Commentary. The Roma haven’t ever made war on anyone, but have been forced to flee and pushed into the condition of “nomadism” that the clichés of the media and of xenophobia always try to assign to them, in good phrenological fashion, as if it were something in their DNA.

‘Let them starve!’ The rot of Europe’s irrational hatred toward Roma

There is a noon darkness in Rome these days. And I’m not talking about the sudden spell of winter weather.

A sinister sort of indifference has taken hold, a core element of the toxic brew that has for a long time been fueling the Italian ideology of the right—and, sad to say, not only of the right. Last week, on Tuesday evening, something happened that the media, more or less out of sheer thoughtless habit, chose to dub “the Torre Maura revolt.”

It all took place during the dismantling of the Roma camps at the periphery of the city, initiated by the municipal administration, under the aegis of the Minister of Hatred, Salvini himself, who is feeling the pressure to deliver for the upcoming elections. Just as the authorities were starting the relocation of the Roma to a reception center financed by the EU, also in Torre Maura, not far from their previous location, protests broke out, with a crowd screaming “we don’t want them here,” indiscriminately calling all Roma “thieves” and demanding to kick them out of the neighborhood. One even witnessed the shameful act of stomping theatrically on the bread and sandwiches that were provided for the Roma while screaming “Let them starve!” As Predrag Matvejevic justly remarked, bread is the symbol of the civilization of the whole world.

The force behind this so-called revolt of the “sovereign people”—that is, sovereignist ideology applied at the neighborhood level, not the kind of grassroots organization that is able to conquer progressive spaces—are the still-unpunished sorcerer’s apprentices, the neo-fascists of Casa Pound and Forza Nuova, this time banding together to combine their hatred against whatever weak group happened to be targeted that day. In this case, those in the crosshairs weren’t the migrants fleeing war and misery, but the Roma, who are forced to bear the scarlet letter of social stigma. This “revolt” had the desired effect of making Mayor Raggi fold under pressure, so that the Roma were forced to move once again, seen off by triumphant fascist salutes.

Luckily, on Thursday, during the continuous protests by the neo-fascists in the neighborhood, there was one person in the streets, a 15-year-old young man named Simone—once again it’s the kids who are rising up to save the world—who, facing the Casa Pound marchers alone, had the courage to make a stand and defend the Roma: “These people are being treated like objects,” he said. “If you always go after minorities, pick fights against those who are the weakest, I’m not fine with that.”

The peddlers of hatred will certainly return to the streets, because what they have to sell is pure, unadulterated hate, fueled by the false consciousness of racism. Imagine forcing the isolation and ghettoization of a social group that is labeled as different, dirty, addicted to theft, almost ethnically predisposed to be crooks—while the real crooks in Rome, from Alemanno to the Mafia Capitale, all the way to the current city administration, are thriving and living large in very different neighborhoods. Then, imagine cutting off all avenues for any kind of integration for that social group, in terms of work, health and education, thus forcing them into marginality and illegality, without any connections to the outside world. Thus, in a vicious circle, the cause of their hatred is this very social stigma itself.

Let us be careful invoking the “suburbs,” the place where we would like to confine every form of irrationality, as this will only become a perfect excuse for rampant indifference. It is certainly true that racist incidents tend to arise in the overflowing peripheries, marked by unresolved social issues and a still-festering class conflict. But what is the solution then? Some version of the anti-migrant slogan, “Help them in their own homeland”? No—ours is the world of globalization: everything has become the periphery. Rome is now essentially identical with its monstrously overgrown suburbs. And whenever some “different” groups, or indeed Roma, were brought into the historic downtown areas or the “good” neighborhoods, racism gave rise to hatred in the exact same way, always exploited by the neo-fascist extreme right.

Furthermore, how can we avoid extending this concept of “periphery” to the whole of Europe? Indeed, the criminalization of the Roma is on the agenda everywhere—a European phenomenon which represents, wherever it manifests, a sign of the failure of the political integration of the Old Continent, which is seeing the emergence of nationalist sovereignisms which refuse to defend the universal values ​​of democracy and the rule of law, and instead put forward an ethnocentric ethos as the basis of electoral support and political power.

In Europe, since the start of this year alone, there have been three pogroms against the Roma in the Ukraine, accompanied by general indifference. In Europe, the Roma have been legally marginalized in Slovakia and Hungary. And who can forget that the former French Prime Minister, the Socialist Valls, built his unlikely electoral successes on the expulsion of the Roma from Paris, just a few years ago?

The Roma are in fact refugees, chased out of their historic settlements in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Should we expect Salvini to tweet, any day now, that we should “send them back” to Kosovo—where we saw their neighborhood in Mitrovica burned to the ground by Albanian militias, our allies in the war? The Roma haven’t ever made war on anyone, but have been forced to flee and pushed into the condition of “nomadism” that the clichés of the media and of xenophobia always try to assign to them, in good phrenological fashion, as if it were something in their DNA.

That is simply false. Every day, these people hope to find some permanence and safety, but to no avail—they are relegated to the “camps,” in the “state of emergency” that our society is wallowing in. One simple question comes to mind: given the strong ties in Rome between institutional crime and neo-fascism, is it not perhaps the case that this return of the black shirts to the streets is tied to a new project to “manage” the tragedy of the Roma for profit, something for which there is ample precedent? On the other hand, a project for housing integration—and, even more important, the schooling of Roma children—would have nothing to do with that, and should be part of a progressive development agenda for all of Italy—starting with Rome itself. And those who claim to represent the left in the city’s administration should be able to make this argument, instead of pretending to channel “the people” who spew sovereignist hatred.

And we need more than that—we need a cultural revolution. As Leonardo Piasere argues in his essay L’Antiziganismo (“Anti-Gypsyism”), in which he draws a cogent parallel with anti-Semitism: what if we replaced the words “Gypsy,” “Roma” or “nomad” with “Jew” and “Jewish”? After all, the Roma are a people who have suffered the Porajmos, part of the same genocide as the Jewish Shoah, perpetrated in the same Nazi death camps (such as Auschwitz).

What effect would it have—and should it have—on us to hear our political leader describe instead a “Jewish plan,” “Jew collection centers” and setting up “fully equipped Jew camps”?

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