A Bus Ride in Rome, Navigating Twin Seas of Resentment

In the wake of a seemingly inexplicable attack on a public bus by a mob of immigrants, a journalist in Rome rides the 508 bus at night, navigating a maelstrom of rage, fear and frustration among the Italian capital’s underclass, both immigrants and natives.

“HAVE you ever taken the 508 night bus? Try it. Listen to those commuters who have been paying their season ticket and putting up with this absolute disgrace forever, and then we’ll talk about it!” This invitation to journalists appeared in the comments section after a news article. Twice, as the national press has reported, a bus from Rome’s city limits to an outlying suburb has been attacked by groups of immigrants. Windows were broken; drivers intimidated. This prompted protests against the alien presence, patrols, and more violence. The city’s Corcolle district has become a synonym for a powder keg, the 508 bus the front line.

“Have you ever taken the 508?” A few days after the incident, I accept the invitation. I take the subway to Ponte Mammolo and walk to the Atac company station. A dozen people are waiting patiently, with plastic shopping bags, diamante-owl-embellished handbags, and clear bags stuffed with rolls of toilet paper. The walls are covered with scrawled invocations: ‘Children of the same rage’, followed by a hammer and sickle; ‘No blacks’ at journey’s end, complete with a backwards swastika; but the one that sums them all up is ‘Shit life’, with no symbol at all.

The bus arrives late. The passengers climb on, grumbling; the driver promptly gets off. To the protests he responds, “I am a human being first and a driver second, you’ve gotta understand that!” The only ones who do understand are his two off-duty colleagues with licorice sticks lolling in the corner of their mouths like unlit cigars. They watch the immigrants with their mountains of toilet paper, shaking their heads: “What did we do to deserve these?” The wait for the bus to leave is a Babel of voices on cell phones: everyone is travelling alone and talking with someone far away, in Moldavian, Nigerian, Pakistani, even Italian. You don’t have to be a polyglot to sense that the only topic of conversation is the struggle to survive. Not to live – that luxury travels on other lines. The universal watchword here is ‘euros’, preceded by paltry numbers in whatever language. Then ‘bill’, ‘interest to pay’, ‘late’. The driver returns and makes several unsuccessful attempts to start the bus, variously invoking “Our Lady of Sorrows”, before finally managing. Only then do the two women smoking on the bench rush to squeeze in between the closing doors. One is black, the other white. The comment is, “These Africans, they do want they want.” “But if we Italians say so, then we’re the bad guys.” “Best keep quiet; no government is going to stick up for us.” “Especially now, after what’s happened.” But some voices have spoken up.

A few hours earlier, I listened to local radio station Rtr 9-9, which has outstripped the morning football fan shows for popularity, at least among Rome’s taxi drivers. The show was called ‘Cor veleno’ (poison heart), presented by Luca Casciani, heir to a tradition of politically incorrect demagogues. He passionately defends the Italian marines held [for murder]in India and Daniele the minor from Torpignattara accused of killing with a punch a drunken immigrant who had spat in his face. He attacks, among others, Rome mayor [Ignazio] Marino (“He telephoned the driver who was attacked? What crap.”), the compassionate TV directors from the political left (“Take a migrant into your nice houses in Coppedè, why don’t you”) and chef Carlo Cracco (“He can’t advertise chips and be taken seriously”). The point isn’t how many listeners (quite a few) or how many Likes on Facebook he has but whether his view is representative, whether it is spreading. About the bus attack, this is what he said, transcribed from the podcast: “The forty of you who attacked a female driver, you are in Italy on the mooch; you are a problem, and yet you have the gall to protest? This is where we need a lunatic, someone with a machine gun in his car who takes out thirty-four of them. Out of forty, six get away? That’s the problem: that six of them got away. Six people who tried to destroy a vehicle belonging to the country that supports them, vile parasites. Would that they had drowned in the Strait of Sicily; that would be forty bastards fewer to attack an Atac bus driver.” He goes on to clarify that this has “nothing to do with racism”, that the “bastard”, the “monkey”, is whoever commits these acts, regardless of the color of their skin. The speaker endorses these and similar views. He would never talk of “taking things out of context”, as the politicians whom he lambasts do.

In the name of ‘balanced coverage’, I include a comment espied on the webpage that I mentioned at the start, a reply to an embittered user in dubious Italian: “Racist, I hope the war makes you emigrate and die in the sea trying to make America like the Italians in the 20th century.”

The 508 bus picks its way between two seas of resentment, with one ever-present companion: litter. It’s like a guard rail: heaps of garbage on Via Prenestina, on Via Polense, in Roccalumera. The worst accumulations are often near the stops, like non-flowerbeds around the post. Sometimes they accompany a prostitute from Eastern Europe hovering on the curb or sitting alongside a mound. At the junction with a side street, a placard urges ‘Collect the garbage in this street, too, thanks’. Which begs the question: ‘too’? Where else do they do it?

“Mr Fortini, president of AMA [Rome’s santitation department], have you ever taken the 508?”

I start talking to the old lady next to me, a commuter who is crumbling under the stream of problems that she has just poured into her telephone.

“Anyway, I know what you’ll write: that it’s a war among the have-nots. Then you’ll lose interest. You lot prefer wars among the rich; you certainly talk about those.”

Such as?

“Berlusconi and his wife. Or Montezemolo [prominent tycoon]and that other one with the jumper. There the loser wins thirty million euros, but I earn six hundred a month, and I spend three hours every day on this bus.”

In the Tor Tre Teste district, a wall proclaims ‘Death to the rich’.

Two black men get on with mirror sunglasses and smartphones. One has a picture of himself, bare-chested, on the screen. It’s as if they’ve come out of a Kanye West video rather than this alley between the ‘Parco della Mistica’ sports centre and the ‘Free-range eggs’ sign. On the information portal Dinamo, somebody calling themselves Anteo Zamboni – the boy who tried to kill Mussolini and was lynched – has an alternative explanation of the Corcolle bus attacks: “Quite a few drivers don’t stop when there are lots of migrants at the bus stop. Hence the reaction.” Over the top and unjustifiable nonetheless. The portal’s editor, swamped by furious messages, states that the no-stop “has been confirmed by various trade unions, which consider it unacceptable but are demanding better conditions for the drivers.” When I ask ‘my’ 508 driver and his colleagues, the answer is “How many blacks did you see at the stops? Twenty? And how many did we pick up? Twenty. Then, if it’s dark and you don’t see someone … these things happen. You must be joking, right?”

What is not a joke is the bitter life of all these people – whether Italians or non-EU immigrants, whites or blacks – who take this bus every day to work or, worse still, to look for a job after losing the last one. Impatience has many causes, and it is not necessarily the fundamental one that makes it all boil over. This bus transports a whole world of frustrations, disappointments, and hopes lost either with time or with migrations; at the window, mountains of garbage, buildings of dubious legitimacy, and traffic right into the countryside all go by. When the government convinces itself that Rome is only what the Americans see of it at the Oscars and what all the others see on their organized tours, it governs only where the lights shine, failing to notice the encroaching darkness.

“Mayor Marino, have you ever taken the 508 bus?”

You might need your bodyguards.

Gabriele Romagnoli Translated from Italian by International Boulevard