Stories of Men and Statues
The protests sparked by the death of George Floyd have had an unexpected impact both on the media and on Italian public debate. Black Lives Matter (BLM) in particular has been watched very closely by various analysts as a movement deemed capable of providing new impetus for the discussion about identity, civil rights and immigration in Italy.
However, the Americanisation of the discourse about racism has crowded out any attempt to analyse Italy's repressed colonial memory, which continues to be the exclusive and limited focus of academic discussions, while there is a failure to move on to broader criticism of the vestiges of the Italian fascist era, whose existence public opinion seems unable to reconcile itself with.
In this article, which takes as its premise the paradoxes that emerged following the arrival of the BLM protests in Italy, I will consider instead the reactions these demonstrations prompted in the country's squares in an effort to shift the focus of the debate to the lives of migrants and of their children with their lack of civil rights and the law decrees that continue to criminalise migration.
I will then deal with the debates that followed the toppling of the statues of various historical figures who have been re-evaluated from an anti-racist perspective, concluding with the case of the statue of Indro Montanelli and a historiography that continues to downplay the invasive and violent nature and historical relevance of colonialism.
The 'anti-racism lite' that goes well with everything
For weeks now, Italian public opinion has been exposed to and informed about what has been happening across the Atlantic. Four months ago, a 46-year-old black man called George Floyd died as a result of his brutal arrest by several police officers in Minneapolis. A passer-by filmed Floyd's suffocation on their phone and within a few hours, his senseless and violent murder became a tragic news story, quickly reaching the front pages of papers around the world.
It was immediately obvious that Floyd's death was no accident but rather an intentional act resulting from the racial stereotypes of one of the police officers who arrested him and who was later revealed to be openly racist towards African Americans.
In his dying moments Floyd pleaded with the officer to take his knee off his neck, repeatedly saying he could not breathe. Indeed, "I can't breathe" subsequently became the central slogan of the protesters who, in the weeks that followed, took to the streets to demand the police officers involved be prosecuted for his unjust death and at the same time an end to systemic racism, which sees police officers being more violent towards ethnic minorities and yet facing no criminal action as a result.
In Italy too, the public were shocked by George Floyd's death, but most conspicuous of all was the political class's rather incongruous and in some ways curious reaction. Everyone seemed ready to express indignation at Floyd's murder. The newspapers focused on the story of a racist and violent America, a hell on earth for African Americans who had been fighting for years for acknowledgement of their right to live and of their importance.
In essence, Black Lives Matter, the US movement that has been following the racially motivated crimes inflicted on members of African American communities since Trayvon Martin's death in 2012, says precisely that, making clear that black lives are of value – and also in Italy, all of a sudden, politicians and journalists are starting to voice their support for this principle.
Many politicians have joined this chorus – to such an extent that during a session of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament, Laura Boldrini, a leading figure in Italy's centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the country's second biggest political force, 'took the knee' with fellow PD members of parliament, in honour of the memory of Floyd and all victims of racial discrimination. This almost immediately sparked fierce criticism from activists and anti-racist organisations, who called it an act of hypocrisy, given that in one particularly tragic year (2017) her own party promulgated the infamous Minniti-Orlando Decree.
Black lives in the Mediterranean also matter
In Italy's major cities, the squares have been full of people, mainly children of migrants, taking possession of these spaces and expressing their opinion about anti-racist practices, drawing on the momentum unleashed by the protests in the United States. Previously, the presence of young people misleadingly called second-generation migrants – suggesting that this legal status was inherited and not brought about by the real-life experience of migration – was never really part of the Italian public debate surrounding racism or migration. In Italy it is very common for political talk shows to discuss migrants without any migrants being represented. Instead, the guests invited on to discuss the existence of a cultural problem related to racism are generally white men. Those for whom this is their actual lived experience which they are redefining in a political way in their everyday life are rarely represented and seldom contribute. But since the recent protests, it has been impossible to ignore migrants' children any longer: having taken to the streets, they are now also demonstrating against the new disputed and vacuous anti-racism of convenience, prompted by the deaths of African American victims of racism, but which fails to express indignation or propose specific action for the many victims of that same systemic racism that leads thousands of migrants, including Africans, to lose their lives off the coast or Lampedusa or in Libya's prisons.
Many of the placards waved at the protests in Turin, Naples, Milan and Bologna point out that black lives in the Mediterranean also matter. These spontaneous demonstrations, not sponsored by traditional Italian left-wing groups, are keeping George Floyd's memory alive by adding to his story of ordinary discrimination all those forgotten all too quickly by Italian public opinion. For example, there is the protest aimed at implementing the principle of jus soli, which would pave the way for gaining Italian citizenship. Instead, as things currently stand, millions of young people born and raised in Italy can only apply for citizenship at the age of 18 – with no guarantee that they will get it.
Then there are fascist outrages such as the Macerata attack by the neo-fascist Luca Traini, who in just a few hours shot and injured six African citizens – abominations that are referred to when denouncing the advance of the far right in Italian society. But not only murderous neo-fascism must be denounced. The date 3 October 2013 has also been remembered recently. The death of 368 migrants who drowned at sea was not treated in the news as one of the many tragedies resulting from the situation in the Mediterranean but as an event resulting from migration laws which, in light of their unfairness and ineffectiveness, force people to take illegal and dangerous routes that offer no guarantees of reaching Italy, and therefore Europe.
There is no need to adopt racism from outside to make sense of one's own racism. Italy is a racist and increasingly intolerant country whose political leaders rely on the criminalisation of migration to assert their own legitimacy. Neo-fascism is growing exponentially and is becoming normalised, spearheaded by major right-wing parties such as Lega (League) and Fratelli d'Italia (FI – Brothers of Italy).
Hands off Cain, hands off Columbus
Curiously, the leader of FI is largely critical of the Italian anti-racist movements. Incredibly, in her ultra-conservative rhetoric that is sympathetic to neo-fascist political organisations such as Casapound, she does not tackle head on the legitimacy of the claims made by Black Lives Matter and Italian anti-racist protesters. Instead, in an attempt to defuse its progressive power, she criticises what she calls a "downward spiral" and the "excesses of the left".
Particularly striking is her statement that:
"The despicable iconoclastic fury that is sweeping the world is also raging against a great Italian like Christopher Columbus. Statues are being vandalised, damaged or even removed. In fact, this just happened in Columbus, Ohio, which was named after the famed Genoese navigator. The local authorities removed the statue of Columbus that was donated by the City of Genoa in 1955 and erected in front of Columbus City Hall. I would like to join the #NessunoTocchiColombo (Hands Off Columbus) appeal launched by intellectuals and journalists today in the Il Giornale newspaper to fittingly celebrate the explorer and make a suggestion to the Municipality of Genoa that we request the return of the statue removed from in front of Columbus City Hall. Let's exhibit it ourselves in one of our beautiful squares. Let's give this monument the place it deserves and stop it being left abandoned in some warehouse."
The FI leader knows very well that she cannot cross certain lines in what she says. She cannot openly declare her racism and her disinterest in what happened to George Floyd and the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, killed by the wanton failure of both the European Union and the Italian government to take action. But she can discredit the anti-racist battles with a narrative the Italian right holds dear: the idea that the left is going too far.
In this narrative, everything is justified as long as you don't go too far. You can ask for justice and equality, including gender equality, without going too far. The criteria applied here though are generally determined by those who have the privilege of being able to define themselves as normal.
Christopher Columbus, who, according to Meloni, was a great Italian and is facing ideological excesses on the part of a left wing that destroys everything it deems controversial. However, especially for Italians abroad, Columbus is considered a hero whose memory inspires admiration for his courage as a redoubtable explorer who sought new lands to conquer for himself and his people. There is no doubt that the glorification of Columbus is linked mainly to the experience of Italians who have migrated to other countries.
Italian emigrants have always seen themselves as a people of migrants who have been mistreated and discriminated against and yet have been successful in their own personal migration story, which in the end has been represented in positive terms. Many Italians, while recognising themselves as a people of migrants, contrast their 20th-century experience, which they characterise as a tragic yet necessary one, with that of migrants from Africa, holding against them the fact that the latter have not had to suffer the same pains they did, since today there is a migrant reception system that, they say, makes the migration experience easier. Leaders of the populist right such as Matteo Salvini even have the nerve to call it a 'trip'.
For Italians, Christopher Columbus is a historical figure who has added prestige to their history, as the explorer who discovered America, a navigator, an entrepreneur, a brave citizen of Genoa who pushed himself to the limits of the known world. For Italians, his memory is sanitised and unblemished by everything that drove, and continues to drive, many demonstrators to tear down statues of him in various cities. Just one man but with two contrasting stories: in one he is viewed as a courageous captain, in the other as a ruthless and racist coloniser, responsible for having cruelly slaughtered whole tribes of indigenous people.
The memory that is not remembered
In general, the issue of statues and their toppling to make way for other narratives has not gone down well with Italian public opinion.
The preferred argument of many Italian intellectuals who have observed the anti-racist movements originating in the United States with growing disquiet is their repeated accusation that people are so intent on looking for bogeymen that they are seeing these where there are none.
This refusal to engage with a historical analysis of colonial Italy that needs to be completely revised and reinterpreted is illustrated by the case of the statue of Indro Montanelli, an Italian journalist who founded daily newspaper Il Giornale. Over the past four years, the statue in the Milan public gardens bearing Montanelli's name has been the subject of fierce criticism, especially from the transfeminist movement Non Una Di Meno (NUDM – Not One Less), which on 8 March 2019, International Women's Day, smeared the statue of the renowned journalist with washable pink paint. This act, which aimed to get public opinion to reflect on a controversial hidden aspect of Montanelli's life, became a flashpoint that was revived in the midst of the public debate sparked by BLM and the similar fate of statues of slave holders, mercenaries and murderers.
But who was Indro Montanelli?
Looking beyond the historical considerations surrounding his involvement with Italy's fascist regime, Indro Montanelli was a symbol of Italian journalism. As such he was regarded as an untouchable historical figure deserving of accolades, whose time as a soldier in Abyssinia was written off as a piffling, insignificant footnote to a brilliant existence. Montanelli is the perfect example of a man who enters the annals of history and is set to remain there, leaving behind him the devastation of an event from the prime of his life which he described as follows:
"I really struggled to get over her smell because of the goat tallow soaked in her hair. It was even harder to have sexual intercourse with her because she had been infibulated at birth. Not only did this pose an almost insurmountable barrier to my ardour (it took her mother's rough intervention to break though this barrier), but it meant the girl could not feel anything."
These are the words of the Italian journalist and historian talking about his experience as the owner of a slave and his attempt to rape a 12-year-old girl during his time serving as a soldier in Abyssinia. Although he came from a country where it was illegal to marry a girl of that age as his slave wife, Montanelli, on a mission on behalf of an authoritarian fascist regime, whose narrative reveals him as a white Italian supremacist, violates the girl's body, based on those rights and beliefs and that ideology.
By 1969, by which time he was a revered figure as a result of his writings in the Corriere della Sera newspaper and the work Storia d'Italia (History of Italy), this intellectual heavyweight was supporting the idea of a gentle and innocent Italian colonialism, which supposedly, unlike its English and French counterparts, had even been respectful of African 'savages' and their customs.
Indeed, he unintentionally revealed that he had been a slave holder (he had bought a child to sexually abuse her) and an unwitting colonialist (marked by his heated discussion with historian Angelo Del Boca in which he passionately argues that the Italian air force had never used chemical weapons to exterminate Ethiopian tribes, although this has been demonstrated and backed up by many official documents). Despite his interviews, controversial admissions and failure to acknowledge his sexual abuse of his child wife/slave, and finally his open racism directed at Africans, Montanelli's memory was defended by a host of journalists and historians who, as one, condemned what NUDM had done and the criticism of his past which, unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, will never really provide the full picture.
And this is where the divergent needs of those who would like to separate Montanelli 'the man' from his work as a journalist and historian and vice versa are inextricably intertwined. There is never one single version of history. Although historians, in an attempt to tell our stories as humans, have always chosen the last lines of the victors, they shared the political nature of their subjects while deliberately deciding to omit the most problematic aspects – after all, there were kings who would not have been kings without being killers, and explorers who would not have been explorers without being invaders.
Having sanitised history, they moved on to telling the story of the nation, and identities themselves, but having lost the tools required to fully understand what racism was and what it is, as an economic and political system.
Being born white means seeing and understanding the world based on an innate notion of 'whiteness' that rejects any attempt to give new meanings to that colour, to that class, to that provenance, to those roots.
If your eyes and mind are blinkered, it is impossible to understand the toppling of a statue as a regenerative and legitimate act in the context of the idea of history as something that is produced ready for use, having already been manipulated.
According to this view, then, the statue of Montanelli cannot be toppled on the basis that it is part of Italian culture, which rejects the idea that this was also based on the moral and cultural principles that led the journalist to be the owner of an Ethiopian girl. The same goes for Columbus, who continues to be regarded as a hero and the pride of his country by Italians abroad, yet is viewed as a pirate and murderer by the descendants of those populations who, with the arrival of his caravel, then saw the end of their civilisations.
There is no doubt that behind the grievances and disgust surrounding the iconoclastic fury of recent months, there is, however, also the fairly well-concealed white racist belief that the lives of those communities who died because of whites' pursuit of gold, coffee, diamonds, tobacco, sugar, spices and silk were lives that counted for nothing and that could and should have been extinguished to finance the progress and development of Europe and the West as a whole.
As such, the detractors of the toppling of statues, based on this belief that flies in the face of the principles of universalism and equality, so dear to this part of the civilised world, are reaffirming that there is a superior race (i.e. whites), and that as whites, they must and can write off the non-white and therefore expendable human capital lost to give them First World status, the first among last in the world. Not even fascist culture, still a strong presence in Italy today, is considered to be the real cause of the racist violence aimed in an increasingly systematic way at migrants living in Italy. After all, we cannot talk about something that does not exist, and fascism here in Italy – especially according to those who practise and support it – does not really exist, nor does it pose a threat.
This is what is argued and fought for by those who do not want to face their colonial past, the vast wealth arising from that past and the political and social repercussions which that past is again redrawing and reaffirming through immigration laws, passports, First and Third World identities and access to Europe for non-Europeans. Behind the toppling of a statue that tells a single story, there is no obscurantism, or loss of one's roots, but a large void which can be used to integrate an interpretation of events that excludes no one and that unites black and white. And the deeper you dig, the more you understand that those human categories, more political than biological in nature, arose out of a desire to oppress others, and not out of a need for truth or a desire for self-definition.
1. Under the Decree Law of 17 February 2017 No. 13, the Decreto Minniti-Orlando (Minniti-Orlando Decree) (transposed with amendments by Law No. 46 of 13 April 2017), migrants who have lost their case and appealed against this ruling are denied the possibility of a second appeal. The procedure eliminates the third appeal, i.e. the ability for asylum seekers to turn to the Court of Appeal if their request is rejected first by the Territorial Commission and then by an ordinary court. The second appeal, that is the appeal to the court, has been simplified by eliminating the hearing stage. The court will no longer hear the migrant and instead will just view the video of the migrant's hearing at the Territorial Commission.
The decree deals with the transfer from identification and expulsion centres (CIE) to repatriation centres (CPR), which are in fact detention centres for immigrants awaiting repatriation.
2. Fratelli d'Italia is a right-wing Italian political party with fascist sympathies, headed up since 2014 by its chair, Giorgia Meloni. The party's logo features the tricolour flame of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a historical neo-fascist party that was dissolved in 1995.
3. Casapound is a neo-fascist political movement that was established as a socio-cultural association in 2008. The movement came under fire from the start for its openly fascist and xenophobic views. This was sadly marked by an ambush in Florence on 13 December 2011. Gianluca Casseri, an activist for this movement, killed two street sellers with Senegalese roots and seriously injured a third, and then took his own life just before he could be arrested by the police. In Italy, defending fascism is a criminal offence punishable by law.
About the author
Djarah Kan is an Italian-Ghanaian writer, activist and artist who lives in Naples and has published short stories and articles for Effequ, Gli Asini, Jacobin Italia, l'Espresso and FQ Millennium.
She also took part in the Women's Creative Mentorship Project, publishing a short story for the International Writing Program funded by the University of Iowa.