In this article I aim to give visibility to African migrants resistance which is a less known and visible aspect of Global Black Lives Matter protest. I provide insights on the ways in which in different contexts - even marginal such as those of the 'plantation' and the 'urbicide' of Southern Italy countryside - visual and social media are engaged as engaging and empowering ways to resist police and structural violence and discrimination against migrants of African origin. Here in Italy - but in parallel and in relation to the plight of Black people globally - solidarity across marginal communities and activist organisations emerges and empowers as a result of strategic visual interventions.
This essay is organized in three main visually orientated sections. The first section focuses on a hypermediated event which took place in 2018, when a migrant from Gambia, Jallow, was arrested in the south of Italy for attempting to escape a police roadblock after speeding up. The arrest took place in the shantytown and became a media event with national coverage since the police was forced to go back on their word and admit to abusive and racist behaviour. The case study of Jallow’s arrest enables us to consider the global and local permutations of the catalytic role of audio-visual media in anti-racist movements for justice.
The second section elaborates on concepts like the “plantation” and the “urbicide” to better describe the context of the field research and to contextualise the case study. I then critically analyze the context in which Jallow’s case study is grounded and I conceptualise the plantation and urbicide theorisation as the place of death and marginalisation.
In the last section I discuss the role of Italian trade unions in igniting various protests and movements and I reflect on the similarities and correlations between the Black Lives Matter movement and sub-Saharan African migrant workers in Italy who seasonally pick tomatoes and do other work in the outskirts of Foggia in Puglia. The focus here is on two related protests that sparked in the ghetto as the result of various serious accidents that took place during the harvest season and involved the transportation of the migrants to the fields. In this section I visually and conceptually describe the protests that I video recorded during the summer of 2018 and which represent two different sections of society: the first protest took place in the morning and originated in the shantytown and involved the black migrant protesters while the second protest took place in the city of Foggia in the afternoon and involved only white Italian protesters. I will then analyse the role that Aboubakar Soumahoro, a 38 year-old Ivorian-Italian trade unionist, played as the leader of the demonstration that originated in the shantytown and which saw the participation of Black African migrants. As a trade unionist of the Unione Sindacale di Base (a movement fighting for the rights of agricultutral workers and in particular Black African migrants), Aboubakar’s speech is fundamental in order to understand the impact that processes of criminalisation and racialisation have on the black migrant workers in their day-to-day lives. Soumahoro is particularly impactful in his use of social media - including self-made videos, Facebook, Instagram - relating to the reinterpretation and reclaiming of mainstream media and bouncing high profile news into social media by foregrounding a migrant's critical and resistive perspective. I will analyse this mediated phenomenon with respect to these particular protests and in general to the strategic communication that Soumahoro has engaged with throughout the BLM momentum - as shown in Figure 6 when he is kneeling in the Italian parliament in 2020.
This article is based on my Ph.D. field research conducted during the summers of 2016, 2017 and 2018 in the South of Italy, in Puglia in a “ghetto” in the outskirts of Foggia called la pista (the airstrip, an ex-Nato airstrip now abandoned), right outside the town of Borgo Mezzanone. The research is based on qualitative interviews and participant observation and access to the field was gained thanks to the connection and support of the Radio Ghetto activists. The Radio Ghetto activists run daily radio broadcasts in the shantytown throughout the summer, creating the space for freedom of exchange and self-expression for the shantytown residents involving personal stories and music from the various African regions represented in the shantytown. Alongside my analyses I will also integrate various visual contributions which include pictures and videos that I recorded and collected during fieldwork in the South of Italy as well as media posts, which were first published and posted by Campagne in Lotta, an activist organisation that has been fundamental in supporting the migrants’ protests and demonstration.
Figure 1, Jallow’s arrest in the shantytown, chained to the wheel of police car, Ansa, 10.10.2018.1
This is one of the more popular imagery of Jallow’s arrest circulated on social media. It feeds into stereotypical imagery of the Black man as criminal while protesting such victimisation. As Stuart Hall reminds us, stereotyping establishes a connection between representation, difference and power. Power is conceptualized in terms of direct physical coercion or constraint. However, there is power in representation, symbolic power.2 When observing the picture of the arrest and capture of Jallow, it is important to underline the power dynamic between the policeman and Jallow, the migrant who is being arrested. The migrant is treated as subhuman on the same level as an animal. He is seen crouching and chained to the wheel of the police car while the policeman, standing next to him, looks down on him. In addition, the migrants surrounding Jallow and the policeman are shouting at everyone: “he is not an animal!”. The suggestion that the migrant is being treated on the same level of an animal is offered by the presence of a dog at the very same level. This aspect is important in understanding the mistreatment of blacks, frequently considered as animals. As elaborated by Hall:
For blacks, “primitivism” (culture) and blackness (nature) became interchangeable. This was their “true nature” and they could not escape it. As has so often happened in representation of women, their biology was their “destiny”. Not only were black represented in terms of their essential characteristics. They were reduced to their essence. Laziness, simple fidelity, mindless cooning, trickery, childishness belonged to blacks as a race, as a species. There was nothing else to the kneeling slave but his servitude; nothing to Uncle Tom except his Christian forbearing; nothing to Mammy but her fidelity to the white household-and what Fanon called her ‘sho’ nuff good cooking’.3
These features are particularly clear when analysing the visual that I present here.The video shows the open restlessness that the migrants express regarding the treatment of their fellow shantytown resident and colleague.4 The video of the arrest was shot by the fellow shantytown residents who then decided to share it with the Campagne in Lotta network, which in turn shared it both through social media and local newspapers. Due to the dissemination of this picture and the correlated video through the local newspapers and social media, the local activists, Campagne in Lotta were able to call attention to this particular event that had suggested that Jallow was guilty. The policemen had falsely claimed that Jallow had assaulted and beaten them. They stated that Jallow was driving an unlicensed car and when they tried to stop him, he fled to the shanty town. Once Jallow reached the shantytown, he abandoned the car and tried to make a run for it. The policemen chased after him and ended up falling onto the ground on uneven soil, getting bruised and cut. Although no one had physically assaulted them, they decided to use their bruises and cuts as evidence in order to support their version of the facts, falsely claiming that they had been assaulted by the shantytown migrant residents. The shantytown residents were able to collect enough videoed evidence and witnesses to prove that the story the policemen had recounted was totally false, proving once again their prejudices and the criminalisation of migrants. In the end, thanks to the work of Campagne in Lotta, such visual imagery went viral on social media and was picked up both my mainstream printed media and local broadcasters.5 Unlike other cause celebres as with the videoing of police violence against Black people like Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1993 among several others, it played an instrumental part in proving that not only had the policemen falsely accused Jallow but they were in turn accused and found guilty of their abuse of power.
The plantation and the urbicide
Jallow’s arrest is an example of the process of dehumanization that subjugates all black migrant residents of the “ghetto”. Here I further describe the background surrounding context conceptualised by ideas and theories which focus on the plantation and the urbicide alongside some photos that render the sense of this landscape and of its marginalising impact.
It would seem that the contemporary “ghetto” and the conceptual idea of the plantation are highly interconnected in various aspects: similar infrastructure as in bare minimum living standards, the transplantation of black African international labour and draining work schedules. The plantation in fact may be conceptualised as a viable blueprint for the modern city and black diasporic claims to it. Katherine McKittrick describes the idea and the concept of the plantation as following:
“The plantation represents a differentiated bifurcated-segregated social system which prevails, analytically, as the precedent to contemporary racial violences….. a black sense of place locates the ways in which anti-black violences in the Americas evidence protean plantation futures as spaces of encounter that hold in them useful anti-colonial practices and narratives”.6
I would like to relate and connect the anti-black experiences taking place in the Americas to the Italian context and more specifically to the situation in Puglia that is centered around the exploitation of African labourers in the agricultural sector. As McKittrick states:
“I am positioning the plantation as a very meaningful geographic prototype that not only housed and normalized (vis-à-vis enforced placeness) racial violence in the Americas but also naturalized a plantation logic that anticipated (but did not twin) the empirical decay and death of a very complex black sense of place”.7
Figure 2, La Pista shantytown in the outskirts of Foggia - photo by Emilia Helen Melossi, 2018
As the picture above evokes, the “ghetto” is a place of contrast between the idyllic open sky at dusk and the return by bike after a day of exhausting work in the fields to a non-place - a totally substandard and therefore subhuman living situation that underscores the idea that what matters is only the labour provided not the person who provides it, just as in the plantation. These images are viewed at a national and international level and play into the representation of the derogatory and racialized visual imaginary of the South of Italy. In fact, both the visual analysis and the photos play a very important part in the imaginary of “migrations” and in better understanding the context.
The concept of “urbicide” consists of the deliberate death of the city and the willful place of annihilation which can stand in as a viable explanation for the ongoing destruction of a Black sense of place. As Marshall Berman8 and Stephen Graham9 have stated: ‘Urbicide, which has been defined as the “murder of the city” and the “deliberate denial or killing of the city”, brings into sharp focus how violence functions to render specific human lives, and thus their communities, as waste. Furthermore, as McKittrick stated, the multitudinous urbicidal acts - the cleaning up of slums, the forceful displacement of economically disadvantaged communities, the deliberate destruction of city buildings, bridges, houses, shops, roads, and parks - are always inhabited with disposable “enemies”, impoverished, dwellers, those “without”’.10
Figure 3 Operai Contro - shantytown residents fleeing the “ghetto” which has caught fire, 2018.11
As the picture above depicts, in March 2017 one of the main shanty towns, the Gran Ghetto di Rignano, was dismantled and destroyed. The migrant residents were evicted and displaced. Most of the shanty town residents were forced to move to neighboring slums. Over time, the various shanty towns in the outskirts of Foggia are cyclically dismantled and destroyed and the residents are forcefully evicted with no other place to go, carrying with them only the bare minimum. The constant cyclical dismantling of shantytowns and places of marginalization is an example of ongoing urbicide.
Trade unions, Aboubakar Soumahoro and the 199 law
In his speech - self-filmed and shared through his social networks and local news - Aboubakar openly describes and declares the ways in which the state and the media maintain control and collaborate in the criminalization and marginalisation of the black African migrant workers. The government, both at a national and local level, and the media underline the possibility of a correlation between the mafia and the caporalato, therefore implying that the African migrant caporali are in fact mafiosi.12 This implication is exploited and instrumentalised to further criminalise the African migrants in the public eye, transforming them not just into criminals but even worse, into mafiosi. The role that Aboubakar Soumahoro plays in fighting against such a criminalisation process that depict the migrants as criminals or mafiosi, is fundamental to the fight for black lives.
As Soumahoro openly stated various times over the course of the last few years both on social media and on national television and radio broadcasts, and specifically in The Invisibles - a recent short documentary where he was one of the main spokesperson: “Over 200,000 migrant laborers, mostly from Africa, work in Italy’s fields.13 After being exploited for years, the coronavirus global pandemic made these workers “essential” overnight — but without labor rights or even access to basic sanitation, these farmworkers are living and working in conditions that have been described as modern slavery. Union leader Aboubakar Soumahoro has been documenting these inhumane conditions and is now helping the workers organize to demand real and lasting change.” (The invisibles)14
Figure 5: screenshot of the short film The Invisible.15
Furthermore Soumahoro has commented on important political events that took place in the Italian Parliament. A newspaper article titled “The Murder of George Floyd, Boldrini kneels in Parliament. The opposition: "A drama" reported that in the Summer 2020 the members of Parliament took a kneel in front of the whole country. As Annalisa Girardi reported:
"Racism is also present in our country and violent abuses of power have happened and are still happening all around us. So it is important to reiterate here too, a strong and clear no against all forms of discrimination. Black Lives Matter”.16
With these words, MP Laura Boldrini wanted to remember the death of George Floyd and she knelt in the hall together with other parliamentarians, paying homage to the form of peaceful protest that has spread in the United States.
Figure 6: MPs kneeling in Parliament, Italy.17
Soumahoro commented on this event by stating the following:
“Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, in addition to kneeling, please get up and act: cancel the racializing laws that prevent us from breathing: the Bossi-Fini, the security decrees and the Libyan agreements. Grant citizenship to those born or raised in Italy and regularize all invisible people. The squares await FACTS. #BlackLivesMatter.”18
Soumahoro strategically plays with empowering migrant images of self-representation strategies that counter the media and institutional discriminatory and stereotyping practices. In fact the imagery allows for migrants’ agency to emerge, engaging in the public discourse as actors, political subject rather than objectified powerless criminal migrants.
I present here also various videos and pictures which I have directly made over the summer - in order to historically archive significant instances of rebellion and protest and to share these important events with the wider public as well as the activist community. I hope this article would potentially contribute to inspiring and igniting future rebellions and protests, presenting a space for activists’ self-reflection and re-organisation.
At the beginning of August 2018, there were two different road accidents in which sixteen migrants were killed. The first accident happened on the 4th of August on a provincial road between Ascoli Satriano e Castelluccio dei Sauri. Eight migrants were travelling in the closed rear compartment of a minivan coming back from work when they crashed into a truck. Four of the migrants died, while the other four were hospitalized. Two days after the first tragic event, on the 6th of August a second tragedy happened, but this time the death toll sadly increased to twelve workers. The dynamic was the same: the migrants were passengers on an overloaded minibus which was involved in an accident with a truck on Highway 16 on their way home to the ghetto di Rignano Garganico, returning from work.
The prosecution opened an investigation into the two accidents. Since all the migrants were travelling crammed into small minivans and had no documents with them at the time, the prosecution raised the possibility that they would be considered victims of labour exploitation. The proximity of these two tragic events, with such a high death toll, shook people’s consciences and two demonstrations and strikes were announced.
Figure 7, A shoe which belonged to one of the migrants who died when involved in the accident, Il Sussidiario, 06/08/2018.19
The trade unions were divided in their response. Two different protests and demonstrations were organized for the 8th of August. The first demonstration and strike was announced by U.S.B. (Unione Sindacati di Base) for the morning and started directly from the Ghetto di Rignano. A majority of the Ghetto di Rignano residents took part in the march. The march was titled the “red cap march”, named after the red caps that had been distributed by U.S.B. to the migrants and had been worn by the workers that were involved in the two road accidents.
A few radio volunteers and I decided to participate in the march. We went to the Ghetto di Rignano on the morning of the 8th of August and we walked under the sun from the ghetto to the centre of Foggia. The sun was very hot, and we started to feel quite ill rather quickly. This was a good reminder of the conditions in which the migrants are used to working throughout the harvest season. In fact, most of the protesters were African or of African background and the only white participants were a handful of journalists and activists. The demonstration was headed by Soumahoro who has become the symbol and the leader of the migrant labourers’ rebellion. Soumahoro was the spokesperson for the protests and gave a strong and important speech in front of the town hall in Foggia. The U.S.B. protest in the morning was very successful and attracted the participation of almost 500 people, mostly African migrant workers. The evening protest and demonstration was instead visibly very different. It was announced by the CGIL Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (Italian General Confederation of Labour) and FLAI Federazione Lavoratori Agro Industria (Italian agro-industrial worker federation) and it started at 6 pm in front of the Foggia train station. The group walked together from the train station to the Foggia municipality.
The two demonstrations saw the participation of two very different groups. The U.S.B. protest included mostly local African migrant workers, more specifically, Ghetto di Rignano residents. The march started directly from the shantytown. The FLAI-CGIL demonstration instead attracted a wider national participation with higher numbers and different regional unions marching behind their own banners. This difference between the two marches was made even more visible by the strong ethnic and identity contrast between them. The U.S.B. march was smaller and participants were mostly from the black African community while the CGL demonstration was primarily composed of white Italians. In addition, the U.S.B. had decided to call a strike for the day and it was more than clear that the African migrants from the Ghetto di Rignano had endorsed the strike and had decided not to work that day. This contrast is very visible from some images here below as examples.
Figure 8, 9, 10, 11 – screenshot Video 2, 3 - U.S.B. vs FLAI-CGL demonstrations, footage by Emilia Helen Melossi, 2018
As Paul Gilroy points out:
Political organization and struggle which have identified and promoted themselves as anti-racist are of more interest here not only because they have received virtually no attention from other writers, but because the commitment to a practical anti-racist politics necessarily generates an interesting commentary on and negotiation of actual relationships between black and white people.20
The way in which the two protests diverged and created two different groups, formed by black and white protesters, is very telling of the way in which the local population relates to one another, based on racial divisions and strict separations. The cultural backgrounds of the two marches were very different and reflected the atmosphere which the protesters could breathe and feel. In the case of the “berretti rossi” there was a strong sense of excitement and agency on the part of the participants as they moved from the ghetto as a place of invisibility to the city and as they expressed themselves by speaking their voice and shouting: “Andiamo, andiamo! Andiamo insieme, andiamo avanti!” (Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go together, let’s move ahead!).21
Soumahoro’s speech in front of the municipality on the 8th of August, commented on the death of the black African migrant workers (translated in English):
“We fight everyday against all forms of caporalato. For this reason, today’s demonstration is for Paola Clemente who was in the hands of labour management agencies who are also caporali.22 Paola Clemente’s memory is a memory that we will defend and protect on a daily basis because her struggle, her sacrifice is also ours. For this reason, we fight for all agricultural day labourers, and for all of those who have fallen on the work site. Like those who have died these days. I am referring to the workers who were coming back from work and who were therefore still on the work site. For this reason, go ahead with your investigations in order to verify if caporalato was involved, and especially go and ask the padroni (landowners). Go and ask the padroni how much they pay us. We work for 1 euro an hour, 16 hours a day sometimes, 12 hours a day, waking up at 3:00 in the morning. Criminals do not wake up at 3:00 A.M. to go to work. Mass retail companies do not wake up at 3:00 A.M. They are in their big buildings manipulating data, setting the prices for farmers who in turn, instead of organizing, trample us under their boots. There is no one under us to trample on. But we say that we will never be under those boots because we are ready to fight, to organize ourselves on a union level, to stake our claims to our rights to wages and transportation. To those who in these hours are thinking they can ignore us, we say that they don’t have the ability to represent us nor the knowledge of what the agricultural world is really like today. They say they represent us, but they do not represent us.”
In his speech, Soumahoro explains and answers the many claims and accusations that have been underlying the mainstream media, institutional and government narrative. In fact, in 2016 a new law was passed (n.199) that was published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale, which introduced the possibility of prosecuting not only the labour contractor, as it had been since 2011 with the 603-bis law, but the employers and landowners as well.23
As Madia D’Onghia stated, the law was supposed to be a strong ad hoc tool devised to combat labour exploitation and protect the workers, but up until now it has been criticized for its inadequacy and its obvious limited effect, since it is not supported by actual economic, social and labour policies that could impact and change agricultural system as it is now. There is a strong risk that it is being used instead to hide the system behind its declared criminality without actually enabling a different labour contract system to originate.24
This is a very important point of strong contention. Based on Soumahoro’s speech and D’Onghia and De Martino’s writings, there is a high risk of further criminalizing an already marginalized and racialized segment of the population.25Leonardo Palmisano’s publication, “Mafia caporale”, goes in that direction and addresses the relationship between organized crime and the caporalato system.26 The analysis is quite vague and the overlap between the two phenomena is still quite tentative. Perrotta concludes that the caporalato system does not fall under any of the following categories: “slavery”, “human trafficking” or “organized crime”.27 In fact, as stated by Perrotta, the caporalato plays an essential role in connecting the workers to the landowners as the workers oppose their own employers and request higher wages, work benefits or contracts in order to improve their own living and working conditions. The workers are not victims of the system but active subjects, in fact it is their own decision to live in the shantytowns and they do so because they know that it is the only way they can work. The main issue is the work.28
Soumahoro also answered these claims and accusations in another section of the same speech I referenced earlier, on the 8th of August in Foggia:
“The Minister who was here yesterday made some statements. He said that the problem in agriculture is not the owners, it is not other people, the problem is the Mafia. Dear Minister, come with us, put your boots on and come out of your office, instead of taking selfies, you should know that the Mafiosi are wearing jackets and ties and they are sitting in the places that magistrates are investigating, in Lombardy, from Lombardy to the rest of Italy. We are men and women working as agricultural day labourers. We know nothing about the Mafia. We have never seen the Mafia. And you know very well what the Mafia is. You know well because the so-called Mafia votes are what got you elected Senator of the Republic. We are not Mafiosi, we are agricultural day labourers. We are not Mafiosi, we are men and women.”29
I would add here to the analysis of both cases - Jallow and Soumahoro protests - some further comments on the ways in which visuals, social media, media activism are actually supporting and magnifying this struggle. The various concepts that I have introduced in this article - the plantation, the urbicide, the arrest and the protests - are all incredibly relevant in visually describing and powerfully resisting the mistreatment and exploitation of black African migrants in the fields in the South of Italy. First, the visual content and the theorization of the various concepts underlying the black “ghetto” context in Italy delineate the relationship between the global Black Lives Matter movement and the local Italian context. In fact, the plantation and urbicide theories are strongly connected to the American context although in this paper I apply them to the Italian context as well. The cross-connections between the different countries and different movements and protests across the globe, have created momentum in which the struggle of the migrant tomato pickers is well-positioned as one of the most relevant conjunctions between African migrant labour and organized trade union protests.
The sub-Saharan migrant workers are not only subject to high levels of labour exploitation, but they are also controlled by layering and subordinating processes which impact them, permeating all aspects of life. As Soumahoro stated:
On the one hand, the market needs workers, the reserve army of labour, in order to carry out the harvesting in the fields at a very low cost and at practically unsustainable rates. On the other hand, security policies and the culture of racialisation strip these labourers of their identity as workers and invest them instead with the identity of migrants, preventing them from being treated as human beings. Reducing them to a condition of invisibility.30
An improvement in the wages and working conditions of Sub-Saharan migrants through a change in the tomato production, would have a positive effect on the life of the migrants themselves. Higher wages and better working conditions are after all what migrants need and seek in order to be able to better cope with the reality of the system of control which permeates their lives. Furthermore, changes in the system of control would require not only long-term efforts, but massive and radical cultural and political changes in Italian society. Thus, the first step in improving the situation of the migrants is to recognize that their struggle is not just a migrant workers’ battle, but a fight for workers’ rights. Once again in the words of Aboubakar Soumahoro: “We are workers and as such we want to see our rights guaranteed”.31 Indeed, protests, marches and strikes - as well as empowering visual resistance - aim to reclaim Sub-Saharan labourers not as migrants but as regular workers in Italian society.