Naples, Italy – On Thursday in Naples, 32-year-old Senegalese street vendor Cisse Elhadji Diebel was about to collect his wares and go home, when he was shot three times by two strangers on a scooter by the central train station.
One of the bullets hit his femur, for which he has undergone surgery. Another missed him. The third is now lodged in the phone he was carrying in his pocket.
While gun and gang violence have long marred Naples, alarm bells are ringing over the rapid rise in racist assaults – at least 33 across the country in the past two months, according to Italian weekly L’Espresso.
In another attack, on June 11, two Malian refugees living in a migrant centre near Caserta, a city north of Naples, were also shot at from a vehicle.
The victims told local media that the shooters had shouted slogans in support of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, who won support in the March 4 election.
In what is now almost a routine, migrant and diaspora communities organise protests every time there is a violent assault, to demonstrate against racism.
Bouyagui Konate, a 22-year-old chef from Mali, was among those who rallied after Cisse Elhadji Diebel was hit.
On June 20, he himself was hit in the stomach by a pellet fired from an air gun by men he didn’t know in a passing car.
“So far there’s no news on the investigation,” Konate told Al Jazeera, speaking of his own experience. “If they were actually looking, they would have found them. It’s full of cameras on that street. If they’d been caught and prosecuted, the same things wouldn’t keep happening.”
In Italy since the age of 17, Konate, who speaks perfect Italian, attended a chef training course, opened a restaurant in the city centre with a group of refugees, and took part in a TV culinary talent show.
His next project is a multicultural food truck that will tour Italy.
He said he has noticed a shift in attitudes in the past few months.
“The atmosphere has changed since the election campaign, which was done at the expense of migrants, talking about an invasion and migrants stealing Italians’ jobs,” Konate said. “And the person propagating this is a public figure, a politician now in power,” he added, referring to Salvini. “There were attacks before, but now they’re using guns. We’re a step up.”
Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister, has denied ships carrying refugees and migrants docking rights at Italian ports and called for a census in order to deport Roma without citizenship.
But claims of a racism problem in Italy are “an invention of the left”, he has said, explaining that “Italians are tired.”
Italy’s other Deputy Prime Minister, the Five Star Movement’s Luigi di Maio, is equally as dismissive. He has said that “there is no such thing as a racism emergency” in recent interviews.
Grazia Naletto, who heads the anti-racist watchdog Cronache di Ordinario Razzismo (Chronicles of Ordinary Racism), part of the NGO Lunaria, says it is difficult to keep track of racially-motivated violence.
“Racist violence reported by the media is only a part of it, including verbal violence. Often, victims don’t come forward. And when these episodes appear in the local media, they are often reported as cases of ordinary violence, the racist motive is sometimes not mentioned,” Naletto told Al Jazeera.
Even so, Lunaria keeps a record of racist incidents and violence and publishes regular reports.
From January 1 to March 31, the organisation counted 169 incidents ranging from physical violence to someone being refused medical assistance by a doctor, based on the victim’s ethnicity.
Police do not regularly publish hate crime statistics in Italy.
In 2016, OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which monitors hate crime among participating countries, reported 803 as recorded by police, with the majority based on racism and xenophobia.
When an Italian takes a gun and hits a migrant, it is like the government fired the shot.
But numbers don’t tell the full story.
Victims who are not Italian citizens or regular residents may refrain from reporting to the police out of a fear of being identified and eventually deported.
Police have downplayed the racism motive in previous attacks.
A notable example is the killing of Senegalese street vendor Idy Diene in Florence, a day after the Italian election.
Police quickly ruled out racism, but the Senegalese and Muslim communities were not convinced.
Prosecutors talked about “futile motives”, arguing the attacker had chosen a random target after giving up on the idea of committing suicide.
“What we have found not only in the past few weeks but since the beginning of the year, is that there have been several cases of violence that have unfolded with the same dynamics,” Naletto said. “A street aggression by a small group of people in a car that stops and [they] pick a black person as a target, or someone near a reception centre.”
At least eight possibly racist shootings have been reported since the beginning of July, of which seven were carried out with air guns, which can still lead to serious injuries.
On July 17, a one-year-old Roma child was shot in the back in Rome by a former government employee. The shooter would later claim he had fired to “test the gun”.
On July 2, a Nigerian woman was shot in the foot in Forlì, in central Italy, by someone on a scooter.
Three days later in the same city, a 33-year-old Ivorian man was hit in the abdomen in another drive-by shooting.
On July 11 in Latina, a city south of Rome, two Nigerians were hit by a barrage of BB gunshots fired from a passing car with three young people inside. The perpetrators were later identified and reported to police for bodily injury, with the aggravating circumstance of racial discrimination.
On July 26, a metal pellet struck an electrician, originally from Cape Verde, while he was working on scaffolding. Local media reported that upon being questioned, the shooter – who fired from his balcony – said he had wanted to hit a pigeon.
On July 27, a 19-year-old Senegalese barman was beaten near Palermo while the attackers yelled racist insults at him. This episode was caught on camera and the two attackers, 33 and 37, are being prosecuted. The racist motive was recognised in this case.
And last week, a Moroccan man was killed after a car chase in Aprilia, south of Rome. Three men, who later said they believed him to be a thief, decided to take justice into their own hands, and later denied any racial motive. The killing, and whether the Moroccan man’s death was a result of the accident or the beating that ensued, are being investigated.
Naletto says that Chronicles of Ordinary Racism had warned about normalising racist speech in 2009.
“Today, we think we are in a phase where we’ve made a qualitative leap: from normalisation and legitimation, we are now talking about reclaiming the act, a step further,” Naletto said.
“In the past few months, we have seen several cases where violence not only took place, but the perpetrator also took responsibility for the act. And whenever this was done online, it was supported by countless messages of support, which were as violent.”
While acknowledging that recent developments have stoked racism, such as having an openly xenophobic party such as the League at the helm, she believes that the polarisation of Italian society has taken place over several years.
“For us long-term migrants, we have seen the repercussions of bad reception,” said Ndiaye Elhadji Omar, the uncle of Cisse Elhadji Diebel, the Senegalese vendor shot last Thursday, referring to Italy’s dysfunctional migrant system.
Elhadji has lived in Italy since 1993 and is a social worker at a reception centre.
“The government parks people in reception centres. It takes up to two, three years before they go through the [asylum] commission and get a stay permit, without the opportunity to learn the language or integrate,” Elhadji said.
“When an Italian takes a gun and hits a migrant, it is like the government fired the shot.”