It is not a song, but it has become the refrain of the moment: “Attenzione, borseggiatrice! Attention, pick pocket!” (Watch out for pickpockets!). Monica Poli’s phrase to alert tourists in Venice to the presence of street thieves has spread like wildfire through mobile phones around the world and the author of it has become a star on social networks, especially on TikTok . The dynamics of his videos is always the same: he records a scene where there is usually a large concentration of people and shouts, in a deafening voice, he warns with his mythical motto that there is a possible pickpocket in the area about to deploy the classic tricks to steal the purse of some clueless passerby. The alleged robber in question usually runs away, covering his face. Sometimes, the woman even records the consummated robbery in a flagrant way.
Poli, 57 and a resident of Venice, where she is a councilor for the ultra-right League, has recently become famous on the networks, but she has spent years patrolling the streets of her city and warning visitors. She is part of a group known as Cittadini Non Distratti (Undistracted Citizens), who go around the city yelling at what they think are thieves stealing wallets, passports and other items from tourists’ bags. The group, which was denounced in the past for attacks on foreigners, rejects on its Facebook page being racist or inciting violence against migrants.
These amateur vigilantes sometimes report suspected pickpockets to the police. They have been active for several decades, and are well known in the city, but it was only recently that they made the leap to social networks, where they have hundreds of thousands of followers and their videos have gone viral, partly thanks to the particular e Poli’s unmistakable voice. Now, tourists recognize her, record her and ask her for photos on the street. Many encourage her to continue and thank her for her work.
The Cittadini Non Distratti group calls on the institutions to introduce “a permanent team of anti-pickpocket guards in plain clothes.” The group was founded at the end of the 1990s by Franco Dei Rossi, a street painter, together with merchants and other workers in the tourism sector who wanted to protect their businesses and raise awareness among citizens and institutions about the magnitude of the pickpocketing phenomenon.
“Racist patrols in Venice”
Despite the reach that their initiative is having lately and the thanks they receive from half the world, their actions are accompanied by some controversy. The group is an old acquaintance for Italians. National newspapers already talked about these citizen patrols decades ago, due to a series of attacks, often against people of foreign origin, who were allegedly caught stealing tourists’ wallets. In 1996, Il Corriere della Sera spoke of “racist patrols in Venice” and noted the case of four members of this “kind of patrol created by merchants from Venice” accused of beating up an Algerian citizen. In 2000, the newspaper La Repubblica collected information that mentioned another person of Algerian origin who had been stabbed, in front of numerous witnesses, by two members of the citizen group who had caught him stealing a young woman’s wallet. The mayor of Venice at that time, Massimo Cacciari, criticized the initiative and asked citizens if they witnessed any robbery of this style to report it to the authorities instead of taking justice on their own.
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On the Facebook page of Cittadini Non Distratti they explain that they do not “reference any ethnic group or incite racism”. “Thieves who steal freely every day, thieves who ruin the vacations of thousands of tourists and who ruin the image of Venice are being pointed out,” they add. And they ask that “unwelcome comments, incitement to violence and racial discrimination” be avoided, which sometimes appear in many of the comments left by their followers.
In an interview with The New York Times, Monica Poli denied that the political positions of the League, the far-right party to which she belongs, are reflected in the anti-pickpocket citizen patrols. “Cittadini volunteers do not adhere to any political party, nor does politics affect our goal, which is to help local security forces wherever possible,” she said.
Poli’s famous videos, applauded on countless occasions or used as memes or even humorously, take on another dimension when his political affiliation is taken into account. The League, led by Matteo Salvini, has criminalized immigration on numerous occasions.
In the same interview, Poli explained that she works as a cleaner in the morning and that in the afternoon she patrols the Venetian streets looking for pickpockets. She also reported that the police have never asked her to stop this activity and she confessed that her intention is to protect tourists because “tourism in Italy is very important.”
Piazza San Marco, in Venice, crowded with tourists in August 2022. Mirco Toniolo
The case of Venice is particular, there the coexistence between resisters and tourists, fundamental for the economy of the city, is a traditionally sensitive matter. There are fewer and fewer residents and more and more visitors. Against this backdrop, groups that denounce common crime and vandalism with this approach are gaining particular attention.
Beyond this city, the internet pages and social networks dedicated to reporting episodes of street crime and urban deterioration have been gaining a lot of visibility in Italy lately. Their success, in part, is due to the fact that they add fuel to the fire of a media discourse that has been maintained for years in some newspapers and television, with a sensational overtone, which tries to convey the idea, with alarmist tones, of a security problem in increase.
Although the problem exists, contrary to what emerges from certain public complaints, the phenomenon of petty crime is not increasing, but rather has been declining for years. In Venice, according to an investigation by Il Sole 24 Ore, complaints of street robberies decreased by about 20% between 2021 and 2022, compared to the previous period. Although alleging that common crime represents an emergency lacks support, various political formations, particularly on the right and the ultra-right, often use the information, also taking advantage of it to attack certain types of immigration, and offer a distorted picture.
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