Taking a Stand

White Pizzo Sticker

“A society that pays protection money is a society without dignity”

All that is necessary
for evil to triumph
is for good men to do nothing.
Edmund Burke

Just a few days ago, Pope Francis excommunicated the Mafia from the Catholic church.  That’s right!

He visited Calabria, southern Italy, and denounced the Mafia “using the strongest language he has to date” saying, “Those who in their life have gone along the evil ways, as in the case of the Mafia, they are not with God.  They are excommunicated!”

As a prelude to this visit, he unflinchingly declared to the Mafia in no uncertain terms, “Hell…awaits you if you continue on this road.”

And then he decided to visit an area where the Mafia tries to portray themselves as upstanding religious men.  It was there in an outdoor mass that he boldly delivered his power-punch message for all to hear.  No apologies.  No side-stepping.  No mincing words. No kidding.  Then he left by helicopter back to Rome.

Can we just all arise and give this man a standing O?  Bravo Pope Francis!

My daughter, Ashley is currently serving a mission in Italy and has spent the majority of her time in Palermo, Sicily, where the Mafia has an obvious looming presence.  In fact, their presence is especially felt in the extortion racket chokehold they have on local businesses, called the Pizzo.

The Pizzo – Protection Money
Pizzo is the big elephant in the room that no one likes to speak of publicly.  Pizzo is a Sicilian term for “protection money” the Mafia coerces from businesses.

An estimated 80% of Palermo businesses reluctantly fork out the cash.  Across Southern Italy, the Mafia is reported to earn around 20 billion euro/year in extortions.  The pizzo rates start at a few hundred euros/month for small businesses, on up to thousands for larger companies.

Those who don’t pay reap the percussion: harassment, arson, physical harm, even death. Everyone knows the Mafia means business, and that is what makes the actions of a few courageous people so inspiring.

When a society is up against modern-day Gadianton Robbers, sometimes it takes just one individual to take a stand to motivate others to do the same.  In addition to Pope Francis’ recent heroic stance, here are a few local Sicilian heroes who paved the way.

Libero Grazzi

Libero Grassi tribute at the spot he was gunned down

“Dear Extortionists”
In 1991, Palermo businessman Libero Grassi was the first to refuse to pay the pizzo, taking out a full-page ad in the local daily paper, Giornale di Sicilia, that began with the words “Dear Extortionists,” denouncing the Mafia’s demands and publicly announcing his refusal to give in to coercion.

The same day, he reported the names of his would-be extortionists to the police, a move that resulted in five arrests. Eight months later, he was gunned down.
Shot three times in the head.

Today, he is somewhat of a folk hero, but when he was alive he was shunned by fellow businessmen and neighbors.

“And What if Somebody Did Something?”

Padre Pino Puglisi

Padre Pino Puglisi

Motivated by Grassi’s courage, in 1993 Catholic priest Padre Pino Puglisi had the guts to stand up against the Mafia. In an attempt to get youth off of the street (the Mafia’s main source of recruitment), Puglisi created the very first Youth Center – a safe haven for the underclass and underprivileged.

This was only the beginning of his crusade.

He then refused to allow Mafia bosses to walk at the front of religious processions (as they had done to show their superiority over priests).  He even peppered his sermons with urgings for the community to report anything they knew to the police (a taboo prior to this time).

His catch phrase, “And what if somebody did something?” is still sprayed on walls in Brancaccio, Sicily neighborhoods.

Despite the threats, Puglisi carried on, so they followed-through.  They shot him in the back, killing him on the steps of Palermo Cathedral.

Addiopizzo  Stickers PalermoAddiopizzo – Goodbye Protection Money!
And then came a grassroots movement in 2004.  What began as a few friends wanting to open a pub, but angered by the realization that they’d have to pay the Mafia, became an organization called Addiopizzo (translated, “Goodbye pizzo” “Goodbye protection money”).

This courageous group of young adults decided to take a stand in a big way.  Out in the streets they affixed hundreds of stickers around the city on lamp posts, walls, buildings, signs, and benches, denouncing the pizzo (picture of sticker is at the top of this post).

The sticker slogan:
“A society that pays protection money is a society without dignity”

And, guess what?  To their surprise, people snapped out of the stupor and came alive. That’s right.  The fed-up populace rallied to support the cause.  Thus began the Addiopizzo movement.

Today, hundreds of businesses are members of the Addiopizzo who refuse to pay.  The picture (right) is of stickers found in businesses who have joined the cause.  Shops with these stickers = “Pizzo-Free Zone.”

As long as someone pays the pizzo, we are not free.
Citizen of Palermo, Sicily

Just Say No

Popular restaurant in Palermo, Sicily

Popular restaurant in Palermo, Sicily

One of the first businesses to say No to the Mafia, and notably the most famous, is the Antica Focacceria San Francisco.

In 2005 when the Mafia came around for their monthly pizzo from the restaurant, the current owners said No, testified, and sent the perpetrators to jail.

Since then, with 24-hour armed protection, machine gun-toting police at the front doors, and undercover cops dining inside, they have prevailed.

Fun Fact:
The Arabic word Mahyas means “aggressive boasting,” which evolved into the Sicilian adjective Mafiusu, meaning, “arrogant domination by intimidation.”  And, people who have adopted this as their life’s philosophy are the Mafia.

Today, you can see “No Mafia” graffiti all over the Palermo, Sicily region, symbolic of a growing deep spirit of unified resistance against the people that have oppressed them for so long.

But the first to take a stand against the Mafia was Giovanni Falcone.

Giovanni Falcone

Giovanni Falcone

Speak Aloud and Walk with Head Held High
Giovanni Falcone was the Italian Prosecuting Judge who spent most of his professional life in the 1980s trying to overthrow the Sicilian Mafia.  He eloquently summed up his mission this way:

“He who is silent and bows his head
dies every time he does so.
He who speaks aloud
and walks with his head held high
dies only once.”
Giovanni Falcone

Falcone knew that giving his life for the cause meant more than just his professional life.  Sure enough, after a decade of fighting, they caught up to him.  May 1992 Falcone was killed, along with his wife and bodyguards.  It was a bomb to his car.

The widow of a bodyguard killed with Falcone, made this plea at the funeral in Palermo Cathedral:

“I address the men of the Mafia.  I know you are present here.  I know you are not Christians, but even for you forgiveness exists.  I forgive you, but you must go down on your knees and have the courage to change.”

Change.  Isn’t that what we all want?  Change individuals and society for the good?  All it takes to break corruption and stop the school bully from stealing lunch money is for one courageous person to take a stand and say, “Enough is enough!”

Pope Francis did that this week and joined the growing number of stouthearted.  With enough people inspired by their actions and emboldened in the cause, a revolution of goodness can sweep through, not just Italy, but where you live too.


(The Pizzo portion of this post was also published in Ashley’s blog ciaoroma.blogspot.com Addiopizzo – Fighting the Extortion Racket April 2014)



They are starting to put ads on our blog. We do not approve these and are not getting any residuals whatsoever, so I apologize for the content. I’ll see what I can do about it.


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