Rackets: Are Courts Targeting Your Family?

Have Probate Courts Become a Crime Syndicate?

A Peek Via: The Economist

Originally Published: October, 2014

THE protection racket was one of the first businesses the Sicilian mafia entered into. Mafiosi have shaken down firms, large and small, on the island for over 150 years. In the 1990s it is thought that 90% of business owners paid a “pizzo”—slang for beak, as in “wet your beak”—to keep hoodlums from their doors. The custom is so entrenched that many people assume it to be intractable.

Some brave figureheads have attempted to rally businessmen to take a principled stand against the crime syndicates. Yet when such heroes arrive, they can end up fighting an unwinnable war on two fronts. They must not only be wary of mafiosi with guns, but also the wrath of other merchants, for whom paying up has simply become a habit built up over decades.

A new paper by Guido Palazzo of the University of Lausanne and Antonino Vaccaro of IESE Business School, to be published in the Academy of Management Journal next year, opens with the tale of one such man who found himself pincered. Libro Grassi was a clothing-factory owner who publicly refused to pay protection money in the late 1990s. He was eventually gunned down for his principles, but not before being ostracised by his peers, who accused him of tarnishing the image of Sicily.

Mr Palazzo argues that societies dominated by organised crime are remarkably resistant to change. “Many Sicilians consider paying protection money to the mafia perfectly legitimate,” he writes. “Libero Grassi found no support among his peers because his decision to challenge the practice publicly was perceived as inappropriate in his social context.” Yet, as the paper goes on to explore, in the past few years there has been a remarkably successful campaign against the pizzo. It has succeeded, say the authors, precisely because it did not have such a figurehead to drive it.

In 2004 a group of seven students who were hoping to open a open a small business in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, got frustrated with the mafia’s meddling. One night, they anonymously plastered the walls of the town with hundreds of posters which read, simply: “A society that pays the Pizzo is a society without dignity.” Although the protagonists were naturally keen not to identify themselves, they captured the island’s imagination. So, as a next step, they launched a campaign called “Addiopizzo”, or “Goodbye pizzo”. Rather than try to convince resistant business owners to change their behaviour, they persuaded 3,500 ordinary citizens to sign a declaration saying they would buy goods from shops which did not pay the mafia. Thus emboldened, they presented the list to a local newspaper.

Once they had proven that there was a commercial benefit in refusing to pay a pizzo, the students moved on to the shop owners themselves. In secret, one-on-one meetings they encouraged individual merchants to sign up to Addiopizzo. Those that agreed were given a banner that could be placed in shop windows telling customers that they were refusing to pay protection money. Importantly, the list was only disclosed, and the banners distributed, once they had mustered a hundred signatories.

The results have been remarkable. Addiopizzo has been the most successful campaign against racketeering in the island’s history, says Mr Palazzo. Some 20% of shops now declare that they don’t pay the mafia. Additionally, reports to the police of attempted coercion rose from 178 in 2004 to 260 in 2011.

The key to the success of Addiopizzo, says Mr Palazzo, is that values were changed from the bottom upwards. If thousands of ordinary customers signal their intention to change their behaviour, there is little pressure the mafia can bring to bear on them. By linking the change in mindset to “dignity”, a deep-rooted Sicilian value, Mr Palazzo says they also cleverly reclaimed the idea that standing up to the mafia was socially appropriate. And by signing up shops quietly, and then releasing the list as a fait accompli, mafia bosses, used to dealing with top-down protests, found themselves submerged by a movement rising from beneath their feet. By the time they recognised the threat, it was too late.

Mr Palazzo says that other business movements can learn much from Addiopizzo. Most important is the power of producing a positive message. The Sicily campaign worked because the consumers demonstrated that it was in the shop owners’ commercial interest to resist organised crime. This lesson can be applied to other areas, such as global warming or promoting socially responsible consumption, says the professor. In such cases, he thinks, the emphasis is too often on the apocalyptic consequences of the status quo, rather than giving positive reasons to change. As the mafia may be learning, changing values, rather than peddling fear, can make for better results.