It did not matter where they were: in front of a café, a tobacconist, or the train station. It did not seem to matter who they were: men or women, Italian citizens, “regular” immigrants or asylum seekers. So long as they were black.
A shooting rampage against African migrants in the town of Macerata in central Italy on February 2 unveiled the extent to which the debate about migration in Italy is shaped by fascist forces and racist ideas.
By the end of the rampage, six people had been shot, one woman and five men. One is in a regional hospital with a chest injury, the others suffered minor injuries and are stable.
A 28-year-old man called Luca Traini, arrested at the scene draped in an Italian flag, was charged with an attempted racially-aggravated massacre. A copy of Mein Kampf and books on fascism in Italy were reportedly found at his flat. In 2017, Traini stood as a candidate for the far-Right Lega Nord at a local election, albeit scoring zero votes.
The attack came soon after the macabre death of Pamela Mastropietro, whose dismembered body was found in two suitcases in late January, dumped along the road near Macerata. A Nigerian man called Innocent Oseghale residing in Italy with an expired permesso di soggiorno (or permit of stay) was arrested the day after, accused of killing her.
I never met Gideon Atzeke, Jennifer Otioto or any of the other victims of the attack, and hardly anyone has mentioned who they were. But I did meet many asylum seekers in Macerata in summer 2017 during my research on the Italian government’s reception system for asylum seekers. And even then, the everyday and institutional racism confronting them seemed to be their main preoccupation.
Talking to them on the phone in the days since the attack, I have been struck by the fatalist nature with which they processed the events. A sign, perhaps, of their extraordinary lives, and of their ordinary fears, aspirations, and claims for a secure and decent life, all of which are constantly devalued and obscured by the migration debate.
Some Nigerians blamed the accusations against Oshigale for putting “all Nigerians in a bad light”. Others evoked the violent and racist abuse they faced in Libya, drawing explicit parallels between their treatments in the two countries. Unfortunately, all seemed to agree that it was best for them to stay put in the hotels and houses where they are hosted, as they wait for their asylum claim to be processed.
I strongly encouraged them not to do so, and to join the various protests and marches that have already taken place or are planned.
The attempted massacre appears to epitomise how fascist groups and ideas have been mainstreamed and glamourised in Italy, particularly in the run-up to elections on March 4.
After his arrest, Traini was heralded as a patriot by some on social media. Forza Nuova, the party founded by the far-Right politician Roberto Fiore, expressed full support for Traini and offered to pay his legal expenses.
Other political parties distanced themselves from his alleged actions. Yet, they still managed to shift attention away from the political context of the rampage.
Casapound, a far-Right group, condemned the attack, and denied reports of Traini’s affiliation with them. Roberto Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord, tried to minimise Traini’s past candidature for his party, and linked the event to the “social confrontation” brought about by “uncontrolled migration”.
Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister and leader of Forza Italia, defined immigration as a “social bomb about to explode” and pledged to deport up to 600,000 irregular migrants. Other Right-wing parties, such as Fratelli d’Italia, used the events to emphasise their belief that Italy faces a security emergency caused by migration, which needs a strong response from the state.
Marco Minniti, Italy’s minister of the interior, a member of the Partito Democratico, appealed for unity. He tried to placate the situation by insisting that the shootings were unorganised and carried out by a loose cannon. The Five Star Movement, the largest party in Italy according to polls, insisted that it was the responsibility of political parties to maintain silence about the attack.
As the migrant support group Coordinamento Migranti asserted, underlying these responses lies a growing racism that pervades Italian politics and frames migration as a threat to Italians, and seeks to legitimise military and security solutions.
I believe this was an act of terrorism and that it was not an isolated event, but the latest episode of a series of fascist aggressions aimed at intimidating immigrants and those who support them. A strong mobilisation is required against this drift.
Paolo Novak, Lecturer, Development Studies, SOAS, University of London.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.