The Politics Of Discrimination
The Politics Of Discrimination And The Intrinsic Value Of Culture In Building Contemporary Plural Society
(Paper for “Culture and the Making of Worlds”, 3rd edition of the ESA Research Network Sociology of Culture, mid-term Conference, Milan 7th to 9th October 2010)
Recent chronicles have brought to the forefront the resurgence of ethnic conflict in the city of Milan focusing on a new emergency at the Roma camp in via Triboniano which is currently home to over a hundred families around 600 people, almost half children. According to the declarations of the Mayor Letizia Moratti and the Minister for Home Affairs, Roberto Maroni the inhabitants of the camp will be evicted within the month of October. The promise of the provision of social housing to a small number of families (around 25) has been withdrawn.
In her extremely illuminating study entitled simply Zingari (Gypsies), published in 2008 Anna Rita Calabrò dedicates the final chapter to the history of the present Milanese crisis citing precisely the Campo Triboniano as a forseeable emergency. Her narration was sadly prophetic of the daily reports in newspapers in September/October 2010 (at the time of writing).
What was presented in 2006 as a model of intervention went completely off the rails, ending instead in a negative model of mismanagement on the part of local and national government
In Summer 2006 the Milan town council, Provincial authorities, Region of Lombardy and Prefecture signed an agreement for an organic plan to solve the Roma question establishing a series of measures. This initiative obtained positive press coverage at the time and the measures were considered a model of intervention not merely for Italy but even for the rest of Europe.
The main points of the agreement were the following:
– The promotion and support of social relations with the aim of favouring the dignity of individuals with particular attention for those under age
– The definition of a social contract or “patto di socialità e legalità” undersigned by all those families demanding hospitality from the Milan Council and a promise to respect the rules, to accept scolarisation of children and all forms of positive integration, the refusal of all forms of illegality and exploitation.
– Establishment of a task force of qualified operators able to monitor actions aimed at the recuperation of the entire area of Via Triboniano/Barzaghi.
The Triboniano camp was opened in November 2001 to house an agglomeration of illegal situations, including over 200 caravans. By March 2002 it was largely insufficient with people camped outside, creating problems of infrastructures, hygiene, security due to overcrowding. Police controls were continuous but no measures of improvement were ever provided according to A.R. Calabrò.
The social contract was to be extended to many other camps in Milano. In May this year Minister Maroni’s plan which promised housing, work prospects, 25 council houses for Roma families, for others support for buying houses on the private market and other measures, was undersigned by the voluntary organisation running the Triboniano camp, Don Colmegna’s Casa della Carità, and the Roma families. The pact based its validity on shaky ground, the “willingness” of Roma inhabitants to observe the law and conditions of the camp which became the object of strict security controls.
The concept of the pact was criticised by Maurizio Pagani vice president of Opera Nomadi, according to whom the Triboniano camp was unmanageable, representing the tip of an iceberg, with many Rom recently arrived from Romania living in small illegal camps, continuously evicted all around Milano, creating a chain of emergencies which for the most part are not even reported, reflecting a discriminatory public policy towards the Roma. Pagani criticised the Triboniano pact as a turning point in the differential treatment of Roma people with respect to other communities. He also declared that for the last three years the authorised settlement was lacking in basic services. A fire broke out on 31st December which destroyed 50 homes including shacks and caravans, a photocopy of another fire which broke out nine months before. No fire prevention measures had been taken in the meanwhile.
Today according to Anna Rita Calabrò, the Triboniano camp once presented as a model intervention is hell for those inhabitants who live honestly and a perfect hiding place for the dishonest who have brought drugs and prostitution, until a very short time ago unknown and deprecated activities within Roma communities. Should you have the desire to find out for yourselves you may take a walk on the wild side of the Cimitero Maggiore after dark where Romanian children are regularly offered to gagé and Italian customers.
The issue has become the subject of an open battle on the pages of local and national newspapers and an asymmetrical political struggle between the Roma population supported by voluntary organizations and the local Bishop Tettamanzi on the one hand, and on the other the local and national government preparing for the local elections next spring. The level of dispute with the ecclesiastical authorities is unprecedented and the Church is threatening to take legal action against the Milan Council for not respecting the social contract drawn up with the gypsy community.
In 1987-1990 a census of Rom population living within the boundaries of Milan municipality counted 24 camps of which 4 were official and the rest illegal. The census took place in only 18 of these where 1,235 individuals were interviewed. A reasonable estimate including the remaining population of mainly Rom Kanjarjia, according to Calabrò, results in an approximate figure of 2000-2500 individuals living in Milan in 1990.
In the more recent census of June 2007, Rom and Sinti population in Milan counted 9 comunal camps including via Triboniano (which is divided into four sectors, three of which are for Romanian Rom) 15 illegal camps on public sites and others, counting altogether 40 settlements. In the same census June 2007 the entire Rom population was calculated at 5010, of which 2740 Rom coming from Romania, and 2,270 other groups making Romanian Roms the largest group.
The statistics which I have vastly summarized for brevity, speak clearly. At the end of the eighties the numbers were 2000/2500, reflecting a stable and sedentary community; in 2007, 17 years later 5010. Hardly an invasion. Most new arrivals were from Kosovo and Macedonia escaping the Balkan war during the nineties, while Romanian Roms started arriving after the year 2000 when Romania entered the European Union.
This modest and gradual increase in the roma population over twenty years, of whom almost half are children has engendered a series of emergencies which accompanied the first arrivals from Kossovo and Macedonia in the nineties and more recently, as could have easily been predicted, the Romanian Roms escaping from dire conditions back home.
In 1990 the three main groups of Rom people living within the boundaries of Milan according to Calabrò are:
1. Lovara, a pentecostal community only 10 per cent Italian nationality practicing migrancy and semimigrancy between Italy and Switzerland in pursuit of their evangelical mission. Mainly in the comasina camp they are no longer present in Milan as a community
2. The second largest group were the Khorakhané who began their migrancy in ex Jogoslavia in the sixties and in the eighties due to political unrest in those regions. Of muslim origin this community was mainly resident in three main camps Cittadini, Gallarate and Triboniano
3. The third main group were the Havati Rom in all main camps. Coming from regions of Istria Croatia and Slovenia after the second world war they were already nearly all Italian citizens Most of the men worked collecting old iron and paper waste, activities which are today much less remunerative than in the past. Today they are the second biggest group after the Romanian Roms. This group has been the most innovative: they have founded social cooperatives and a group of cultural and school “ mediators”.
Other numerous groups include Rom from Abruzzo all Italian citizens, Sinti (originating in Piedmont , Lombardy and other regions of Italy) one time working in fun fairs and sedentary only during certain months of the year.
The majority of all ethnic groups (80% of Harvati, 95% rom from Abruzzo, 70% Sinti) declare that they have been sedentary since the seventies. Their migrancy is in fact forced on them by continual evictions and the need to flee racism and discrimination.
Identity as fictional construct
According to traditional distinctions in sociology between community and society the Roma people could be defined as a “dense community” for which transmission of memory, sense of belonging and social cooperation come about mainly through genealogy, through family history and affective parental relations. A society for which the written text, the document, public or state institutions hold almost no significance. This marks a very great difference between Roma culture with its fragmented, dispersed and extremely resiliant network of relations and other immigrant communities and national identities, making Roma culture quite unique in its irreducible attitude towards change.
However this narration of the identity of a community, the overemphasis on a fixed one dimensional notion of difference, the insistence on the reconstruction of local ethnic identities whether by sociologists with the most politically correct of agendas, or on the part of politicians armed with the most manipulatory of motivations in search of consensus, in short the obsession with identity has in my opinion, created more problems than it has contributed to solve.
Contemporary society is in fact inhabited by many composite cultures as Edoard Glissant has reminded us, in which the creolisation of originating identities has come about altering or creating new ones, generating contradictory but extremely vital mythologies. Composite cultures today express identity in relation to recent history, the crossing of many different identities resulting in creolisation, the mixing perspectives and experiences.
A declining Economy, the road to emargination
More relevant to a better understanding of gypsy identity and the lack of integration of the gypsy community might be forthcoming from a deeper insight into the roma economy. Comparing the situation of the roma population at the end of the eighties to the situation today the conclusions are self evident :
In 1990 around 80 % of the Roma population in Milano were employed, while in 2007 the figure is a mere 15.4% of the population. This difference is so great that we cannot avoid reflecting on what has happened in the interim. At the time of the first census some traditional occupations were still viable, metalworking, peddling a variety of wares, work in funfairs, breeding horses, car crushing, begging, once considered a legitimate activity.
Today few of these activities are still viable except for begging which only the most poverty stricken will undertake. The narrow margins of subsistence previously open to Rom from recycling, refuse collecting, car demolitions are all no longer open to small individual enterprises, now activities of well established businesses requiring minimum levels of education. The only activities that provide work for Rom today are illegal. This means contamination of the Rom population by criminal organizations and drug pushing.
In 1999 the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi wrote a pamphlet Gli Zingari e il Rinascimento about the Rom population in Florence, in which he places side by side the invisible condition of the Florentine community of young Rom, the living conditions at the authorized Olmatello camp and the empty promises of a new Florentine Renaissance through the extravagant staging of a Fashion Biennale in Florence which cost local government several million euros. In his “reportage of a reportage” Tabucchi describes the environment in which a true love story between a Rom boy and a young gagé girl unfolds to its inevitably tragic conclusion, in which the inherent poverty of a community is impotent above all when faced by the infiltration of organized crime which penetrates the camps, if not unseen or undetected by all means undeterred, offering the young people free drugs in order to pave the way to an subservient reservoir of dependant and compliant pushers. As Tabucchi comments and Anna Rita Calabrò’s complete study of Rom in Italy reveals, only the mothers seem to notice, often attempting to flee the camps settling wherever, in the worst of hygienic conditions in order to escape a forseeable destiny for the family.
The arrival of Rom from eastern Europe due mainly to the war in the Balkans brought people mainly from Romania, Kosovo and Macedonia . The most recent arrivals since 2000 when Romania entered the European Union have amplified and created an even deeper rift between Rom and local residents all over Europe. Due to longstanding stereotype of the nomad as a stateless person the status of refugee for the large populations fleeing the war has been often disputed (the argument is that the stateless person cannot be considered a refugee from any particular nation. The argument is untrue since there are practically no nomads without nationality).
The organized dispersal of small communities over vast areas once a strategy of survival for Rom communities, is today rendered impossible by the gradual land enclosure, the inexorable consumption of space by the metropolis devouring land and country. The tentacles of urban development have enclosed and rendered rigid the boundaries between all remaining unenclosed spaces. In the seventies Rom populations started to become increasingly sedentary an evolution which has now been practically completed. The limitations of authorities have pushed migrant populations towards the outskirts of the city, while most Roma live in large camps with stable populations some of which are authorized, others are illegal.
The urban fringes of European cities, the green belts which once formed a buffer zone for urban development are beginning to conform to global trends where urban sprawl includes squatter settlements, shanty town landscapes inhabited by illegal immigrants and roma refugees often hidden behind the walls erected around camps in an attempt to render invisible the spectre of new urban poverty.
As the urban economist Eileen Stillwaggon comments, “ Essentially squatters occupy no rent land, land that has so little worth that no one bothers to have or enforce property right to it” . However as Mike Davis remarks in Planet of Slums, “flat peripheral land, even desert, has market value, and today most low-income settlement on the urban fringe, although often characterized as squatting, actually operates through an invisible real estate market” .
The publication L’urbanistica del Disprezzo, campi Rom e società italiana (The urbanistics of contempt, Roma camps and Italian Society) edited by Piero Brunello and published in 1996, 14 years ago during the first influx or refugees from Eastern Europe, is a study of Rom presences in all Italian cities. Contributors to the study describe the conditions of camps and settlements in their cities, very often shanty towns, usually under flyovers, near dumping grounds, along railway lines between the tracks or between the fast lanes of ring roads, along the banks of severely polluted rivers, in abandoned industrial sites. They are shanty towns put together with recycled materials, cardboard, nylon, hardboard in areas without running water, electric lighting or hygiene. More than the actual numbers it is the concentration of individuals which claims the attention of the press and immediately becomes amplified in the violent reactions of the resident population. In 1996 San Rainieri a camp in Messina, four wcs and one shower for 400 people. Around 1,500 Rom were living in a severely polluted dumping grounds in the Naples area. Everywhere there are illegal settlements there is lack of hygiene, illness, fires, casualties.
Everywhere however the problem is left to local government or worse individual local councilors responsible for the “Immigration and nomads office” . The main objective of recent years has been the institution of authorized camps equipped with sanitation and better living conditions and a strict social control. This has happened alongside a slow process of enclosure of all remaining land previously used as unofficial settlement areas. This has led to repeated episodes of violence and intolerance all over Italy. The sequence of events is always the same : a desperate search for free areas for a new camp, the announcement of area designated, the revolt of the local population, backtracking by local authorities, a further search, etc. in a crescendo in which the violence of the reactions of local residents can be disconcerting. As Sabrina Capra and Gabriele Baroni reported in 1995, to avoid the opening of a camp at Quarto Alto a well heeled area near Genova, demonstrations, torchlight processions, attacks, molotovs, road blocks, death threats to the mayor and a festive community spirit providing refreshment for the protesters, all developed around a planned settlement of a small group of seven families, 38 people altogether of whom half were children. This revolt of a wealthy class of residents against a largely imaginary “enemy” constitutes an increasingly allarming phenomenon which needs to be adequately addressed.
All studies condemn the present tendency towards settlements in large camps and nearly all recommend their gradual elimination. Ever larger camps are always overcrowded and inevitably turn into ghettos in which total strangers and totally different communities are lumped together with forseeable outcomes, violent outbreaks and intolerable hygienic conditions. All the authors of The Urbanistics of Contempt and other studies such as Anna Rita Calabrò’s Zingari recommend the search for alternative solutions and the gradual closure of camps.
In the camps segregation is spatially expressed and becomes quasi military as the episode in May 2010 in which the police attacked a contingent of Roma inhabitants of the Triboniano camp in Milan who had announced a peaceful demonstration, forcing them back into the camp.
The episodes and trends described above amount to a scenario in which a lack of policy other than that of law and order enforcement, increasing poverty and implication in petty crime leading to constant surveillance of the camps and frequent evictions, can only increase the rift between “us” and “them”. Meanwhile town councils spend millions of euros in security paid to firms who survey the camps and businesses that carry out evictions.
The Roma emergency, a decisive challenge for the future of Europe
The lack of a general policy of integration for the roma population is not just an Italian problem, however, as recent chronicles have shown.
There are between 10 million and 12 million Gypsies in the EU, most living in dire circumstances, victims of poverty, discrimination, violence, unemployment and bad housing. An estimated 1.5 million of them live in Romania, a country of 22 million, which has the largest population of Gypsies in Europe. The French leader Sarkozy has been accused of stigmatising Roma, Gypsy and Traveller minorities in a bid to recover votes in time for his re-election battle in 2012. An opinion poll published recently showed that 79 percent of voters approved of measures to dismantle the camps.
Sarkozy aims to break down 50 percent of illegal gypsy camps in the next three months. The French minister of the interior has stated that Bulgarian and Romanian gypsies must return to their countries of origin if they do anything illegal. Apparently there are plans to remove French nationality status from immigrants with criminal records.
The problem is not only political but strategic for the future of plural societies within nation states, and for a more cohesive and forward looking policy for the European Union and in the building of a plural Europe.
What can culture do
In my opinion the Roma emergency has all the characteristics of a process of marginalisation of new urban poverty in the current economic crisis which has hit all western economies and in particular European countries. The emergence of new urban poverty in a ever more globalised world, as part of generalised trends reflecting current urbanisation and land consumption all over the world, are symtoms of global trajectories much more discrete than third world megaslums but mirroring the same tensions towards the expulsion of poor city dwellers exiled from formal economies to periurban shadowlands that Europe imagined would never materialise here.
The role of policy makers, intellectuals and politicians is I believe first of all to correctly identify the problems they are facing, which in my opinion are only secondarily ethnic. Ethnic intolerance is the direct result of prejudice used strategically for consensus reasons; the problem to be solved is that of bridging the widening gap between impoverished categories of citizens and the wealthier echelons of society. It should not come as a surprise that the greatest intolerance towards roma population is manifested by young people (amongst whom unemployment is at 25% ) who for the first time in many decades face the threatening eventuality of becoming poorer than their parents. The spectre of urban poverty cannot but exacerbate the expectations of the less secure echelons of society.
In the case of the modest Roma minority the only possible long term policy is to contribute to an inevitable transition of Roma culture through educational policies and integration which means aiding Roma associations and organisations to avoid the physical and spiritual ghetto of self exclusion and aphasia which seems to be the rule. As a voluntary worker once said, “it is painful to watch a Rom, an Italian citizen incapable of asking for his birth certificate”. Rom without culture or work are inevitably seen as superfluous and undesirable.
In this process of breaking down the barriers between cultures, the role of the “cultural mediator” is fundamental and not fully recognised. Mediators or peer figures belonging to the same or similar ethnic groups of the minority and on the one hand contribute to encouraging participation of people who have been traditionally excluded from all decisions and organisations that regard them; on the other hand cultural mediators can become figures commanding authority on both sides, promoting interaction between communities.
The process of mediation between cultures can accommodate many professional figures and active presences such as that of artists, intellectuals, writers, poets finally affirming the public function of art in society. A public policy of respect and the cultivation of diversity in a plural society seems in the present climate a utopian dream, although in many schools and institutions the goodwill of many teachers and organisations counteract the damaging public statements by xenophobe politicians.
The revaluation of Rom culture of which very little is known, beyond the exoticising romantic stereotype of Bizet’s Carmen would be a first step to easing relations between the communities. Recognition of the romanès language as a minority language which has been excluded from the list of recognized minority languages on linguistic grounds that romanès is not identifiable with any particular territory, would be an important institutional starting point for the recognition of roma culture.
Education of children is practically the only long term policy that can lift this population in decline out of extreme poverty and beyond a stereotype definition of its identity. Unfortunately the record of the Milan town council has not been particularly enlightened in this field: a few years ago under the Prodi government the local council attempted to stop the children of immigrants without legal status from frequenting the schools.