Speaking back to power
in Race talk

Chapter 7 explores the ways in which people in street markets actively organised to resist attempts by the State to take away their livelihoods. It looks at the antihegemonic talk through which improvisational and ambiguous forms of solidarity emerged across cultural and linguistic boundaries in the moments when people had to work together as part of an ambiguous, Gramscian-inspired local-popular, and speak back to power. It argues that the multilingual nature of the street vendors’ organisation was central to their struggle and the political transformation they achieved. The chapter offers an opportunity to think about the relations of force that can emerge amongst people subjected to unequal and differential legal and economic statuses – people who also speak different languages, follow different religions, and have different political visions and group interests – but find themselves attempting to transcend these differences and work together to survive.

Na lotta aggia avut da fa’, Na lotta aggia avut da fa’

Na lotta aggia avut da fa pe’ nce trasì

E quann aggio trassuto, Mamma ‘e ll’Arco, ch’impresson’


[northern Italian accent of the factory manager] ‘Uè ma se tu vuoi mangiare, uè ma se tu vuoi mangiare, per forza qua devi crepar’

Uè ma tu padron’ mie che maronn’ staje dicenn’?

Je nun song n’animal e né nu schiav’

E tira accà e vott’ allà, e nuje c’avimm organizzà, e a ’sti padrun amma caccià

Uè pe’ colpa ’e sti ’nfamune tutt’ a cassa integrazione

E stanotte m’agg’ sunnate ca tutte cose era cagnate

E nun ce steve cchiù sfruttate ’ngopp’ a sta terra

I had to fight, I had to fight,

I had to fight to get this job

But when I got in, Mother Mary

What a shock I had

‘Hey if you wanna eat, hey if you wanna eat

You have no choice but to die here

Hey boss what the hell are you saying?

I’m not an animal nor a slave

Even though we didn’t choose this life, we’ve got to get organised and kick these managers out

Because of these bastards we’re all on unemployment

And last night I dreamt everything had changed

And there were no more exploited on this earth

Extract from ‘Tammuriata dell’Alfasud’ (1976) by Gruppo Operaio ‘’E Zezi’ di Pomigliano d’Arco (translated from Neapolitan by the author)

THIS CHAPTER TURNS from the ambiguous and fraught infrapolitical genres of transcultural solidarity explored in the last chapter to examine moments of organised political action that took place across linguistic, cultural, national, classed and racialised boundaries during my fieldwork. This collective action became necessary because of a combination of austerity measures and city-mandated regeneration processes that were closing down street markets and taking away vendors’ livelihoods in 2012. The vendors’ actions drew upon a strong tradition of creative proletarian political organisation in the city: for example, the ‘Gruppo Operaio “’E Zezi”’ (Zezi Workers Group), formed in 1974 from a group of factory workers at the Alfasud car factory in Pomigliano d’Arco. This area, formerly a village to the east of Napoli where people survived through agriculture and artisanship, was suddenly plunged into industrialisation with the arrival of a number of manufacturing plants from the late 1950s (Abbruzzese 1985; De Falco 2018: 8–9). Their song ‘Tammuriata dell’Alfasud’ (1976) describes the experience of disorientation and, then, dawning horror when they started working at the Alfasud factory and realised how monotonous, dangerous and exploitative the work was. The conflict between the northern Italian management and the southern Italian workers is made explicit in the song through the delivery in a northern accent of the manager’s threat about them having no other means of sustenance. As they explained in the documentary Il sogno dei Zezi (Bellasalma and Guadagno 2009), they formed a musical and theatrical group, taking inspiration from the folk traditions of street performers singing what the peasantry called zezi, but transforming the genre to sing about their own lives and to call for political action. Their music came from the coalface, and eventually the group included students as well as unemployed people. It became the soundtrack of protests they were involved in, and the music itself was interspersed with the sound of those protests.

These proletarian legacies of protest were of direct inspiration to the street vendors I was working with around Piazza Garibaldi. They were tied up with their experiences of work, whether or not they had been born in Napoli or employed in the city’s factories, which started to close down from the mid-1980s, creating further waves of unemployment and hardship. Titti’s father, who helped out on the family stall, Eddy Pell, at Poggioreale market, had worked for Alfasud and was now retired. Gennaro and Alfonso, who had been self-employed since leaving school at 11, had long been involved in social movements such as the Precari Bros union, which acted on behalf of the city’s unemployed. Piazza Garibaldi also had a historic reputation as a ‘working-class piazza’ because of the active presence of trade unions and anti-racist groups there, and its popularity as a place to hold protests (Dines 2012: 183). The experiences and actions of migrant street vendors forcefully interrogated, and claimed a part in framing and articulating, the relations of power in these struggles. Many of the Senegalese migrants I worked with – such as Samba – had worked in factories in northern Italy and came south to work as street vendors only when they were made redundant. I was also moved to meet an older Senegalese street vendor who had been in North America in the early 1990s. He told me that he had a stall at the market on 125th street in Harlem that City Hall tried, and eventually managed, to shut down following organised action on the part of the African American and black migrant vendors from Africa and the Caribbean (Stoller 1992). As Nick Dines has shown, there is a history of anti-racist organisations collaborating with Piazza Garibaldi vendors to approach the administration that precedes the events of 2012 (2012: 200). Many of the West African and Neapolitan vendors were involved in migrant groups such as Napoli’s Senegalese Association, and anti-racist groups such as A3f or Garibaldi 101. Omar, the president of Napoli’s Senegalese Association in 2012, was a cultural mediator and activist who had previously been a street vendor. In the 1970s, the Zezi of the Alfasud factory combined folk memory with proletarian experience and the struggles of the unemployed and students. This notion of organising across boundaries in Napoli adapted as the city was transformed by the advent of mass migration in the following decades.

When it came to street markets, City Hall had long operated a tactic of what Roediger and Esch (2014) have termed ‘race management’, by offering out licensed market spaces and opportunities for work on a nationally and racially differentiated basis. The creation of Via Bologna market as an African market in the early 2000s was a concession to the large numbers of migrant vendors wanting licenced market spaces, and was designed to keep them out of legitimate market spaces in the rest of the city (D’Alessandro 2008). A number of Neapolitan street vendors had exclusively won the right to operate market stalls along the busy thoroughfares around Piazza Garibaldi since the 1990s. However, in 2012 a shopping mall combined with a metro station was being built around the city’s main railway station in front of Piazza Garibaldi as part of a long-term regeneration process that was intended to redesign Napoli as a popular tourist location. As part of this, in August 2011, the new city administration, headed by Mayor Luigi de Magistris, evicted twenty Neapolitan vendors from their spots on the pavement around the edge of the piazza in order to make the area more appealing to tourists. These evicted vendors refused to move to the alternative spots assigned to them and some of them were setting up informally on Via Bologna when I started the research in January 2012. The official plan was to integrate them into a rejuvenated and redeveloped ‘multicultural’ Via Bologna market, which was to be called ‘Napoliamo Road’ (Zagaria 2011). However, instead of facilitating this redevelopment, Via Bologna market vendors, both Neapolitan and migrant, were accused of selling contraband and failing to pay taxes and licence fees, and City Hall temporarily closed down the market.

The emergency created by the rapidly diminishing legitimate and licensed street market spaces around the piazza offered an opportunity for transcultural collective action to emerge between Neapolitans and migrants. This happened in a context of economic deprivation in the city that predated, and was exacerbated by, the wider geopolitical context of austerity and the so-called migration crisis. A number of widely publicised suicides and suicide attempts, in the city and across the country, brought to the fore the suffering of the street vendors. Laments about the city being dead or dying formed the background to their struggle. The rubbish piling up in the streets, an issue that has given Napoli some infamy (Saviano 2006), came to symbolise the street vendors’ sense of neglect and abandonment by the State. Their livelihoods were dying and, like the rubbish, they were being left to rot.

The Via Bologna street vendors took on, reformulated and transformed narratives about crisis, death and decay, in Napoli and globally, in order to protect the possibilities for work that they had carved out for themselves. Particular sorts of dialogical speech genre – typical statements that drew on locally significant narratives about death and dying, as well talk of rights and justice that took inspiration from the language of trade unionism and anti-racist politics – framed the way in which vendors struggled to find a way to keep their market stalls open. This politics of local solidarity was, by necessity, multilingual and multicultural, as well as fraught with ambivalent multiaccentualities and cross-purposes. Their use and adaptation of antihegemonic talk, and their efforts to translate this across cultural divides, echoed Glissant’s assertion that multilingual linguistic exchange was key to understanding social struggle and political transformation.

As such, the struggle for Via Bologna offered an opportunity to think about the relations of force that could emerge amongst people subjected to unequal and differential legal and economic statuses – people who also spoke different languages, followed different religions, and had different political visions and group interests – but found themselves attempting to transcend these differences and work together to survive. This spoke back against prevalent postracial discourses (Gilroy 2012; Goldberg 2009; Lentin 2014) that have tried to collapse complex transnational and heterogenenous social inequalities – and the possibility of overcoming them through collective action – into questions of class struggle, poverty and economic entitlement. Instead, an ambiguous, Gramscian-inspired, transcultural and multiethnic ‘local-popular’ emerged amongst the Via Bologna street vendors that was capable of speaking back to power.

Napoli is rubbish, Napoli is dying

Napoli is dead.

This is burnt earth.

The only thing left for us to do here is die.

A preoccupation with talking about Napoli as full of rubbish, dying and decaying was so common amongst the people I spoke to during my research that I eventually came to paraphrase such discussions as the ‘Napoli is dead conversation’ in my field notes. When I asked them to tell me a bit more about what that meant, they referred as much to political corruption, urban mismanagement and the municipal neglect of the city’s precarious workforce as to actual piles of rubbish on the pavement. It was also a key way in which they articulated their own sense of exclusion and rejection as if they, too, were rubbish. This fear was a very real prospect from their perspective on the edge of a Mediterranean where necropolitics availed itself of the right to kill people who had been excluded from humanity and were considered disposable (Mbembe 2019). However, discussion about being considered disposable was not an expression of despair, but a way in which people sought to articulate the wider political and economic structures weighing down on them and other subaltern people. Over the course of the fieldwork, it became a way of talking that formed the bedrock of social struggles vying to overcome the fate assigned to them.

The cohabitation with imaginaries of death and disposability was also important to Napoli’s particular story of modernity, where outbreaks of contagious illness had connected to urban deprivation; colonialism; and migration into, and out of, the city. Epidemic disease had regularly swept through the deprived portion of the population, leading to the description of Napoli as a ‘living cemetery’ (Snowden 1995: 5). The images of skulls throughout the city, and the skeleton shrines, such as Fontanelle Cemetery in the Sanità neighbourhood, testify to a history where high mortality rates were palliated by a fusion of Catholic and pagan ritual. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cholera arrived in the port of Napoli via colonial trade with South Asia. Returning Italian emigrants and foreigners were blamed for the epidemic, which was fatal predominantly for people who were unable to nourish themselves adequately.

Rubbish, disease and death came to be politicised in Napoli as far back as the election of Antonio Bassolino as mayor of Napoli in 1993. In the wake of the Mani pulite investigations (Operation Clean Hands), which revealed the scale of political corruption across the country and particularly in the region of Campania, he worked on transforming and renewing public space in Napoli by cleaning up rubbish, stopping illegal parking and reopening previously closed monuments. The idea, as in 2012, was to transform Napoli into a tourist destination in the wake of postwar deindustrialisation, which had created massive issues of unemployment. This devastation had been compounded by a cholera epidemic, a huge earthquake and a rise in violence associated with the Camorra (Pine 2012: 6). Under Rosa Russo Iervolino’s mayorship, from 2001 to 2011, the city was beset by a rubbish crisis that made international news. On two occasions, in 2008 and 2011, the army was called in to clear rubbish from the streets. The region’s waste sites were full because, for many years, the Camorra had been dumping toxic industrial waste there (BBC 2014). Luigi de Magistris, a former public prosecutor who had focused on bringing to light the links between the mafia and politicians, was elected mayor in 2011. As well as dealing with the inherited waste problem, he promised to crack down on illegality and bring about a new rebirth of the city, again through the encouragement of tourism. When it came to the question of illegality de Magistris particularly highlighted the street markets around Piazza Garibaldi as problematic. He had positioned himself as politically left-wing, anti-racist and pro migrant rights. In a public speech given at the beginning of his mandate, he clarified that:

It’s not about … marginalising street vendors, migrants or anyone else. Above all, it’s about offering them dignity as well by creating appropriate locations; important markets; and markets that are true, authentic and multiethnic. But Napoli cannot have, as a gateway to the city, Piazza Garibaldi reduced to its current state. (de Magistris 2011, translated by the author)

This stated position was repeatedly revealed to be untenable as regeneration processes forged ahead and market spots started rapidly diminishing.

Street markets were central to the formation of interconnected conceptualisations of death, disease, decay, migration and urban governance. This was because markets were visible signs of the threat of worklessness and precariousness. They were public spaces of interaction with migrants and the poor, both of whom had historically been associated with the spread of disease. The mess that markets could leave behind at the end of the working day evoked further fears of contamination, dirt, decay and degradation. The problems experienced by street vendors in Napoli during my research showed how economic anxieties, which made a scapegoat of both immigration and ineffective urban government, were still tightly interlinked with phantasmagoria of disease, death and decay in the city. At the same time, these associations amongst rubbish, disease and political corruption infused the ways in which my research participants articulated fear for their futures and their frustrations with the urban administration. When he was asked to take photos of what Napoli meant to him, one of my field participants, Gennaro, brought me a series of images of rubbish against a backdrop of street markets and the protests he regularly attended as a member of the Precari Bros, a union that represented the unemployed and underemployed (see Figure 18). These images were juxtaposed with photos of the migrants working next to or hanging out around his market stall, whom he described as both comrades in the daily struggle of survival and a threat to his livelihood.

Alongside worries about rubbish, street markets, and attendant efforts to regenerate public space in the city in 2012, the international media was writing about a suicide epidemic that was spreading across Italy as people lost their jobs and small businesses had to close down as a result of austerity (Vogt 2012). These stories and events circulated, becoming entangled with pre-existing narratives about death, disposability and crisis. I remember a discussion with Salvatore, a doorman for one of the luxury apartment blocks on Corso Umberto, telling me how shaken he was about a fellow doorman, further down the road, who had committed suicide after he lost his job. He told me this should never be the solution and that people should always try to go on. He insisted that there were always ways to find pleasure in life, even when the going was hard. He said you could have spaghetti with clams after New Year when the clams were cheaper, and you could always go to relax at the beach for a day. Talking about this sad death was a way in which he talked about precariousness and surviving in the face of suffering.

In Neapolitan street markets suicide was both something tragic that was really happening to people, and a metaphor through which ideas about death, threats to livelihood, disease, migration and governance could be discussed, explored and negotiated. One day in late May I was walking to Via Bologna to do fieldwork when I came across a terrible scene unfolding in the parallel street, Via Torino (see Figure 19).

The assembled crowd were staring up at a man hanging half in and half out of a seventh-floor window of the CGIL trade union building. The police were already in attendance and had blown up a suicide balloon, which was standing like a quivering, red, bouncy castle on the pavement outside the building. A Neapolitan man commented to me that, ‘people are desperate’, his mouth turning down at the corners as he shook his head in disgust. I went over to greet a Senegalese friend from Via Bologna market. He was immersed in an argument with a group of West African men in French about what would happen if the man hanging out of the window was a migrant. One tall, very thin man angrily declaimed, ‘If he was an immigrant they would push him out the window! They would put him in prison!’ His friend protested that, ‘It’s not true! This isn’t the jungle here!’, to which his interlocutor responded, ‘The jungle is better than here.’ I moved over to greet an activist friend, who sarcastically asked me whether things could get any worse than this. Serigne arrived from Via Bologna, clasping the camera I had given him for my research project. He took a series of photos, of which Figure 19 is an example. Everyone around us was asking each other whether the man at the window was foreign or Italian. Eventually he consented to being pulled back inside the building. Everyone on the pavement, and those watching out of surrounding windows and balconies, clapped and cheered, and eventually started to disperse.

The unofficial discussions taking place amongst the spectators in front of the CGIL spoke of the ways in which the realities of death and disposability were abstracted dialogically through interactive and reciprocal social interests and experiences in Napoli. The fact that such an act of desperation could come to stand for multiple and intersecting instances of suffering and struggle on the part of both Neapolitan citizens and African migrants raised the possibility of some sort of Glissantian Relation identity amongst the Piazza Garibaldi local-popular that was being articulated through an opaque, chaotic and shifting multilingual togetherness. Whilst the streets around Piazza Garibaldi were being reconfigured as a tourist paradise of sanitised leisure shopping, the subversive, carnivalesque potential of the market informed the resistant strategies of the local people who were being pushed out. But, as with all instances of the carnivalesque, the attempts to recode the relations of dominance failed to do away completely with inequalities of power resulting in the painful reincorporation of racialised and gendered hierarchies.

The ideological content of the spectators’ dialogic reasoning manifested itself in their sarcastic and impassioned talk about death, suicide and its relationship to wider social structures. The imagined possibility of being pushed out of the window to fall to your death, the wry and embittered manipulation of the idea of the jungle and civility, and the eloquent exhortations about this being a sign of generalised desperation were all subtle ways in which subordinated groups of people sought to speak back to power. The different verbal strategies of the Piazza Garibaldi local-popular demonstrated the ways that race and racism met contextually situated imaginaries of death, dying and human waste to inform the potential for collective subaltern ideologies and, possibly, action across racialised, transcultural boundaries. These dialogical processes were often contingent and ambiguous in their ambitions. Utopian imaginings always contained the possibility for the creation of further hierarchies and subordination.

The day after the suicide attempt at the CGIL trade union, the city woke up to an unusual spectacle along the main arteries of the city centre (see Figure 20). Overnight, an unknown group of political activists had stuffed white boiler suits with newspaper, stuck balloons in the hoods to mimic faces, and hung the resulting ‘bodies’ by the neck from trees and lamp posts across the city. The ‘bodies’ had signs around their necks saying things like ‘worker’, ‘pensioner’, ‘woman’ and ‘immigrant’, thus representing the groups of people who were being literally disposed of as a result of austerity politics and immigration policy.

In these episodes, the arresting spectacle of a hanging – redolent of both suicide and historic forms of public punishment – acted as a commentary and protest about the urgent state of the current historical conjuncture. A few days after the event at Via Torino, the antihegemonic commentary provided by the migrant and Neapolitans who gathered to see what would happen at the CGIL was echoed and reconfigured by the unknown group of activists. A lament of death coalesced into a wider human-rights discussion, and the language of the streets was taken up and organised by people working for social and political transformation.

The struggle for Via Bologna

In the midst of all this, City Hall evicted a number of licensed Neapolitan street vendors from Piazza Garibaldi and was threatening to close the licensed market at Via Bologna on the grounds that vendors were breaking the law by selling contraband merchandise. Mayor de Magistris, who had widespread support on the city’s anti-racist scene because of his claimed anti-racist and anticapitalist politics, was accused of sacrificing his professed pro-migrant solidarity in pursuit of a punishing ideology of legality, law and order that was being pushed for by the centrist members of his administration (Chetta 2012; Cervasio 2012; Sannino 2012).1 Neapolitan and migrant vendors had to work together, across boundaries of language, culture, religion, race and citizenship in order to organise collectively and protect their jobs. To do so they developed, and deployed, multilingual forms of political talk about death and about rights in collaboration with the city’s anti-racist groups and trade unions. The following is an account of events that took place between February and May 2012 as the market was facing closure and, eventually, won the right to stay open.

Talk of death, dying and decay

The following transcript of a conversation between Gennaro and myself shows how talk about Napoli dying enabled him to express disillusionment and frustration with the process he and the other vendors were going through, after they had been evicted from their historic places around Piazza Garibaldi and not offered suitable new spots. At this time Gennaro, and a few of the other Neapolitan vendors, who had lost their spots, had set up a stall temporarily within Via Bologna market, where this conversation took place. The hopes that had been raised by a demonstration and meeting with town councillors a week or so before had now been dashed by the recent announcement that the Neapolitans couldn’t return to their original spots and had not been assigned anywhere new. They had requested a new meeting with the mayor, which had been refused.

Gennaro: It all looks black to me … completely black.

Me: How do you mean?

Gennaro: It’s just that … I dunno … that Neapolitans say ‘Napoli is dying!’ But it can’t die, you know? In the meetings I’ve had with various councillors I’ve told them, ‘look, I’m willing to roll my sleeves up, to work, for this city, even in the cold, so that we can rise out of this situation where “Napoli is decadent”, “Napoli is dirty”, “no one cleans Napoli”, “Napoli can’t fight back”’. ‘Let’s do this!’, I tell them. Even if it does my head in. Even if I have to roll my sleeves up. And then after all the talking [the discussions about where to move their stalls to] there’s nothing, despite all we’ve tried to do. It has no value. So I’m not doing it [moving the stall to the proposed new site] because I would kill myself with work for … nothing. You see?

Talk about Napoli as dying was a way in which Gennaro condemned the urban management of market spaces, and struggled against his own marginalisation. He often echoed de Magistris in discussions about the city dying and needing to be reborn, but emphasising the role of marginalised figures like Gennaro himself and other street vendors in this renaissance. On another occasion he said to me, ‘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?’

In Gennaro’s political vision, the rebirth of a dying city was interwoven with his own reintegration into a renewed and thriving economy. His painful exclusion from the dignity of work was part and parcel of Napoli’s marginalised and decaying status. He spoke frequently about the painful and mortifying experience of negotiating with city councillors.

Gennaro: You know Narducci [a councillor, later removed from his post] went to Piazza Carità and saw all those stalls that had been nicely done up – because they weren’t ugly. He went up to one of the historic vendors there and said, ‘Can I tell you something? These stalls make me sick.’ He’s got it in for the street vendors! He can’t stand them. You see? You go up to a vendor to humiliate him … When I asked him [Narducci], the first time we met in City Hall, about whether the vendors might get their places back, do you know what he did?

Omar: Hmmm …

Gennaro: [He put his index fingers in his ears as Narducci had.] ‘What’s that? I can’t hear you!’

Omar: Yes, I was there. When you said, ‘Us ten want to go back in front of the station’, he did that. He was standing up over all of us, sitting down.

Gennaro’s discussion of death and dying protested not only the lack of opportunities for work in the city but also the offended dignity and threatened autonomy of street vendors who were being humiliated and vilified by City Hall. These kinds of speech formed part of a ‘formulaic corpus’ (Hewitt 1986: 8) about ideology and action through which he articulated common interests and ideas for collective struggle amongst the vendors at Via Bologna market.

Gennaro and his cousin Alfonso tried multiple tactics to ensure that they retain their livelihood during the market upheaval. As well as joining the African vendors from Via Bologna, they also collaborated with a group of Neapolitan vendors who had been evicted from spots around the city. They were working with the CGIL trade union and the A3f activist group as part of a petition that was separate from the organisation taking place at Via Bologna market. One morning I joined Gennaro, Alfonso and the twelve other displaced Neapolitan street vendors at a small protest outside City Hall. They were surrounded by a Precari Bros occupation, a representative of A3f and a representative from the CGIL union called Enzo. Enzo had attempted to arrange a meeting with the mayor and had been refused; the group were depressed and angry. They emerged without having achieved their objectives and the depressed atmosphere darkened significantly. Together the group discussed possible strategies, including an assembly at the CGIL with the mayor. One elderly street vendor, who had sold CDs and reading materials around Piazza Garibaldi for over two decades, said that if an assembly happened he would tell the mayor, ‘You’re a wanker!’ Enzo responded that he shouldn’t speak like that, or he would get thrown out. The old man got angry and shouted, ‘I’ll say things how they are: you’re a wanker, you’re a shithead!’ We all laughed. He continued, ‘Can’t I just kill him? He’s killed me, so why can’t I kill him?

Here, again, the trope of life and death was used in order to conceptualise and articulate the struggle the vendors were facing. The stream of insults proposed by the old man was an important form of release for the suppressed rage and frustration that he and his colleagues were feeling. The man’s use of profanities was not intended to be expressed outside their circle but was meant as a tool for organising their rage in a situation where it was necessary for them to be much more strategic and dialogical about how they petitioned City Hall for their jobs.

Rights talk

At other times the vendors’ rights talk seemed to take inspiration from the language of trade unionism and anti-racist politics, which was testament to Piazza Garibaldi’s long reputation as a site of political protest and collective action for workers and migrants. The events surrounding the struggle for Via Bologna in 2012 were given form and support through collaborations between the street vendors and a range of groups, from the CGIL trade union to the Precari Bros unemployed movement, small migrant rights charities such as Garibaldi 101 and migrant associations such as Napoli’s Senegalese Association. The language that came to be utilised by street vendors to articulate their struggle, and address powerful institutions, was revelatory of the ways in which a local-popular could emerge through experiences of direct oppression that were fed upwards into wider networks, crossing classes, and national, racialised and linguistic boundaries.

Towards the end of January 2012, a joint march around Piazza Garibaldi organised by the Senegalese Association and the street vendors culminated in a meeting with a group of city councillors. Omar attended on behalf of the African vendors on Via Bologna market, and Gennaro attended on behalf of the displaced Neapolitan vendors from around Piazza Garibaldi. I was not allowed to join them for these negotiations but was told afterwards they had received reassurances that Via Bologna was not under threat of closure. They were told that the Italians who had been evicted would be given priority when applying for new spots in licensed street markets. I went to greet them at Riccardo’s shop on Via Bologna the day after the march. Serigne and Gennaro were there, chatting amicably, and Gennaro told Serigne that they had done the right thing by joining forces and marching on City Hall en masse. ‘It is appropriate’, he said jubilantly, ‘that the rights of all the historic street vendors around Piazza Garibaldi have been recognised’. He then continued, ‘It’s also right that City Hall gives new people a chance to get by’, referring to the new market spots that had been mentioned in the meeting.

Gennaro, knowledgeable about the mores of both political discourse and action, took the lead in this conversation about the recent march and meeting. He defined two important social actors in the street vending landscape: historic street vendors and aspiring street vendors, drawn together by the need to ‘get by’. The verb he actually used was campare, which means to survive, subsist, or get by as well as possible. He was thus connecting the political actions of the dispossessed vendors to the dignified and quasi-political logic of making a living in conditions of worklessness and precariousness. This needs to be understood against a history of City Hall managing street vendors differentially through what Roediger and Esch (2014) have termed ‘race management’, offering out market spaces and opportunities for work on a nationally and racially differential basis. Gennaro’s celebratory comments reflected a strategy for concerted action that was transcultural and explicitly worked against attempts to divide by race and nationality.

However, at other times the political language of Gennaro and the other Neapolitan vendors functioned to flatten out the differential power dynamics between the Neapolitans and the migrants. This amounted to a denial of the pernicious effects of racism and a refusal to think about collective struggle as also being about providing cover to people who were standing alongside you but experiencing a different set of oppressive circumstances. Only a week after the jubilant conversation I have recounted, it became clear that City Hall were not following through on their promise. Two of the Neapolitan vendors, Gennaro and Alfonso, became suspicious that they were being double-crossed by their African colleagues. They confronted Omar about this.

Gennaro: Omar, just tell it to me in Italian because you speak Italian well. I still understand a bit of Italian … What got said last Tuesday? They said that Via Bologna market will stay as it is and there will be the opportunity to reapply for the spots, but giving priority to those who have been there for all these years. Then, if there are other spots available within Via Bologna, we get priority for those spots.

Omar tried to explain that the situation was more complicated for the African vendors – that they were in this situation because of systematic discrimination over many years and on a number of different levels.

Omar: Look, immigrants … the vendor licences of these vendors here got regularised ten years ago. People buy their vendor licences but are discriminated against still. In this country!

Gennaro: Discrimination? But that’s even between us, you get me?

It is interesting that Omar – the left-wing migrant activist – got positioned as having the ear of the city’s political elite, expressed through the accusation that he was able to speak Italian. This was one of the ways in which the Neapolitan vendors insisted on presenting the struggle through a lens that relativised the experience of injustice, with a Glissantian linguistic analogy of an authoritative ‘vehicular’ national language undermining a subaltern and powerless speaker of ‘vernacular’ dialect (Glissant 1997: 118–119, 143). The slippages in Gennaro’s speech between ‘racial denial’ and a call for class-focused politics were made possible by the emergence of postrace discourses that reduced and simplified the struggle to reactive modalities (Goldberg 2009: 192).

At this point relations between the West African street vendors in the market, represented by Omar, and the Neapolitan street vendors were becoming strained. Although much of the interaction was delivered in a joking tone of voice, as often happened on Neapolitan pavements, humour was a verbal strategy that signalled openly identifiable threats. Dialect was often used in this way to make a point about differential status and positionality between Neapolitans and migrants and as part of the performance of a gangster or guappo masculinity with its attendant capacities for violence. Relations between Omar, Gennaro and Alfonso continued to sour. A week or so later I was again standing with Gennaro and Alfonso by their stalls when Omar passed by. The two men called for Omar to stop for a minute and Gennaro asked him why they hadn’t been invited to the last meeting with City Hall. Omar seemed irritated by their questioning and wearily explained that this was an Anti-Racist Forum meeting to do with the refugee situation in the hotels. Gennaro angrily interrogated, ‘refugees and …?’ Omar, looking at him strangely, and responded, ‘Just for the refugees.’ Gennaro snapped back that, ‘You see, I thought you were about to say something else: ‘refugees and r-a-cism’. Omar repeated again that the recent meeting had been organised by the Anti-Racist Forum and was nothing to do with the markets. Gennaro shouted at him, making his position completely explicit: ‘There’s just one race: the political race!’ Omar nodded understandingly, and slightly resignedly, and told us he had to go. Gennaro and Alfonso asked him when he would be back to talk, and Omar responded, ‘After six thirty’. ‘After six months?!’, shouted Alfonso in disbelief. I explained that he had misheard. ‘No, six months sounds about right’, responded Alfonso sarcastically.

This scene was revelatory of the growing paranoia affecting the relationship of Gennaro and Alfonso with Omar, whom the African street vendors within Via Bologna were all deferring to on the matter. Omar was involved with numerous struggles at this time, including Via Bologna and the so-called migrant crisis that had been proclaimed in the wake of the Arab Spring and the collapse of the Italy–Libya migration agreement. Again Gennaro made a plea for a common alliance using a language of class struggle that refused to recognise the stratifying effects of racism. I knew, from discussions with both Omar and Serigne at the time, that they were growing frustrated with, and distrustful of, Gennaro and Alfonso because of their constant manoeuvres between different campaigning groups, some of whom they did not wish to affiliate themselves with. For their part, Gennaro and Alfonso felt that the African vendors were closing ranks against them. I also found myself in the middle of this, with demands from Gennaro and Alfonso about the whereabouts of Omar and Serigne and what they were planning. I was both a fellow Italian and an outsider to them, and they knew of my connections to the people helping them in the anti-racist scene. Serigne asked me to not report anything to them but to try and let things just play out. I tried to manage the awkward position I found myself occupying in this dispute by not commenting on what they said to me, although this occasionally generated more discord. Following another row between Gennaro and Omar outside Riccardo’s shop, Riccardo asked me why I said nothing. I told him I was just listening, and he laughed at me scornfully. I said to him that it would be nice if there could be greater solidarity amongst all of us and he told me, with a wide smile, ‘It’s culture, it’s society.’

Facing the crackdown together

These intersubjective tensions amongst street vendors were then brought into sharp focus by a number of interventions into the market made by the media and the city’s police forces in partnership with City Hall.

One day in early March the market was interrupted by the impromptu arrival of a reporter and videographer from an Italian news-and-current-affairs programme called Striscia la notizia. They started speaking with two officers of the Vigilanza Urbana, which represented the branch of the police force responsible for urban management. A shiver of fear snaked up the whole road, and people started whispering frantically to each other, thinking that these men might be linked to the Finanza, the branch of law enforcement that dealt with matters of fraud. Alfonso, having casually walked over to eavesdrop on the two intruders, immediately enlisted the help of a local Neapolitan to pick up his stall and run as fast as possible away from the unfolding action. Everyone else started shoving any contraband items they might have into large bags, closing their stalls up or covering everything with a cloth.

Initially the reporter circulated amongst the migrant and Italian vendors at the Piazza Garibaldi end of the market, asking to see vendor licences and sales receipts. He homed in on two migrant vendors from Guinea-Conakry and Senegal. On reaching Assane, the Guinean street vendor, the reporter shoved the microphone towards him and shouted, ‘Have you got a vendor permit? Show me your visa documents!’ Assane stuttered incoherently, holding the palms of his hands up to the man who immediately turned to face the camera and said, ‘As you can see, no one here has a permit. This is an illegal market.’ He then approached Pap, an elderly Senegalese street vendor, asking the same question. He, too, stuttered and was unable to respond, clearly from nerves. Comfort walked up to interrupt him and told him, ‘People here are just trying to survive.’ The reporter simply snapped back, ‘Where is your permit? Where are your visa papers?’ Omar arrived, and Alfonso, having returned from hiding his stall, asked him what on earth was happening. Meanwhile, the reporter started interviewing an Italian vendor who, unlike all the other street vendors on Via Bologna, had already managed to obtain a vendor permit on Via Bologna. This, in and of itself, marked him out as suspicious. Many vendors were suggesting to me at the time that he knew important people, or had struck some kind of deal in order to legitimise his presence in the market ahead of everyone else. These suspicions were further raised by the ease with which he welcomed, and delivered his speech to, the reporter, as if he had been expecting him.

I approached Assane and asked him if he was OK. I told him, ‘Next time you say “no comment”. It means you refuse to speak.’ A Neapolitan man standing next to me added that, ‘“No comment” is universal language nowadays.’ The interviews with Assane and the Senegalese vendor made it into the final online video, published on Striscia’s YouTube page (Striscia Napoli 2012). As the video shows, both vendors had trouble understanding and responding in Italian to the journalist, and the sound of canned laughter was superimposed over their conversation to highlight this, and so provide a moment of racist humour and mockery. Assane and Pap’s features were blurred, but the face of the Neapolitan vendor interviewed was not, a technique that was further suggestive of their purported undocumented and criminal status. The soundtrack of the video was ‘He’s a pirate’ from the score of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Cure of the Black Pearl, a further attempt to emphasise the market as unruly, lawless and threatening.

Meanwhile, all around us could be heard the frantic whisper that, ‘Finanza are coming, Finanza are coming!’ Before I was even aware of it, the Chinese-owned shops along the back of the market had slammed shut the metallic security gates of their shop-fronts. Suddenly five police cars, with ‘Finanza’ emblazoned along the side, screeched down the middle of the market, having presumably removed the pedestrian barrier at the back entrance. They stopped at the midway point of Via Bologna and we saw two black men get bundled into the back seat of one before the line of cars, blue lights flashing, sped off again. This was all filmed by the dynamic reporter and his cameramen as we watched in horror.

At this point I decided to approach the journalist and his cameraman, who were again standing at the head of the market, and introduce myself. I told them I was wondering what they were doing there. The reporter responded that they were putting together a report for Striscia la notizia about illegal markets and contraband in Napoli. I then explained that I was doing a research project about the market. The reporter asked me, ‘Are you a journalist?’ ‘A researcher’, I told him. He then asked me, ‘Are you Neapolitan?’ Failing to see the relevance of this, I evasively responded, ‘Half half’. He stared at me suspiciously for a few seconds and then, feeling intimidated, I thanked him and left.

In the palpable relief that followed the departure of the journalist and the police I went to see if Omar and my other research participants further up the street were OK. As we talked about the fate of the two Nigerian vendors, we speculated whether the whole thing had been set up. We discussed the claims, being made publicly by members of the city’s anti-racist scene and assessors in City Hall in journalistic interviews, that the Assessor for Legality, Giuseppe Narducci, and Head of the Municipal Police, Luigi Sementa, were working against Mayor de Magistris’ stated claim to support the continuation of Via Bologna market by creating and amplifying the moral panic about its existence as a threat to legality and public order (Chetta 2012; Cervasio 2012).

The special treatment that was reserved for the city’s only ‘migrant’ market was demonstrative of the ways in which migrant street vendors had historically been presented as a key social problem in Italy. Moreover, it also demonstrated the ways in which black migrant street vendors and the sale of contraband had been presented as a key social problem in Italy. The journalist Pino Grazioli explained that his team were investigating illegal markets and the sale of contraband, even though Via Bologna was certainly not illegal or unauthorised at that time, whether or not some of the vendors might have been selling a bit of contraband on the side or had omitted to pay the entirety of the taxes they owed. It is therefore possible to consider his comments as defamatory. Given that it was well known that fake merchandise was also being sold in the new market at Porta Capuana around the corner, where the street vendors were all Neapolitan, it is important to question why Via Bologna market was targeted so aggressively. The majority were able to reopen their stalls following the market’s reorganisation, suggesting that the vendors at Via Bologna had been largely scrupulous in their business practice.

However, during the discussion we had following the raid, Riccardo told Omar that he should stop doing protests against racism because ‘there is no racism’. ‘We should protest about these kinds of corruption’, he asserted. Instead of recognising the ways in which African vendors were being specifically targeted by the authorities, different hierarchies of oppression, to do with race, legal status and linguistic aptitude were reduced to a question of the powerful against the powerless. Riccardo, who had a bit of a literary bent, turned to me and said, ‘This is the time of the spider, Antonia, and we are the mosquitoes in the net.’

The street vendors deployed a number of strategies in order to protect and defend themselves against this onslaught. The first of these was the tactical use of silence and stuttering used by Assane and Pap. This ‘linguistic veiling’ was a key protective strategy that had historically been used by the powerless in the face of oppression. However, it was only partially successful. Whilst it protected the two vendors from further scrutiny, it also left them vulnerable to racist mockery, as highlighted in the video (Scott 1990: 2–26). Humiliation worked together with terror in the performance of dominance that took place. Others chose more direct approaches that relied on talk of death and dying as a political strategy, allowing people to claim a right to survive. Comfort made such an exhortation about the vendors’ desperation and need to survive. I myself tried to hold the journalist to account by asking him what he was doing there. We were, of course, both ignored and brushed aside. Our interventions did not make it into the final video. These dialogical and strategic responses revealed the rebellious imaginative capacity of people who had to be very careful about how they face power.

In the following weeks a number of attempts were made by the police to close the market down. One morning I arrived at Via Bologna to find Serigne in a state of high agitation. He told me some police officers had shown up at the market at 8 a.m. with an order to close the market down because it was ‘illegal’. Upon inspection, it appeared this order was from the year 2000, before the market had even been regularised and when it was, indeed, illegal, or unregulated. The officers were asked who had given these orders, and what their identification numbers were, but refused to give any information and abruptly left.

At that point all the street vendors were going through the process of reapplying for their spots within the market, ahead of the deadline specified by City Hall. Serigne and Omar were working together to make sure that everyone’s documentation was in order. As well as being in possession of a work visas, identity cards and vendor licences, they needed to prove that they had paid the relevant local and national taxes. As this had all been decided rather abruptly, and it was a time of year that many vendors were visiting family back home, this was creating significant bureaucratic difficulties for everyone involved. Omar told me that he felt they had no choice but to play the bureaucratic game for now. The short notice that had been given for the applications process revealed the way in which institutions made it difficult for people to complete tricky bureaucratic processes on time, even when they were eligible and had completed all the necessary requirements. This was a key way in which hegemony worked at local and national levels.

A week later, I got to Via Bologna to discover that the market had been shut down by police the previous day. They didn’t have an order this time but explained that Via Bologna had to be closed until the market was reorganised because there had been complaints about the sellling of contraband there. Omar and Enzo, the representative from the CGIL trade union, had arrived on the scene as it was happening, and demanded to see an official eviction notice. The police officer they approached responded by asking to see Omar’s visa. Enzo protested that this was unethical, and the officer promptly threw him to the ground and dragged him along the pavement. Then both Omar and Enzo were arrested, only to be released without charge a few hours later. The atmosphere when I arrived was tense, with a significant police presence and the vendors sitting around helplessly.

Omar then arrived with Serigne, having come from City Hall, where they had tried and failed to obtain a meeting with the mayor or any other councillor. Word was passed round for all the vendors to gather in front of Riccardo’s shop. Omar told those assembled that there was going to be a protest in front of City Hall the following morning. He spoke first in Wolof and then in Italian, asking them to make sure they were on time and to bring their children. The group of vendors that crowded round Omar to seek guidance were Senegalese, Guinean, Nigerian, Egyptian and Italian. They were Italian nationals, documented migrants and undocumented migrants with little hope of regularising their status (see Figure 21). The practical decision to communicate in two languages marked a turning point in the nature of the struggle. Not only was it clearly time for direct, organised, political action to be taken, but this action had to be collective and would take the form of a multilingual ‘counterpoetic’. They would have to speak together, and on each other’s behalf, despite their different racial, class and national statuses, and despite the difficulties of communication.

The protest was organised in collaboration with a number of anti-racist groups in the city and Napoli’s Senegalese Association. Vendors were given placards to hold that had been made for them, whilst activists stood by in support. The idea was to centre the vendors’ voices and allow them to appeal directly to City Hall. A market stall was set up as a symbol of the livelihood that had been removed from them (see Figure 22). Omar started off proceedings by taking a megaphone and greeting the mayor, explaining why they were gathered there and telling him he should be ashamed about targeting migrants in this way and leaving over eighty families without money to live on. After this, different street vendors took turns with the microphone, shouting at the vacant windows of City Hall. Alfonso used his time with the mic to express his solidarity with his ‘migrant brothers’, united in struggle. He eloquently stated that they all knew their lot: they would never be able to rent a shop and so were considered lesser people. For them, he said, the market was a means of survival, and they had been messed around for months now. He told them that City Hall did not understand how business worked, and they should be working with the traders to help them find the best places to make a living. Comfort took the mic and urged them to help her and her family survive by opening up the market again.

Then Omar convinced Elijah, the 1-year-old son of one of the Nigerian vendors, to say a few words (see Figure 23). He decided to address Mayor de Magistris directly: ‘Come down here and face us. Because of you my mum can’t buy food. I was born in this country but I don’t feel welcome here. We look different but we are all equal!’ Many people started crying, and an unknown Neapolitan bystander grabbed Elijah and kissed him on the head. I went over to him to ask him if he knew the young man or his mum. He told me he had never met them before but was moved by their situation, as it mirrored his own. He was a member of the Precari Bros and told me that, since his unemployment benefits had been cut, he no longer knew how to feed his family. He told me that the previous month he had come to City Hall and tried to set fire to himself in protest.

The demonstration crystallised many of the intersecting social interests and experiences of disenfranchised people in Napoli. The kinds of spontaneous transcultural solidarity that emerged that day refused attempts to divide by race or nationality in the discovery of a common struggle, but without completely doing away with the differences in power between them. The vendors’ protest, and particularly Elijah’s furious address, appeared in all the major news outlets the following day. An unattributed quote from a member of the city’s anti-racist network accused the major of racism and migrant scapegoating:

We believe that the democratic city should offer an immediate response regarding these interventions, which are heavily redolent of racism, on the responsibilities of the Head of the Municipal Police, Luigia Sementa; of the Assessor for Legality, Giuseppe Narducci; and also of Mayor de Magistris, who should clarify with facts whether he really wants to show openness and solidarity towards migrant citizens or if he hopes to continue hiding behind the arrogant faces and truncheons of some of his employees. (Chetta 2012, translated by the author)

Mayor de Magistris took to Twitter that day to say he was offended by this accusation. However, in an interview given during this period, de Magistris is quoted as saying, ‘I am a tolerant person, but it is intolerable to see the pavements of Via Caracciolo [a pedestrianised boulevard along the seafront popular with tourists and locals] occupied by all those goods’ (Sannino 2012). This statement reveals much about the ambiguity of de Magistris’ position, as avowedly pro-migrant and anti-racist but also serving a logic of security and order that would displace, even with violence, what were seen as unruly public displays in order to encourage tourist wealth. On this occasion, the council waited until 2 April 2012 to announce that the market would ropen as a temporary fair, free of charge, until everyone’s documentation had been checked and the market could reopen on a regular basis.

Ambivalent victories

Early on in 2012 the Combonian missionary Father Alex Zanotelli wrote a public letter addressed to Mayor de Magistris entitled ‘The cry of the Neapolitan street vendor’, accusing him of fomenting war amongst the poor by pitting migrant and Neapolitan street vendors against each other in the fight for diminishing market spots. However, the efforts made by the State institutions to dismantle street markets, through the same processes of ‘race management’ that they had historically used to organise markets in the city, were undone by the actions of the street vendors in collaboration with a group of activists who rallied around them. Although migrant and Neapolitan vendors were pitted against each other in the struggle for diminishing market spaces, the events they collectively experienced at that time also worked to bring them together and forge a Gramscian-inspired transcultural local-popular capable of appropriating and rehabilitating a wider narrative about crisis, the economy and migration, and using it to speak back to power. Their use and adaptation of antihegemonic talk, and their efforts to translate this across cultural and linguistic divides, spoke to both Bakhtin and Voloshinov’s arguments about language and social change, as well as to Glissant’s assertion that multilingualism was central to political transformation in a world that had been devastated by racial violence and division. Clearly this was not a simple activity, but the product of compromise and forbearance, where genuine reciprocity, collaborative performances, rubbing alongside and bitter resentment coexisted uncomfortably together. Their politics of local solidarity was, by necessity, multilingual and multicultural in ways that were both transformative of social relations and, at the same time, deeply ambivalent.

The events at Via Bologna should be seen as a provisional victory. Imaginaries of death, dying and decay continued to inform the talk of vendors at Via Bologna after it had been officially reopened for business in May 2012. This was reflective of the ongoing difficulties vendors were facing in a depressed economy and following months of ideological warfare against the markets they worked in. I went down to Via Bologna on the day it reopened. All the vendors had been allotted numbered spaces along the road, and some were very unhappy about their new positions. The spots were also quite small, so people had to adapt their stalls and put less merchandise on show. A few of the historic vendors had lost their spots because they hadn’t paid all their taxes. This had created space for new vendors to come into the market, all Italian. There was a simmering tension and bitterness about this amongst the West African vendors. For their part, Gennaro and Alfonso were complaining about the smell of African food being cooked, and pointed out the culprits to me, saying they didn’t know how they would stand it if they had to stay in the same spot. Although they had been active members of the struggle to keep Via Bologna market open, and had argued vociferously for collaboration across transcultural boundaries at the time, the translation of these statements of solidarity into everyday collaboration was not seamless or simple to achieve.

The market continued to fail to thrive as I came to the end of my fieldwork. When I went to see the vendors there, we spoke of past struggles, old age and their belief that they didn’t have any more fight left in them. These nostalgic discourses, while seeming hopeless and melancholic, showed a continued understanding of how their struggle for work, dignity and autonomy fitted into a longer history and wider context of struggle. As such there was an edginess to their talk, where it was possible to see sparks of grim exhilaration and a willingness to keep on going. On one morning that I spent at the market, Gennaro started to tell me stories about the historic struggles to set up market stalls around Piazza Garibaldi. He told me more about the nature of the political disagreement he had had with Comfort ten years earlier. Comfort had been an important ally but they had fallen out after Via Bologna market was transformed into a legal market in 2001. She ended up with a spot within the market itself – which was designated as an African market space – but Gennaro and Alfonso were given spots around the square, where business was better. She had accused him of betrayal and they had only started speaking again ten years later. For their part they had accused her of being unreliable and failing to show up to protests as she was more interested in opening her stall than in taking time out to march and petition.

I went off to greet other people in the market and found Comfort, who decided to go and say hello to Gennaro and Alfonso with me. They commiserated about the new market organisation and then Gennaro asked her how old she was. She said, ‘I’m 52. I’m old now and I can’t take this any more.’ They nodded in agreement. She said, ‘Maybe it’s time to go home.’ Gennaro gently started to remind her about the old days, when she sold wax cloth and her son was small. She smiled in recollection and said that business was good in those days. Gennaro asked her, ‘But where did all your money go Comfort? Did you send it all home?’ Comfort mentioned that she had opened an internet café that had gone bankrupt because there was too much competition. She said that she had lost all her money on this venture. On the way home I dropped by Riccardo’s shop and asked him how things were going. ‘They’re going badly! No one is coming anywhere near this street!’ he told me. He said that the recent troubles had put people off. The dilapidated state of the market, and the heavy police presence, were also not helping. He suggested that the council had decided it was easier to starve out the market vendors instead of killing them off directly.


1Mayor de Magistris and his administration were accused of racism and hypocrisy in their treatment of the market vendors around Piazza Garibaldi and Via Bologna. Father Alex Zanotelli stated that, ‘It seems that City Hall is ashamed of the vendors’, whilst activist Antonio Esposito said that, ‘an ideological use is being made of the idea of legality that, deprived of justice, becomes an instrument of violence that serves an ideology of order and security’ (Cervasio 2012).

Race talk

Languages of racism and resistance in Neapolitan street markets


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 250 105 14
PDF Downloads 133 69 6