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11.14.14 9:41 PM ET

In Rome’s Riots, Cries for Mussolini and Attacks on Refugees

In Tor Sapienza, frustrated Italians are turning to urban warfare, attacking immigrants and police to push out the thousands of refugees streaming into their crumbling neighborhood.

ROME—Trashcans smolder and the faint smell of tear gas lingers in the early morning air in this city’s Tor Sapienza neighborhood after a week of intense street fighting between residents, refugees, and police.  Banners with “Muslims go home” and “Long Live Il Duce,” in a reference to Benito Mussolini, lie crumpled along the streets. 

It’s an area on the eastern edge of Rome that few tourists see, and many Romans know, however unfairly, only by the headlines about drug busts, Chinese prostitution rings, and now-rampant anti-immigrant violence. It is a neighborhood that could be best defined as faded splendor, with once-elegant buildings with lush gardens along tree-lined streets built in the 1920s now largely overshadowed by abandoned industrial warehouses that sprouted up along the railway line after World War II. More recently, the rows of red and gray cement housing project blocks that sprouted up in the 1980s dominate the view. It is a place where Romans from the wealthier districts go through, not to.

For months, if not years, Tor Sapienza has been at the front line of a battle the entire city is fighting against unwanted immigration. Just as Lampedusa and Sicily are the gateways for irregular migrants and refugees into Europe, Tor Sapienza has much the same role for those seeking unwelcome shelter in Rome. The city has taken over some of the schools, warehouses and once-elegant palazzi of Tor Sapienza to house refugees and migrants who have been given permission to stay because rents are cheaper and because the mostly immigrant population doesn’t have voting rights to protest the unbalanced infiltration.  

Many of the other abandoned buildings have been taken over by “clandestini,” which is a word Italians use to refer to foreign squatters who don’t have legal documents, and who scatter when police conduct sporadic and increasingly infrequent raids. Of the area’s 16,000 residents, less than half are Italian citizens, according to the latest census data. No other neighborhood in Rome has the same demographic breakdown. “We are living in Harlem,” Gianluca Dellacqua told The Daily Beast as he cleaned up broken glass from in front of his appliance store after a night of street battles. “This isn’t Italy, this is hell.”

This week, the residents of Tor Sapienza reached their boiling point, according to Tomasso Ippoliti, the district’s committee president. For several nights in a row, the residents tried to chase out the migrants and refugees using archaic and disturbing language against “blacks,” “gypsies,” “dirty Arabs” and “disgusting Muslims.” They threw rocks, bottles, and paper bombs at the euphemistically named “Smile Welcome Center” that houses a segment of unaccompanied minors who have come to Italy from North Africa on rickety boats. They also torched garbage bins, broke the windows of police cars, and waged the sort of urban warfare Romans haven’t seen for decades.

Protestors shouted “Long Live Il Duce,” in a nod to Benito Mussolini’s fascist immigration policies. They also yelled, “Out all blacks,” “Enough foreigners,” and “This isn’t racism; this is fear.” Their goal? To cleanse the neighborhood of anyone who isn’t an Italian citizen. They nearly succeeded.

On Thursday, almost half of the Smile Center’s youngest residents were whisked away to other centers in the city. And thanks to the heavy police presence, the squatter houses were quiet, too. The Smile Center, which was stained with graffiti hate comments and broken windows, was “seriously damaged,” according to Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino, who visited the neighborhood under heavy police guard. He said it would have to be closed down because it was no longer a safe place to house refugees. Marino later issued a statement claiming, “Rome rejects all forms of violence, racism, and xenophobia,” despite the fact that nearly 20 police officers who shot canisters of tear gas were injured by flying glass and paper bombs. 

By Friday afternoon, police had moved in riot vans with water cannons and cordoned off the area surrounding the destroyed Smile Center as a deterrent, but there were no illusions that the fight was over. Overnight, a bar owner was shot in the leg by a ricochet bullet. “The tension is skyrocketing,” Ippolito told The Daily Beast at the Bar Lory along the district’s main artery. He points to what he says is a dramatic increase in thefts, assaults, and muggings by immigrants against the locals. “We don’t condone the violence of the last several nights, but we have had enough. Basta.”

On Friday, many of the minors came back to plead to the residents that this was their only home. They staged their own counter-protest, pleading, “You are our mothers and fathers,” according to Italy’s wire service ANSA. “This is our only home.” 

The residents didn’t back down, shouting back, “You have to all go away.” ANSA quoted one unnamed source as saying, “I think the center operators made them come back, because refugees are their livelihood. They take advantage of these kids. The immigrants can stay, because they are victims of indifferent authorities just like we are. We want then all gone.”

Since the beginning of the year more than 150,000 migrants and refugees have made the perilous journey to Italy across the Mediterranean. Many with money and family make their way to Northern Europe, but thousands who can’t afford to move north are stuck in Rome. On Friday, Mario Borghezio from Italy’s xenophobic Northern League visited the neighborhood to support the residents and their unseemly actions. “You have been abandoned by the state,” he told them before suggesting they bring Rome’s mayor to the area “by his neck.”

Ippoliti says that the centers should close because many are overcrowded and unsafe. He says attacks against women have risen, and the migrants and refugees have made people too scared to leave their homes at night. The centers are understaffed and the residents are bored and without money, which, he says, drives them to attack and steal from the Romans. “Police are scarce and the city has not responded to requests for more security and better controls of the migrant centers,” he says, adding that is why the residents have been left with no choice but to take it into their own hands to “clean house.” 

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees Southern Europe spokesman Laurens Jolles issued an online statement against the violence. “It is very worrying that those in Tor Sapienza are taking aim at a small shelter where people fleeing war and persecution, including unaccompanied children, have a right to be protected,” he said. “It is important that in cases like these, where there is an ongoing practical integration process, peaceful co-existence and mutual respect are favored.”

On the streets of Tor Sapienza, however, the battle rages on. And as more refugees and migrants flee their war-torn countries and vie for space in places where no one wants them, there is sadly no end in sight.