In the night of September 4 to 5, 2014, 16-year-old Davide Bifolco was shot and killed by the carabinieri (military police) in his own neighborhood in Naples, Italy. Seven months later his friends, family and the supporting social movements have not forgotten his brutal murder at the hands of the state. Last month, April 18, a protest of roughly 800 people marched through the city center for hours, shouting Davide’s name and demanding justice.
The story starts in Naples’ Rione Traiano neighborhood, a poor and rough part of the city where the state’s power is always shared with the local camorra. On that tragic night Davide mounted a scooter together with two friends, a common sight in Naples. They bypassed a police roadblock because their vehicle was not insured. The police later claimed, moreover, that one of the boys had broken “house arrest”, though this appears to have been a lie.
The carabinieri chased and followed them into the neighborhood, finally ramming their scooter, throwing the boys to the ground. When the pursuit continued on foot one officer decided to shoot Davide, killing him on the spot. The cop later claimed he tripped over the curb, causing him to accidentally pull the trigger, though he did not bother to explain why he was running with his gun out in the first place.
The nights that followed saw big protests in the neighborhood, with police cars set on fire. “The state doesn’t protect us but kills us. Let’s defend ourselves!”, one banner proclaimed. Some people from the neighborhood recalled (though others dispute this) how in the weeks after the shooting the police was not able to enter the district. Their cars were reportedly pelted with stones or they were confronted by angry people. Davide’s brother, Tommaso Bifolco, told reporters: “Around here we see a lot of deaths but last night an entire neighborhood came out into the streets and you know why? Because it wasn’t a mobster that got killed but an innocent boy.”
Another neighborhood protester, Annalisa, expressed her anger to reporters after the nightly protests that followed Davide’s murder: “What happened is shameful. The police should defend us and instead they killed an innocent boy. Here in the Traiano neighborhood, we don’t want the police anymore.” In one of the protests in the days following the murder, the neighborhood people marched to a local police station where they demanded from the police chief that he take off his hat out of respect for Davide. He did so, a symbolic act that his superiors did not appreciate and scolded him for.
A complicating factor in this part of Italy is the presence of the camorra, a second state besides the state, which partially takes on the state’s functions of control, order, welfare (taking care of neighborhood people, offering jobs, and so on), and taxation. Activists from the neighborhood report that camorra people were also present in the protests. On Saturday, September 6, when the protests in the neighborhood continued, it was the camorra that told them to stop. The protests disrupted their drugs trade, especially since the weekend traffic makes Saturday a major selling day.
At the same time, the labeling of the Rione Traiano neighborhood as a camorraarea has also been unjustly used by Italy’s mandarins and intellectuals to stigmatize all its inhabitants. Framing the people who grew up in poverty as criminals and dangerous classes serves to justify the militarization of these areas. It even made one wretched columnist, 48 hours after the murder, pen a defenseof the police forces and berate the protesters to never “lose the respect for the uniform that represents our state,” implicitly justifying the “accidental” murder. We thus need to be explicit in our differentiation between the majority of the neighborhood people and the camorra organizations.
In the months since his murder, the response has broadened. On September 9, an organization of the unemployed which marched through the center in solidarity with Davide was beaten by the police. On September 29, a silent march was held in Rione Traiano for Davide’s birthday. On December 29, another protest took place in the neighborhood for his name day (of equal importance as the birthday), organized by his family. These and other protests were organized by his friends, family and a neighborhood group called ‘Committee Soccavo’. In the first month, the church, too, was very active, organizing small protests nearly every day that left from the church to different places in the city.
The goal of these protests was first and foremost to find out the truth and obtain justice. The shooter had to be held accountable and the cover-up lies had to be unmasked. These lies included the story of the presence of a fugitive on the scooter and the sickening portrayals of the dead teenager as a petty criminal, both meant to justify or explain away the police killing.
The cop, for now, has been temporarily suspended from duty. The first investigative phase of his case finished in March, ending up in the accusation of “manslaughter by inexperience in handling weapons” — a formulation that sounds troubling, to say the least. The hearings will begin this month. Portraying his death as a mere accident seems to drive home the need for sustained protests and pressure on the local government.
The social movements in Napoli have also been very actively involved in these mobilizations and solidarity actions. Soon after the murder, a committee of most leftist organizations was formed, with Davide’s family involved as well. This committee focused, on the one hand, on raising money (via benefit dinners, and so on) to pay for the legal costs of the family, enabling them to pursue the judicial processes.
The rest of the focus was on mobilizing for a big protest, which took place on April 18. The mobilization included writing articles, handing out thousands of leaflets and spreading posters throughout the city. But it also consisted of visiting high schools in the neighborhood with a big banner calling for the protest. Moreover, a new organization (named “Davide lives. The pain does not stop us”) was formed which combines the struggle for justice with social activities for youngsters in the neighborhood. Two weeks ago, for instance, a football tournament was held with 50 kids from the neighborhood, showing the social purposes of the mobilizations as well: providing hope and alternatives.
The protest itself was a passionate march through the city, with his friends and acquaintances (dressed in T-shirts with his picture and supporting texts) filling the front lines. It was a heartbreaking sight to see and hear these young people singing their lungs out: “Davide vive con noi,” Davide lives with us. Several of them had their wrists tattooed with his name.
Comrades tried to make the participants and public conscious of the fact that the injustice that was done in this case was connected to more widespread problems. They had prepared placards with the faces of others who have been killed by the cops in Italy, from activists to African migrants. Connecting this case to state violence in general, one of the banners read “I can’t breathe”, referring to Eric Garner’s last words when a New York cop choked him to death.
There could not have been a more appropriate banner.
Most people in the world are faced with an increasingly militarized system of repression and control. This system is aimed first of all at poor people, controlling their behavior and giving a sense of order and safety to middle- and upper class citizens. Davide was one of those poor people. Trapped in poverty, he and his friends tried to avoid a fine for driving without insurance. The police saw them as street punks who needed to be disciplined, and treated them as such.
At the same time, this system is also aimed at all those who dare to challenge authority. This includes defiant activists, such as Carlo Giuliani and many others the world over. It is also in poor neighborhoods, however, that we find that spirit of rebellion against authority, the bravery to disobey orders. Perhaps it is also in this shared spirit that we can find the hope for solidarity and future struggles.
Jelle Bruinsma is a PhD researcher in History at the European University Institute in Florence, and an editor for ROAR Magazine. He would like to thank comrades of the Ex OPG Occupato “Je so’ pazzo” and people from the neighborhood for providing him with a lot of the necessary information.