Violent evictions of refugees in Rome reveal inhumanity of modern democracy

A protest in Rome on August 26 after violent evictions from Piazza Indipendenza. Angelo Carconi/EPA

“If they throw something, break their arm,” a police officer was overhead on video saying to anti-riot police on August 24 who were running after refugees and migrants near Rome’s central train station. The migrants were gathering there after police violently removed a group who had been occupying the city’s Piazza Indipendenza. Five days earlier, when around 800 Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants and refugees were forcibly evicted from a nearby squat on via Curtatone, some emptied out into the piazza with all their belongings and occupied it.

Unjustified and disproportionate state violence was exercised on these vulnerable people from dawn to dusk by the Italian police. They used tear gas, batons and water cannons to clear people from the square. It was a spectacle of violence and human misery: women crying out in protest were swept away by water cannons, children and elderly people wrapped in blankets had to run for safety.

Most of the 800 or so residents of the squat on via Curtatone were refugees. But there has been no safety for them, and no sanctuary for those who should be protected under international law. The authorities said the migrants had refused to accept alternative accommodation and pointed to the risk of cooking gas canisters they were using.

After the Piazza Indipendenza events, a mass protest took place in Rome on August 26, attended by over 5,000 people. A group of 40 elderly, sick and young refugees were subsequently permitted to return to the building for six months.

The violent manner of the original eviction was aimed at erasing the presence of migrants and refugees from the city centre: they apparently must disappear, become invisible in the name of public decorum and order. This is a war on migrants, on the poor, on the vulnerable, on those whose lives are precarious and disposable.

This eviction is part of several recent state interventions in Rome against refugees and migrants. In June, the city’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, announced that the city was “facing a new migrant emergency” and that it could not take new arrivals. This is a marked contrast to comments she made in December 2016 about the need to offer refugees human warmth in Rome.

As migration scholar Nando Sigona argued on The Conversation, this shift in approach was made within the context of pre-election political opportunism in Italy. The issue of migration is moving centre stage as parties look to woo voters.

From warmth to water cannons

The inhumane treatment and denial of most basic rights to those in Piazza Indipendenza is the fruit of emergency politics to address migration rather than of a continued approach to sanctuary. Democracies are treating their vulnerable with violence instead of protection and eviction instead of sanctuary. The mayor’s idea of “human warmth” has quickly morphed into water cannons.

Migrants are dying at sea and disappearing from visible public spaces because their presence poses uncomfortable questions about the human condition, and about Western democracies. This is not a migration crisis, it is a crisis of human values – and these events signal that democracy is ailing and failing.

American philosopher Judith Butler observes that we approach certain forms of violence with horror, and other forms of violence with acceptance. This schism in moral evaluations occurs because certain lives are regarded as liveable, worthy of protection and worthy fighting for. But other lives are seen as unworthy of protection, not quite lives, at the limits of humanity. They are disposable.

Moral disintegration

Across the world, people who live precarious lives at the margins of society and at the limit of humanity continue to be met with violence. In the words of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, this is “the normalisation of a social state of warfare” – when the social state is weakened and ultimately erased.

The failing democracies of the West are plunging into what the Jamaican cultural philosopher Stuart Hall called “authoritarian populism”, marking the end of the world as we know it. When asked about this social system and the fate of our species, the American philosopher Noam Chomsky replied that: “It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm.” Under these conditions, our moral compass has been readjusted and our humanity – in the sense of being humane – is compromised.

Resistance, like that staged by the residents of via Curtatone who occupied the piazza after their eviction, can claw back shreds of democracy, dignity and rights. But it is the dominant cultural norms which must be resisted, the very ones regulating and influencing society’s biased moral response towards refugees and migrants. In the era of post-truths, when knowledge is overtly, unquestionably and routinely assailed, critical thinking is more crucial than ever to halt the moral disintegration of human kind.

Unlike the cowardly, brute force which can break arms like lifeless sticks, knowledge and critical thinking can be used to stem the tide of oppressive powers. Challenging the inhumanity of police brutality and society’s acceptance of it is a transformative, emancipatory form of resistance. As the American writer Toni Morrison put it, it is “critical to refuse to succumb to [the world’s] malevolence … that is how civilisations heal.”