Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Addiopizzo - Fighting the Extortion Racket

"A society that pays protection money is a society without dignity."
Those of you who follow this blog know that I log the lessons of mission life and don't sugarcoat anything. You all know that this missionary will give it to you positive, but straight.  However, this week's post...well,   it calls for a particular bold honesty, my friends.  Here goes.

The drama with our apartment has been a bit of a roller coaster ride that has gone from bad to worse. I know, what can be worse than a rotting corpse behind the fridge and cockroach nests? (see post I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life)  I'll tell you what: a landlord who ignores health hazards and collects rent, that's what.
Charge 'em for the lice, extra for the mice,
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice.
Here a little slice, there a little cut,
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut.
Thenadier, Master of the House, Les Miserables
Master of the House
Though this entry is posted April 1st, this is no April Fool's joke.  After a few months of dealing with varying levels of apartment dilapidation, we needed to change apartments, but our landlord refused to allow it. Finally, on Wednesday, he was letting us make the switch, but ordered us to move out by 8am, saying he had workers waiting to fix the place. Then he commanded his wife to clean ours and the other apartment. EXCUSE ME.

I put my foot down.  Missionary does not equal Doormat, and Woman does not equal Slave.  We didn't budge until 10am, and we cleaned the other apartment to spare his wife the indignity (ours was already clean).  The elders helped us move, and within a few hours we were fully situated downstairs.  Since the Church pays this man the money we've personally contributed for rent, we called President Waddoups to get involved, to which our landlord's flippant reply was, "I don't take orders from mission presidents because they switch out every three years!"  Ok.  We need out of this building completely.

Here's the problem with moving out of the building immediately: 
The man in charge in Rome for finding new housing is notoriously slow, but he's the only Italian they have to do the job, so in the meantime, we have to sit tight and deal with the landlord. Unfortunately. And, it looks as if we might have to MOVE BACK TO THE OLD APARTMENT IN A FEW WEEKS.

And, get this: our landlord is a member of the Church.  What? You are shocked by this?  Frankly, we all should be!  But, that's not all, folks:  He was just called as the NEW WARD MISSION LEADER.  Ya, the man misappropriating sacred Church funds, the man with little respect for Church authority, the man bereft of scruples, who lies and manipulates and stretches the truth to meet his own ends (I can feel your outrage along with me, thank you).

Reminds me of the Pizzo extortion racket that has plagued Palermo for years.

The Pizzo
Pizzo is the big elephant in the room that no one likes to speak of publicly.  Pizzo is a Sicilian term for "protection money" the Mafia coerces from businesses.  An estimated 80% of Palermo businesses reluctantly fork out the cash.  Across Southern Italy, the Mafia is reported to earn around 20 billion euro/year in extortions.  The pizzo rates start at a few hundred euros/month for small businesses, on up to thousands for larger companies.

Those who don't pay reap the percussion: harassment, arson, physical harm, even death.  Everyone knows the Mafia means business, and that is what makes the actions of a few courageous people so inspiring.  When a society is up against modern-day Gadianton Robbers, sometimes it takes just one individual to take a stand to motivate others to do the same.  Here are a few local heroes.

Libero Grassi tribute
at the spot he was gunned down
"Dear Extortionists"
In 1991, Palermo businessman Libero Grassi, was the first to refuse to pay the pizzo, taking out a full-page ad in the local daily paper, Giornale di Sicilia, that began with the words, "Dear Extortionists," and denounced the Mafia's demands, and publicly announced his refusal to give in to coercion. The same day, he reported the names of his would-be extortionists to the police, a move that resulted in five arrests. Eight months later, he was gunned down. Shot three times in the head. Today, he is somewhat of a folk hero, but when he was alive, he was shunned by neighbors and fellow businessmen.

"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
Edmund Burke

"And What if Somebody Did Something?"
Padre Pino Puglisi
Motivated by Grassi's courage, in 1993 Catholic priest, Padre Pino Puglisi, had the guts to stand up against the Mafia. In an attempt to get youth off of the street (the Mafia's main source of recruitment), Puglisi created the first Youth Center - a safe haven for the underclass and underprivileged. This was only the beginning of his crusade. He then refused to allow Mafia bosses to walk at the front of religious processions (as they had done to show their superiority over priests). He even peppered his sermons with urgings for the community to report anything they knew to the police (a taboo prior to this time).

His catch phrase, "And what if somebody did something?" is still sprayed on walls in Brancaccio neighborhoods. Despite the threats, Puglisi carried on, so they shot him in the back, killing him on the steps of the church.

And then came a grassroots movement in 2004. What began as a few friends wanting to open a pub, but angered by the realization that they'd have to pay the Mafia, became an organization called Addiopizzo (translated, "goodbye pizzo" "goodbye protection money").

This courageous group of young adults decided to take a stand in a big way. Out in the streets they affixed hundreds of stickers around the city on lamp posts, walls, buildings, signs, and benches, denouncing the pizzo (pic of sticker is at the top of this post). The sticker slogan:
"A society that pays protection money
is a society without dignity"
And, guess what? To their surprise, people snapped out of the stupor and came alive. That's right, the fed-up populace rallied to support the cause. Thus began the Addiopizzo movement.

Today, hundreds of businesses are members of the Addiopizzo, who refuse to pay. The picture (right) is of stickers found in businesses who have joined the cause. Shops with these stickers = "Pizzo-Free Zone."
"As long as someone pays the pizzo,
we are not free."

Just Say No
One of the first businesses to say No to the Mafia, and notably the most famous, is the Antica Focacceria San Francisco.

In 2005 when the Mafia came around for their monthly pizzo from the restaurant, the current owners said No, testified, and sent the perpetrators to jail. Since then, with 24-hour armed protection, machine gun-toting police at the front doors, and undercover cops dining inside, they have prevailed.

Fun Fact:
The Arabic word Mahyas means "aggressive boasting," which evolved into the Sicilian adjective Mafiusu, meaning, "arrogant domination by intimidation." And, people who have adopted this as their life's philosophy are the Mafia.

Today, you can see "No Mafia" graffiti all over the region, a deep spirit of unified resistance against the people that oppressed them for so long.

Where is this Leading? 
So, where am I going with all of this? I am not inferring that my landlord is a member of the Mafia, but what I am saying is that wrong behavior is wrong behavior. Abuse is abuse. Unscrupulous is unscrupulous. And, when nothing is done to correct an infestation, then it becomes an epidemic and society suffers.

Funny Story Though
The sisters accidentally bumped into our landlord on the stairs Monday in the apartment complex.  They said he was surprisingly nice. "Would you like your desks downstairs sisters?" he asked, "Because I could get those for you! No problem. No problem!"  Where was all of this coming from? Later, they found out.  Upon checking their email, President Waddoups wrote to say that he'd put a stop to all payments for the apartment until everything was fixed and taken care of.  Landlord is getting no money from the mission. No wonder he was pouring on the nice!

All it takes to break corruption and stop the school bully from stealing lunch money is for one courageous person to stand and say, "Enough is enough!" Giovanni Falcone was the first.

Speak Aloud and Walk with Head Held High
Giovanni Falconi
Giovanni Falcone was the Italian Prosecuting Judge who spent most of his professional life trying to overthrow the Sicilian Mafia. He eloquently summed up his mission this way:
"He who is silent and bows his head
dies every time he does so.
He who speaks aloud
and walks with his head held high
dies only once."
Giovanni Falcone
Falcone knew that giving his life for the cause meant more than just his professional life. Sure enough, in May 1992, he was killed (along with his wife and bodyguards. It was a bomb to his car).  The widow of a bodyguard killed with Falcone, made this plea at the funeral in Palermo Cathedral:
"I address the men of the Mafia. I know you are present here.
I know you are not Christians, but even for you forgiveness exists.
I forgive you,
but you must go down on your knees and have the courage to change."

Our missionary service here in Palermo goes beyond just finding people to teach the gospel to.  The reality of the work in Sicily is one of spreading the light of Christ in a nation darkened by oppressive forces.  

People who choose to be puppets in Satan's game of corruption - these were the types of people Jesus had to deal with all the time. I don't know how He did it.  I'll be honest with you, my blood boils every time I think about our landlord.

Perhaps therein lies the lesson for me.  Even people like him can change.  Even people lost in the web of Mafia ties can change.  After all, Christ died for them too.

And, because Christ took the higher road, rose above it by preaching His gospel, taught them a better way of life, and made it a point to forgive - I know I can do it too.

Sorella Ashley Nef

(Article also featured on family blog: nefchronicles.wordpress.com Taking a Stand June 2014)

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