October 30, 2018
The value of local democracy
Last month an incident occurred in a small village in southern Italy which serves to highlight the value of an embedded system of local democracy. When the village’s mayor disagreed with those who sit in national government over how migrants should be treated, he was placed under house arrest. Some 5,000 people took to the streets in support of their mayor. Not only was this an illustration of civic strength but also an expression of popular dissent towards a national policy. With our longstanding deficit in local democracy, it’s inconceivable that any of that might happen here.
Forgotten by time and abandoned by most of its younger generation, the old village of Riace in Calabria, clinging to the steep hillsides above the Ionian Sea, would be unknown to the outside world had it not become the reluctant embodiment of the political and social divisions tearing Italy apart.
On Saturday 6 October, in dismal weather, some 5,000 people – three times the local population – climbed Riace’s narrow streets to support its embattled Mayor, Mimmo Lucano.
Over the last 20 years, Lucano has gained a growing international reputation as the Mayor of accoglienza – welcome – after he started opening Riace’s empty houses to refugees. Since then, thousands of migrants from some 20 different countries have found shelter in the town. And that success has infuriated the xenophobes and extremists who now play a leading role in Italy’s government.
In mid-October Lucano was placed under house arrest, accused of assisting illegal immigration and abuse of public office by awarding contracts for refuse collection and recycling to two cooperatives set up to employ local people. Neither of the unproven offences – and the Mayor defends himself vigorously – would seem to merit long-term detention in his modest home. Indeed, Lucano is not alone in questioning why he was locked up when many of Calabria’s ‘Ndràngheta families go freely about their daily lives, even though their identities are well-known to their neighbours. (He has now been released – into ‘exile’.)
But the charges are just the latest in a series of threats and allegations that have swirled around Riace’s first citizen in recent months. First, the state funding awarded to local authorities to host refugees was slow to arrive, and then blocked altogether. Last year Lucano was accused of misuse of public funds – a charge later dismissed. He has suffered abuse on social media and attacks by the ‘Ndrangheta. RAI, the Italian TV, recently suspended broadcasting of a fictional film based on his work. Finally, this summer, Lucano started a hunger strike, warning that mounting debts would mean the end of the ‘Riace model’, throwing 165 refugees onto the streets, including 50 children.
The stakes rose when in June, in a video clip that rapidly went viral, Matteo Salvini, leader of the extreme right and avowedly anti-immigration Lega and now Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, launched an unprovoked attack, calling Lucano “a nothing”. Not hard, then, to see a political motive behind the charges and delays.
Milan-born Salvini, whose party has long sought ‘independence’ for the prosperous Italian north, was elected to his Senate seat last March ironically to represent the impoverished south – with a little bit of help, according to a Guardian investigation, from local politicians closely linked to the ‘Ndrangheta. A few days before Lucano’s arrest, Salvini’s swingeing new anti-immigrant measures were approved by the government.
By contrast, Lucano avoids personal attacks. Asked if the accusations are political, he replies mildly that “strange things” have been happening over the last two years.
Not that he enjoys uncritical backing from Italy’s fragmented left. Some people ask whether it is appropriate for an elected mayor to be sidestepping legal tendering rules, for example. “I would do something illegal 1,000 times to save just one human life,” replies Lucano defiantly. Even supporters question the sustainability of the project. Calabria is one of the EU’s poorest regions. Just as local inhabitants are forced out to find work, most of Riace’s refugees have to move on in the long term. Other commentators fear that going to the barricades over Riace will merely increase support for the far right, given the widespread anti-immigrant sentiments in Italy.
Not all local citizens are enthusiastic, either, although it is hard to find anyone in the streets of Riace with a bad word to say about their Mayor. And Lucano has some influential supporters, including anti-Camorra journalist Roberto Saviano and the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. According to Saviano, Lucano’s arrest is the first step in transforming Italy from a democracy into an authoritarian state. Speaking at the Le Monde festival in Paris last weekend, he claimed that Italy has always been a testing ground for populist and fascist ideas, and that Salvini aspires to lead a Europe-wide movement.
So why should Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister get so excited about events in a tiny town in the far south? The fact that the Riace model of hospitality and integration works, and could work in many other ageing and depopulated communities, poses a direct challenge to everything the Lega stands for. It offers a viable way forward towards a European immigration and integration system that benefits everyone. By converting the refugees’ grants into coupons that must be spent in local businesses, for example, Lucano revitalised the economy of a dying town, creating jobs through ‘social tourism’, restoring social care and repopulating schools and creches. Why send immigrants home when they’re making Italian lives better?
But beyond the practical considerations, it’s ideological. In an open letter thanking his supporters, Lucano urged them to maintain the courage of their convictions. Riace has been described as a “heritage of humanity”. The Mayor’s inspiration for action in a small place was wanting to contribute to something much larger: to demonstrate that there are alternatives, to respect human dignity, and to understand that migration is the product of injustice around the world. That’s what makes Riace a European issue.