Infrapolitical verbal styles
in Race talk

Chapter 6 moves away from the everyday transcultural negotiations of the previous chapters, which mostly took place between street vendors and their customers, to explore the threat to livelihood faced by the book’s research participants during 2012. The chapter opens with an examination of the widespread racist formulae through which black street vendors in particular were framed as a threat in Napoli. It then focuses on the joking practices of transcultural masculine solidarity against the police as an infrapolitical talk, which both subverted and reinforced hegemonic ideas about black masculinity, migrants, entitlement and belonging.

Fra le onde del mare, posso ancora sentire

Voci antiche, grida Saracene.

I mercanti di schiavi, orizzonti di navi

Maledetto ritmo di catene.

Siamo tutti africani, siamo africani

Simm tutt’ african nui napulitan.

E batte nero nero nero … questo cuore

E canta nero nero nero … questo cuore

In culo al mondo che in fondo vorrebbe rubarci anche l’anima

Ci ha preso tutto ma non ci potranno mai prendere l’anima

Amongst the waves of the sea I can still hear

Ancient voices, Saracen cries.

The slave merchants, the ships on the horizon,

The cursed rhythm of chains.

We are all Africans, we are Africans

We are all Africans, us Neapolitans.

And this heart beats black black black …

And this heart sings black black black …

At the bottom of the world which, deep down, wants to steal our souls.

It has taken everything from us but will never take our souls.

Extract of ‘Cuore nero’ (1997) written by Enzo Rossi and sung by Franco Ricciardi, featuring 99 Posse (translated from Italian and Neapolitan by the author)

RICCIARDI’S ‘CUORE NERO’ (Rossi 1997) meditates upon a key theme in Neapolitan popular culture: that of the racialised subalternity of Neapolitan people. The extracts of songs and poems that I have shared so far in the book have concerned issues related to the anxiety of southern Italians about their own alterity – their othering through the denial of their language and culture as a result of Italian Unification; paranoias about miscegenation with African American GIs; reflections on how precarious work and emigration have connected them to other marginalised people. By contrast, in ‘Cuore nero’ a painful, subaltern and oppressed regional identity is reclaimed as a source of pride and action. The idea of Neapolitans as black can be understood as a political statement that connects southern Italian marginalisation and suffering to the countercultural aspiration to freedom, citizenship and autonomy that Paul Gilroy has described emerging from Black Atlantic cultural traditions (Gilroy 1993). Examples of these kinds of claim abound in parts of the Neapolitan music scene that became heavily influenced by African American blues and reggae from the 1980s. The late Neapolitan Blues artist Pino Daniele dedicated a whole album to the experience of Neapolitanness, which he called Nero a metà, or Half Black (1980). Neapolitan dub and reggae group Almamegretta wrote a piece called ‘Figli d’Annibale’ (‘Hannibal’s Sons’) on their album Migrant Soul (1993), which makes claims about African ancestry in the DNA of southern Italians. Reflecting upon transatlantic slavery, Ricciardi sings in Italian and then repeats in Neapolitan: ‘We are all Africans, we are all Africans / We are all Africans, us Neapolitans.’ In this music, black African diasporic traditions have inspired alternative ways of being that reopen repressed and negated memories of the city’s history of subordination and connect them to contemporary globalised inequalities. Sung predominantly in Neapolitan or a Neapolitanised Italian, they decentre the cultural hegemony of the global north and propose the city as a site of transnational liberation (Chambers and Cavallo 2018: 1–5).

These songs are about the experience of subordination and marginalisation of Neapolitans who, in reality, are racialised as normatively white. It is intriguing to consider how this notion of commonality and fraternity with the Global South plays out in a city that, since the 1980s, has become more and more multicultural in a wider context of increasingly vicious anti-immigration politics. Later on in ‘Cuore nero’, 99 Posse rap at high speed in Neapolitan, referencing a line from ‘Tammuriata nera’, about which I wrote in Chapter 4 (Mario and Nicolardi 1944):

pecche addo semin o gran o gran cresce

Riesco o nun riesce è semp gran chell ch’esce

Semin semin e cresce semin semin e cresce

O problem vene quann o gran piglia e fernesce.

Because where you sow grain, grain grows

Success or failure, grain always comes up

Sow sow and it grows sow sow and it grows

The problem’s when the grain runs out.

The fear expressed in the song about an inability to grow and flourish in Napoli was certainly reflected in the discussions and events that I witnessed on the ground. The city street was the place where the breakdown of law and the disastrous consequences of capitalist organisation referenced in the music were lived and negotiated (Chambers and Cavallo 2018: 6–7). At the time of my research Napoli was in a deep economic recession. Street vending represented an important way in which both Neapolitans and migrants with few resources could make money for themselves. But if they operated without correct licences they were subjected to repeated police crackdowns and risked both their living and, in the case of migrants, their legal status. The fear people felt about their own survival in this context raised questions about solidarity and entitlement that, at their core, were racialised. Many Neapolitans relied on a corpus of ‘racist formulae’ (Back 1996) about street vending, illegality and, above all, black African street vendors as undocumented, criminal and dangerous, in order to argue for the prioritisation of their own marginalised status as Neapolitans. At the same time some people – both Neapolitans and migrants – produced a countercultural response through which they sought, in small and subtle ways, to protect each other in recognition of a common precariousness, vulnerability and desire for autonomy. This response was not explicitly tied to direct action or organised resistance, but formed part of the everyday life of the pavement. Veiled public expressions of transcultural fraternity and solidarity – which often took the form of gossip, jokes and coded warnings – formed what James Scott has called an ‘infrapolitics’ that created a disguise of ‘ideological insubordination’ from which people could construct an antihegemonic ‘imaginative capacity’ (Scott 1990: 19, 90–92). People in Napoli often reproduced the hegemonic public transcript about street vending through performances of dominance, on the part of both the powerful and the marginalised. However, at the same time, infrapolitical verbal styles allowed in small ways for dignity, entitlement and, occasionally, transcultural solidarity to be expressed as part of daily intersubjective processes.

As is common with humour and codes, these infrapolitical verbal styles were frequently double-edged, ambiguous and contingent. With jokes, hierarchies could be both subverted and reinstated. For example, untrue warnings addressed to African street vendors about police coming to seize their goods and arrest them often appeared as a ‘collective sneer’ (Passerini 1987: 67–106) that further reinforced their subordination. The totalising power of the State in the lives of migrants was undermined by the performance of the Neapolitan speakers showing themselves coming to the migrant street vendor’s aid. But, at the same time, they took on the hegemonic persona of the forces of law and order, recreating the anxiety of being hounded by the police and also sending the street vendors up for being afraid. However, this banter, as with other sorts of aggressive joking in contexts of racial terror and hierarchy (Smitherman 1977, 2006, 2007), also defused tension and allowed transcultural conflicts around belonging and entitlement to be transformed into a sort of social commentary that could be worked through relatively safely. Nevertheless, these humorous negotiations took place almost exclusively between men, whereas women in street markets, as I explored in Chapter 4, were subjected to forms of violence that were more difficult to speak back against. This ritualised, ludic and competitive talk relied on an understanding of a local form of the masculinity of the guappo – a man of the people who was hardworking but also knew how to protect his own dignity and honour. Acting like a guappo was both part of a collective struggle and a weapon of differential control that had gendered, ethnic and racial referents. Black, male street vendors were the particular targets of racial terror and their survival depended on an ability to engage in an affective and aggressive verbal word-play that granted them respect and protection from Neapolitan men on the pavement. An exploration of the verbal infrapolitics that took place across transcultural boundaries in street markets allows critical questions to be asked about what the claims made about Neapolitan blackness actually mean for a local, transnational politics of liberation in the city street.

Racist formulae about unruly street vendors

I often heard people complain about street vending in Napoli. They were generally referring to the unlicensed stalls that lined city pavements and they were almost always talking about the migrant and, above all, black West African street vendors selling fake branded bags, accessories and DVDs. Regulated markets such as the one at Poggioreale were not painted in the same light. However, Via Bologna market, the only regulated market in the city where the vendors were predominantly West African in origin, was considered to be a problem. This litany was often heard issuing from the mouths of Italians as they passed by Via Bologna market next to Piazza Garibaldi:

Get all this stuff out the way, move it! God, this is Africa here now!

This is Africa here – it’s not Europe any more!

Most of the time, though, the fact that the vendors were foreign wasn’t explicitly stated in people’s objections to street vending. Instead, people would say the market stalls made the pavements congested and dirty, that they felt harassed by vendors calling out to them, or that the vendors were breaking the law and damaging legitimate businesses. These veiled objections to street vending formed a corpus of racist formulae, or a racist speech genre, that painted the predominantly male West African vendors as unruly, dangerous and criminal.

In particular, local residents complained about the mess and dirt that street markets left behind at the end of the day. Instead of seeing this as evidence of the municipal neglect of working-class neighbourhoods and the much-documented role of organised crime in waste disposal across the region (Saviano 2006; Pine 2012), they explained the problem through racist associations between non-white people and cleanliness. For example, the Roma market of scavenged goods around the main railway station was a huge problem, but the crevice full of food waste on the pavement at the edge of the Neapolitan-run market in the San Antonio neighbourhood was not highlighted.1 If these markets were dirty then non-white street vendors were also dirty. On one occasion I bumped into a Neapolitan lady who had a jewellery stall in Via Bologna market. Her daughter often spent time on the stall with her after school. She was crying and explained to me that a local Neapolitan man had warned her that morning to keep her daughter away from the Senegalese men in the market, as black Africans carried diseases. ‘But we [we Neapolitans] have diseases: we have cholera!’, she told me through her tears, acknowledging the historic prejudice faced by Neapolitan emigrants who were frequently stigmatised as unclean disease-carriers (Snowden 1995; Stella 2003). Her evocation of this commonality of experience between historic southern Italian emigration and contemporary migration to Italy was a common antihegemonic and anti-racist response to racist and antimigrant ideas in Napoli.

People reported feeling menaced and harassed by black African street vendors. I remember one afternoon my flatmate telling me that there had been no street vendors during her shopping trip that day. It was a sunny weekend day and the vendors had probably gone down the coast to sell their merchandise to beach-goers on their day off. She commented how nice it had been to walk freely along the pavement without having to negotiate the crowds of people that jostled around the wares laid out on cloths on the pavement. This sense of being besieged by black street vendors hawking their wares was not specific to Napoli alone. For example, I was once at a First Communion lunch full of Italian expats back at home in the UK. One man told me he had just come back from Pisa and was shocked by what he referred to as ‘those great big Nigerians’, who he said tried to bully him into buying merchandise as he attempted to approach the Leaning Tower.

It was also felt that the African street vendors were part of the wider problem of organised criminality in the city. Early on in my research I was told by an older relative not to speak to street vendors because they were working for the Camorra. Again, it was not explicitly specified, but we both knew she was referring to West African street vendors. Certainly, the entrepreneurial mafia that emerged in Italy from the 1980s relied on migrants as a key labour force (Arlacchi 1986: 83), and profited nicely from the numbers of undocumented migrants. Italy’s immigration legislation was designed so that migrants could not easily legalise their status and find legitimate work if they arrived, or later became, undocumented. Senegalese migrants – the majority African nationality amongst street vendors – initially arrived in Italy and went to the north of the country hoping to find employment, often in manufacturing, and subsequently get their legal status regularised. However, in lieu of that, they encountered well-established Senegalese trade organisations that allowed them to make a living as licensed or unlicensed vendors on beaches and city streets across the country and, potentially later on, as self-employed business owners (Riccio 2008: 220, 223). From 2001, the Bossi–Fini immigration legislation made it almost impossible to legalise your status in the case of any sort of criminal conviction. This made it even harder for some groups of migrants, such as the Senegalese, to get visa papers, as they had a high sentencing rate for crimes such as ‘receiving stolen goods’, ‘forgery of brands and industrial products’ and ‘violating intellectual property’, which were associated with participation in street vending and sale of contraband (Interior Ministry 2014: 96–99). This law, which was pretty consistently implemented despite instructions by the appeals court to reinterpret certain aspects of it, criminalised many Senegalese men who were co-opted into certain kinds of work because of a differential and unequal access to the labour market.

The Camorra profited from this legal framework by efficiently managing the labour force in Napoli through the allocation of specific tasks to racially differentiated groups of people. For example, fake designer bags were made in illegal factories in the city. Italian nationals sewed together the bodies of the bags, the labels were attached by South Asian migrants, and West African street vendors (in particular Senegalese nationals) took on the most risky and visible role in the supply chain as they sold the merchandise directly to the customer (D’Alessandro 2009; Schmoll 2003). Some of the street vendors I worked with were willing to explain how they were connected to the lines of production and distribution within which the Camorra operated. Modou told me he had a Neapolitan supplier whom he ordered his stock from directly at the factory where they were made. He paid first, €1,000 at a time, and then picked up the bags when they were ready. His supplier wouldn’t bring bags directly to Modou because of agreements with local clans about distribution.

In addition, and like other business owners in the city, black street vendors were the victims of extortion, having to pay a bribe, or tangente, on their profits and to ‘rent’ the part of the public pavement where they had their stall. Gennaro – who was very uncomfortable discussing this with me – told me the Camorra were not interested in extorting money from people who only made small amounts – for example those, like him, who sold socks or other small items – but they did extort money from migrants and Neapolitans selling contraband. Whilst this certainly happened to some street vendors, no one I did research with, including people involved in the sale of fake designer goods, would confirm that they paid any tangente.

Black street vendors were not different from anyone else working in commerce in Napoli, in that people of all races and ethnicities were implicated in, and complicit with, the semilegal and illegal practices going on in the industry. As Libera D’Alessandro showed in her detailed research about commercial practices in the city (2008), regulated spaces of commerce in Napoli were not significantly different from unregulated or underregulated market spaces in terms of their merchandise or connections to informal and semilegal economies. The lines between legality and illegality were especially blurred within commercial practices, to the point that no legal judgment had ever been made that concretely connected the activities of the Camorra with the manufacture and sale of contraband (D’Alessandro 2009). However, predominantly Senegalese street vendors had been, and continued to be, held up as responsible for embedding and spreading criminal practices in commerce. They were forced to take the biggest risks and pay the highest price.

Across Europe, to be Senegalese was to be indelibly associated with illicit forms of street vending. Lord Alan Sugar was the subject of widespread condemnation during the 2018 World Cup when he tweeted, in reference to the Senegalese team, ‘I recognise some of these guys from the beach in Marbella. Multi tasking resourceful chaps’. The tweet, which Sugar defended as ‘a joke’, included images of cloths laid with sunglasses and fake designer bags superimposed onto a photo of the Senegalese national team.

In Napoli the particular objects and goods associated with Senegalese street vendors had themselves become imbued with racialising and stigmatising meaning. For example, one day at Poggioreale market an elderly Neapolitan woman and her daughter approached Alessandro’s stall, looking for a new suitcase. The daughter wandered over to the selection of soft holdalls that were at the front corner of the stall. She started reflecting that she might prefer a soft bag to a regular hard-shelled suitcase, saying, ‘You can get more stuff in a soft bag.’ Alessandro nodded, indicating that this was undoubtedly the case. But her Mother objected to this: ‘No. We would look like one of those Negri on the streets.’ People who worked in retail often needed to move large amounts of goods around. Those with licensed market stalls or shops used their own vehicles, but others who were working on a smaller scale, such as unlicensed street vendors and many of the West African buyers at Poggioreale market, tended to move their merchandise around the city on foot and on public transport. For this purpose they used large, soft black holdalls with wheels, or blue plastic sacks tied with rope to trolleys. These activities created tension on crowded buses, metro trains and trams, and I often saw Neapolitans cursing and gesticulating at them as they got on and off vehicles. Such local struggles over the cultural configuration and use of public space emblematised a wider racialised attitude towards migrant street vendors as too numerous and a threat to local Neapolitans. The woman wanted to avoid evoking any stigmatising and potentially humiliating association with this image and so refused to consider buying a soft holdall. I would suggest that these associations were already too close for comfort for her, as the figure of the street vendor, with his unwieldy bag of wares, evoked historic stereotypes about Neapolitan poverty and subalternity. What was at stake was a damaged regional pride that made any hint of commonality between Neapolitans and migrants in Napoli something to be avoided at all costs.

On another occasion a group of Nigerian refugees in the middle of a housing crisis provoked a similarly scathing response that associated black people with illicit street vending and criminal behaviour. In the middle of the night of 3 June 2012, I was woken by a text message from a friend on the anti-racist scene asking me to come to the Piazza Garibaldi train station bar the following morning for an emergency demonstration.

When I arrived the next morning, I found a group of men and women variously standing and sitting around a mountain of what seemed to be their worldly possessions, piled up against the wall of the station. These included pots and pans, mattresses, suitcases, small bits of furniture, and a large number of umbrellas (see Figure 13). My friend told me they were members of six families of Nigerian origin who, having escaped civil war in Libya to claim asylum in Italy, had been kicked out of their hotel by the Protezione Civile (Civil Guard) following a number of days of tension that culminated in them occupying a bus in the hotel car park.2 Two of the women were heavily pregnant and one had a new baby. The women had been given emergency accommodation whilst the men spent the night sleeping in the station. A crowd of Neapolitan men, mostly in early middle age, were standing around and watching. Staff from the bar in the station had complained that their belongings were blocking the exit, and a group of municipal police and station security guards approached as I arrived to try and move them on. One bystander joked, ‘Hey, they’ve set up market!’, and another told the officers, ‘You need to get them out. You just need to get rid of them.’ A third complained that they already had enough guappi to deal with in Piazza Garibaldi. As there were a number of activists there it was possible to intervene on behalf of the stranded Nigerians. We helped them move all their belongings away from the exit whilst negotiations were under way to stabilise their situation.

The malevolent joking and plaintive appeals directed by the Neapolitan bystanders towards the forces of law and order highlighted the strong semantic connections between black masculinity, street vending, urban decay, criminality and anti-immigration beliefs about being swamped such that, in order to insult the refugees, it was enough simply to accuse them of setting up their own market. Their worldly belongings came to symbolise the wares laid out on the pavement by other West African street vendors, and all the tensions around economic entitlement and use of public space associated with those activities. Describing the group as guappi positioned them as a threat to poor locals trying to make a living, and sought to diffuse any notion that they might be in need of help or protection. This strategic appropriation of hegemonic anti-immigrant discourses argued for the prioritisation of Neapolitan unemployed and underemployed on the basis of the exclusion and public punishment of black migrants.

‘Hunting’ street vendors: from threats to action

Sometimes these antimigrant statements and threats translated into outright displays of racist aggression and violence. This foreshadowed a widepsread antiblack hostility that reached epidemic proportions across Italy in the following years as a result of an extremist resurgence and moral panic about the so-called European migration crisis. Amongst the crimes – being referred to in Italian media as a veritable ‘hunt’ of black people (Mascia 2018; Affricot 2018) – that grabbed the attention of the international media was the wounding of six West African nationals in a racist shooting spree in Macerata on 4 February 2018, followed by the murder of Senegalese street vendor Idy Diene in Florence on 5 March. Diene was the cousin of Samb Modou, the Senegalese street vendor murdered by Gianluca Casseri when he went on his racist and murderous rampage in Florence on the 13 December 2011 (Montanari 2011). Casseri also killed Mor Diop, and wounded Moustapha Dieng, Sougou Mor and Mbengue Chieke.

Similar episodes also took place in Napoli during this period, such as the attack on two Malian refugees in the nearby city of Caserta. The victims, Daby and Sekou, were shot at with an air gun by two men on a moving moped who shouted ‘Salvini, Salvini’ as they sped off. Matteo Salvini had been elected interior and deputy prime minister that same year (anon. 2018b). Following the non-fatal shooting of Senegalese street vendor Elhadji Diebel Cissè in the Vasto neighbourhood behind Piazza Garibaldi in August 2018, the Senegalese Community organised a march to denounce six attacks against migrants over the previous four days (anon. 2018a). These episodes, and others besides them, were indicative of a resurgent far right that was being emboldened by people at the centre of power in Italy and across Europe (O’Grady 2018; Trilling 2012; ; Bjørgo and Mareš 2019). However, they were certainly not a new phenomenon. Napoli and the surrounding region had been a key location for racist violence against black migrants over the last three decades, including the murder of Jerry Masslo in Villa Literno (Napoli) 1989, the murder of seven West African men in Castelvolturno (Napoli) in 2008 and the shootings of West African migrants working in agriculture in Rosarno (further south in the region of Calabria) in 2010. These last two episodes also exemplified instances where the Italian mafias had intervened with violence in order to re-establish their authority within two different commercial activities that rely on a large migrant workforce: drug dealing and agriculture.

When I was conducting fieldwork, black street vendors were clearly being targeted for special attention by police raids against street markets. I will discuss this further in the next part of the chapter. Stories also abounded about black migrants being terrorised by different factions of organised crime. But when it came to the daily interactions between Neapolitans and migrants that I was witnessing from market stalls, I saw frequent episodes of racist violence against Bangladeshi street vendors. Episodes of opportunistic racist violence against black migrants seemed less of a threat than they became in subsequent years, and often the Bangladeshi victims would seek protection from black migrants who worked alongside them but were not subjected to the same sort of regular mistreatment. These episodes were predicated on an idea of their inability to speak Italian or Neapolitan. In a context where being able to speak the language, and speak back when attacked, were vital to the performance of a hyper-masculine guappo street identity, the inability to do so made them into ideal prey. Being linguistically powerless implied they were physically powerless.

Their lack of linguistic prowess meant that often the market cries of Bangladeshi street vendors were badly received by the potential customers they were calling out to. One day I was passing through Piazza del Plebiscito, in the historic centre of the city, when it started to rain heavily. An itinerant Bangladeshi vendor appeared with a trolley of umbrellas and started to circulate. He called out to a young man fleeing the downpour, holding out an umbrella to him: ‘Hey, man!’ The man responded aggressively, physically pushing the man away and shouting, ‘Hey! Leave it out!’ The Bangladeshi man remonstrated and the man ignored him, hurrying away.

On another occasion I was walking past Piazza Garibaldi train station on a rainy day in April when I saw an elderly Neapolitan man drunkenly approaching a Bangladeshi umbrella vendor who was standing with his trolley outside the steps down to the metro. The old man brandished a smashed glass bottle in the vendor’s face and shouted brokenly at him: ‘Why don’t you go back to the toilet you came from?!’ The unfortunate man shrunk back in fright. I was with a friend and we stopped next to the altercation in case it was necessary to intervene. Fortunately the homeless man quickly blundered off and left the vendor in peace.

Hey, man!’, a translation of the Neapolitan guagliò, was a common informal greeting between young people in Napoli. Many vendors used the word to call out to potential customers and the decision to use Neapolitan was often successful in establishing interpersonal ties between migrants and Neapolitans. But Bangladeshi vendors were perceived to be unable to communicate effectively in Italian and their attempts to talk were often rebuffed aggressively. Many Neapolitans made fun of the Bangladeshi practice of selling umbrellas. They would check the weather and make sure to appear as soon as the first drops of rain started to fall in order to take advantage of the fact that people might have left the house unprepared for the elements. As itinerant vendors they circulated the city or set up pitches in many different spots, allowing them to come into contact with many more potential customers. But this could be risky. It meant they were not as familiar with their surroundings as migrant vendors who set up a pitch in the same spot every day. As a result, their judgement about how to approach prospective buyers could be less acute, particularly as they were speaking Italian or Neapolitan as a second language and so were less quick at picking up verbal or non-verbal cues from potential customers. Also, they were unable to rely on the implicit trust and acceptance that Neapolitan street vendors could make use of. Their selling tactics were seen as opportunistic, but they were no different from the Neapolitans who circulated the city asking people to buy lighters or tissues.

Meanwhile, young Neapolitan boys would roam the pavements in groups, or ‘baby gangs’ as they were called in the Italian media, preying on students from out of town and street vendors who were unprotected by neighbourhood codes of respect and so defenceless against attacks. This behaviour encompassed both the comic and the abusive dimensions of the carnivalesque that Bakhtin described, whereby playful games – such as throwing foam in people’s faces during Carnevale3 – could quickly turn menacing. Their raucous and festive laughter functioned in complicity with power, as they participated in the abuse of some of the most vulnerable members of society. Whilst doing fieldwork with Ibra and Salvatore, I became quite familiar with a group of about a dozen of these young boys who targeted the Bangladeshi street vendors along that route.

On the first occasion I saw them, they greeted Ibra raucously and he laughed at their high spirits, saying ‘ciao, ciao’. After they had passed by, Ibra told me the Bangladeshi street vendors were scared of these boys because they stole things off their stalls. He told me they didn’t target the Senegalese vendors and I asked why; ‘Afraid’, responded Ibra. A couple of weeks later I was standing with Salvatore when a group of them rushed the stall of a young Bangladeshi vendor, who had set up next to Ibra that day, and stole a mobile phone cover. They ran away really fast and Salvatore told me this was the fourth time they had targeted this vendor since the morning. He told me it was always different boys and they did it for fun, throwing the phone covers away once they got round the corner. He commented wryly that the young vendor had sold fewer than had been stolen from him that day. We went over to stand with the man and commiserate with him, although we didn’t have any language in common as he spoke very little Italian and we had no Bengali at all. Salvatore got frustrated with this: ‘He doesn’t understand anything. He just says “Sì sì sì”. When are you gonna learn some Italian?’ Salvatore told me he had recently offered this vendor a television he didn’t need any more and it had been really difficult to decide how and when to pick it up as they couldn’t understand each other very easily. In the end the man came to get it ten minutes before Salvatore finished work and Salvatore had to insist that he went and got one of his friends to help him carry it away. He told me that he had suspected the man would have difficulty carrying it because he thought Bangladeshi men were all physically slight and so less strong. He told me his assumptions had been correct, as the vendors and his friend had struggled to hold the heavy television between them. The friend he brought with him spoke good Italian as he had been in Italy for a while. Salvatore noted that at least he would be able to defend himself when the groups of boys came by.

At this point in our conversation another group of boys appeared and Salvatore approached them saying, ‘Go away, leave it!’ The boys heeded Salvatore’s warning and moved on, only to stop by the stall of Samba, an elderly Senegalese vendor. The man in question immediately jumped up and approached the boys aggressively, causing them to run off. I mentioned to Salvatore that they had avoided Ibra completely and then run away from Samba, and Salvatore responded that they were afraid of the Senegalese men. The group of boys who had just passed us now appeared to be having a disagreement. They all turned as one and headed back towards us. The atmosphere cooled sharply and Salvatore started talking to them softly with his hands held out towards them, telling them to leave it alone and that they needed to behave themselves. Again, they moved on past us like a wave. Salvatore resumed our discussion, telling me that these boys were from a historically poor neighbourhood to the north of the road we were standing on. Their parents were unemployed, or in prison for offences associated with the Camorra. These young boys were left to themselves and so lived a ‘street life’, he said, maybe eventually taking a similar path in life to their parents.

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi vendor brought over a €50 note he had just been handed and motioned to Salvatore to check whether it was a fake. The young couple who were waiting for their change next to his stall looked offended. The Bangladeshi man said thank you and then went back to the couple to give them their change without taking back the large note. Salvatore said, ‘Thanks for the money!’, and laughed, together with Ibra. The vendor smiled ruefully and came back with hands outstretched for the note, but Salvatore waved the money in the air above the man’s head. He immediately dropped his arms down and took a step back as if intimidated. At this, Salvatore became repentant and said to me, ‘Look, he makes you feel sorry for him’, giving the money back. Salvatore turned to me and said angrily, ‘They have to worry about police. They have to worry about the kids. And now they have to worry about the fake money. What do they come here for? Why don’t they go back to where they came from?’ I responded that they might well be asking themselves that very same thing, but Salvatore morosely responded that, ‘No, they have to be thinking they’re better off here.’

Whilst all this was happening, the same boys as before were arguing about five metres away from us. They had found a long steel rod and were trying to break it in half. I started to feel scared and asked Salvatore what he thought they were going to do. Salvatore responded reassuringly that, ‘You just have to know how to take them’, and commented that it was a shame for them that they might do something bad before understanding the consequences of their actions. ‘Write all this in your book’, he told me. Ibra started packing up his stall to go home and, as usual, I went over to help. Two boys then suddenly rushed at the Bangladeshi vendor, who grabbed his mobile stall and wheeled it as fast as possible towards Salvatore, who was standing at the entrance of the apartment block he worked in. Standing behind Salvatore in the doorway he was relatively safe. They boys surrounded Salvatore, who held his hands out again, trying to reason with them. After a few seconds they all moved off. Ibra and I approached Salvatore and the vendor to see if they were OK, and Salvatore told the vendor, ‘You gotta go home. Do you understand? They’re gonna come back!’ Ibra pointed out that the street was emptying itself of vendors. Belatedly, the Bangladeshi vendor realised he was going to be alone on the pavement. He started to pack up his stall but Salvatore anxiously complained that he was taking too long and the boys would come back. We all helped him bunch together phone cases with elastic bands and pack them into a large white raffia sack hung round a trolley. About five minutes later he was all packed up and he thanked us before heading off down the road.

The boys came back again whilst I was there, about a week or so later. They surrounded the same Bangladeshi vendor as before and followed him as he escaped to hide behind Salvatore. One boy told him, ‘I’ll smash your face in. Aren’t you ugly.’ They didn’t take things any further and stalked off.

The differential treatment meted out to street vendors by the young people was reflective of racialised attitudes about masculine hierarchies that form part of the modern legacy of racial thinking in the West – in which South Asian men have been positioned as weak and childlike, while African men have been stereotyped as physically strong, hypersexual and aggressive. The behaviour of the young boys, in terms of whom they thought it was safe to target, mirrored the assumptions that Salvatore also voiced to me whilst they were coordinating their attack, and throughout the work we did together, as has been discussed elsewhere in the book. The connection between forms of consumption and the role exercised by the Camorra in commercial activity had generated lifestyles and identities that were extremely attractive to people not involved with organised criminality (D’Alessandro 2009: 42; Pine 2012). This was particularly true in the case of some young people living in areas conditioned by a strong Camorra presence. The young boys’ activities mimicked the Camorra style by emulating a guappo masculinity that was acquired through fearless performances of aggression and a disregard for the law.

Salvatore made small efforts to protect the Bangladeshi vendor and persuade the children to leave him alone. He recognised the damaging effects of their behavior, the unequal and precarious social and economic context in which they had taken root, and the wider politics around migration that brought the Bangladeshi vendors and others to Napoli in the first place. He was conscious of the brutalised economic and political reality in which these episodes were taking place, and that was why he told me to ‘Write all this in your book.’ His efforts at solidarity were deeply ambivalent and problematic because he simultaneously expressed antimigrant and racist rhetoric. This rhetoric was justified by an argument about them not being able to speak the language of the place they had migrated to. Salvatore argued that they, the victims of aggression, were at fault because they couldn’t speak to defend themselves. Being able to converse fluently in Neapolitan was a source of subaltern pride in Napoli and also a way in which migrants could seek acceptance in their new home. But welcome cannot be contingent on linguistic prowess. Salvatore’s insistence on linguistic assimilation transformed a source of marginalised regional pride into an exclusionary monolingual nationalism.

Spectacles of policing

Violent policing formed the backdrop to these unpleasant episodes. I once saw police descend on a Roma street market and kick their scavenged wares out of arrangement and across the pavement whilst shouting at the vendors to go away. A lot of the time unlicensed street vendors didn’t work because constant police patrols made it impossible for them to set up their stalls, or forced them to grab their merchandise and run, only to return and repeat the same scene all over again. I noticed that the African street vendors folded the corners of their cloths over to make it easier to gather everything up quickly, throw the stall like a knapsack over their shoulders, and escape down a side street. Whilst I was in Napoli these controls picked up significantly in intensity, and on many days, when I went to look for my research contacts, I was unable to find them.

One day in early January I set off to do fieldwork and ended up walking round to all the different spots of my research participants without any luck at all. Eventually I found Ibra standing near his usual location, leaning against the wall and looking both resigned and agitated (see Figure 14). His merchandise was packed away in his trolley. He told me there were plainclothes police going up and down the road on foot and on mopeds. He wasn’t able to work and didn’t want me to hang around. ‘Napoli is no good any more’, he told me. Politely he suggested I go and greet Giovanni and then he went home for the day, trailing his wares on the trolley behind him.

After this, I headed off to Via Roma to see if I could chat to a Senegalese vendor I had been recently introduced to but hadn’t managed to bump into again. The Neapolitan street vendors were still in their spots on the street corners but there were hardly any migrant vendors out there as I made my way up the road. On the way back down I saw a group of black vendors laying their cloths back down on the pavement and starting to unwrap their merchandise. I noticed, in the distance, men in uniform on foot, in cars and on mopeds. However, the group of vendors didn’t have time to react to this. A passing moped, with two men on board dressed in civilian clothing, suddenly slowed as it passed the line of men. The riders froze, scrutinising the men and trying to figure out who they were. I was right behind the vendors and noticed their eyes bulge as veins pulsed on their foreheads and the hairs stood up vertically on their arms. The moped passenger leaned in towards the men and locked eyes with them, making a precise Neapolitan gesture with his right hand that told the men in no uncertain terms to ‘get lost’.4

Whilst aggressive in intent, the police were not seeking any arrests that day. This gesture gave the vendors time to pick up their merchandise and run again. When goods were seized and impounded this involved financial losses that could vary from €200 to €500, according to my participants. The legal consequences, particularly for migrants, were even more serious. If they were arrested they usually spent a night or two in Poggioreale prison, whereupon most were released with a verbal warning and a deportation order if they were also undocumented. Many did not initially realise it but their case then would go in front of a judge and they would end up with a criminal record, which made it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to get or maintain a work visa. One of my research participants, Modou, was even more unlucky. One day, after I finished my research with him, he went to the police to report being robbed. When they checked his ID they discovered a warrant out for his arrest for repeated offences to do with selling fake bags. He had been convicted in absentia and was immediately removed to prison for a six-month sentence.

Given the scale of unregulated street vending that was being practised in Napoli, it was obviously impossible for the police to arrest and seize the goods of every vendor they came across. However, their presence and threatening behaviour contributed to the penal spectacle of arrests that legitimised national and international anti-immigration politics and fuelled local antipathy to migrants. This reflected a shift towards more punitive methods of urban control, given an increasing lack of welfare support and decreasing economic stability in the West in general, whereby migrants have been made into the scapegoats of urban poverty and decay (Wacquant 2008a: 46, 51). The game of cat-and-mouse that the police and vendors played was a performance of dominance whereby racist formulae about West African street vendors were forcibly reproduced by both the dominant and the dominated.

I could not forget how awful it was to see people so frightened. Vendors did everything they could to avoid being caught by the police, as they were aware of the consequences. This had led to tragic consequences in Napoli, and elsewhere in Italy. In the summer of 2013 in Sanremo, a Senegalese street vendor called Mame Mor Diop, who was fleeing from the police because he had a small amount of contraband amongst his merchandise, ran into the river and drowned (Parodi 2013). In June 2014 a violent police raid on an unregulated market close to Via Bologna in Napoli resulted in the arrest of twenty Senegalese men and the subsequent savage beating of Magnane Niane when he tried to call for help from the police station. Magnane said he was getting a coffee at the bar on that road when the police started their raid and subsequently arrested anyone who was black that they could catch. He wasn’t vending but he was rounded up with the other vendors along that road. He told the lawyers and activists, who were eventually alerted to his situation and rushed to his aid, that the police had kicked his head as if it was a football (anon. 2014).

Ambiguous solidarity and infrapolitical banter

In order to avoid getting caught by the police, street vendors relied on their ability to recognise a number of visual, verbal and non-verbal clues to see danger before it arrived. Senegalese vendors would scan the road to see if it was safe for them to set up their stalls (see Figure 15). As well as flashing blue lights and uniforms, they were also looking for plainclothes police and dodgy-looking cars, which might be parked or circulating. I never became very good at picking up on these tell-tale signs, and always annoyed the vendors by asking them to explain what they were looking and listening out for. They also had ways of relaying danger non-verbally – such as making a circle in the air with the index finger that got passed down the line of vendors on a road when police were coming. The direction of the oscillation of the finger (clockwise or anti-clockwise) indicated whether the police were coming towards them or finally heading away. Such spatial awareness and communicative repertoires were a crucial part of the street vendor’s survival toolkit.

These tactics of evasion took place in collaboration with Neapolitans who worked in nearby shops and bars, guarded the entrances of buildings or just lived locally. These people helped their street vendor friends by watching out for police and occasionally looking after their merchandise. Modou had an agreement with a shop near to where he pitched his stall, and he left the bulk of the merchandise that he wanted to put out each day in the shop. He only carried the most expensive pieces back and forth from his home. Barmen were in a particularly good position to warn of oncoming danger because they circulated the area delivering espressos and croissants to local businesses as part of their job. Thus racist formulae that reflected a desire amongst the Neapolitan public to rid the pavement of black street vendors existed alongside collaborations between migrants and Neapolitans who were stratified by differential power relations.

Playful threats about the police were central to this. For example, Salvatore liked to tell Ibra to ‘Watch out, police!’ when there were no police present, and sometimes he would threaten to call the police. Once, Ibra responded wryly, ‘Why bother? Police are already here!’ Whilst functioning as a deeply ambiguous experiment that measured the balance of power between the two men, these episodes were also ways in which fear was defused and the possibility of collaboration explored. This humorous banter was a kind of talk both suffused with racialised violence and ambiguously open to the possibilities of transcultural connection. The sharing of warnings and humour acted as a form of contingent and contentious infrapolitics, whereby the hegemonic order was disrupted and toyed with.

However, the sense of sympathy and solidarity Neapolitans felt for the plight of migrant street vendors was often quite limited, and infrapolitical talk existed alongside calls for their exclusion and expulsion. Salvatore told me he didn’t get involved with the business of the migrant vendors he came into contact with, limiting himself to warning them when police were coming. His policy was to do nothing if they got caught; there was nothing he could do and he thought it was understandable that the police got violent if they resisted arrest. These were ‘problem ro’ nir’ (‘black people problems’), he told me. His obsession, explored in Chapter 4, with the idea that black men were physically stronger than Neapolitan men justified his argument that they were better able to stand constant police harassment, though he was aware of how stressed they were. At the same time, he told me that the Government should let them all look for proper work or not let them come at all. Otherwise in no time ‘the immigrants will be more than us’, and the situation for ordinary Neapolitans would be out of control.

Interactions between migrant street vendors and potential customers also featured multiple ambivalent joking performances. These ludic transcultural episodes, often conducted in Neapolitan, were similarly wrought through with a gendered semiotics where ideas about masculinity, race and hegemony were contested and negotiated. Customers who came to look at merchandise on the stalls of migrant vendors I was working with would often mobilise negative ideas about street vending both as a way of establishing convivial relationships with those vendors and as a show of intimidation. One day I was again sitting with Comfort at Via Bologna market, listening in as she chatted in pidgin to two male friends about her money troubles. To illustrate her woes more effectively she drew a stack of crumpled, unpaid bills out of her handbag and asked us how on earth she was going to pay them. She then showed her friends a grey and lime-green polo shirt she had in stock. An Italian man in skinny jeans and a pink polo shirt approached in interest:

Comfort: [holding up the T-shirt to him] You interested?

Man: Is it a fake?

Comfort: [stiffening in suspicion] Go away! Go away!

Man: [affronted] But why? How much is it?

Comfort: Do you want it? Ten euros. Are you gonna take it?

Man: [cracking up laughing] yeah right!

Comfort: Go away then! Bye, now! Shoo!

Man: Why are you being like this?

‘Is it fake?’ was a question I often heard Neapolitan customers ask migrant vendors, as a prelude to, or following, a transaction. The customers would smile widely as they asked, something that stood at odds with the discomfited and fearful reaction that they clearly provoked. The vendors were extremely aware of the vulnerability of their position, and their customers seemed to enjoy the power this gave them. Their laughter at this stock joke reflected the oppressive side of the carnivalesque market place that Bakhtin described. In this case it functioned as a ritualised threat, reinstating hegemonic ideas that linked together migrants and criminality as opposed to subverting them The unequal legal and economic positionalities occupied by street vendors put them at risk of being hurt by anyone wishing to exert power over them.

The same kinds of playful-threatening dynamic animated other sorts of stock performance between vendors and their customers. In the following episode I was doing fieldwork with Modou again when a Neapolitan man swaggered aggressively towards his stall:

Customer: So, whats this here?! I am gonna confiscate all of this stuff! [indicating a designer tote bag] What do you want for it?

Modou: But you won’t pay me!

Customer: Look, I’m interested in a style that looks something like this bag here [indicating a woman’s cross-body bag]

Modou: Yeah …

Customer: Well? Is it a good one or not? I asked you a month ago?! [indicating his own tattered bag] Look how I’m walking around, look?!

Me: What brand is it?

Modou: The man’s style.

Me: But it still has a cross-over strap?

Customer: Yes – but what have you got on you?

Modou: Not much really. There are some good bags here but the one you want – it costs a bit …

Customer: So bring it to me!

Modou: I’m not bringing it back and forth.

Customer: You bring it to me – I’ll take it.

Modou: Ok …

Customer: How many bags –

Modou: You’re right –

Customer: How many bags have I bought off you?

Modou: You’re right … Ok which day?

Customer: You know. [to me] You don’t know me and you might think that I – [turning back to Modou) have I bought other bags off you? Or not?

Modou: What a joker! [laughs]

Customer: So will you bring it to me? Holy Mother Mary!

Modou: Ok then what day … Tuesday?

Customer: Wednesday?

Modou: OK, if you want. I’ll bring it for you. A hundred per cent.

The Neapolitan, a local man whom Modou clearly knew quite well, seemed to play the role of the demanding but loyal customer, even though Modou clearly thought he had no intention of actually making the purchase. He was right – I asked later and the man never came the following Wednesday for the bag, which, in any case, Modou hadn’t bothered to bring for him. So what was the whole performance about? The Neapolitan man’s outraged exasperation and religio-comic invective to the Virgin played up to a stereotype of the jokey Neapolitan. However, it was significant that the interaction started with him pretending to be a police officer about to sequester Modou’s contraband merchandise and potentially arrest him for breaking the law. Humour, again, served as an ambiguous threat that reinstated Neapolitan masculine dominance. It was also a game of what Jason Pine has termed ‘who am I and who are you?’ in his ethnographic work on criminal undercurrents and the Neapolitan Neomelodica music industry (2012: 25–33). This game referred to the processes of identification and self-identification through which people delicately examined and sought to assert power differentials as part of their everyday life. Note how the man made it clear to me that I didn’t know who he was and, hence, I was also implicated in these processes, by virtue of my presence, and subtly warned to be on guard. The man was re-establishing gendered and racialised power hierarchies by making it clear to Modou that his presence was contingent on the acquiescence of local people, predominantly men, who were unnamed and invisible but always keeping watch. What could be granted could also be taken away.

In order to participate in these power plays it was necessary to demonstrate significant linguistic dexterity and knowledge of Neapolitan. Modou, like many of his Senegalese colleagues, tended to respond with equal force to his Neapolitan interlocutor and this made for an uneasy but somewhat balanced dynamic between them. Unlike the scene involving Comfort, Modou was able to play a role in the unfolding drama and make use of the linguistic prowess developed through years working as a street vendor in the city. Comfort, instead, had to resort to silence and refusal, turning her back on her interlocutor as he tried to shame her with his accusation of fake goods. Unlike women, and other migrants, such as Bangladeshi street vendors, Modou was praised for his ability to speak back.

We Africans, we Neapolitans?

Pending here is a discussion of how Neapolitan street vendors felt about their migrant colleagues. In the last chapter I explored how Neapolitan and migrant street vendors worked pragmatically side by side in order to make a living. I argued that, given the context of economic recession and austerity whilst I was doing my fieldwork, these tactical approaches to making money should be understood as evidence of an oppositional class-consciousness. Here I think about the infrapolitical lens through which Neapolitan vendors actually articulated that daily cohabitation with migrant street vendors. This speaks to the heart of the tantalising suggestion of brotherhood raised by the song ‘Cuore nero’ at the start of this chapter. It asks whether the claim of commonality between Neapolitan and African marginalised people translated itself from the realm of popular culture into the sense of self of precarious street vendors in their working lives. To what extent did Neapolitan vendors show and enact support for migrant vendors whilst also defending their own right to work?

The Neapolitan street vendors I worked with were deeply conscious of their precariousness and lower-class status compared to other business owners in the city. I noticed that most shop owners and street vendors maintained a stony avoidance of each other and, occasionally, I saw open hostility deployed by shop owners in the form of passing remarks or aggressive gestures. One man, whose family business was in high-end leather goods that bore the ‘Made in Italy’ merchandise mark, explained to me that unregulated street vendors had not earned the right to do commerce in the same way as them. They did not pay the same (or any) rent and tax on the spots where they set up their stalls, nor had they invested time and energy in building up relationships with stockists as shop owners had. Furthermore, their activities affected higher-end and legitimate retail activities because they ruined the look of high streets. A couple of local councillors were extremely vocal about the ‘problem’ of street markets whilst I was doing my research, with one respondent reporting to me that he had heard a City Hall councillor telling a group of Neapolitan street vendors at a public meeting that he wanted to sweep them away, as if they were rubbish.

Street vendors – migrant and Neapolitan – defended themselves against the accusation that they were breaking the law or a public menace. Gennaro and Alfonso from Via Bologna market often reminded me that the difference between them and shopkeepers was one not of practice but of position: they all sold the same products but market traders were considered to be socially inferior because they couldn’t afford to rent a shop and so sold their products from the pavement. Gennaro told me:

You know, when you work as a street vendor people act like you’re second division. Because, you know, we do the same job as shopkeepers. We deal with the same clients except we interact more directly with them. But – mon ami – it may be more direct but it’s more human!

But the fact remained that, despite the ideological corpus of vendor pride that challenged hegemonic discourses about street vending, markets were hard places to work and generally not people’s first choice of livelihood. When I gave Gennaro a disposable camera to take photos for the project, one of the images that he produced was of an unknown elderly street vendor (see Figure 16). He was an itinerant pedlar who had stopped for a short rest on the corner of Via Bologna and Piazza Garibaldi. I asked Gennaro why he had taken this picture.

Gennaro: These are people that in an advanced age, you know, being very old they have a small stall; but at this age they continue to sell on the streets because the person who sells on the streets is getting the money they need to get to the end of the day. Do you understand?

Me: Does he just sell magazines?

Gennaro: No it’s a bit mixed because he sells, say, good luck charms, toys, nuts – you know – a bit of everything. It’s a little bazaar.

Me: And it makes you sad …

Gennaro: Yes it makes me sad because I’m 48 years old and I have to think that this person is like 75 or 76 and they are still doing this job. That really depresses me. But it is what it is.

The Neapolitan street vendors I worked with were understandably very concerned about their long-term prospects and lack of financial security. This complicated the way in which they related to their migrant colleagues. Gennaro also took some photos for me of the interior of Via Bologna market, where most of the stalls were run by African vendors. These are his reflections on what is significant about the photos (see Figure 17).

Gennaro: I just took this photo to show the immigrants who are behind the stalls that give them their living. Well – ‘living’ – it is what it is here and it turns out –

Me: So is the newly organised market working out now that there are more Neapolitans here?

Gennaro: No, the market doesn’t work well because it is badly organised and run even worse. It’s not publicised – no one knows where it is. A better market was set up here in 2000, but then it was done to sort out a number of people who were spread out across the city to make an immigrant market, not an interethnic market, as they called it. But in any case, having got this place, it never really made much money.

Me: Didn’t they sell different stuff before?

Gennaro: Yes – in the beginning they sold objects from their home countries. You know – those wooden objects of things like elephants all made with their own hands. And, as a novelty, this worked well for them for a while – oh yeah, they also sold those musical instruments – they sold well because they were a novelty and didn’t cost much. Now they’re selling the same merchandise that we Neapolitans sell and so there’s competition.

For Gennaro, the images of people and merchandise, both of which he described as ethnically marked, offered a material manifestation of the kinds of transcultural economic rivalry and tension that had arisen in street markets since the 2008 economic crisis, when it stopped being remunerative to sell ‘Made in Italy’ products or so-called ‘ethnic’ or ‘cultural’ objects. People had less money and stopped buying these items, so migrant vendors diversified and started selling cheaper Chinese merchandise, which was readily available in warehouses across the city and arrived directly into the city’s port.

Transcultural competition was also an issue amongst vendors who had known each other for many years, like Gennaro and Comfort. They had started their stalls in and around Piazza Garibaldi around the same time about two decades before. As Gennaro told me, they had been on marches together and had watched each other’s children grow up. They had also spent ten years of their twenty-year acquaintance not talking to each other following a political falling-out, as Gennaro put it. Gennaro told me Comfort was only thinking about herself and not showing sufficient solidarity with him and the other street vendors. My arrival in the field marked the end of this decade-long hiatus. On one occasion in late May, I arrived at Via Bologna to find that Gennaro and Alfonso had not set up their stalls that day. I called Gennaro and he told me they were trying out a different unlicensed spot on the other side of Piazza Garibaldi. Comfort approached me to ask where the two men were and I invited her to come with me:

Comfort: (on arrival) So do you have any permit to set up here?

Gennaro: Can’t you see there’s no one coming by?

Comfort: Today I haven’t sold anything … There isn’t even a mosquito flying through Via Bologna. No one’s selling anything. How are things here?

Gennaro: It’s worse here than there! We wanted to give it a go but no one is stopping. Everyone just passes through and doesn’t buy. Since this morning me and Alfonso have had one sale each. So in Via Bologna …?

Comfort: Antonia, how are things in Via Bologna?

Me: Ha! Well, yes, no one is coming through the market. It’s worse than before.

Comfort: See? It’s not just me saying it … But if you are selling well here you should tell me …

Gennaro: Don’t worry Comfort. We know as well as you what things are like in there. We’re just saying things as they are here. We all sell different products so it’s not like that …

Competition seemed to govern the relationship between migrant and Neapolitan street vendors in ways that didn’t exist amongst Neapolitan vendors. For Gennaro and Comfort, the sense of common purpose and experience they clearly shared was mediated by a delicate balancing act of shifting power dynamics and paranoia.

Gennaro had worked side by side with many migrant vendors, both as a regulated and an unregulated vendor, over a twenty-year period. The greater horizontality of his and their work routines, as well as his politicisation through involvement in the Precari Bros unemployment movement, had seen him develop a vocal politics of transcultural solidarity with other street traders:

I mean, do you think I was born to be a street vendor? I’m a street vendor because I haven’t had other opportunities to work. I don’t think these boys who’ve come over from Africa say, ‘Let’s go to Italy! Let’s go to Napoli! Let’s go and be street vendors!’ No! They came here because they thought there might be something more for them. Then you see that there isn’t and the first thing you can do honestly is sell a product. You sell it and you stay alive, right? That’s what we do too! I told this person [a town councillor] that if someone loses their job and is unemployed for months on end and can’t find anything, even though Monti says that job opportunities need to open up because everything is blocked and ‘boring’5 [sarcasm], then do you know what he does? He goes to fill a bag with a bit of merchandise in it and he goes and sells it … It’s just basic! Or if he’s dishonest he goes thieving. That’s how I see it. So, if we want to fix this city, if we want it to be reborn, we need to build our foundations right here, do you understand me?

Gennaro’s emotional defence of street vending made use of his understanding of politics and powers of oratory. As someone who left school at the age of 11, these were skills he had built through his work and his activism. In his speech, street vending was repositioned as a humble but honest form of capital accumulation, central to the urban growth and renewal that he saw politicians talking about but unable to implement. Not only did he place himself in dialogue with hegemonic discourses about work and the city, but he showed that he had personally faced up to powerful people when he described his conversation with the city councillor. Speeches like the above became key to the formation of antihegemonic discourses and organised action when the livelihoods of my research participants were threatened during my fieldwork. This is examined closely in the next chapter. Here, though, it is interesting to reflect upon the ways in which Gennaro’s ideological discourse contrasted with his description of the lived experience of getting by across transcultural boundaries. The daily life of multicultural street markets necessitated ambiguous infrapolitical talk where power was reinforced as much as it was disrupted.


1Whilst there is most certainly an inequality in the way that Neapolitan and migrant street vendors are treated by the administration and in public discourses, in Napoli there have been cases of predominantly Neapolitan-run markets being closed down for reasons of poor hygiene, such as the fish market at Porta Nolana in 2009 (anon. 2009).
2An article by Mario Leombruno and Luca Romano (2012) gives further details of this episode. The authors frame it as symptomatic of the incompetent and malicious mismanagement of the Libyan crisis.
3Carnevale (Carnival) is a Catholic festival celebrated immediately prior to Lent, just before people customarily begin a period of fasting. People don masks and costumes and have a big party. Its roots are ancient and predate Christianity. Previously called Saturnalia, it used to be the festival of slaves and servants.
4He made a steeple with his hand, raising the little finger up vertically. He twisted his hand from the wrist, up and down, up and down, in quick succession.
5Gennaro was quoting the then premier Mario Monti who, in the wake of the reform of the labour market, stated that, ‘young people need to get used to the fact that they won’t get one [an indefinite contract]. Permanent jobs are boring, it’s nice to change’ (anon. 2012).

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Race talk

Languages of racism and resistance in Neapolitan street markets


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