Gandhi vs. the Mafia

An anti-crime crusade conducted by neither cops nor vigilantes.


Not long ago, a prosecutor in Palermo heard something strange on a wiretap. A mobster was telling a henchman not to punish a store for failing to pay its pizzo, or protection money.

Palermo, the largest city in Sicily, is at the heart of mafia country. In the past, trade association surveys have shown that about 80 percent of the town's shops were paying pizzo. But now more than 900 Sicilian firms, a majority of them in Palermo, are publicly refusing to give money to the mob, thanks to one of the most remarkable social movements to emerge in the last decade. Addiopizzo—Italian for "Goodbye, protection money"—is resisting the racketeers with tactics you're more likely to associate with Gandhi or the Arab Spring than a campaign against organized crime. The store mentioned on that tapped telephone call was affiliated with Addiopizzo, and the mafiosi didn't think that trying to collect from it would be worth the inevitable trouble.

I read about that wiretap in Curtailing Corruption, a recent study by Shaazka Beyerle of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. While most of the literature on civil resistance looks at nonviolent movements to topple dictators or kick out occupying armies, Beyerle's book shines a light on campaigns to end various kinds of corruption. Here you can read about a 30-million-strong protest in Turkey against organized crime's penetration of the state. Or a movement in Uganda that monitors and reports abusive cops. Or a group in India that prints zero-rupee notes, so that when an official demands a bribe a citizen can give him a bill worth precisely nothing. (That may sound like an empty gesture, but the group cites many cases of the official immediately retreating. The note, after all, advertises the facts that the citizen knows her rights and that an organization is there to back her up.) But the Addiopizzo story is especially interesting, because it shows how tactics devised for struggles against states can be adapted to a fight against private criminals.

The story begins in 2004, when seven friends were discussing the possibility of opening a pub. When one mentioned the shakedowns they'd soon be facing, the conversation turned to the ugliness of the extortion system, and soon the group was brainstorming ways to protest La Cosa Nostra's stranglehold on Sicily. Their first move: to plaster stickers all over the city that said Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo è un popolo senza dignità—"An entire people who pays pizzo is a people without dignity."

At first the activists conducted these operations anonymously. But "they concluded," Beyerle writes, "that they had to come forward if they expected fellow citizens to do the same. Several went public together, to show that the group had no leader and also to protect themselves, as the Mafia's proclivity is to attack lone dissenters."

That umbrella of protection gradually spread wider, as the group began carrying out more than just symbolic protests and guerilla theater. The turning point came when the owner of a rural pub decided not to pay pizzo and as a result started to lose fearful customers. Addiopizzo started organizing outings to his bar every Saturday night, both to show their support and to keep cash flowing his way. The villagers started returning to the pub, and the mob, faced with mass defiance, decided to leave the place alone.

This evolved into a formal strategy: a reverse boycott of businesses that publicly promised not to pay protection money. Addiopizzo assembled a list of 3,500 people who had agreed to patronize places that rejected pizzo. With that in hand, the group was able to convince several enterprises to take a no-pizzo pledge and to put up an orange sticker advertising their stance. (Addiopizzo then found itself developing an investigatory arm, to make sure the owners were keeping their promises.) With time, the lists of both the anti-pizzo companies and the anti-pizzo customers grew longer. When the mafia retaliated by burning down a warehouse belonging to a business that had taken the pledge, Addiopizzo organized public support for the victims: collecting funds for unemployed workers, holding demonstrations against the assault, and using Italy's anti-mafia compensation laws to secure a new warehouse from the government. By refusing to pay for protection, the company had acquired a different sort of protection.

That wasn't the only way Addiopizzo became a benevolent counterpart to its enemy. Defeating the mob meant supplanting some of its social roles. "For some in Palermo," Beyerle writes, "the Mafia engenders a sense of authority and collective identity; the movement cultivates an alternative collective community based on nonviolent resistance and dignity." Sometimes the substitution was more specific than that. "The mob sponsors athletics—albeit as a front for money laundering. Addiopizzo supported a team, but through transparent contributions of clean money from extortion-free businesses."

It's tempting to describe this as a private revolt against a private tyranny, but neither side here is fully private. The Sicilian mob has more than a few public officials on the payroll, after all, and a mafia can itself be seen as a sort of proto-state with its own territory and services. (Structurally speaking, what Addiopizzo has organized looks a lot like a tax revolt.) And while Addiopizzo is in no way an arm of the state, it is happy to draw on resources like that compensation law—and it eventually started a spinoff, dubbed Libero Futuro, to help business owners who want to testify against mobsters in the courts.

But the officially sanctioned authorities are not the leading figures on either side of this story. This is a tale about organized crime running head-first into organized disobedience. The criminals in question may still be active, but the refuseniks are standing stronger than ever before.

NEXT: Byzantine Civil Service Fight in New Orleans Leads to 20 Percent Raises for Police Officers

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Given that the difference between organized crime and a government can be hard to discern, I see no reason why tactics that work against one wouldn't work against the other.

    1. Try not paying your taxes.

        1. Their cops aren't sociopaths.

          1. Yes they are. They're just (mostly) not *armed* sociopaths.

      1. Apparently the trick to get it to work is to let it be known publicly that you're not paying taxes, because then you get more sympathy.

    2. I'm still astonished to learn that in Sicily, some taxes are collected by subcontract to firms directly controlled by the mobs. So there really isn't that much differences.

  2. Sounds like there are simply too many people refusing to pay and that violence against one business could provoke widespread retaliatory acts against the mafia that would hurt their other operations.

  3. Structurally speaking, what Addiopizzo has organized looks a lot like a tax revolt.

    Astroturfed tea partiers. Figures. GET THOSE UNPATRIOTIC CHEATS, DON!

    1. And wait until Addiopizzo gets a little more power and control. Then they're gonna need more funding. And then they'll start a 'subscription' for their services. And then the Italian status quo will be back. The king is dead, long live the king.

      1. Private security firms? No monopoly on force? Such a fascinating case study.

  4. group that's resisting the racketeers with tactics you're more likely to associate with Gandhi or the Arab Spring than a campaign against organized crime.

    Tactics of the Arab spring? What good does raping western female reporters do?

    1. What, you a homo or something?

    2. Well, I can think of only just one thing off-hand, of good coming out of the raping of female western reporters, by Islamofascist goat-fucking barbarians? It puts the lie to all the oh-so-tolerant multiculturalism pedaled by lib-tard idjits? Obviously, not all Islamic peoples are barbarians, but some? WAY too many? are. I am tired of Americans not being able to speak the truth about such things, because of multi-culti idiots who have lost their moral bearings, and because, if you say, in school or in public, "too many Islamic people are barbarians", Islamic people will excuse it all by saying "but that's not the real Islam." OK, then, 50% of Islam people are goat-fuckers? Can I call them goatfuckers yet? 75% are goatfuckers? Are we there yet? 95% are goatfuckers, can I call them goatfuckers yet? Or am I STILL going to hear, "Oh, but that's not the REAL Islam"????!?!?! ? More to the point, when are the good Islamic people going to go and tar and feather, and/or beat the shit out of, the barbarian Islamic people?

      1. SO, it is Okay. You are among friends. You can tell us what you really think, you don't need to hide behind words. You are welcome here. Let it all out, really...

      2. As soon as good Americans tar, feather, and beat the shit out of barbaric police officers.

        1. Amen, Dude or Dudette, I am working up my nerve to go and try to do that... I hope I do not see it happening, I will have an awful time of it if it does... I get all beat to shit just serving jury duty or potential jury duty, thinking about stuff like this... Last time I had to do jury duty, I got all worked up, fearing a drug case, and it was... Running a god-damned fricking stop light!

          1. I suggest you start drinking heavily.

            Or stop, if that's what you've been doing.

            Your friend,

            1. Thanx for your kind words, Almanian, they have helped me... Good booze is a blessing from God, MeThinks, or perhaps a blessing from a Government Almighty that still allows me to drink it? Ah dunno... Well anyway, we are all trying our best to do right... ESPECIALLY us liberty-lovers, MeThinks... So we'll all keep on keeping on! Bottoms up! Cheers, Me-Friend!

              1. Nope, not heavy drinking, I am guessing meth.

      3. There you go. A God to Damn Us.

        1. "Yet believing that a pedophiliac illiterate transcribed the literal word of God still makes more sense than believing all men are created equal. Islam's refusal to allow critical analysis of itself is a sign of strength, not weakness."
          Holy Shiites, dude or dudette, I like your link, but it does scare the Shiites out of me... I sure dunno what it's gonna take to wake up liberty-lovers and fascism-haters... Keep on doing your part, I hope I can do mine right...

    3. What the hell is this Arab Spring thing that we are talking about? Wasn't that a figment of the imagination of liberal media?

      Next thing you know, we won't be able to read an article here on Reason without mention of global warming.

    4. I laughed when I saw a reporter and writer I like doing this to himself.

      The non-violent Arab Spring? C'mon, cut your losses here.

      1. Eh, the words "more likely to associate with" and "tactics" are nebbish enough to get it across the finish line. My bad.

  5. I have a quick fix for the whole problem: Put a law on the books, that says, if a business owner puts up an audio and video recorder(s) to constantly monitor his business office or counter(s), and he or she records ANY thug coming by to "ask" for protection money, said thug can be shot on sight, and the business owner and/or employee(s) will not be charged with any crime. Problem solved! WHERE are our brilliant lawmakers?!?!?!

    1. You do know that the mafia can follow someone home right?

    2. You go right ahead and plug a wiseguy, and see what happens. Do I have to wear a suit to your funeral, by the way?

      1. Plug the bastards, yes, that is what I am saying... Even at the price of my own life, plug the bastard! We do not get to live forever, so might as well plug a bastard or two, on our way out!!! Yes, I do 'fess up, it is WAY cloudy and murky, at times, to see who is an utterly unspeakable bastard, and who is not. But when you see one, for SURE, and ya KNOW it? And they are utter blights on the face of the Earth, utter life-sucking vampires? Take him out, even at the price of your own life, yes, go DO IT! And I will, if my conscience ever calls me to do it...
        ... No, I am informal, wear anything you like, or nothing at all, at my funeral... Funerals are for the living, not the dead, the dead are happy in Happy-Land, utterly blissfully... If they have made ONE iota, 1% effort, in obeying their conscience, they are in Happy-Land...

      2. I'd take my family in a vendetta over the wise guy's. Most of my family could drop a wise guy at 300 yards.

        1. And the Mafia doesn't have its own sharpshooters?



      1. +1 Everybody takes a beating sometime.

  6. So, when can we stop paying the organized crime gang in DC? Do we need to get some of that Adios Pizza stuff?

    1. Adios Pizza is an abomination. Shredded lettuce has no place on a pizza.

      1. So, its one Adios Pizza, and then its all like "Blecch. Adios, pizza."

        1. Mama mia!!

  7. All government ultimately depends on the consent of the people. When that consent is withdrawn, the government collapses. This includes unofficial governments like the Mafia.


  8. Do what Vito Corleone did. Meet the new boss...

  9. " While most of the literature on civil resistance looks at nonviolent movements to topple dictators or kick out occupying armies,"

    Look, we're all adults here. I'm sure we can settle our differences without resorting to non-violence.

  10. "I'm sure we can settle our differences without resorting to non-violence."

    Pretty damned funny, dude or dudette... Thanks for adding a good chuckle! Just PLEASE do not be threatening MEEEE w/yer "non-violence"!!! Ah resembles that remark... It implies moral superiority on yer part, which makes me feel BAD! StupidDog, ya make me LOOK BAD! Make MEEE feel BAD, willya!!?! I am GOOD; bad feelings about me are BAD!!! YEW (who imparted BAD feelings) must be bad!!!! (See, moral superiority jujitsu is not all that hard).

    1. I repeat my earlier recommendation.

      Vaya con Dios, SQRLSY

  11. They probably just haven't been given an offer they couldn't refuse.

  12. "Well there goes Sicilian civilization!" -Tony

  13. Dead thread. Missed it.


    Falcone would be proud.

    Nice to see but try this in Calabria across the water. 'Ndregheta is just about the most powerful and ruthless Mafia in the world. Omerta remains pretty entrenched there.

  14. The buckyballs exceeds at stress relief with its exclusive tangible feeling only buckyballs can offer. Similar to an endless piece of bubble wrap the buckyballs makes a calming ? as you shape it .The dynamic magnetic balls of the buckyballs can be used productively to alleviate stress. Many admit that magnets can be useful to health .The most calming attribute of the buckyballs is when it forms.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.