Rome

Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. Cosa Nostra, the "dons" of Sicily. Sacra Corona Unita, the mob of Puglia. The ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, bosses of the European cocaine trade, today the wealthiest and most violent of the Italian mafias. These are the brutal, hugely profitable criminal organizations that, as Italians say, "control the territory" in many parts of southern Italy. Meaning that they, and not the Italian state, have the monopoly of force in these outlaw regions: they dictate the rules, they supply jobs (27 percent of working Calabrians work for the ‘Ndrangheta), they even look after families in need. With guns as their rule of law, the mafias exploit and often terrorize their fellow citizens–who are reluctant to help the police fight them, in part because they have been co-opted.

So when in January scores of African migrant workers marched though the Calabrian town of Rosarno waving sticks and banners (We Are Not Animals), battering and burning cars and smashing shop windows, it came as a tremendous shock to the frightened, browbeaten locals, not to mention to the local powers that be.

The protesters were the lowest of the low: young men sleeping on grimy mattresses on the concrete floors of an abandoned factory; paid some $30 for ten to fourteen hours picking oranges and clementines, minus $7 to $8 in kickbacks to the bus driver and the caporale, the gang boss. Some were new arrivals, undocumented, from Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco; some, seasoned immigrant workers who had been turned out of their well-paying factory jobs by the economic crisis, reduced to little more than slaves as they waited for the economy to pick up again. It was one thing to earn 2 euros an hour for a job that pays 10 to 11 euros an hour on the books in other regions. But when some local thugs took potshots at them with an air gun and injured two men, the lowest of the low erupted.

Later we would learn, thanks to the enterprising nonprofit organization daSud, that these shootings were by no means the first. According to the anti-mafia activists of daSud, since 1990 a dozen African migrant workers have been shot to death in Rosarno, and hundreds have been injured–all in virtual media silence. Like Alabama or Mississippi before civil rights, this is dangerous territory for blacks.

"Opposing the clans is a matter of life and death for [the Africans]," says Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, a passionate, eloquent piece of literary reportage on the Camorra. "When it comes to the mafia, immigrants are more courageous than we are." Treated as slaves in the citrus orchards and tomato fields of the south, despised as outsiders by the racist, xenophobic Northern League, the thousands of immigrants who have moved into the lowest jobs are nonetheless challenging the balance of power in mafia-ridden southern Italy, Saviano believes. "They don’t reproduce the pre-existing criminal system–they try to demolish it." Unlike so many resigned southern Italians, they don’t automatically bow to the power of organized crime.

For this was not the first time that low-paid African workers have rebelled in southern Italy. A similar riot erupted in 2008 in Castel Volturno, another agricultural zone north of Naples, after six African men were gunned down and killed in front of a shop. Several Camorra bosses were later charged with the murders. In Rosarno, African workers had already staged a protest during the previous year’s citrus harvest, and according to reports in the Italian press the local landowners wanted to chase them from town, possibly to be replaced with more docile Romanian field hands.

And chase them away they did: the horrifying aftermath of the Rosarno rebellion was a vigilante raid by hundreds of local citizens in which four Africans were gravely injured, hundreds expelled to detention centers in other cities and their shabby living quarters instantly destroyed. The authorities are investigating whether the ‘Ndrangheta played a role in directing the attack. Disobedience on the scale of the black rebellion is certainly a direct challenge to gang supremacy. Some of the large agricultural estates on the plain here are ‘Ndrangheta-owned, and in 2008 the Rosarno town government itself was found to be mafia-infiltrated.

"In all the drama and shame of the events of Rosarno, neither the names of the producers who hire these migrant workers, nor the names of the caporali–shady figures much like the central-American ‘coyotes’–have ever emerged," noted agricultural activist Carlo Petrini of Slow Food in the days after the riots.

Meanwhile, the Berlusconi government’s reaction to the Klan-style punishment of the Africans has been chilling. Silvio Berlusconi has said not a word about the events. For Interior Minister Roberto Maroni (of the Northern League), the violence in Rosarno was the consequence of "too much tolerance."

If only there were too much. Wherever hostilities involving immigrants ignite in Italy, they are quickly fanned by reactionary political forces. In mid-February, after 19-year-old Egyptian immigrant Ahmed Aziz El-Sayed was stabbed to death by a group of South Americans in a modest, multiethnic neighborhood of Milan, North Africans rioted, smashing the windows of shops owned by Latin Americans. Although the damage was almost exclusively sustained by non-Italians, deputy mayor Riccardo De Corato immediately denounced a lawless "Wild West situation…for which the Milanese people will pay the bill." A Northern League spokesman called for the police to go house to house, expelling immigrants. The governing People of Liberty party could think of nothing better to do than to organize a demonstration in support of Milan’s "exasperated and terrified" Italian citizens. No one considered that the dead man had also deserved protection.

But when it comes to southern Italy, the tensions are made far worse by the economics of the food industry. Those clementines the Africans pick in Rosarno are simply sold too cheap, say some observers here. "With the agricultural system in a crisis worse than any we have seen in the postwar period, producers paid pennies for their produce are forced into dirty compromises, into employing a labor force that is all but enslaved," argues Petrini. "We’re all partly responsible: the landowners trying to cut costs; the food manufacturers who buy the bulk produce, process it and wash their hands of the matter; the big supermarket chains that impose whatever prices they want; and whether we are aware of it or not, we consumers are also responsible when we demand ever lower prices for our food without ever asking ourselves how they can be so low." The truth is, Petrini concludes, most of our food costs too little. We simply ought to pay more for it. "Otherwise," he warns, "we’re going to see many, many Rosarnos, here and in the rest of the world."

Not long ago, Report, a RAI-TV investigative news program, posed the question, What’s the right price to pay for, say, a can of peeled tomatoes–that price below which the entire agricultural system is damaged? How much would that staple of the Italian diet cost if the fields were not pumped with polluting fertilizers to produce monster crops, if the harvesters worked just eight hours a day and received benefits? Well above the 75 American cents the big supermarket chains here charge for that can of tomatoes, Report concluded. The "Californization" of agriculture–national markets, the impoverishment of the farm labor force, a preference for low prices over quality–is a relatively new phenomenon here and not universally accepted, for farm and culinary traditions rank high in the national identity, and Italians tend to be demanding about the quality of their food. But just as in the United States, low food prices (based on relatively low quality, scant concern for working conditions and for the environmental consequences of fertilizers, irrigation, packaging and transportation) have quickly become part of the Italian birthright, in large part because wages are chronically depressed. On the one hand, you have underpaid and unemployed Italians trying to economize at the supermarket; on the other, African laborers working at subhuman wages.

In his high-spirited new novel, Blacks Out, Vladimiro Polchi describes a catastrophic day in the near future when the 10 percent of Italy’s working population who are immigrants decide to go on strike, mostly just to remind Italians that they exist. Factories shut down, families struggle to cope without the hundreds of thousands of home helpers who clean the toilets, look after old people, baby-sit the children. Produce rots in the fields, bars and restaurants shut their doors, soccer matches are called off, even the parish priest does not show up to say Mass (some 1,500 parish priests here are foreign-born).

Such a walkout–timid this first year, perhaps, but destined to grow–has been called for March 1. It’s a first step in making those Italians who are complacent about their own rights and privileges aware that their silent, invisible immigrant counterparts have none. And it’s a way to lend Italy’s shadow workforce a little of that dignity the men of Rosarno were fighting for.