It may not be a song, but it has certainly become the catchphrase of the moment: “¡Attenzione, borseggiatrice! ¡Attenzione, pickpocket!” or “Watch out, pickpocket!” Monica Poli’s message to alert tourists in Venice to the presence of street thieves has spread fast through everyone’s cell phones, and its mastermind has become a star of social media, especially on TikTok. Her videos always have the same theme. She films a scene where there is usually a large concentration of people and, in a booming voice, warns with her trademark warning slogan that there is a possible pickpocket in the area about to perform the classic tricks to snatch the purse of an unsuspecting passerby. The suspected thief in question usually rushes away, covering his or her face. Sometimes, the woman even manages to record the act of theft.
57-year-old Poli, a resident of Venice, where she serves as a councilor for the far-right Lega Nord party, has recently shot to fame on social media, but she has been patrolling the streets of her city and warning visitors for years. She belongs to a group known as Cittadini Non Distratti [Undistracted Citizens], who go around the city shouting at those they believe to be thieves stealing wallets, passports and other items from tourists’ bags. The group, which has been denounced in the past for assaults on foreigners, denies on its Facebook page claims it is racist or incites violence against migrants.
Occasionally, these amateur vigilantes report would-be pickpockets to the police. Although they have been operating for several decades and are well known in the city, they have recently hit social media, where they have gained hundreds of thousands of followers and their videos have gone viral, partially thanks to Poli’s unique and unmistakable voice. Now, the tourists recognize her, film her and ask her for photos on the street. Many urge her to continue and thank her for her work.
The Cittadini Non Distratti group is appealing to the institutions to introduce “a permanent team of anti-pickpocket vigilantes in civilian clothes.” The group was founded in the late 1990s by a street painter, Franco Dei Rossi, together with shopkeepers and other workers in the tourism sector. They were keen to protect their businesses and to raise awareness among citizens and institutions of the extent of the pickpocketing issue.
“Racist patrols in Venice”
Despite the recent popularity of their initiative and the messages of thanks they have been receiving from many parts of the world, their actions are also accompanied by a degree of controversy, as the group represents a familiar face to Italians. National newspapers previously reported on these citizen patrols decades ago, following a series of assaults, frequently against foreigners, who were allegedly caught swiping tourists’ wallets. In 1996, Il Corriere della Sera talked about “racist patrols in Venice” and reported the case of four members of this “kind of patrol formed by Venetian shopkeepers” who were accused of beating up an Algerian citizen. In 2000, the newspaper La Repubblica collected information regarding another person of Algerian origin who had been stabbed, in the presence of numerous witnesses, by two members of the citizen group when they had caught him stealing a young woman’s purse. Massimo Cacciari, the mayor of Venice at the time, slammed the initiative and called on citizens to report any such theft to the authorities rather than take the law into their own hands.
On the Cittadini Non Distratti Facebook page, they clarify that they do not make “reference to any ethnic group nor do they incite racism.” The group “singles out thieves who steal freely every day, thieves who ruin the vacations of thousands of tourists and ruin the image of Venice,” they add. They also call for the avoidance of “inappropriate comments, incitements to violence and racial discrimination,” which sometimes surface 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 Lega, a far-right party to which she belongs, are reflected in the anti-pickpocket citizen patrols. “Cittadini volunteers do not adhere to any political party and politics does not affect our goal, which is to support local law enforcement whenever possible,” she said.
Poli’s famous videos, widely praised or used as memes or even as a humorous reference, take on a different dimension when her political affiliation comes into play. Lega, headed by Matteo Salvini, has criminalized immigration on numerous occasions.
In the same interview, Poli explained that she works as a cleaner in the mornings and in the afternoons she patrols the Venetian streets on the lookout for pickpockets. She also said that the police have never asked her to stop this activity, and told the U.S. paper that her intention is to protect tourists because “tourism in Italy is very important.”
Venice’s case is quite particular. Here, the coexistence between tourists and residents, which is key to the city’s economy, is a traditionally sensitive issue. The number of residents is dwindling, while the number of visitors is on the rise. Given this scenario, groups denouncing petty crime and vandalism with this approach are gaining special prominence.
In addition to the patrols in this city, websites and social media pages devoted to denouncing incidents of street crime and urban decay have been increasingly gaining visibility in Italy lately. Their success is partly because they add fuel to the fire of a media narrative that has been running for years in some sensationalist newspapers and television channels, which use scaremongering tones to convey the idea of a growing security problem.
While there is certainly a problem, contrary to some public reports, petty crime is not on the rise, but has actually been on the decline for years. In Venice, according to an investigation by Il Sole 24 Ore, the number of reports of street theft decreased between 2021 and 2022 by around 20%, compared to the previous period. Although there is a lack of support for the claim that petty crime is an emergency, various political parties, particularly those on the right and far-right, often exploit the information, even using it to attack certain types of immigration, and this can paint a very distorted picture.
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