Racist attacks in Italy: ‘The problem did not start today’

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Rome, Italy –.At the end of another day of rallies and public speeches, Aboubakar Soumahoro’s phone doesn’t stop ringing as his meetings pile up.

The 38-year-old Italian-Ivorian, a trade unionist for the grassroots USB union, is softly spoken one on one, but assertive and energetic when addressing a crowd.

On June 2, days after Italy installed a new populist government led by the anti-establishment party Five Star Movement and the far-right League (previously known as the Northern League), a Malian agricultural worker and USB activist, 29-year-old Soumaila Sacko, was shot dead in the southern region of Calabria.

Since then, Soumahoro has led a campaign for truth and justice, and helped raise funds to send Sacko’s remains home to his wife and five-year-old daughter. 

Sacko had been helping two fellow day labourers collect scrap metal for their makeshift homes in the San Ferdinando ghetto, a shantytown where at least 3,000 workers – primarily from Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and the Ivory Coast – live in abject conditions, and are paid as little as three euro an hour to work the fields.

The local mafia, the ‘Ndragheta, controls production at different stages, while multinational companies impose extremely low prices.

In 2010, migrant workers staged a revolt against the conditions after three labourers were injured in a racially-motivated street shooting as they returned from the fields. Hundreds of migrants were expelled from an area nearby in what some commentators called ethnic cleansing – one politician reportedly said Rosarno had become the world’s “only white town”.

Many migrants end up as day labourers in agriculture in southern Italy, often living in nearby shantytowns [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

A 43-year-old Italian man, Antonio Pontoriero, is under investigation for Sacko’s murder.

Since the new government was installed, its interior minister, the League’s Matteo Salvini, has adopted a hard line towards NGOs rescuing migrants and refugees and announced an “ethnically-based” census of Roma people living in informal camps.

Those who say ‘the party is over’ for migrants find themselves eating couscous, or kebab. But when it comes to recognising cultural diversity in the law, they raise barriers. We need this culinary dimension to be reflected at the legislative level.

Aboubakar Soumahoro, trade unionist and activist

Meanwhile, physical attacks against migrants continue. On June 11, a group shot at migrants, reportedly shouting “Salvini, Salvini”. On June 22, the Italian Ansa news agency reported that a 22-year-old Malian chef had been shot “for fun” in Naples. He survived the attack.

Al Jazeera sat down with Aboubakar Soumahoro, himself a former agricultural labourer, about the Sacko case and what it has come to represent.

The interview below has been translated from Italian and edited for clarity and brevity.

Al Jazeera: Who was Soumaila Sacko?

Soumahoro: He was a farmer who, due to climate change, found himself among the 143 million climate migrants worldwide. He was forced to leave the land he knew how to cultivate, and his migratory route took him to Calabria. Working in the Gioia Tauro plain, he found a collective path towards achieving industrial and social rights.

His role was the same as that of other workers in the front line. Explaining to workers that a normal working day should be 6.5 hours, and that anything beyond that should be considered overtime and paid accordingly.

Al Jazeera: What do we know about the murder?

Soumahoro: In the hours immediately after Soumaila’s killing, there was talk about a reaction to theft. We thought this theory was vile, inhumane, hasty, that it was probably a way to cover up what happened. 

A demonstrator wears a placard in memory of Soumaila Sacko at a march in Rome on June 16 [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

[After we took action with press releases and a general strike] the deputy police chief declared it had been a crime [against Sacko]. 

Al Jazeera: It has been argued that racially-based attacks have increased as a result of Salvini’s inflammatory rhetoric…

Soumahoro: The problem did not start today. It’s the product of policies that are the expression of a doctrine that can be summed up in the word racialisation. 

On the one hand, it is accomplished through labour exploitation.


On the other hand is the cultural aspect. And on these, the philosophy of successive governments, be they right or left [has been the same]. This thinking is a sort of ideology, it’s considering the other a non-person, which was at the base of colonial thought. 

Journalist-migrant, singer-migrant, businessman-migrant, student-migrant. Each time we add this adjective, it implies we are considering them below what’s normal. We need to reverse this paradigm.

Al Jazeera: How might that be achieved?

Soumahoro: By starting from the basics. Social justice, in a country with five million poor people. Solidarity not just towards migrants and refugees, but towards all those who are struggling. Equal pay for equal work. 

The culinary dimension has surpassed the political one. Those who say “the party is over” [for migrants] then find themselves eating couscous, or kebab. But when it comes to recognising this cultural diversity in the law, they raise barriers. What we need is for this culinary dimension to be reflected at the legislative level.

Al Jazeera: The [non-binding] “government contract” signed by the League and the Five Star Movement does exactly the opposite: it talks about free nursery schools for “Italian children”, closing all unauthorised mosques [the vast majority of mosques in Italy are informal]…

Soumahoro: We need to go back to normal, because themes like social equality, racism, sexism, have been banalised. People in Italy who over the years have been side-by-side with migrants, demonstrating for their rights, ended up in the same condition of impoverishment. 

Immigration laws are not just that. They are laws that condemn people to the margins, to precariousness. And this today applies to millions of people in Italy and in Europe.

Austerity politics have not been a solution, and so today everyone is out on a witch-hunt. And the louder they shout, the more consensus they get.

The current interior minister [Salvini] was elected in the Gioia Tauro plain [where oranges and lemons grow]. It is those who pick the citrus who are stigmatised as the cause of the decline of this territory.

Al Jazeera: Is there a war among Italy’s poor?

Soumahoro: At the electoral level it was achieved. But the electoral level and society’s complexity are two parallel dimensions, because we know that voter turnout does not match the 60 million Italian citizens. We need to talk to them inclusively, avoiding any instrumentalisation.

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