Role of race disputed in murder of Nigerian in Italy

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CIVITANOVA MARCHE, Italy — Two marches on Saturday in an affluent Italian seaside town on the Adriatic both demanded justice in the brutal broad daylight murder of a Nigerian at the hands of an Italian foreigner, but were divided by one word: racism.

A march of Nigerians living in the Italian province of Macerata was led by the victim’s tearful widow Alika Ogorchukwu and joined by two of her brothers. Organizers of the march said they did not want the search for justice clouded by accusations of racism which they say cannot be proven.

The second march, along the same route an hour later, was led by black Italians from across Italy who demanded that Italian authorities back down and acknowledge the role this race played in the murder of 29 July.

“Failing to name racism will not help us understand how to defeat it. Because racism exists in Italy,’ Selam Tesfaye, an immigrant activist based in Milan, told the second crowd of around 100 people. “If anyone at Civitanova wants to explain why it’s not racism, we’re here.”

A widely circulated video shows the Italian wrestling Ogorchukwu to the ground and strangling him. A man’s voice can be heard shouting for the attacker to stop, but no onlookers physically intervened, adding a layer of public outrage at their apparent indifference.

Police arrested an Italian suspect, Filippo Ferlazzo, 32, but quickly ruled out a racial motivation for the attack. The finding was confirmed by prosecutors who did not include racial motivation in the indictment, according to Ferlazzo’s attorney Roberta Bizzarri.

Police said Ferlazzo first hit Ogorchukwu with a crutch used by the salesman after he chased the Nigerian for 200 meters (yards) down a commercial street lined with high-end shops. Some accounts said Ogorchukwu complimented Ferlazzo’s companion when trying to make a sale or ask for change. Others said he touched the companion’s arm.

Townspeople have accepted the official version of events, blaming the Nigerian man’s death on an insistent street vendor unfortunately bumping into a man who has a criminal history of mental illness.

“It’s not a racist city,” said newsstand owner Domenico Giordano. “It’s an open city. If you behave well, you are welcomed and even helped.”

People left flowers and condolences on the sidewalk where Ogorchukwu was killed, outside a beachwear shop that was closed for lunch at the time. Store owner Laura Latino said she received negative feedback from as far away as Houston, accusing her of just standing there and doing nothing when she wasn’t even there.

“Be careful when judging a city of 45,000 people,” Latino said, adding that false rumors “ruin the reputation of the city.”

City officials have expressed concern that the killing is being politicized ahead of Italy’s snap parliamentary election on September 25.

Samuel Kunoun, a Nigerian trade unionist who organized the march with the victim’s family, said he did not believe the attack was racially motivated. Yet the role of race in the case is so charged that he kept the word “racism” on banners during the march which drew 200 people, mostly Nigerians.

“We don’t have to mix that with racism. What happened was someone who is not normal killed our fellow Nigerian,” Kunoun said. “We want this boy to pay for what he did, to be in prison for life. It is our justice.

But a manifesto for the second march, billed as the first-ever organized by black Italians in Italy, lists recognition of the role of race in the Ogorchukwu murder as primary among 11 demands. About 30 organizations said they would seek to join the prosecution as civil plaintiffs.

Ogorchukwu’s widow, Charity Oriakhi, is reluctant to say the murder was racially motivated.

“He’s just someone being mean,” Oriakhi told The Associated Press.

She said she and her husband had always felt welcome in Italy and he never recounted any negative interactions when selling. In fact, she said, he often came home with gifts from Italians for the couple’s 8-year-old son.

The couple met in the Tuscan town of Prato a decade ago, shortly after Ogorchukwu arrived in Italy, then moved back to the Marche region to an apartment above of a marble workshop in the small hillside town of San Severino.

The Nigerian government has condemned Ogorchukwu’s death and its foreign ministry has urged the Italian authorities to “rescue the perpetrator of the heinous act without delay”.

Not all Nigerians in Macerata Province deny a racial element.

“The word racism cannot be minimized because it exists,” said Daniel Amanze, who arrived in Italy from Nigeria as a student 40 years ago. He said he has seen racism become more “evident” in recent years as some politicians scapegoat immigrants to cover up “their bad administration”.

Amanze said Ogorchukwu’s killing had rekindled a sense of fear among Africans living in the Marche region, which had begun to dissipate following two other racially motivated attacks. One was a 2018 shooting by a far-right political activist targeting Africans in Macerata that left six injured. The other was the 2016 death of a Nigerian, Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi, who was attacked after defending his wife from racial abuse in the town of Fermo.

Ogorchukwu used a crutch because a car hit him while he was riding a bicycle a year ago, leaving him limping. Family lawyer Franceso Mantella said the street vendor continued to sell goods, from tissues to straw hats, even after an insurance settlement provided a bit more financial security with Oriakhi’s job of cleaning up a train station.

The widow said she last saw her husband when he offered her a sandwich at the station on the day of his death. She is haunted by the video and turns off the television at home so their son doesn’t see such footage.

“I saw the video,” she said, mimicking the attacker’s hold on her husband. “What hurts me the most is that there are people surrounded. They are making a video. No one to help. I wish someone would save him. Maybe he wouldn’t be dead .”

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Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria and Gianfranco Stara in Civitanova Marche contributed.

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