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A Generational Fight: Teaching Young Italians to Defy the Mafia

A Generational Fight: Teaching Young Italians to Defy the Mafia

13 June, 2018
Baris Cayli

“Anyone who is deaf, blind and dumb will live a hundred years in peace.” So reads the proverb in the book penned by the Sicilian ethnographer Giuseppe Pitrè. Conjuring the fundamental principle of omertà (code of silence), this proverb highlights the historical importance of remaining indifferent to injustice in Sicily. Staying silent has long been a way to avoid becoming one of the many Mafia victims. In the 1990s, mafia killings were the violent backdrop to everyday life and, alongside the dysfunctionality of Italian state policies, encouraged civil society to mobilise itself in the fight against the Mafia and mafiosi culture. Thanks to these revolutionary efforts, the desire to dismantle the Mafia has surged, particularly among younger generations. Whilst progress remains slow, my research suggests that educating future generations against mafiosi culture and the mafiosi mentality will play a huge role in defying not only the structural power of the Mafia, but also the culture of omertà. This is a generational fight.

During my recent research trip to Sicily, I interviewed a number of anti-mafia activists from Libera, the largest anti-mafia organisation in the country, founded in 1995, and Addipizzo, another anti-mafia organisation, which was established in 2004 to fight the tradition of paying pizzo (protection money paid to the Mafia). These two organisations educate Italy’s younger generation about the Mafia’s history, and potential ways for civil society to displace the local, regional and national culture that supports mafiosi culture. Every year, students from secondary schools and high schools across Italy are given lectures by anti-mafia activists about the history of mafia victims, and they visit the memorials and statutes dedicated to the mafia. In the lectures I attended, activists highlighted the value of establishing a culture of lawfulness and the importance of not remaining silent and indifferent to injustice.

Activists highlighted the value of establishing a culture of lawfulness

Libera Terra organises multiple week-long trips in Sicily for students from high schools and universities from all over the country, during which they are trained on the lands confiscated from the Mafia. Addiopizzo, by contrast, uses games to teach neglected young people from the poor neighbourhoods of Palermo the importance of working together and respecting the rules. In one of my interviews, Claudia Catania, from Addiopizzo, explained their approach:

We developed a project to engage with young people from the community whose families suffer from economic difficulties, and sometimes they are even on the run from the police…when we arrived in the neighbourhood, the kids were playing games in which fighting and beating each other had become a form of play. It was hard to gain their trust at first, but we organised free events and took them to Monreale [a tourist town close to Palermo]. In later stages, we taught them new team games in which cooperation and working together were part of the game.

Addipizzo’s project in the poor neighborhoods of Palermo, where the Mafia has territorial strength, is about community intervention, tackling the root social problems that lead to young people becoming vulnerable to mafia recruitment. The experience of anti-mafia activists from Adiopizzo demonstrates that building a healthy relationship with these young people is challenging. But it also shows that, by addressing the right group of people, it is possible to defy the Mafia in its heartland.

The Mafia’s extortion racket typically revolves around the ‘protection’ of shopkeepers, lands, assets and cattle

The Mafia’s extortion racket typically revolves around the ‘protection’ of shopkeepers, lands, assets and cattle. Addiopizzo has developed an innovative and inclusive approach to fighting the mafia by reaching out to one of these groups: shopkeepers. They provide them with free legal assistance, pyschological and social support in the resistance process against the Mafia. A thousand shopkeepers have joined the initiative and put the Addiopizzo sticker on their windows. Although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of shopkeepers who still pay pizzo in Palermo, Addiopizzo say that the number may still be dispritingly high: many shopkeepers are not able to stand up to the Mafia’s intimidation and join the Addiopizzo network.

Sicily is where the Cosa Nosta was born, but it is also where courageous anti-mafia activists have resisted the Mafia, and sometimes paid for it with their lives. Demonstrating a true shift in attitudes, anti-mafia organisations have been steadily growing at both the local and national levels over the past twenty years. Even where the Mafia has diversified its business and internationalised its operations, the preservation of local authority has always been an important part of its modus operandi. This makes local resistance to the Mafia – challenging its power at its roots – critical to the Mafia’s demise.

The Mafia is now less visible than it was, but this does not mean that it is any less powerful. Essential in this fight are groups like Libera and Addiopizzo, both in their efforts to educate the next generation of Sicilian civil society about how they can create a culture of lawfulness, and in their refusal to abandon both those citizens threatened by the Mafia today, as well as the neglected young people vulnerable to the Mafia in the future.

Dr Baris Cayli is a Senior Research Fellow in Criminology at the University of Derby. He is Research Associate at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has served as a Visiting Academic at the Department of Sociology, University of Oxford, and the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers, at the State University of New Jersey. His publications explore anti-mafia movement, the sociology of violence, civil society, political ideologies, historical sociology, and social and cultural transformation.

Banner image: Italian students being educated by anti-mafia activists in the memorial square in Palermo dedicated to the judges, police officers and politicians who were murdered by the Mafia. Image courtesy of the author. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.

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