By Alessandro De Giorgi
Professor of Justice Studies,
San Jose State University
Special Correspondent to GTC
Another significant step toward a reduction of rights and liberties has been taken in Italy last week. In fact, following the “security package” approved by the Berlusconi III government, among other unconstitutional measures to be used in the ongoing war against “illegal” immigrants and their supposed dangerousness, a new directive has been issued by the Ministry of Interior (08/05/2008), providing city mayors with increased discretionary powers in matters of public safety and urban safety.
In Italy, public order has always been a prerogative of the Polizia (the civilian police controlled by the Ministry of Interior), and the Carabinieri (the military police controlled by the Ministry of Defense).
However, locally each town has its own municipal police – traditionally an unarmed and “friendly” force, in charge of traffic regulation and other minor tasks – whose deployment and rules of engagement are decided by mayors and by local police chiefs, within the limits defined by the State’s law.
Berlusconi III’s “security package” has widely extended those limits, providing that mayors have the power and duty to deploy their (now armed) local police forces against:
a) Conditions of urban decay which are known to contribute to the emergence of street crimes, such as alcohol abuse, drug dealing and “aggressive” begging;
b) Situations in which the general quality of life has deteriorated as a consequence of vandalism (i.e., graffiti) or damage to public buildings and infrastructure;
c) Illegal occupation of abandoned buildings;
d) Unlawful street-selling activities;
e) Behaviors which offend public morality (such as street prostitution) or endanger safe access to (and use of) public spaces such as streets, parks, etc.
Mayors – both from the right and the left – have been quick to make immediate use of these increased powers, issuing citywide ordinances such as the following ones:
1) in Novara (Northern Italy) it is forbidden for groups of 3 or more people to be in public parks after 11pm;
2) in Venice, it is forbidden to carry bags containing goods for sale (a measure against unauthorized street-sellers – in 99% of cases, immigrants);
3) in Rome, it is forbidden to search for food or recyclable items in garbage cans;
4) in Florence, it is forbidden to wash windshields at street corners;
5) in several Northern Italian towns, call-centers – obviously used almost only by immigrants to call home – must now have two restrooms and a private parking lot in order to be legal (of course, none of this applies to restaurants, boutiques, or other “locally owned” activities).
A very “soft” critique of these measures – which target exclusively the immigrant population – has been expressed by the Democratic Party – the only parliamentary opposition left after the crisis of the left in Italy. Once again, the most surprising aspect is the degree of support these measures seem to receive from an emerging silent majority.
In the last two decades or so, many (post)-critical criminologists in Europe have been arguing – often under ambiguous labels such as “situational crime prevention”, “community policing”, “safe-cities”, etc. – for a shift from the national to the local level in matters of urban security and crime control: the idea was that more “democratic” and “grassroots” strategies of crime prevention and conflict resolution could emerge from the local level, where citizens would express their needs and concerns (i.e. fear of crime) directly to local administrators who would take those concerns seriously, but less constrained by the dangerous temptations of symbolic politics than national politicians.
However, the recent developments in Italy have shown once again that local crusades for urban security can be as exclusionary and discriminatory as the ones launched nationally, and that sometimes, contrary to some assumptions of self-proclaimed realist criminologists, public fears should be contested and deconstructed, rather than being “taken seriously”…