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Italy Struggles To Cope With Attacks On Poor Foreigners Incidents May Have Ignited Anti-Racism Movement

The traffic light turned red and the Gypsies stepped over the broken glass and piles of soggy leaves against the curb. One pleaded for change. Another ran his soapy squeegee over windshields.

A car slowed down and someone offered a plastic shopping bag with a wooden box inside. The box was opened. An explosion flung two of the Gypsies to the sidewalk, their blood trickling over the dirty curb.

The booby-trapped box was a special horror, even among Italy’s lengthening roster of anti-foreigner attacks. The reason: this time the victims were children, a 13-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother.

And as the children recover in a Pisa hospital, the March 14 attack has pushed debate - and concern - about racist violence in Italy to new dimensions.

Behind the compassion and cash offered to the victims, Italians have been forced to look inward. They note the reality of a growing population of poor foreigners, especially from Asia and North Africa. They also observe the thuggish backlash, which some predict may grow more vindictive as a shrinking job market and government cutbacks squeeze Italians.

“Social problems are on the rise so there is a reaction - hysterical and pathological - to go on the defensive,” said the mayor of Pisa, Piero Floriani. “The anger and frustration gets aimed one way - at the weakest.”

But by targeting children, the attackers may have unwittingly unleashed Italy’s most potent anti-racism movement yet.

More than 5,000 people took part in a march in Pisa last week. The hospital treating the children has been overwhelmed by cards, toys and aid offers. An appeal on the television news program collected 20 million lire, the equivalent of $12,000, for the victims.

In parliament, lawmakers fretted over where the country is headed.

“Every day, acts of violence are repeated against immigrants, refugees, Gypsies. But all Italians participate through their silence and passivity,” said Sen. Luigi Manconi. “This should make us afraid.”

The specter of organized terrorism against foreigners made the Pisa attack even more worrisome.

Eleven days before the bombing, a letter warning of another strike against Gypsies arrived at the mayor’s office in Cascina, a small town outside Pisa where a Bosnian-born Gypsy boy was injured in January by a bomb-rigged book of fairy tales. The letter was signed by the “White Brotherhood.”

Police found a handbill from a neo-Nazi group in the home of one of the three young men arrested for the Pisa attack. “Our faith is Nazism … our justice is death … It is just beginning,” the flier read.