Taking a stand against the Mafia …

28 August, 2010

There is a small black edged, mourning style, sticker affixed to the mirror of the lift in my apartment building.  It reads:   Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo e’ un popolo senza dignita –  ‘A population that pays protection money is a population without dignity’.  

In a city where, it seems, close to 80% of businesses are paying protection money to the Mafia, this is a serious message – and one that challenges not just shopkeepers and business owners, but every member of the community.

Everyone who buys bread from a pizzo-paying baker, or fruit from a pizzo-paying fruit vendor,  is himself, indirectly, making a contribution to the Mafia.  The responsibility for the situation that exists here does not rest only with the shop owner.  Everyone is responsible; everyone is part of the system.  Nothing will change until the people themselves change.   If Sicilians were to really take to heart the principle, ‘A population that pays protection money is a population without dignity’ , they would rediscover their self respect and, ultimately, be liberated from the Mafia.  That was the  realisation that prompted a young and idealistic group of Palermitani to take action one night in the summer of 2004. 

A group of friends, none of them yet 30 years old, had been daydreaming about opening a pub in Palermo and reflecting on the fact that, if they did, they would, no doubt, be asked to pay protection money.  This is not a normal society, they said to themselves, and they went on to talk about Libero Grassi, a man who had been killed by the Mafia for refusing to pay the pizzo.  In a normal society, they said, you would expect Grassi’s widow to express at least some satisfaction when her husband’s killers were finally convicted after 10 years of investigation and litigation.  But here,  she had this to say:  “ After all these years, what surprises and saddens me is that everyone continues to pay the pizzo and acts as though it doesn’t exist”.    

The group came up with a plan for change.  Early in the morning of 29 June 2004, clad in balaclavas and travelling either on foot or by bicycle, they went through the streets of central Palermo affixing hundreds of the anonymous mourning style stickers to walls, lamp posts, bus stops, phone booths  – any available surface.   They didn’t know what to expect, but to their surprise the city seemed to come to life.  First, the group was joined by other young people who spread the stickers further afield, then others joined.  This was the beginning of the Addiopizzo movement. 

Now more than 400 businesses are members of Addiopizzo and have publicly refused to pay the pizzo.  The organisation publishes a booklet which lists these businesses and encourages consumers to support them.  Addiopizzo’s aim is to create a group of consumers who will support business owners who are prepared to stand up against the racket. 

In March 2008, a Pizzo-Free shop opened up in Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, which is Palermo’s oldest street, running from Porta Nuova near the Norman Palace to Porta Felice that looks onto the sea.  The shop, which stocks produce  from establishments that have refused to pay the pizzo, was the brainchild of two Addiopizzo members, Fabio Massina and Valeria Di Leo, who decided they would showcase the goods from these businesses and make it easy for consumers to give their support.    

I visited the shop yesterday and while there asked the girl whether they had ever had any problems .  “Absolutely none!” she said.  She assured me that things are very different now and that that sort of thing no longer happens. 

It seems that things are, indeed, beginning to change – but it also seems that there is still quite a long way to go.  I remember reading earlier this year that Giovanni Ceraulo, the owner of a chain of clothing stores, who refused to pay the pizzo and subsequently had the windows of his store damaged,  was being isolated and abandoned even by some of his oldest clients.  And although more than 400 businesses have joined Addiopizzo,  it seems that all the businesses in Palermo’s prestigious shopping streets, like via Liberta’ and Via Ruggiero Settimo, continue to pay.  And I notice that none of the bars, restaurants and shops near where I live seem to be on the list.  The number of businesses on the Addiopizzo list is continuing to grow, but 400 is still a relatively small number.     

The Pizzo-Free shop in Corso Vittorio Emmanuele sells a wide range of goods from jams, sauces and wines to baskets, t-shirts and gift items.   Some of the produce has been made on farms seized from jailed Mafia bosses, including that of Salvatore ‘the Beast’ Riina, one of the most brutal Mafia bosses, who was responsible for a huge number of killings including that of the legendary anti-Mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone.    

Late last year Addiopizzo launched Addiopizzo Travel to promote pizzo-free tourism.  By staying at pizzo-free hotels and dining at pizzo-free restaurants, tourists will be able to join in the fight against the Mafia.  Addiopizzo Travel also organises tours which will show the visitor not only Sicily’s natural beauty and rich cultural and artistic heritage, but also its darker side, providing an insight into the people’s struggle against the Mafia.  .   

Over the years, the fight against the Mafia has produced many heroes – brave, legendary figures whose lives have been sacrificed to the cause.  These people are revered and their influence is strong.  But perhaps even stronger is a kind of inertia,  perhaps an understandable fear, a seeming inability to change.  But only a ‘seeming’ inability, because everything is capable of change.    

However slow the change might be, Addiopizzo is an organisation worthy of support – and, on your next trip to Palermo, the Pizzo-Free shop in Corso Vittorio Emmanuele definitely worth a visit.

3 Responses to “Taking a stand against the Mafia …”

  1. CateM Says:

    An absolutely fascinating and inspiring post! Thank you. It seems to me that any lasting change requires incredible patience and persistance and given that fear is such a powerful force I suppose it is not surprising that it is so difficult to achieve. Stories such as these make me question whether I would be so brave and I’m really not sure. I will certainly make sure I try to support Addiopizzo whenever I’m in Palermo. I’m curious about the tours they organise also.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you! And thank you for the comment. As more people join Addiopizzo, it seems that the risk involved in not paying the pizzo is reduced, but as one of the Addiopizzo members said, it is still an act of defiance and things can change quickly.

  2. Sally F Says:

    These people are really admirable

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