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 (Lynne Rienner), 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 guerrilla 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.