The posters were racist. Practically all of them. Living in Milano’s Piazzale Loreto, on the block next to the former Esso station where Benito Mussolini’s body had been strung up by the partisans, posters from Italy’s Lega Nord (now just Lega) focused on attacking refugees and Islam.
Fresh off the boat from London, albeit the Caribbean neighbourhood of Brixton, Italian politics were a bit jarring, to put it mildly. But, it was April 2009, a month before the European elections. Still run by Silvio Berlusconi, and his then-coalition partners the Lega Nord, the country’s financial capital, and the far-right party’s home were naturally full of propaganda.
Where better to erase the history of the resistance against fascism, and the death of its leader, than by covering our block with xenophobic propaganda? Given that this was also the single most diverse neighbourhood in Milano, overflowing with migrants from the MENA region, it was additionally important to paper over their presence this way.
I spent a lot of time writing about and photographing Piazzale Loreto over the next year. There wasn’t a day without something to see, whether it was camouflage-clad soldiers in jeeps come out of the connecting Via Padova, with blindfolded and handcuffed Arabs and Africans sitting in the back, or Critical Mass bike rides through the roundabout, blocking traffic out of solidarity with the refugees.
The flyering around my current neighbourhood, the rough and tumble Berlin neighbourhood of Neukölln, reminded me a lot of Milano this year. Granted, it has been a decade and the Germans are a lot nicer to the local refugees than the Italian security forces were in 2009. And the area I live is predominantly Muslim and has been for a while, first populated by Turks and Kurds, more recently by Syrians and Palestinians.
The vibe, as you can imagine, is very different. Yes, there is still a lot of political stress, and every now and then you see racist things happen on the street. But compared to Italy that year, it might as well be a touchy-feelie town on the West Coast of the United States, like my former home of San Francisco, or where I went to graduate school, Berkeley. There is a profound air of tolerance by comparison, that is clearly a product of the Holocaust.
Hence, the consistently uncontroversial, if not overtly positive messaging of all the EU elections posters that appeared in the area the last few weeks. With barely a fascist poster in sight, at least around here, with the exception of a few awkwardly placed Alternative für Deutschland posters, most of which were torn down by voting day, on Sunday, the messaging was positive and inclusive, if it touched on anything remotely diversity-oriented.
For a neighbourhood in which two-thirds of the residents can’t vote, because they come from countries outside the EU, like me, the posters are a little frustrating to see, too. Yes, if we ever obtain German citizenship, we would feel the same way about voting in EU elections, I’m sure. That’s the hard part, even for those of us who hold down decent jobs, own our own homes, and pay taxes. We should have voting rights already.
Germany, of course, isn’t perfect. For all of its obvious liberalism – my neighbourhood and Berlin writ large being an example – the country is riven with ambivalence about playing home to so many foreigners. Seeing all of these pro-EU, often English- language get-out-the-vote posters, I could not help but feel that Europe still has a lot of work to do.
Nonetheless, I was reassured by the greater politics of the effort. Here’s to many more years of it, with particular emphasis outside of Berlin. The images in this article should give you a good sense of why.
Commentary and photographs by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.