Why you should care
Because taking the law into your own hands is a serious matter.
When Liliana Demedicis finishes washing the dishes, she glances at the kitchen clock: 9 p.m. sharp — time to go on patrol. She puts on a bright pink raincoat and cap, grabs her smartphone, flashlight and pepper spray, and heads to a nearby park, where she meets up with a half-dozen other members of the Pink Guardian Angels. For the next four hours, these middle-aged women roam the streets of Novara, a medieval town in northern Italy, on the lookout for sexual predators, vandals or thieves, especially ones from the overflowing migrant camp on the outskirts that houses more than 500 refugees, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa. The Pink Guardian Angels are united in their conviction that where migrants go, crime — and maybe even terrorism — will surely follow.
In the past six months, civilian patrols have flourished in some 20 northern Italian towns where angry, frightened residents don’t think law enforcement is doing enough to protect them from migrants, whom they see as a threat to law and order. Their anxiety continues to ratchet up as the number of undocumented foreigners surges. Since 2014, nearly 500,000 asylum seekers have descended on Italy; last year set a record, with 171,000 refugees reaching the boot. Most migrants are housed in camps, with the highest concentrations in southern Sicily and in the northern tier of the country, where the vigilante movement is strongest. Many of the camps, like the one in Novara, are fenced, but refugees can move in and out freely, day and night. Residents are reacting by organizing civilian patrols and taking safety into their own hands.
It’s a tense situation and being afraid has nothing to do with being a racist. We just feel safer if we look after ourselves.…
Marco Demedicis, patrol volunteer, Novara, Italy
Liliana Demedicis’ shift is three times a week; her husband, Marco, a retired butcher, takes over for the remaining four days, including weekends. The men call themselves City Angels and wear primarily green clothing. “It’s a tense situation and being afraid has nothing to do with being a racist,” claims Marco, who is proud of his wife’s activism. “We just feel safer if we look after ourselves, calling the police at the right moment. Of course we refrain from using violence unless we get attacked.”
Are the good citizens of Novara and other Italian towns and cities with DIY patrols safety-conscious realists or paranoid racists? Certainly, many Italians feel as though they’re under siege. There are TV reports of clashes between civilians and migrants on almost a daily basis in the north. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Italian anti-racism organizations and police data reveal that hate crimes — verbal and physical — have risen from 156 incidents in 2011 to 1,500 in 2016, and a big slice of those have ended in violent confrontations between locals and new arrivals. Populist parties are exploiting such fears with anti-migrant policies that appeal to people’s darkest, innermost terrors. “Xenophobic politicians love to talk to the stomach rather than to the reason of voters,” says Giovanni Orsina, a professor of contemporary history at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome.
Even though these so-called rondes, or military patrols, have a slightly fascist echo, they’re supported not only by far-right groups but by democratic parties as well. In many towns mayors sponsor the squads, even in left-wing and communist ones like Bologna, which has long been pro-migrant. “When we supported the patrols a couple of years ago, everyone attacked us,” says Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s populist Northern League party. “But now even traditional left-wing parties recognize their added value, which says it all about the undeniable rising social and ethnic tensions.”
One exception is Comerio, a tiny town not far from the Swiss border whose provocative mayor has outsourced patrols to the migrants themselves. Similar new vigilantes trends are playing out across northern Europe too, where refugees arrived en masse in 2016. Norway and Estonia boast far-right Odin’s Warriors, while in Germany and Switzerland, city patrols are organized via the internet.
So, is there actually a migrant-fueled crime wave in Italy? According to a December poll conducted by Confcommercio, Italy’s largest business association, in the past two years the proportion of native-born Italians convicted of a crime is 4.3 out of every 1,000 citizens. The rate nearly doubles for legal immigrants: 8.5 per 1,000. And for illegal immigrants, the figure ranges from 148 to 247 per 1,000. The survey identifies the majority of migrant-committed crimes as vandalism, robbery, theft and counterfeiting. According to government data, 33 percent of all inmates in Italy are migrants, yet they make up a mere 7 percent of the population. In Europe, only Greece’s proportion of migrant convicts — 75 percent — is higher.
What do the cops think of all this unbidden help? A police commissioner, who spoke with OZY on the condition of anonymity, complains that many police forces focus on drug trafficking and other crimes committed inside the camps and on apprehending those on the lam — priorities that divert officers and other resources from assisting the local community. Although the commissioner stresses that DIY vigilantes should never take justice into their own hands, he believes that “they are a good deterrent for migrants who know that locals are closely monitoring the territory where they live.”
Even though these unarmed monitors won’t replace the police, they’re doing what some Italians do best: looking after each another like one big family.