A Roma camp in Naples is burnt to the ground as crowds cheer the attackers. Meanwhile police round up hundreds of illegal immigrants, deporting many of them immediately.
These two incidents happened within days of Silvio Berlusconi taking office after last month’s general election in Italy. They have been effectively sanctioned by his new right wing government.
Berlusconi’s ruling coalition includes the “post-fascist” National Alliance party along with the Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi. This is responsible for much of the wave of violence and intimidation being unleashed on immigrants.
In the previous Berlusconi government both the League and National Alliance pushed through tougher immigration controls. Now they want to go further and ban all migrants who come from Muslim countries.
Bossi has threatened violence against migrant workers. “We have no fear of taking to the streets,” he recently declared. “We have 300,000 martyrs ready to come down from the mountains. Our rifles are always smoking.”
The Northern League first came to prominence by targeting southern Italians and arguing for independence for the more developed north.
But today the party’s vitriol is directed towards Italy’s five million immigrants. And its current violent campaign shows how the right wing party could move towards fascist politics.
In the recent general election the Northern League took 27 percent of the vote in the Veneto region centred on Venice and 22 percent in Lombardy.
Berlusconi’s new interior minister is Roberto Maroni, a member of the Northern League. He wants mass deportations of illegal immigrants, a naval blockade in the Mediterranean to stop migrants from North Africa and legalised anti-immigrant vigilante groups.
This is not just a matter of words. The Northern League runs 120 councils, controls four government ministries and is leading attacks on immigrants.
In the Veneto region, a Northern League councillor in Treviso recently told the council, “With immigrants, we should use the same system the SS used – punishing ten of them for every slight against one of our citizens.”
Leandro Comacchio, a leader of the Northern League in Padua, boasted last week of forming “citizen street patrols” that tour areas to search for “illegal immigrants” to harass.
Comacchio has spearheaded a campaign against a council decision to give land for the building of a mosque in Padua. Last year he walked a pig across the site where it is to be built in a deliberate insult to Muslims.
Northern League run councils have removed benches from public squares to stop immigrants gathering. Even more worryingly, the party has organised marches through immigrant areas of cities to intimidate the people there.
The centre left government that Berlusconi defeated helped create this wave of racism. Walter Veltroni stood down as mayor of Rome to take over as leader of the Democratic Party, Italy’s new centre left formation.
But in his last months in office Veltroni ordered police to clear Roma camps in the capital city. During the election he boasted of expelling 6,000 people from camps last year. Last week Veltroni stood up in parliament to back speedier expulsions of immigrants.
Though more extreme, the situation for immigrants in Italy is similar to Britain 30 years ago.
The African, Arab and East European populations are now well established, often second generation, and are vital to the economy of the north.
But discontent has mounted over falling wages, job insecurity and high taxation among working class and middle class Italians. Both the centre and radical left have been discredited by their performance in office.
In the industrial towns in north west Veneto, where the left has traditionally done well, the Northern League overwhelmingly outpolled the radical Rainbow Left. Such success led Bossi to brag that the Northern League was the “new working class party”.
Yet there is another side to this. Italy’s unions, particular FIOM, have organised and led strikes involving migrant workers. The “No Global” anti-capitalist groupings have also championed migrant rights and organised marches on detention centres.
These radical forces need to mobilise to defend migrants, stop Northern League attacks and start building in working class communities where the traditional left is reeling.