In Palermo, paying “pizzo” or protection money used to be common practice. But now businesses say to the Mafia: Addiopizzo!
This article, by high school students Keya Dutt and Lusha Greer, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Keya and Lusha are students at School Year Abroad, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.
This story won an honorable mention in News Decoder’s 14th Storytelling Contest.
Unlike many residents of Sicily, Linda Vetrano spent her childhood relatively shielded from the Mafia.
Her parents adamantly warned her about the dangers of engaging herself with the organization. They were disgusted by Mafia mentality — the notion that one could automatically achieve upward mobility and power through relationships with members of organized crime — and ensured that Vetrano grew up without ever coming into contact with Cosa Nostra, the local Mafia branch.
As a result, when hundreds of small white stickers materialized around Palermo on the night of 28 June 2004, Vetrano was shocked. The stickers read, “A population that pays the pizzo is a population without dignity.”
“I remember thinking: I’m not doing anything to support the Mafia, so why are these stickers targeting me?” Vetrano said.
In Palermo, it is a common practice for the Mafia to blackmail business owners for monthly payments. In exchange, the business owners are promised a paradoxical sort of protection — both from and by the Mafia. This payment is known as “pizzo.” But the stickers claimed that an entire population was capitulating to the Mafia’s corrupt demands. Since Vetrano didn’t support the Mafia, why had the stickers conflated her with the pizzo-payers?
Fighting organized crime with a movement that lacks organization
As time went on and she familiarized herself with the nonprofit organization behind the stickers, Addiopizzo, a name that translates to “farewell pizzo,” Vetrano realized that although she wasn’t a business owner herself, she still bought from the stores that paid the pizzo. Consequently, a certain part of the money she paid was funnelled to the Mafia.
Passionate about the cause and eager to help incite change, Vetrano joined Addiopizzo in 2015. The organization operates without a leader or hierarchy, serving as an empowering voice for Sicilian business owners and other citizens alike.
After the night of the stickers, hundreds of businesses joined with Addiopizzo in refusing to pay pizzo. The organization publishes and regularly updates these names on an online list and provides the businesses with identifiable stickers for them to display in shop windows or above cash registers.
Vetrano describes Addiopizzo now as an “established reality” in Palermo. People recognize the legitimacy and power that the mission of the organization holds: to restore power and autonomy to the people of Palermo.
Addiopizzo is also acknowledged and appreciated by local law enforcement, Vetrano said.
Demonstrating that crime isn’t the only way to survive
Residents of Palermo have a natural inclination to remain wary and distrustful of the police; therefore, law enforcement relies on Addiopizzo to act as a middleman between them and business owners, Vetrano said. In turn, law enforcement protects and collaborates with the participating business owners to ensure and maintain their safety.
To spread awareness of its mission, Addiopizzo hosts “festa festivals”: fairs where business owners on the pizzo-free list are invited to host booths and showcase their products.
Addiopizzo is trying to reach out to youth through school visits and student tours. However, this has proved to be a challenge.
More focused on current global issues such as climate change, the younger generation of Palermo perceives the Mafia as a thing of the past. Yet Vetrano said that these two issues are interwoven, as the Mafia is involved in waste management systems that are environmentally harmful.
Vetrano hopes to raise awareness of the fact that by addressing Mafia issues around them, the youth can simultaneously combat larger issues on a more local scale.
In the future, Vetrano hopes that Addiopizzo expands its focus to cover other groups affected by the Mafia.
Keeping youth away from the Mafia and prison
Educativa Di Strada — a new project she’s involved in — aims to preventatively address youth incarceration. Many Sicilian children who grow up in underprivileged households are susceptible to extortion, manipulation and/or bribery by the Mafia to commit crimes.
These children lack a comprehensive awareness of the dangers of the Mafia and often feel like they have no other means of survival.
Educativa di Strada aims to empower these children, to show them that they can be something different through rehabilitation, education and occupational training. At least 10 children have already been directly affected by this project.
Vetrano recognizes the value of young voices. She applauds the new generation’s passion, drive and desire for a better world. She encourages Gen Z to to continue their fight for change.
She hopes that Addiopizzo — an organization originally founded by youth — can plant a small seed that will soon grow into something larger.
Three questions to consider:
- What spurred Linda Vetrano to join Addiopizzo?
- In what way did the businesses of Sicily try to free themselves from mafia “protection”?
- Do you think the Addiopizzo movement would work in other places where organized crime is powerful?
Keya Dutt is from Chicago, Illinois, and is spending her second year of high school studying at School Year Abroad Italy. When in the United States, she attends the Latin School of Chicago. She has lived in Chicago, Tokyo, Detroit, Hyderabad, Shanghai and Perth. Her favorite subject is History, and outside of class she enjoys Model United Nations. In the future, she hopes to major in History or English at university and eventually become a political journalist.
Lusha Greer is in her third year of high school, studying at School Year Abroad Italy. She is from Los Angeles, where she attends Westridge School for Girls. Her favorite subjects are History and English, and outside of class, she likes to read and go to museums with friends. She is keenly interested in journalism and politics.