UPDATED Wednesday August 1, 2018, 3:00 a.m. EDT
ROME — Racially-inspired hate crimes against immigrants in Italy are multiplying fast, ever since Steve Bannon’s favorite European politician, Matteo Salvini, took over as puppet master of the new government. His puppet prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was at the White House Monday and basked in Donald Trump’s approval.
Salvini is the mastermind behind Conte’s shaky coalition government and his machinations have sucked the oxygen out of Italian political life, replacing it with fire and brimstone, rabble-rousing racism, and the kind of awe-inspiring audacity Trump admires.
Italy’s new “zero tolerance” stance amounts to a Trumpian wall in the Mediterranean Sea which has slowed irregular migration into Italy to a trickle and contributed to soaring death rates and human rights violations. It has also led to vitriol and violent racism of the kind Italy has not seen since the days of Benito Mussolini. On what would have been Il Duce’s 135th birthday, Salvini quoted him in a tweet. “Tanti nemici, tanto onore," which translates to "more enemies, more honor."
Since the Conte government was sworn into office on June 1, more than a dozen horrific acts of violence against immigrants have been reported:
On June 3, just days after Conte’s government was sworn in, Soumalya Sacko, a 29-year-old legal immigrant from Mali was shot in cold blood in Calabria by Antonio Pontoriero, a 43-year-old Italian who had publicly lauded Salvini as a “great militant” against migration.
A week later, two African migrants were shot with an air gun in Caserta near Naples by Italian men in a black Fiat who screamed “Sal-vi-ni! Sal-vi-ni!” as they drove by. One of the migrants was seriously injured. The perpetrators have not yet been arrested. (Powerful air guns are more common and carry fewer legal penalties that firearms in Italy.)
A week after that, a 22-year old man from Mali was shot in the stomach with a pellet gun as he left his job as a chef in Naples. The men yelled racial insults and laughed as they drove off. No arrests have yet been made.
The first week of July, a man and a woman from the Ivory Coast were shot with air guns within days of each other in the town of Forli in Emilia Romagna in the north of the country. Their attackers were never found.
On July 11, two Nigerian migrants were shot and injured as they waited for a bus stop in Latina, a few miles south of Rome. Two Italian men were arrested and charged with assault “aggravated by racial hatred.”
On July 17, the 14-month-old baby of a Roma family was shot from a balcony by an Italian man who works at the Italian Senate. The child may be paralyzed for life. The man, who had previously been heard making racial comments, says he was just trying out his new gun.
The list goes on, including three beating incidents on July 26 alone, including one in Caserta when two young Italian men attacked a 19-year-old man from Senegal as they screamed, “Dirty black, go back to your own country,” according to police reports.
A few days later, in Teramo, a 39-year-old Senegalese man was denied service at a local health clinic. “There is no veterinarian here,” the attendant told the migrant, according to police records. “Get out of here.”
The only one of the many appalling racially motivated incidents that Conte’s government has officially commented on is one of mistaken identity, when Italian athlete Daisy Osakue, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants and who studies criminal justice in Texas, was accosted in Turin and injured by Italian men throwing eggs and invoking Salvini’s name on Monday. That is, the same day Conte was meeting Trump.
Osakue, a discus thrower who will represent Italy next week in the European Athletics Championships, told Italian state TV RAI that she was sure the perpetrators confused her with Nigerian prostitutes, many of whom are victims of sex trafficking. “I'm sorry to say it, but I think we're dealing with racism," she said.
Both Conte and Salvini quickly called the world-class athlete to apologize, with Salvini even promising to attend her athletic event in Berlin. Conte told reporters that he, too, spoke with the athlete, who, he said, assured him she did not think it was a racist incident.
Osakue has not yet responded specifically to the prime minister’s comments, and initially there was no hint of the incident on her Instagram page, which mostly follows her activities at Angelo State University in Texas. But in a video posted by the British tabloid The Daily Mail, the interviewer asks Osakue whether she thinks Salvini is “fueling prejudices.”
“Politicians have a very strong influence on mass media,” says Osakue, who’s wearing a large cotton patch over her left eye. “They can say for example, ‘From now on everybody has to wear blue,’ and everybody will have to dress in blue. So if they say, ‘It is their fault. They steal our jobs. They come here and they destroy everything, this, this and that,' obviously people will start thinking they are right.”
By Tuesday, many of the comments on Osakue's Instagrams came to her defense and apologized for the shameful attack, but others reflected the hateful language all too common today, and not only in Italy: "Why don't you go back to your country? You're not Italian. You're African, not Italian and never will be. Personally I feel shame as an Italian to be represented by people like you ..."
That extremist views by a leader like Savlini inspire deadly violence should be seen as a cautionary tale. Instead, Trump clearly saw the trend as a good thing.
“Like the United States, Italy is currently under enormous strain as a result of illegal immigration. And they fought it hard,” Trump said at the joint press conference, according to the official White House readout. "And the Prime Minister, frankly, is with us today because of illegal immigration. Italy got tired of it. They didn’t want it any longer.
"The people of Italy have borne a great part of the burden for Europe through the course of the migration crisis. I applaud the Prime Minister for his bold leadership—truly bold—and I hope more leaders will follow this example, including leaders in Europe.“
The two leaders also discussed peripheral issues, from trade to the situation in Libya. Conte is sure to back the American president on all things Russia and, in exchange, Trump will wholeheartedly endorse Italy’s deadly zero-tolerance plan on migration when speaking with other European leaders.
To be fair, Trump may not have been briefed on the litany of racist crimes that Italy’s zero tolerance policies have inspired. But a cartoon in La Repubblica on Tuesday implies that even if Trump knew, he wouldn’t care. The drawing depicts Conte explaining the new policy to Trump, listing “pistols, air guns, eggs, beatings, insults… “—to which Trump says, “Wow, a fantastic job!”
On Tuesday night, local time, Osakue posted a quotation from French-Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun:
"You will never meet two absolutely identical faces, no matter the beauty or ugliness: these are relative things, each face is a symbol of life, and all lives deserves respect, it is by treating others with dignity that one gains respect for oneself."