The spring of 2020 was the barycenter of the first major COVID-19 wave for most countries around the world. It was also a global intersection of social upheaval and unrest, the most representative being the protests in Minneapolis against systemic racism in the US, spurred by the murder of civilian George Floyd at the hands of policeman Derek Chauvin. With police brutality acting as a vault to tackle the wider issue of systemic racism, support for the cause snowballed, most notably with an extensive outrage across all social media platforms, with users from every corner of the globe adding their voice in dissent and indignation.
Almost a year after the Minneapolis protests, on the 7th of July 2021, jarring images of police violence against inmates at a prison in the southern Italian town of Santa Maria Capua del Vetere surfaced showing inmates getting kicked, beaten, and thrown down flights of stairs for no valid reason (which begs the question, if there could ever be a valid reason for excessive punitive violence). In a visit to the prison later that month, Italy’s minister of justice Marta Cartabia gave a speech in which an important institutional milestone was made, openly outlining the main weaknesses gnawing at the structure of Italy’s prison system including overpopulation and lack of adequate infrastructure. However, the minister also alluded to the fact that the violence was fruit of the frustration generated by the pandemic, as opposed to an overarching and persistent cultural characteristic of ideological violence that envelops institutional bodies of ‘’safety’’ such as prison guards and police.
Indeed, unfettered police violence in Italy has always been present and used as a conduit for order and repression. Since its genesis as a unified country, brutal public order techniques were employed to tame the internal divisions that plagued the nation, as Italy was composed of many states which had profound cultural, political, and geographical cleavages. This was doubtlessly aggravated by Mussolini’s rise and the establishment of the Fascist regime, with security forces such as the OVRA (Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism) normalizing the habit of violence within an institutional framework. This was further aided by the legal definition of ‘’public order’’ introduced by Mussolini in 1931, which wasn’t changed or amended until 1981. In addition to this, joining the police forces in Italy, until the implementation of the art.10 of the legislative decree n.8 on the 28th January 2014, was distinguished by a system in which the access was privileged to people who had previously served in the national military, inextricably tying force and strength to public safety. Compulsory military service in Italy was only abolished in 2004. A major flaw of the Italian collective historical memory is attributing Italy’s past as a mere fixed chronological point in time, as opposed to a fluid and steady ideological flow that permeates virtually every crevice of contemporary society, police included.
This is even more evident when one gazes back at the major instances of police brutality in the country. The reason the events at Santa Maria Caputa del Vetere came as such a poignant stab is because they surfaced at almost the exact time as the 20 year anniversary of the G8 events in Genoa, starting on the 19th of July 2001, where the biggest mass event of abuse of power at the hands of the police in Italian history occurred. Over the course of 3 days, the police lashed out against protesters of the ‘No Global’ movement, using the small violent minority of the ‘Black Bloc’ protesters as a brush to paint the entire crowd as a threat to national security. The climax was reached with the death of a protester, 23 year old Carlo Giuliani, fatally shot in the head by police officer Mario Placanica. However, the brutality persisted, with police officers breaking into the Armando Diaz high school at night and assaulting the sleeping protesters, who had been granted permission by the city to camp in the building. That same night, protesters were taken to the Bolzaneto prison where they were humiliated and tortured until the next day. Much of the events surrounding the G8 summit at Genoa remain unresolved, as, at the time, Italy had no laws that criminalized the use of torture, once again underlining an institutional loophole which acted as a lubricant for such barbarities. A law against torture was only introduced in 2017.
The start of the G8 events landed, coincidentally, on the same date as another memorable event in Italian history in which the police inhabited another role altogether: the one of the martyr. As I was watching the news earlier this summer, a reminder of the anniversary of the G8 events was preceded by the acknowledgment of the 1992 Via D’Amelio bombing, a terror attack conducted by the Sicilian Mafia which killed the magistrate Paolo Borsellino and five members of his police escort. In this case, the police acted as a courageous deterrent to the ubiquitous looming shadow of the Mafia, perennially a common enemy at the core of Italian civic consciousness. Both of these events, the Via D’Amelio Bombing and the G8, coalesce around the duplicitous nature of the police brutality discourse in Italy and perhaps point to the cause of the inability to initiate a proactive and productive discussion around police reform. On one hand, force and stern intransigence is needed to act as a sturdy, steadfast opposition against the organized crime that has always affected Italy under every sphere, from economic to social. On the other hand, when this force is extrapolated and placed in contexts where problems of a different nature in turn demand alternative solutions, it is seldom controlled and only leads to catastrophic results which can be entirely preventable. Effective acknowledgment of this, however, needs to start from institutional ability and discernment regarding the roots of Italy’s problem with police brutality and violence, which reach deeper than mere ‘pandemic fatigue’.
Edited by Wendy Kasera