Transcript: In conversation with Antonella Bundu
Paul Gilroy: Good morning everybody, I’m Paul Gilroy, Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at UCL in London. I'm especially delighted today to welcome as a guest Antonella Bundu from Florence in Italy, where she serves as a municipal Councillor as part of a left coalition, which she'll talk more about later on. I became aware of Antonella's activities a couple of years ago when her work as an anti-racist and anti-fascist in Florence led to her standing as a candidate in the mayoral election. And you were the first Black woman to attempt to hold that office, and I'm very, very delighted to have a chance to talk to you today about the Black Lives Matter movement and moment in the Italian context, about the politics of Florence and your own position there, and of course the effects of Covid in that area which I'm sure will have revealed patterns of inequality that are part of the life of the place. So, Antonella, welcome. Maybe we could just begin with your work as a political representative as a municipal Councillor for a left coalition.
Antonella Bundu: Thank you very much for asking me to talk to you today. So, actually it was only about a year and a half ago where I was the first- not only Black woman- but Black person to stand for mayor for the city of Florence; for a big town like Florence, because Florence is among the biggest cities in Italy. There were nine of us running for mayor and I was the only woman and I was the only Black woman. And here in Florence, just as in the rest of the country in Italy, you have like 11% of people with, let's say, 'foreign origin'; and I'm the only one inside the municipality who is not the 'classic Italian', as you would imagine. So, it's only 1 of 37, which is a lower percentage compared to the people who actually are in Italy and are in Florence as well. It's quite a tough job to represent not only- obviously, because running for mayor you have to represent the whole community, so we're not talking about just representing Black people; but you come from a starting point here in Italy, in Florence, where in other countries, in other places, you have the basic rights - which everyone knows are basic rights you have to fight for - but here in Florence, in Italy, especially the past two or three years, it's really difficult to be able to say 'listen, this can't be the starting point'. We have to acknowledge the fact that you have citizens who are - even though they have the Italian citizenship - are considered to be inferior compared to other Italians. So we really have a long way to go here in Florence compared to people living in England, even though obviously each country has it; we've seen the Black Lives Matter- even here in Florence a few months ago when we started demonstrating for what had happened, especially with George Floyd in the States, it was almost as if we were demonstrating in solidarity with people in the United States instead of actually seeing that we have a huge problem here in Florence, Italy. So the Italians, as I was saying earlier, they tend to start off saying - in Italian it's called Italiani brava gente - 'Italians good people', we're good people, so we start off from that point of view and then the rest we forget about what we're doing here, about what's going on here. So, I think that's the biggest problem that differentiates us from other nations.
Paul: That's very interesting. One of the things that struck me as particularly important about what you've been doing is that, as I understand it at a distance, it's a political project, a political initiative where an anti-racist position is very much connected to an anti-fascist position. You see the unevenness, but you see the fundamental connection of these things.
Antonella: Exactly; and politically I was representing a left-wing coalition with about 3,900 towns-cities going to vote in 2019, and it was only in two of the city's, Florence and Bari - if I'm not mistaken - where you had all the left-wing come together with a single representative. But the main problem here in Italy, in Florence at least, is that even left-wing parties tend to believe that social rights can't be done together with civil rights. I believe that they have to be absently done together. So, that's a huge mistake we do here in Italy. And, for example, just a couple of weeks ago we passed - in Equal Rights Commission where I'm the vice president here in Florence - we passed an act saying there should be a street here in Florence named after Alessandro Sinigaglia. Alessandro Sinigaglia was killed by the fascists in February of 1944. He was an Afro-descendant here in Italy, and he was the first one to create the G.A.P. (Gruppi di Azione Partigiana). And most people here in Italy know that on 11th August of 1944, when Florence was finally freed from fascism, so when they entered into Florence, it was called the Brigata Sinigaglia; it was named after this person and no one knows he was Black- obviously, the people from the 1940s knew he was a Black person, but we have people here who don't actually know the importance or the presence of Black people here in Italy who have been present for centuries. Now we have, for example, in one of the most important museums -not only in Italy, in the world - the Uffizi Gallery, there's this exhibition called Black Presence; and it just shows their presence in the portraits and sculptures, even though they're just represented or even artists who are Black artists who actually performed the artwork. And when the exhibition was inaugurated you had the right-wing who went to protest saying that we were trying to - I had no actual part in it - but that we were trying to portray something wrong within the museum; we were trying to bring Black presence into the museum, whereas it's always been present. So, that's the main problem we have here in Italy. Talking about fascism, we have not come to terms with what we did - 'we' as in Italians, I'm talking about me as an Italian person - the difference between the Germans and the Italians is that the Germans, after the end of the second World War, they did come to terms with what they have done and they're still working on it; the Italians, we had an amnesty which was done by Togliatti- communist obviously, and obviously I agree with everything he did as in the communism, left-wing and everything; but we tried to forgive what had gone on, as in putting everything under a carpet, instead of trying to talk about it and resolve it, just the same as in the colonialism; and that's why when we talk about Black Lives Matter we tend to forget that Italy as well has a past and a present - we hope not a future, but we're not doing anything at all politically to try and solve this problem. For example, just a year ago we had Salvini- I prefer not to pronounce his name normally, but he is the leader of this extreme right-wing party - which is called La Lega, the League - and they've done everything possible legally to institutionalise racism. So, they've created, for example, you have NGOs - in Italian it's ONG - NGOs in the Mediterranean trying to save people to migrate; he made these laws where he even suggested that the people saving people's lives should pay 5,000 euros for each migrant who was being saved, and then you had hundreds of thousands of euros for ships being fined for saving migrants. And also, one of the bad things was creating citizens who, let's say, if you were born Italian, fine; if you become an Italian after, the citizenship can be taken away from you for some particularly hideous crimes; where the legislation says you must be punished in a certain way, so why should you punish people who are Italians, let's say, after you differently; and here in Italy we totally accept it. We've been moving, step by step we're moving; earlier in 2013 where you had over a hundred people who drowned trying to come over to the Mediterranean, and you had months with people talking about the disaster that happened, and now you hear about a shipwrecking with 40- maybe 20 kids inside, 10 women, men or anything; and after five minutes no one talks about it. And even people like us who are supposed to be fighting for civil rights are kind of becoming used to it. So, I think that's the worst part of it, when you're used to hearing this and then it doesn't even sound so strange that you have people suffering, people dying, people with rights which are not the same as others living on the same territory.
Paul: I think that's really clear, and I think the normalisation becomes an everyday phenomenon which doesn't seem eventful, it doesn't seem important, it doesn't seem disturbing because we are habituated to it.
Paul: Well, you've put together so much there that I want to pull a few threads. You talk about the Black presence in Italy going back such a long way, and that is of course absolutely true and absolutely fundamental; but we also know that part of what racism does today - and this has been true in our country and of course in the Brexit environment it is worse now than it's been in my lifetime - is that although people know that you're part of the history of the place, your right to belong there is always challenged...
Paul: ...you know, you are not a migrant, you were born in Florence like I was born in London. So, I feel that one of the things that defines my own political work and my writing is a sense of feeling quite strongly that although I'm a citizen of the world, I also want to be recognised as somebody who belongs to this polity; and that the work of anti-racism is about forcing that recognition against interests that would exclude and say - as they've said not just to me but to all of us - 'go back to your own country, you're in the wrong place'. How do you see that work of forcing recognition as somebody who belongs not just to Italy, but to Florence, to Tuscany, to a very particular environment which is a historic place which has a very strong sense of itself as a region, and a history that you've just described- its own history of anti-fascist activity which is very precious in the self-understanding of people who see themselves as belonging there; how do you see that struggle to force recognition?
Antonella: It's quite difficult here. We need a real cultural revolution here. As you were saying, Tuscany was the first state- now it's a region, but at the beginning that abolished the death penalty; and Florence has a gold medal for resisting against fascism. So with that you'd think that that's a good starting point, it's recognising civil rights for others; but the fact that we, as in Black Italians, don't look like Italians- I mean, here in Italy they ask me 'where are you from?', and I'm like 'I'm Italian', they say 'yes, but where were you born?', and I'm like 'I was born in Florence', 'okay, but where are your parents from?', and I'm like 'my mum's Italian, my dad's Sierra Leonean', 'ah ha! So you're Sierra Leonean!'. There's this struggle that Italians- and I think it also has to do with the racial laws you had years back during the fascism, where you had to prove you were white - 'white' as in race-wise, but also white- even when you talk to Italians and you say you have some places in the United States or elsewhere, where they're racist against Italians as well - and Italians can't actually believe this. So, I think it's more the fact that they want to prove their whiteness, which makes it more difficult for Italians to accept people being as Italian as them even if they're not white. Because, as I was saying, I personally don't think I would have - I'd have racist problems as well in the US or in the UK or elsewhere - but I don't think it would actually start from not recognising the fact that I could be with the same nationality as others; it would be something else. Here they tend to say you don't even start from there, you're not Italian. For example, my brother was a European boxing champion seven-times over and in the Italian newspapers they would say he was naturalised Italian - but no, you know? And for me as well, let's say they ring the doorbell and there's someone who wants to sell you something and I open the door and they ask me if the Mrs is at home. Or with the Italian language, the difference you have between the English language, you have lei which is a formal way of appealing to people who you're not actually familiar with; and so if you walk into a bank, or if you're at the supermarket or anywhere, you have people saying lei which is 'you' in a more formal way; and when I get to the counter, even though I'm almost 51, they talk to me with the tu. For example, here in Florence unfortunately there was this almost 60-year-old- he was a 57-year-old Senegalese man who was murdered just a few years ago; and even when we're talking about the anti-fascist movement, when we're doing demonstrations to remember Idy Diene, they refer to him as 'boy'; no one would refer to a normal 60-year-old Italian - as in white Italian man - as 'boy', no one would do that. But here in Italy, Black people are 'boys' or 'girls', we don't refer to them as 'men' or 'women' or 'ladies'. So, I need to be respected just as much as another 50-year-old next to me; and if I point it out you have even many Black people here in Florence saying I exaggerate, that that's not a problem. I think the struggle must start from the basics, which is quite difficult here in Florence.
Paul: Yeah, that's very interesting that the language - the formality of the language - allows for this institutionalisation of disrespect; and that people are accepting of this, they're inclined to say 'you're making too much fuss, this is a disproportionate reaction to this'...
Paul: ...but these things can become very debilitating because they happen over and over and over and over and over again. I want to ask you now, if you don't mind, about your political work, because one of the things that I thought was extremely interesting about this, and I'm sure that people here would be interested, is that you work in an environment where making coalitional relationships with other parties and interests that share your objectives is fundamental to your vision and to your practice as an organiser, as someone who's doing political work. So, tell me about the making of coalitions and how the coalitional sensibility is something that's been important- maybe it's easy in the context of doing anti-fascist work when you have neo-fascist organisations immediately visible and there is practical problems of violence and intimidation to deal with, but I wonder about being in a coalitional relationship with interests who don't always - even on the left - see the question of anti-racist work in the way that you would see it.
Antonella: So, I think there's a huge difference here in Italy compared to other countries where you have maybe a different kind of Black presence or a different kind of interaction. So, with the coalition here, politically we have the centre-left, which is the majority ruling right now in Florence and also nationwide; and we are left-wing, we are on the opposition of the ruling party. Our coalition is based on a program which is mainly based on social - and also civil rights - but mainly based on social rights. The only party which is not part of the coalition is the communist party - Partito Comunista - even though we do have in the coalition the Rifondazione Comunista and Potere al Popolo, which are communist parties, but the one actually named Communist Party shares some views on civil rights the same as the right-wing - extreme right-wing. So, you have people saying why talk about giving someone else rights instead of thinking about how to go to school, public transportation, this and that; as I was saying at the beginning, that's the main problem. So, the coalition I am part of is based mainly on social rights, but also taking into consideration civil rights; but it's quite difficult to try and explain that - even within this coalition - that they have to go together. So, it's two of us now in the city council, Dmitrij Palagi and I, and obviously we tend to look at every aspect but it's more difficult when you sit down and try to talk to the coalition and say we have to carry out this thing. For example, here in Florence we're talking about something that nationwide they tried to say that illegal migrants - even if they're on the territory, so even if they're here in Florence - they're not allowed to register in the anagrafica, on the registry, to say you're on the territory. And what does this mean? It means that the person is not allowed to be able to have a doctor, so they can't be visited; so then you tell the coalition if this happens it means that the whole community will suffer from the fact that you can't trace people, people can't be tended to if they're sick and everything; and then that's when you start to say everyone must be allowed to register. I'm not saying the coalition is not aware of this, but when you talk about the discrimination - which is obviously stronger for people who have a foreign origin compared to people who live here - you have a hard time explaining saying it's not the same thing. So, we're talking about everyone has the right to this, but if you're not Italian then it's more difficult for you - if you don't have the papers, if you don't have the documents - but you still need to be able to access. For example, the children of people who don't have regular documents or because you have up to four years when you ask for asylum until they actually say if you're allowed to stay or not; it's a long wait. So, whilst you're waiting you're supposed to be able to send your kids to school because here in Italy the constitution says that every child - no matter what their position is, whether they're citizens or not - they must go to school; whilst if you're not registered, you're not allowed to a registered school. So, it’s a spirale, it's like a loop you get into where you have to always sit down and explain that it's more difficult; you have so many obstacles if you're not part of the system. So, as we all know, at least here in Italy, the left-wing normally looks at the more fragile - people who are more fragile independently from their origin; if they're Italians without, like the homeless people - but there's a further obstacle with people who come from outside who don't have the nationality. So, we have to sit down and discuss this. I'm not saying they don't understand, but you have to explain it to them, you have to say this is a right, a constitutional right, for everyone independently from your status, you know?
Paul: Yeah, I think that pathway to citizenship is a fundamental thing, isn't it?
Paul: And to know that that's been very difficult because you're not just dealing with the crisis of the Mediterranean and the undocumented people who are coming through, the crisis of anti-fascism; and then you've got on top of that Black Lives Matter- another layer of crisis and anxiety about violence and vulnerability; and then on top of that you've got Covid.
Antonella: Exactly. Now we're probably going towards another lockdown. We had one in March as you may know; it became really bad here in Italy before moving over to other countries; and now it looks as if we're going back to another lockdown. And it's the same thing, for example, we passed an act here in the city of Florence saying that people who were in alloggio popolare - council houses - even if they could not pay for the rent during the emergency, we asked them to vote that they could not be kicked out of the house. It was just two days ago where we were contacted by a lady who had been taken away from her home because she had lost her job and obviously she couldn't pay the amount she had to pay for a few months back; and then they came to take her and they handcuffed her and they took her away and for over 24 hours we had no idea where she was, so I had to start calling hospitals saying I was the friend-of, because legally there was no way - I could ask for access for the accesso atti, but then it would take a long time - but we wanted to know what had happened to her. And so we will be asking the administration why, after having voted for an act- because that's what happens here, I don't know if it happens everywhere, but here in Florence you vote for something, the majority votes for it and they approve it, and then you don't know why the same things continue to happen. So, we don't have the same benefits as you have in other countries as in the UK, but we do as in housing and also - it's called the reddito di cittadinanza - it's sort of unemployment benefits, which you can't access even if you're Italian but you're in a fragile situation where you don't have a house, you don't have a residency, you won't be able to get access to that; meaning that you'll always be without a home because if you can't even sign up to be able to see that maybe in the near future you will be able to have a home or you'll be able to have some money to survive, it means that you're in a loop; and they keep you in the loop. That's what they tend not to recognise; I mean, if you make laws that expel people from the community- because even now in Italy the statistics say you have like 600,000 people who are irregular on the territory; but they passed an act during the Covid saying that for three months you could sign up either for caregivers or for people who would work in the agricultural field, just in time to pick the produce from the field and then you go back into being illegal. That doesn't help the society on the whole; that's what we need to make people understand. I mean, me personally, if I were here without documents, I'd do anything, obviously, I would break the law and do anything to survive; so, I think it's normal. There's no way you can think people will stay here and survive without giving them the opportunity to contribute legally to the community, as it should be.
Paul: That's very heartfelt and obviously I agree with you; and don't have any illusions about what's going on here because these processes - that maybe when you lived here they were in a better state than they are now - have been made very punitive, they've been made very, very punitive, very vicious, very cruel. And as you see with the debate at the moment with the footballers speaking out to feed the children who are not going to have a decent meal over the winter holidays, to give them a meal from the school kitchen, you know? This is controversial? I mean, at least the footballers are finding their voice, a political voice, which we're very grateful for.
Antonella: They're expanding their voices, yes. Last Monday an act was passed where we asked for the meals for school children because - talking about people who are not residents, even Italians who are homeless and everything - their kids when they're at school are not able to produce a document saying that their parents cannot pay as much as they need to. So, actually the kids here in Florence- the principals and the teachers and those that are in the institutions do give them food so they don't actually go without a meal; but then after the bill arrives and the parents are unable to pay, so most of them tend not to leave their kids at school during lunch for the meal. So, anyway, we passed an act here in Florence saying that each and every child is supposed to be able to have a proper meal in school independently from the documents produced or not from the parents. They approved it, let's see if they'll actually do it.
Paul: Antonella, thank you so much for taking the time and the trouble to speak to me.
Antonella: You're welcome.
Paul: I hope at some point in the future we will have a chance to meet and talk more.
Antonella: Yes, grazie. Arrivederci.