On July 29, a white Italian man beat to death Alika Ogorchukwu, a disabled Nigerian street vendor from Civitanova Marche in Italy, as bystanders looked on and merely recorded the homicide.
On finding out about Ogorchukwu’s demise, I contemplated whether to watch footage of the murder and inevitably run the risk of suffering the anguish that George Floyd’s similarly traumatic demise inflicted on my soul in May 2020.
In the end, to truly bear witness to the immense suffering he had been subjected to in his final moments, to experience a small measure of the pain that he felt, I watched it. The footage left me teary, sick and trembling with fear. Ogorchukwu was like me, after all: a middle-aged African migrant who was trying to build a better future for himself and his family.
According to Italian police, the frenzied attack occurred after Ogorchukwu persistently attempted to sell merchandise to Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo and his girlfriend.
However, the Association Center Services for Migrants in the Marche Region said Ogorchukwu was attacked not for assuming a hard sale approach, but for allegedly addressing Ferlazzo’s girlfriend as “beautiful” (and touching her arm).
Listening to the discussions over the alleged motivation behind the senseless, racist murder, I couldn’t help but think about the “unresolved” 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, the United States.
Fourteen-year-old Till was kidnapped, beaten, shot in the head, tied to a massive metal fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River, for the “crime” of supposedly whistling at a 21-year-old white woman. He had allegedly “flirted” with her and that sealed his shocking fate. Six decades later, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman at the centre of the allegations against Till, revealed that she had actually lied about everything.
The crude and degrading caricature of a “black brute”, a violent beast that is “crazed with lust” for white women, was critical to 19th and 20th century American “negrophobic” discourse and white supremacist ideologies used to justify racism, and the lynching of Black men. White supremacists have long used made-up “attacks” on white women’s dignities to commit violence against Black men and perpetrate white terror.
Ogorchukwu’s recent murder demonstrates that the very public, incessant and systematically imposed dehumanisation and criminalisation of Black people that led to Emmett Till’s gruesome murder in the US more than half a century ago – and the murder of countless other African Americans in modern-day America – is also claiming lives miles away in Italy.
In 1979, for example, unknown assailants burned to death Ahmed Ali Jama, a Somali refugee. Giacomo Valent, a 16-year-old student of Italian and Somali descent, was beaten and stabbed to death in 1985 for being a “dirty n*****” by two white classmates. And Senegalese migrant Assane Diallo was shot ten times and killed in Milan after asking a stranger for five euros in 2018.
Black, brown and migrant bodies are in as much danger in Europe as they are in America.
The violence is not just physical, though: it is often verbal, too, and cleverly embedded in nationalist philosophies and anti-migration policies.
Italy’s first Black minister Cécile Kyenge has been likened to an orangutan by a right-wing senator, for instance, and professional footballer Mario Balotelli has repeatedly become the target of monkey chants in football stadiums.
Meanwhile, right-wing political parties, such as the League, led by former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, have deliberately stoked anti-migrant sentiments to win votes. “We need a mass cleansing, street by street, piazza by piazza, neighbourhood by neighbourhood,” Salvini said ahead of parliamentary elections in 2018. And he’s unashamedly claimed that people like Kyenge and Balotelli are just “pawns” in some mysterious grand scheme to erase “identities, diversities, histories” in Italy.
Like so many “America first” nationalists in the US, Salvini seemingly subscribes to the racist “White Replacement Theory” and this explains his astonishing animosity towards migrants. As interior minister, he notoriously barred foreign ships carrying sick and desperate migrants rescued at sea from docking at Italy’s shores. At the time, Spanish newspaper El Mundo said, “Europe has not experienced such alarming levels of racial intolerance since the consolidation of the fascist movements in the years leading up to World War II”. It added, “Europe cannot continue to tolerate the violent attitude of an EU member who does nothing but undermine the values on which the European project is based”.
Italy is currently gearing up for snap parliamentary elections on September 25 and Salvini has once again managed to make immigration the decisive electoral matter. Despite El Mundo’s admirable observations and protestations, I don’t consider Salvini to be an oddity in Europe or the “European project”. His endlessly strident utterances against racial diversity, for one, echo Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent discriminatory assertion that Hungarians don’t want to become “peoples of mixed race”. Salvini’s electoral promise to process refugees in North Africa sounds eerily comparable to the racist Rwanda-United Kingdom asylum deal concluded in June. Plus, it is somewhat similar to the anti-migration deals that the European Union concluded with Turkey, Libya and Niger to curtail migration from North Africa and the Middle East. And Salvini’s decision to bar migrant rescue ships from docking in Italy is no different from Polish security forces systematically forcing asylum seekers to return to Belarus, or Greek authorities “pushing back” ships carrying asylum seekers from Greek waters, with the complicit assistance of Frontex, the EU border guard agency.
So the difference between Salvini’s Italy and the supposedly “progressive” European nations is simply a matter of style and not substance. Spain’s problematic policies and actions, for example, are also undermining the EU’s supposed commitment to racial diversity. On June 24, at least 23 African men died at the Melilla-Morocco border as they attempted to cross into Spain. Human rights organisations rightly characterised the deaths as a tragedy and called for a thorough and independent investigation into the questionable actions of Moroccan and Spanish border guards. However, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez described it as an “attack” on Spain’s “territorial integrity” and framed irregular migration as a security threat.
That Sanchez claimed Spain is under attack from Africans is hardly surprising. Right-wing and conservative elements in Europe – just like their counterparts in the US – are infatuated with conspiracy theories about elaborate and highly implausible migrant “invasions”.
The EU claims all forms of hatred and intolerance are incompatible with European values. Plus hate-motivated crime and speech are illegal under EU law. Yet, across Europe, politicians are openly using inflammatory speech to target religious and racial minorities and criminalise migration. To be sure, reckless talk about ethnic homogeneity and migrants “flooding” Europe creates the conditions under which xenophobia can flourish and people like Ogorchukwu, people like football player Adama Traoré, people like myself become “legitimate” targets for police brutality and racist violence. How many more migrants like Ogorchukwu must die at the hands of seemingly indoctrinated protagonists before Europe realises racism is a continental crisis?
The EU must do more than proclaim its undying commitment to establishing “vibrant democracies” and “pluralistic societies”. It must ensure that racial and religious minorities are not subjected to the incessant Nazi-like hate speech and racism that has gone mainstream in Europe. As Europe becomes an increasingly hostile place for Black and brown people and migrants, the EU must seriously consider implementing the so-called Article 7 procedures against delinquent nations that threaten its core values.
Europe so easily criticises and condemns American racism. But it is hard to say it is doing much better than its younger sibling across the Atlantic when it comes to fighting white supremacist ideologies, attitudes and conspiracies.
Ogorchukwu and countless refugees didn’t have to die violent deaths in Italy. Nobody – Black, white or brown – must. But until Europe acknowledges and takes serious action to address its racism crisis, Black, brown and migrant bodies will be in as much danger there as they are in America.
By Johannesburg-based social and political commentator / Aljazeera