocracy (http://www.opendemocracy.net)

Migrants as activist citizens in Italy

In 2010 and 2011 migrants behaved like activist citizens throughout Italy, initiating a new cycle of struggles in the crisis of neoliberalism. Their contestation of an exclusionary, racialized and competitive model of society could become a goal shared by migrants and nationals alike.

‘We will be remembered’; whoever wrote this on the wall of an abandoned industrial site near Rosarno, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, did not know how right he would be. The anonymous writer was one of the hundreds of migrants from many African countries working in this region as orange-pickers during the winter. Year after year, they transformed an old olive oil factory into a highly precarious and uncomfortable shelter. The sentence on the wall appears like a message in a bottle, sent before the authorities removed almost all Africans from the town ‘for their own security’. It refers to the tumult [14] that exploded on 7 January 2010 in Rosarno, where hundreds of migrants rebelled after two of them were injured by three Italian youngsters in a drive-by shooting. The rioting workers set on fire rubbish bins, destroyed shop windows and cars, engaged in urban guerrilla clashes with the police, and finally they became the target of a ‘black man hunt’ unleashed by the resident population: during the same night many migrants were beaten with iron bars and two were shot. In the next three days, with the excuse of protecting them from the rage of Italians, about 2,000 African workers were either moved from the site by the police or fled voluntarily. On 7 January, 2012 many grass-roots associations, anti-racist and social justice movements, collectives of workers and neo-communist parties met in the sites of the unrest and announced the beginning of a new campaign – SOS Rosarno [15] – against exploitation, underground and criminal economies, and unsustainable projects for local development. The protagonists of those days are especially remembered, not simply because of the explosion of their indignation against systematic Page 1 of 10

Migrants as activist citizens in Italy
Published on openDemocracy (http://www.opendemocracy.net) racist violence – the shooting was just one of countless acts of oppression against them. The significance of their actions does not only lie in that fact that they revolted against the ‘Ndrangheta (the local Mafia which dominates the fruit and vegetable businesses besides controlling drug and arms trades) and denounced fraud, extortions and killings to the police in a way that Italians have never dared to do. They are remembered chiefly because through their words and acts they called into question the dominant public discourse on immigration as a security and border control problem. Their actions were an unexpected protest against the hypocrisy of an affluent (formally democratic) society based on the de facto legalized exploitation of disposable people. They spoke out against their inferiorization through institutional and everyday ‘democratic racism’. They contested the dominant discursive frames that depicted them either as a threat, a resource, or victims of adverse circumstances. They proved that they could claim and exercise rights even if they were not entirely entitled to them, according to positive law or common sense. They collectively demonstrated that it is possible to stand up and ask for respect even when you live under the continuous risk of being deported. The highly political nature of those events was so clear and their potential for emulation so explosive that a former Italian Minister of Interior and member of the virulently anti-immigrant Northern League, tried to restore the mainstream view affirming that: ‘There’s a difficult situation in Rosarno, like in other places, because for years illegal immigration – which feeds criminal...
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