Cultural Critique 59 (2005) 165-186
[Access article in PDF]
Immigration and Antiracist Youth Subcultures in Contemporary Italy
The night of September 14, 2002 was moonless. A stormy sea lashed the rocky coastline at Capo Rossello, a small town near Agrigento on Sicily's southern coast. Shortly after midnight, the wind carried the sound of screams out of the darkness to the restaurants along the beachfront. The screams grew in intensity and then, suddenly, stopped. Some time later, bodies began to wash up on the beach. As the townspeople learned the following morning, a flimsy wooden boat carrying passengers from Liberia had foundered in the rough waves near shore. One hundred twenty-eight people were dumped into the heaving waves near Capo Rossello. At least thirty-six of these people drowned while trying to swim to shore. This mass drowning was not unique. Italy has been experiencing a sharp increase in immigration over the last few years. These immigrants are increasingly coming from various points in Africa rather than from Eastern Europe. Every month, hundreds of impoverished people set out in poorly equipped boats from Libya, Tunisia, and other sites along the Northern Africa coast. Every month, dozens die as they try to reach Italy and Spain. The Italian coast guard has contributed to this body count by aggressively pursuing and turning back boats loaded with immigrants fleeing Africa (Bruni 2002).
These horrific deaths have sparked intense debate concerning immigration in Italy. Although news of immigrant deaths arrives with numbing regularity, the mass drowning at Capo Rossello made a particularly dramatic impact on the controversy surrounding clandestine immigration to Italy as a result of its date. Five days earlier, [End Page 165] on September 9, 2002, a harsh new anti-immigration law came into effect in Italy.1 The so-called Bossi-Fini law mandates that foreigners secure a contract for employment in Italy before they are granted a residency permit. In order to obtain official documents, immigrants now have to agree to be fingerprinted, suggesting that the state regards all immigrants as potential criminals. Implementing the "zero-tolerance" platform, adopted by Silvio Berlusconi during his successful campaign to become prime minister in 2001, the Italian government has made it far more easy to expel immigrants, has toughened punishments for immigrants who break the law, and has imposed stiff penalties for immigrant smugglers (Renaud 2002). The rights of legal immigrants, who are now tied to their employers by the threat of deportation should they lose their jobs, are also dramatically curtailed by this law. The Bossi-Fini law has, in other words, helped place Italy in the vanguard of the swing toward a racially exclusive and exploitative definition of belonging among the member states of the European Union. Moreover, the law's passage signals the domination of Berlusconi's government by its two principal right-wing ideologues, Umberto Bossi of the formerly secessionist Lega Nord (Northern League) and Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, head of the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), the cleaned-up successor to Mussolini's fascist party.
Italy's ruling coalition appears to be following a strategy similar to that of other xenophobic organizations such as Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands, and the National Front in France. Arguing that they need to counter the populist appeal of such anti-immigrant politics, Europe's social democratic parties are falling over themselves in a desperate attempt to draft draconian new border control legislation. Ironically, the increasing conflict over what Italians call extra-communitari (non-European immigrants) is tied to a central aspect of European integration: the development of a new conception of citizenship.2 Although a shared sense of European identity and the institutions to legitimate that identity remain notoriously difficult to consolidate, it has proven far easier to forge a common conception of those who do not belong. Yet, even in this regard, the heterogeneity of notions of belonging in particular nations and regions cannot be overlooked. While it is important to note the...