Ahead of the EU elections, neo-fascists are inciting anti-Roma violence in Rome’s disillusioned suburbs

Ahead of the EU elections, neo-fascists are inciting anti-Roma violence in Rome's disillusioned suburbs

On 8 May 2019, CasaPound members and supporters join Casal Bruciato residents in front of the building where a Bosnian Roma family were recently housed. The far-right extremists led protests the previous day which turned violent.

(Stefano Fasano)

“I will rape you, slut!” The target of these disgusting words is Senada, a 40-year-old woman who is desperately trying to protect her three-year-old daughter Violetta from the angry mob showering them with unspeakable insults. The only thing that separates this frightened mother and daughter from the blind fury of the crowd – around 200 local residents joined by representatives of the far-right party CasaPound – is a cordon of riot police, who run with the pair as they try to leave the entrance of their apartment building. Senada’s crime? She is an immigrant, an ethnic Roma and a mother of 12 who was allocated social housing by the municipality of Rome.

The commotion began the previous morning, on Monday, 6 May 2019, when Senada’s husband, Imer Omerović, started to move the family’s belongings from their trailer in the informal Roma settlement of La Barbuta to their new apartment in the Casal Bruciato district to the east of Rome. “When I arrived here, at around 10am, there were already 50 to 60 people waiting for me in the courtyard. They said to my son: ‘We will kill you all. We will throw a bomb at your house,’” recalls Imer, 40, from the unfurnished living room of his new council flat.

From the windows of their second-floor apartment, it is still possible to see the protesters and hear their muffled rants as the sun sets. Amongst them is Mauro Antonini, the regional coordinator of CasaPound. A swaggering figure, he stands with folded arms as he repeats copy-paste soundbites to the queue of journalists in front of him, just in time for the evening news: “We cannot accept this butchery of the law.” “That apartment should have been assigned to an Italian family, not to criminals.” “The people of this neighbourhood are scared and want to feel safe.” The journalists report his words as simple news; in fact, they were a call to action for members and local sympathizers of this neo-fascist party.

There is nothing ‘criminal’ about the Omerović family. They arrived in Italy at the end of the 1990s, fleeing the war in Bosnia. Dad Imer owns a small, licensed antique business and his children all go to public schools, except the two oldest sons, who are both over the age of 18, work and hold Italian passports.

But the facts are meaningless when it comes to exploiting the allocation of social housing to a Roma family for electoral purposes. The European elections take place between 23 and 26 May, and there are serious concerns that far-right, populist parties – like Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s League (Lega), Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), France’s National Rally (Rassemblement National) and many others – could see a surge of support across Europe. The elections have certainly made their unwieldy presence felt in the Rome’s working-class suburbs, where openly fascist parties like CasaPound and New Force (Forza Nuova) have started to agitate social unrest for some weeks now. The aim is to foment enough discontent and anger to harvest as liquid and immediate votes.

Punching down

The periphery of Rome is dotted with housing estates full of low-income families struggling to survive in austerity-hit Italy. There are poorer neighbourhoods than Casal Bruciato but few are as isolated due to the scarcity of public transport in the area. The nearest metro line is a 25-minute walk away, while many of the official bus routes exist only in theory. Rome’s huge public debt makes infrastructure investment almost impossible, so improvements to urban mobility are as underfunded as any attempts to improve social mobility.

It’s against this backdrop that on 7 May a display table draped in the CasaPound flag and laden with flyers is set up in the courtyard of the Omerović’s building, flanked by young men with shaven heads and tattoos, and two big Italian flags. The anger of the crowd is palpable, and it’s being expertly channelled through chants directed towards the family’s apartment window. “This neighbourhood isn’t worth anything anymore,” says Paolo, one of the building’s residents. “The presence of these gypsies is the final slap in the face.” Not too far from him, Antonini yells into a megaphone: “We will not tolerate this reverse racism! Italians first!”

Here, the poor are being encouraged to punch down. Instead of being angry with the politicians responsible for their low wages, underfunded schools and lack of opportunities, they are targeting people who are even more vulnerable than them.

As Interior Minister, Salvini has demonstrated open hostility towards immigrants and members of the Roma community (who are often also immigrants), personally supervising the destruction of several informal settlements where many Roma families live.

He has also vowed to close all informal Roma camps and deport all non-Italian Roma from the country. “We’ll have to keep the ones who are Italian,” the Daily Beast reported Salvini as saying last year. “But everyone else will have to go.”

Similar sentiments were parroted in Casal Bruciato. “You can’t put them here. They are not used to living in apartments like normal people,” says 57-year-old Anna, whose parents migrated to Rome from southern Italy in the 1960s. Another elderly neighbour agrees: “They are thieves, dirty, they are killers. They must not stay here!” Her accent betrays her, though: “Yes, I’m Polish, but we are not like them.”

Scenes like this have been repeated in Rome’s eastern suburbs over the past few weeks. On 2 April, protesters set fire to cars and bins to stop 70 Roma men, women and children from being temporarily transferred to a reception centre in the district of Torre Maura. Meanwhile, Suzana, a Roma woman and mother-of-four living in the Tor Vergata neighbourhood, has become the latest victim of an organised campaign to drive her out of her social housing.

“I would say that the nicest comment I’ve heard is ‘fucking gypsies,’” she tells Equal Times sarcastically. “It’s like an echo. I heard it at least once a day during my first weeks in the house.” On 4 May a small group of far-right extremist from Action Front (Azione Frontale), joined locals in a furious protest against the presence of Suzana’s family.

But Suzana is resolute. “I have spent all my life living in a container, and my daughters too. I am staying here. This is our home. Me and my daughters have the right to stay,” she says. “I am integrating my kids; I want a serene life. I won’t be scared by a few fucking fascists”.

Community action

Thankfully, both Suzana and the Omerović haven’t had to bear the burden of their situation completely alone. A few days after the violence in Casal Bruciato, the Pope met the Omerović family and 500 other members of the Roma community to offer his support and prayers, and even during the protests, anti-fascist activists held counter-demonstrations. In Tor Vergata, a group of local parents and teachers at the school attended by her daughters (the Simonetta Salacone Institute), have formed a support group to protect Suzana’s family and ensure that they are never left alone, day or night.

In recent days, the group sent letters to President Sergio Mattarella, Salvini and others, denouncing the violence and humiliations suffered by Suzana’s family. To protect their own safety, the members of the group prefer to remain anonymous. “I was looking for a signal, a reaction from this community,” says one of the mothers in the group. “This group is completely spontaneous. A lot of us don’t even know each other.” But despite being concerned enough to take action against racist violence, when asked about her opinion on the growing threat of fascism in Italy, she said: “I think the problem is over-represented. Many people don’t actually believe in what these fascist groups propose.”

Another mother in the group agrees: “I don’t think these far-right groups have such a huge ‘grip’ on the suburbs. They just get a lot of attention from the mainstream media,” she adds. “But our ‘surveillance’ of Suzana is a way to raise the awareness of the problem, and to ensure the authorities keep their eyes open. I think people can help deescalate these situations by being physically present, and not delegating the need for action to someone else.”

Alberto Campailla, a CGIL trade unionist and president of the Nonna Roma association, which deals with poverty and inequality, also agrees that it’s important to keep the recent anti-Roma attacks – unacceptable and disconcerting as they are – in perspective. “It is important to underline there are no ‘district riots’ in progress,” he explains. “Not many residents are actually participating in these protests.”

Support for the far-right in Italy has been a mixed bag. According to data from Quorum/YouTrend, far-right parties are likely to receive one-third fewer votes in the forthcoming European elections than in the 2008 Italian general election. However, Salvini’s League has seen a 16 per cent increase in support over the last year, and CasaPound (which obtains most of its votes in Rome and its suburbs) has seen a sixfold increase in support over the last five years.

Campailla, who has been assisting Suzana’s family as well as the Omerović’s in his work for the Nonna Roma association, says that despair is at the heart of this trend. “In the suburbs, social welfare cutbacks and the further impoverishment of working people has created conditions of incredible social marginalisation. These factors provide huge political opportunities for those who want to articulate a very simple proposal; to give an immediate response and instantly identifiable causes for your problems.”

It is difficult to think of a better example of this than the catchphrase ‘Italians First’, employed by both CasaPound and Salvini’s ethnonationalist League. This iteration is not a coincidence. For some time now Salvini has given a nod to the ‘third millennium fascists’ as they call themselves, and he isn’t shy about it, despite their notoriety for violence and lawlessness.

According to data from the Bologna based anti-fascist collective Infoantifa Ecn, between 2014 and 2018 CasaPound militants were responsible for more than 70 violent attacks in Italy, and 65 people from Casapound and New Force are facing charges which include inciting racial hatred, violence and promoting fascism in connection with the incidents at Casal Bruciato and Torre Maura.

Salvini never condemns the ideology behind the violence, preferring to frame any violence as an ‘isolated incident’. “Salvini’s behaviour is definitely more ambiguous and soft when violence is committed by a far-right militant,” says Gianluca Passarelli, a professor in political science at the University La Sapienza in Rome. “Being ambiguous and downgrading far-right violence to a ‘problem amongst many others’ is just a way to tell these groups: ‘You have my political cover’”.

Salvini’s plans to rack up far-right votes is also illustrated by his launch of the eurosceptic, anti-migration, populist European Alliance of Peoples and Nations group in the European Parliament, with which he aims to create a new ‘nationalist international’ unifying the various far-right parties in Europe following this week’s European elections.

But the grouping’s success is far from guaranteed. “I would be cautious in speaking about a still-not-recorded success,” notes Passarelli, whose most recent book, La Lega di Salvini - Estrema destra di governo (The League of Salvini – the Governing Far-Right), generated an angry debate with Salvini’s party when it was put on the reading list at the University of Bologna.

“I don’t think the European far-right movements can win the next European elections,” says Passarelli. However, close attention must be paid to the way the far-right is influencing and “homogenising the agendas of the popular, conservative right-wing parties”. As political ideas that were once considered extreme become increasingly mainstream, the centre ground threatens to lurch ever-further to the right.