Excerpted From: Renee Nicole Allen, Contextualizing the Triggering Event: Colonial White Supremacy, Anti-blackness, and Black Lives Matter in Italy and the United States, 33 Minnesota Journal of International Law 1 (Spring, 2024) (310 Footnotes) (Full Document)

ReneeNicoleAllen“The revolution will not be televised ... The revolution will be no re-run, brothers. The revolution will be live.” -Gil Scott-Heron

While the length and nature of the police violence captured by cell phone video were contributing factors, COVID-19 lockdowns created an environment that would force people in the United States and around the world to pay attention to the viral video of George Floyd's murder. The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Italy and the United States in the first months of 2020. On January 31, 2020, Italy declared a state of emergency. As cases increased and the country became a virus epicenter, the Italian government declared Decree-Law No. 6, effectively locking down the country. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Days later, on March 13, the United States declared a national state of emergency, starting a national shutdown of all nonessential entities.

On Memorial Day 2020, two months into the nationwide lockdown, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on a handcuffed George Floyd's neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. Darnella Frazier, a Black teenager who was taking her young cousin to the neighborhood convenience store, filmed the incident with her cell phone and posted it on Facebook. Her video, which contradicted the initial statement posted by the Minneapolis police department, captured international attention and ultimately led to Chauvin's conviction for unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.

After Floyd's murder, between 15 and 26 million people attended demonstrations in support of Black lives, making it the largest movement in United States history. COVID-19 lockdowns likely caused heightened awareness of state and vigilante killings of unarmed Black Americans, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery. Masked crowds took to the streets to protest racial injustice in more than 140 United States cities. From Memorial Day to late August, there were more than 10,000 peaceful demonstrations nationwide.

The racial injustice that occurred in the United States during the early months of the pandemic captured the world's attention. Solidarity protests occurred in Italy (and around the world). In Rome, Milan, and Naples, demonstrators knelt for a symbolic eight minutes and 46 seconds to protest racism and police violence. They held signs with slogans: Black Lives Matter, I Can't Breathe, Melanin Is Not A Crime, Ricordermo Il Silenzio Dei Nostril Amici (We Shall Remember Our Friends' Silence). While Floyd's murder was a “triggering event,” some Italians were also protesting anti-Black racism and violence in Italy, including the 2018 murder of Idy Diene, a Senegalese immigrant living in Florence who was murdered during a time of heightened anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric by the League Party. And the 2008 murder of Abdul William Guibre. In Milan, an Italian father and son beat Guibre to death while shouting racial slurs. Some Italians were also aware of anti-Black violence against people who, because of phenotypical characteristics, were presumed immigrants, including the intentional shooting of six Black people in Macerata by Luca Traini. In these drive-by shootings, Traini adorned his neck with an Italian flag and “appeared to target anyone who looked like they'd come from Africa.”

In Italy, early protests mimicked the protests that immediately followed the triggering event. But in September 2020, vigilante violence resulted in Willy Monteiro Duarte's murder, spurring conversations and criticism of Italy's history of anti-Black racism. Duarte, a 21-year-old Black man who had just obtained Italian citizenship, was beaten to death in a city close to Rome after attempting to de-escalate physical violence against his friend. Brothers Gabriele and Marco Bianchi were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for Duarte's murder. Accomplices Mario Pincarelli and Franceso Belleggia were each sentenced to more than 20 years in jail for their roles in the murder. While race was not proven to be a motive for his death, the perpetrators left racist comments on social media, and their parents reportedly downplayed Willy's killing, stating that he “was just an immigrant.” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte attended the funeral and commented, “[w]e must look ourselves in the eye and become fully aware that there are some pockets of society and fringes of the population that cultivate the mythology of violence and oppression.” Italian journalist Carlo Verdelli wrote that Willy's slaying demonstrated evidence of a “hatred for those who are different, who come from the outside ....” But absent explicit racial slurs made by the brothers at the time of the beating, many Italians insisted the attack was not racist.

The anti-Black violence that sparked mass protests took place against a backdrop of ongoing racism that is deeply rooted in histories of Black oppression, White supremacy, and racist rhetoric from elected officials. Regarding racist rhetoric from elected officials in Italy, in 2018, speaking about Italian immigrants of color, right-wing Northern League candidate for mayor of the Lombardy region Attilio Fontana said, “[w]e need to decide whether or not our ethnic group, our white race, our society should continue to exist, or be wiped out.” His party, led by Matteo Salvini, rejected calls for him to withdraw from the mayoral race. In 2013, a leader from the same party said the country's first Black government minister had “features of an orangutan.” In the United States in 2017, then-President Donald Trump remarked that White House strategist Steve Bannon was “a friend” and “not a racist” despite Bannon being a self-proclaimed leader of the alt-right, a group that embraces “white ethnonationalism as a fundamental value.”

Moving away from the triggering event and focusing on violence against Black people in Italy, activists, journalists, and scholars have sought to contextualize racist violence in Italy. In doing so, they connect contemporary racism to Italy's colonial past by focusing on forgotten or denied histories, which demonstrate that anti-Black racism preceded formal fascist rule and continues today. They emphasized that racism was not just an American problem and that Italy's racism is systemic and cannot be reduced to events of racist violence. Black Italian journalist Nadeesha Uyangoda wrote, “Italy's unwillingness to deal with its colonial past has made space for denial, historical distortion, and ultimately, the idea that Italians can't be racists.” Angelica Pesarini, a Black Italian scholar, questioned why so many White Italians engaged in performative antiracism by protesting Floyd's murder but failed to demonstrate similar outrage for Black men killed in Italy and actively engaged in denials of anti-Black racism in Italy. Criticisms not only revealed collective amnesia about Italy's racist colonial past, but they also revealed the challenges associated with a global conception of “Black Lives Matter” that often failed to recognize the related but different lived experiences with anti-Blackness in Italy and the United States.

This article employs a critical comparative law framework and applies tenets of Afro-pessimism. Culturally biased perspectives defeat the goals of comparative law: “to reform and improve laws to further justice and to better the lot of humankind.” Critical comparative scholarship aims to avoid cultural bias by challenging the idea that law is inherently neutral and can be objectively examined. Here, I apply a critical comparative framework to highlight legal and social anti-Blackness in the United States and Italy. Afro-pessimism is mindful of Black people's lived experience with pervasive anti-Blackness. “[I]t suggests that the Western world is so ... infused with anti-black racism that cannot be reformed; it must be re-imagined and replaced with a different system.” Here, with a focus on three tenets of Afro-pessimism--lived experience, Blackness as social death, and anti-Black violence--I highlight the importance of context in geographically disparate “Black Lives Matter” activism.

Though I compare aspects of Italy's civil law and the United States' common law, I am less interested in finding similarities and differences between the two legal systems and more interested in exploring the relationship between law and anti-Blackness. The Constitutions of Italy and the United States guarantee civil rights and outline frameworks for equality irrespective of a citizen's race or ethnicity. Adopted in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was intended to achieve racial justice. Italy's Constitution, adopted in 1947, recognizes, grants, and protects the social dignity of all citizens, who must be considered equal before the law “without distinction of ... race.” Italy is also a member state of the Council of Europe and, by virtue of its membership, has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Discrimination is explicitly prohibited by Article 14 of the ECHR of 1950:

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

Evidencing continued commitment to “the fundamental principle according to which all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law.” Protocol No. 12 of 2000 prohibited discrimination in the “enjoyment of any right set forth by law.”

This article contextualizes the triggering event--George Floyd's murder and “Black Lives Matter” protests in the United States--by analyzing anti-Black origin and entrenchment. First, I examine Black and White racialization. Next, a comparison of colonialism in the United States and Italy illuminates how colonial laws and practices established Whiteness as civil, moral, and powerful. Here, post-colonial collective amnesia reveals similarities in the ways anti-Black violence is sanitized and anti-Black racism is denied. Next, it demonstrates how blood narratives perpetuate anti-Blackness by legally limiting the rights of Black people. Finally, it contextualizes the triggering event. Borrowing from tenets of Afro-pessimism, it concludes by highlighting the importance of context in geographically disparate “Black Lives Matter” activism.

[. . .]

“Decolonization ... is a historical process: ... it can only be understood, it can only find significance and become coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance ....” -Franz Fanon

While there is “sweet solidarity in blackness,” context is important to geographically disparate Black Lives Matter activism. A paradox, Afro-pessimism is the lens through which I imagine a future without anti-Blackness. On the one hand, Afro-Pessimism “sketches a structural map of human experience .... [where] Black people are integral to human society but at all times and in all places excluded from it.” The source of this exclusion is not solely the result of laws designed to exclude but also the result of a society that does not regard Black people as human. In fact, legal declarations of Black humanity resulted in more exercises of power over individual Black bodies and the Black body politic. Thus, Blackness equates to social death, and there is “no narrative of redemption” for the state of suffering in which Black people exist.

But understanding colonialism and its enduring contribution to lived experiences with anti-Blackness is vital to Black Lives Matter activism in the United States and such activism that resonates abroad. “Black Lives Matter” originated when the United States legal system once again declined to hold a vigilante accountable for anti-Black violence, signaling that Blackness is social death. While “Black Lives Matter” is a sentiment that resonates across the diaspora as a unifying demand, activism must be contextualized. We cannot decolonize--through abolition in the United States or citizenship in Italy-- without understanding the legal and social factors that perpetuate anti-Blackness. To do so, we must reject collective amnesia and grapple with our colonial past.

The collective experience of Black people with systemic anti-Black violence is important. In Italy and the United States, shared knowledge and memory of systemic violence and exploitation stemming from the practices of chattel slavery and colonialism make up the collective experience of people of African descent. Anti-Black violence against individuals results in vulnerability among the collective. There is a collective recognition of the paradox of the lack of humanity and actual violence against Black people (be it through mass incarceration in the United States or anti-immigrant rhetoric in Italy) and the “hypervisibility of black people as a source of danger.”

Our shared histories demonstrate that the condemnation of Black people was integral to establishing Whiteness as civil, moral, and powerful in the colonial era. Our lack of humanity formed the legal basis for our exclusion. And when law sought to integrate Black people, White backlash resulted in anti-Black violence. This is true in the United States and Italy. But solidarity is not progress. In Italy, contextualizing differences is key to meaningful activism. In order to contextualize, the voices of Black Italians must be elevated, and activism must be redirected to challenge the Italian-specific ways Blackness is violence and social death.

Renee Nicole Allen is a faculty member and the founding Director of the Center for Race and Law at St. John's University School of Law.