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Was an “Asshole Mayor” Just What a Free Palermo Needed? Orlando Speaks Out

An interview with the Sicilian political leader elected once again to guide the city named Italian Capital of Culture 2018

Leoluca Orlando nel suo studio a Villa Niscemi: è stato eletto sindaco di Palermo per la quinta volta

Leoluca Orlando sits down to talk with La Voce di New York: born in 1947, professor of public law, long-term politician, re-elected mayor of Palermo in June. This interview runs through the political and personal history of the Mayor of the "Mediterranean's gateway." We talk about rights, emigration and refugees, America and Trump, the death penalty and terrorism, and his city's transition from the mafia capital to capital of the culture of welcome. 

Early August 2017, Palermo. Record heat as we enter Villa Niscemi, a historical residence immersed in a green park with beautiful geese that cross the walkways. Here we meet Leolouca Orlando, Mayor of the city. The newly re-elected Mayor welcomes us in his office, a small oval room, not remotely austere – it perfectly narrates Orlando who has made a mark and continues to make a mark in Palermo’s political history – the library, the recognitions, the city gonfalon, the flags, objects, and awards; a photo with Piersanti Mattarella, president of the Region of Sicily killed in 1980, and other random photos – a testimonial of Orlando’s history, a man who recently celebrated his 70th birthday after his fifth election into office. An international man and politician who in his long conversation with La Voce di New York ends as a jester would, that is with a provocation…

Mayor, is Orlando Palermo or is Palermo…Orlando?

“I think that there is an extraordinary intersection of fears, shame, hopes, and dreams that are both mine and of Palermitans. It’s as if, in some way, my love of the city and the love Palermitans have for their city have found in my role as Mayor a common ground, of sharing, of love, of commitment to change the city. The passage from Palermo, Mafia Capital to the Capital of Culture, which is no small thing, has substantially characterized my life and the life of those who live here. That’s the reason why I have always been elected both with and without a political party. The consensus of Palermitans went far beyond my party. For the last three years, I have no party and this is the final confirmation of a human and political experience that went from ‘son of the city’ to a brother of the city and its father.  I am, in some way, the son that became a brother and then a father to the community.”

The most recent elections in Italy have seen the chase of public-mindedness: is it that anti-politics won?

“Good politics won. What lost is politics, with the face of politicians that killed Piersanti Mattarella. What lost is politics that occupied institutions, that made Palermo the Mafia Capital and the Mayor of Palermo, as a rule, a friend of Mafia bosses and on occasion he too a Mafia boss. Those who won are those who rose up against this form of government from the beginning.”

When was Leoluca Orlando the politician born?

“My political life started January 6, 1980. My political life is an intertwining of my life with the life of Palermo. When Piersanti Mattarella was murdered, surrounding his lifeless corpse were myself, his brother Sergio, a professor and my university colleague (now president of the Republic of Italy, Ed.), and a young District Attorney on call, that Sunday, January 6. And who would happen to be on duty on Epiphany Sunday in 1980? No other than a certain Piero Grasso (today Senate President, Ed.). I was Piersanti’s legal advisor, and he had been my father’s university assistant. I used to run into him when I went to see my father. The killing of Piersanti forced me to choose: return to University, teach and be a lawyer, or get involved in politics. I was motivated by Piersanti’s family members and friends, compelled by their motivation you cannot allow Piersanti to die a second time. For 37 years, I’ve had Piersanti’s photo in my office, and I couldn’t bring myself to say no. They asked me to run for the imminent elections of City Council: a young professor who had no relationship with the Christian Democracy Party, that had never held elective and political office. Maybe I was one of the few Palermitans that Vito Ciancimino had never met, not even by chance, in an elevator or on a bus. And that was the start of the experience of this University professor who, in February 1980, said to the magistrates that Piersanti Mattarella couldn’t have been murdered without the complicity of Salvo di Salemi tax collector’s family, of Vito Ciancimino, and of the power of premier Giuilo Andreotti. February 1980.”

From 1980 to the present, it appears that the lobbying has gained strength and that politics has retreated. Who is defeating the Mafia and who is defending the citizens?

“The citizens themselves. There was a time, I’m talking about the ’80s, whoever fought the mafia was isolated. Not only when facing the adversary but also by having their adversary right next to them and within the workplace. Magistrates were adversaries of their colleagues, police officers of theirs, journalists of theirs, politicians of theirs, administrators of theirs, men of the Cloth of other men of the Cloth. This is the reason why in those terrible years, in the ’80s, whomever opposed the Mafia became an antimafia professional. And Piersanti Mattarella was an antimafia professional in every sense of the word, he was a confirmation of isolation. I was considered a communist — never having been a communist – because by definition communists were against the Government and the Government was the Mafia. It coincided exactly with the Mafia. Communists were against the Church and the Church was with the Mafia, identifying with the many realities, which had the face of a parishioner or a bishop. Whoever fought the Mafia was against information and media because the majority of journalists were in collusion with the Mafia. They were against the economy because a majority of entrepreneurs where in collusion with the Mafia. We were subversive. With the 1992 massacres and the killing of Don Pino Puglisi, that phase came to an end and from that moment on whoever says he’s a representative of the antimafia is a lying crook.


In this photo from October 28, 2016, President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella and the Mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando at a ceremony to unveil the UNESCO World Heritage List plaque recognizing the prestigious heritage sites “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale” (photo

And now?

“Now the Mafia is a battle of the people. It’s a cultural change, it’s my neighbor who understands that the Mafia is not convenient. It’s the person I meet on the street who understands that if the Mafia comes back into power in Palermo, there is no future for his children. It’s this culture shift that I’m sensing now. I am so terribly different and terribly same as I was in the 1980s. I’m terribly different because I know that today we need a vision of the city and not an approval rating, but I’m tremendously the same. The objective is to always guarantee rights. We’ve gone from Palermo Capital of crime to Palermo Capital of the Rule of Law, from Capital of the Law to Palermo Capital of Rights. I am proud to be the Mayor of a city that gave birth to Don Pino Puglisi, a priest, “u parriniello qualunque” (in Sicilian dialect). I was Pino’s good friend. A priest like so many others who was however a subversive, because in the world of a colluded Church, he, as a priest, vindicated the rights of the children of Brancaccio to have a school! An ordinary priest vindicated the rights of children to go to school, to instill fear in the Mafia bosses more than weapons of police officers or the ruling of judges. I’m proud to have been the friend of Don Pino Puglisi, and Mayor of city in which Pino Puglisi was born. I am also proud to be the Mayor of a city that organizes the largest Gay Pride of Southern Europe.”

Rights to counter the Mafia?

Mafiosi aren’t afraid of the law, they’re afraid of rights.”


“The Mafia boss is more afraid of a young person who vindicates his right to be free than he is of a police officer’s gun or a judge’s ruling because it breaks the cultural of the system of power. Because the Mafia is not normal crime, forgive me for using the word ‘normal.’ Normal crime is against the State and beyond it, against banks and beyond them, against the Church and beyond it, against civil society and beyond it. The Mafia is against and inside the State. It’s against and inside banks, it’s against and inside the Church, it’s against and inside civil society. The Mafia needs to remain part of the Government, the Church, the banks. It needs to have the face of a Palermitan.”

Mayor, in the meantime the middle class is disappearing. In the South pervades the social butcher, the unemployment rate is very high. Tax evasion is through the roof, poverty increases at a frightening rate and the “brain drain” continues. The influx of tourists is booming but despite this economic growth, there isn’t enough investment. It’s the eternal question of the South and the history of resistance rebirth of the South that wants to change but that plods on. It reminds me of the Carlo Puca’s book “Il Sud deve morire” (The South Must Die). Mayor, must the South die?

“I believe the South of the Mafia must die, it is dying. The message is that we are trying to construct a diverse and alternative vision. I have this change in vision, our great allies are the migrants because we in Palermo have developed the Culture of Welcome. Palermo has always been a multicultural city. The Arab-Norman Palermo is not within its monuments, it’s in everyday life. But for a hundred years it was governed by the Sicilian Isis, that is by the Mafia which is our Isis. Nazism is the German Isis. Until I was 30, I had never seen a migrant on the streets. There were no people of color, Asians, Africans. The only migrants in Palermo were the distinct German ladies who were the governesses of children of the well-to-do families of Palermo. I too had a German governess, for me she was a migrant. Because, at that time, the Sicilian Mafia prevented differences from co-existing. There is not even one example in which migrants became involved with the Mafia, not even as a lookout, the modest role of the lookout, or as an executor, a killer.


“In those days, the Mafia ruled Palermo and kicked out people who were different. When the Mafia started to not rule Palermo, those who were different arrived. The presence of migrants, our receiving them, the affirmation I always make to journalists’ question about how many migrants there are in Palermo, 60 thousand, 80 thousand, 100 thousand…I respond None. When you come to Palermo you become a Palermitan.

Migrants, and I return to the question about rights, help us to discover and respect our rights, not theirs but ours. A girl from Palermo who is confined to a wheelchair wrote me this beautiful letter: “Dear Mayor, thanks, from when you welcomed migrants, I feel less different, more equal, more normal.” But when someone says to me migrants are arriving and we can’t accommodate them any longer… Is this ok? And when someone says migrants work and I don’t…I say: see! You needed a migrant to understand that you too have a right to work?”

What is the value of immigration?

“The underlying theme is change, the future! In the sense that this city, that comes from the terrible experience of the criminal record, passed to the very difficult experience of legal record. Now it’s more advanced than the rest of Italy because it has become a point of reference for the legality of rights. All this is making it, to some degree, an island within an island. All this explains the reasons why when I was urged to do other things, I decided to continue to be the Mayor of Palermo.”

Piazza Pretoria in Palermo, with “the fountain of Shame” in the center and to the right the Palazzo delle Aquile (Palace of Eagles), Palermo’s city hall

You drafted the Charter of Palermo. What does the Charter contain?

“I propose the abolition of the residency permit and these are things I’ve said dozens of times during the electoral campaign, I was elected by a landslide on the first ballot. Salvini’s list got 1%. Palermo is a city with a Mayor who speaks this way, absolutely intercultural. This is the theme. Can I afford to think that half of 1% voted for me for reasons other than my stance on migration? Maybe because I don’t trim trees well, maybe because the sidewalks are broken, maybe because of the traffic? Will we realize that in our guts intolerance doesn’t exist? Intolerance is in someone’s sick head, whose wallet is covered with someone else’s blood. I’ve never had problems with Salini because he skeet shoots and I play field hockey! How can I be compared to someone who plays a different sport?”

What is your vision?

“We’re convinced that there will be a second hearing in Nuremburg. The first was genocide of the Nazi Fascist regime: the second Nuremburg hearing will be held, aggravated by the fact that while our grandparents could say they knew nothing, we can’t say we’re unaware of it. Unfortunately, we can’t say that, or fortunately, we can’t. Residency permits are the new slavery and the new death penalty. I know perfectly well that to be free of slavery takes and took centuries. Maybe even more. Fifty-six years ago, in the most civil country, the United States of America, someone said “I have a dream.” Fifty-six, not five hundred and sixty years ago! Voltaire, the great French philosopher, was a slave merchant and it was normal to make money by buying and selling human beings. So, do you understand the road travelled to be free of slavery? What road America has travelled to free itself of slavery?

A very long road on an active minefield…

“Perfect. You want to talk about the death penalty? How many centuries did it take to abolish the death penalty, and how many more will it take? I’ll remind you that Palermo is the only city in the world that wanted to fulfill the dying wish of a man on death row, Virginia inmate Joseph O’Dell, who we accepted and is buried in Santa Maria di Gesù cemetery.”

A death sentence, a trial and mobilization that got worldwide attention. The year was 1997…

“Before dying, Joseph O’Dell requested me to honor his dying wish, that his remains be buried in Palermo. I don’t know where Palermo is, I don’t know where Sicily is, I am a Cherokee, had parents who were the epitome of perversion. I did not kill the woman but I’m sentenced to death for the death of a woman I did not kill, I swear. I said to him: Joseph, I am not interested in whether you killed her or not: no one can kill. We’re talking about the death penalty? The Vatican officially abolished the death penalty. The Vatican! In 2001. That means that until 2001, the State of Vatican City for ethical reasons linked the right to life to…? Should I start about abortion and more? It couldn’t be part of the European Union, but Mr. Erdogan (President of Turkey. ed) could and the Pope couldn’t?  From this point of view, I know that it’s going to be a long journey before we free ourselves from the residency permit. We don’t want to go on the witness stand. I know only too well that a residency permit is one thing, and a passport something completely different. I’m not for the abolition of the passport, because I would want that… Sicilians travel the world unchecked. Bengalese and Germans can move around unchecked but my passport is my identity: the residency permit is my death penalty and my slavery. My life changed when I met migrants personally.”


“I was teaching at the University and one of the two articles of the Constitution talks about international mobility as a right. My lessons were an hour long. The next day, another right, another lesson. But when I personally met migrants my life changed just as it had changed that fateful January 6, 1980.”

What happened?

“My life changed when I met a little Congolese girl. Essentially, it was immersing myself continually in a hot bath, being at the Port of Palermo. Always present to welcome migrants and give them what I could. She was being hosted by a Sicilian family, entrusted to a Sicilian family of magistrates. She found out that the Mayor of Palermo was going to visit her. She was all cleaned up and combed, in a very fancy dress, and when I arrived she read me her poem in the French of Belgian Congo, and in the final verses, she burst into tears.”

Why did she cry?

“Because the last verses she read were about how she was sad for not being able to save her mother when going from the barge to the ship. That little 14-year-old girl was not sad because she couldn’t save her mother, but rather that she had allowed her mother to die so she could stay alive.
I go the Port of Palermo, I speak with them, I say … welcome, the worst is behind you, you are free. There was one of them who stubbornly refused to speak with me, sitting on a bench on the dock of the port. I took it as a challenge, a provocation, because I’m used to meeting people who knowing me, don’t want to talk to me. But someone who never met me, why shouldn’t he talk to me? I approached him and continued to repeat the worst is behind you, you are alive. At a certain point I even gave him my cell phone, if you need something, call me… Nothing. After 10 minutes I was disheartened by the fact he wouldn’t interact with me, wouldn’t respond to me, then his eyes lowered, he said to me in perfect English and you, Mr. Mayor, think I can be happy? I killed my two brothers to stay alive.”

And so?

“When that little Congolese girl told me what she did, I had before my eyes, like a vision, my niece Leyla killing her mother, my daughter Eleonora, to survive. And when this young man told me that he killed his brothers, I had the image of my brother Antonio killing my other brother Francesco to survive. When I went to Caritas with Claudia Roth, the Vice President of the German Bunderstung and leader of the Green Party in the European Parliament, a Nigerian girl told us her story: I was with my companion in Nigeria and I suffered abuse. Then I became pregnant and we decided to save our child. 7 days and 7 nights to reach Libya. There was great suffering but we arrived. Three months of violence I endured. Mr. Mayor I’m not going to tell in detail the abuse I endured as a pregnant woman. Everything you could possibly imagine. We paid $5,000 to get on the barge.
These criminals live off of prohibition because the residency permit is the alcohol that gives birth to the Sicilian or Italo-American mafia…”

A dirty business of blood and millions, that is unforgiving

“These traffickers earn between $1000-5000 a trip. If the merchandise they transport is of interest to them, they too go aboard and they’re put on durable boats that arrive to Sicily. Then they sell organs and human beings. If they aren’t interested in the loot, the migrants are put on a boat that sinks a mile out. Doesn’t matter, they’ve already pocketed the cash. I’ll finish the story about the Nigerian girl: “5 days and 5 nights on the Mediterranean Sea and finally an Italian ship arrives, taking us to the Port of Palermo. We got there at 2 a.m. 48 hours later my son is born.” I ask her: “Excuse me, but what did you do in Nigeria?” She: “English professor, Mr. Mayor.” I ask her partner “And you?” “I was a computer engineer, Mr. Mayor.” At a certain point, I’m ashamed and at the same time happy I asked them that question. “In the 5 days and 5 nights on the Mediterranean, did anyone die?” “No, no, no! I didn’t see anything!” That woman killed two people because under those conditions homicide is a raised elbow gesture… ”


Leoluca Orlando standing before the coffins of migrants who died crossing the Channel of Sicily

Lives without value, without names.

“They’re like the stories of the Dachau and Auschwitz inmates, who turning away from fellow inmates would steer the jailers to kill their neighbor, family member, brother who was imprisoned with them. When are we going to realize that this is historical truth?”

In your opinion, how are Italy and Europe poised on the migration issue?

“Europe should be ashamed when it thinks about what we in Sicily and Palermo are doing. Is it clear? They should be ashamed. In German newspapers, I make great headlines in these years. I made Russian television, then ZDF (live TV from Germany, Ed.), they speak first about the man who fought the mafia and now is fighting the residency permit. Will we realize that international mobility is not emergency data anymore? Rather than getting rid of migrants, we should get rid of those States in Europe that do not respect migrants’ rights. This is the real issue.”

Which States?

“What are Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, France doing there? I get chills. To think that France destroyed its welcome heritage which made it a point of reference for Pablo Picasso instead of a point of reference for us Italian protestors, terrorists more or less dangerous. France today goes in crisis for the 20 destitute on the border of Ventimiglia? Shame on them! But no shame for migrants, for Italy but for their own history. France is the country that has gifted the world with the category of rights, of liberty, of equality. It happens because we continue to pursue them. It’s like with earthquakes. When there’s an earthquake, the fear is the same as the person’s who’s afraid. When five people feel a tremor, four want to stay still and one wants to run. If that person runs, then everyone else will run… There’s a wrong approach to the mobility phenomenon. Mobility is a human rights phenomenon. I reject the humanitarian approach. I could care less about coddling the migrant. I don’t ask the surgeon to coddle me but to respect my right to health.”

Camilleri in the Rai documentary by Domenico Iannacone, says the Mediterranean is like a bath tub. Sicily is the gateway to Europe and the gateway to the Middle East. In France, like in America, a lot of ethnicities live together. In Italy, we’re getting there but there is still much distrust and fear. Why is the foreigner unafraid?

“That has nothing to do with it. It’s a problem with cultural perversion for which the political system has great responsibility. Immense. Politics is responsible when it incites racism, when it chases those who incite those who follow racism, trying to be similarly racist. Nowadays, fortunately, there are some strong references.”

Which ones?

“Thankfully there is the Pope. Not surprisingly Pope Francis sent me a letter, a beautiful letter, Dear Brother Mayor, and signed Francesco in script quite small. Exactly on this matter. It’s the short-sightedness of those who don’t understand that the future is called google and Alì. You have before you a philosopher, with an honorary degree given to me by the University of Treviri. You have before you a Mayor that has won by consensus. So much for those who say that my election was without consensus.”

Let’s move on, and given that we’re going around the world, let’s stop in the United States. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the changes in course after the first black American president, Barack Obama. Trump in the White House. Oval Office.

“I don’t know how either Hillary or Sanders would have been. One thing is for sure: Trump is perverting American culture, he is presenting the great cultural and democratic American tradition in an unacceptable way. From this point of view, Trump is causing immense damage to America. Must I remind him that whomever arrived at Ellis Island did not have a residency permit? There was no residency permit and did America not became great also thanks to Ellis Island? Nowadays what concerns America also concerns the rest of the world, so why are we fighting mobility in the Mediterranean toward Europe? All over the globe, there is a movement of the people around the world. I worked for many years in Tijuana and many more years down in Juarez, El Paso, the Mexican part of Texas. Since the talk of the wall was introduced, crime has increased. Violence has increased.”

Where will America go with Trump?

“I hope that America is sufficiently strong to stand up even to Trump.”

Why can Israel and Ireland manage to use the diaspora but America and Sicily cannot? Is it an error of Sicilians or of Sicilian emigrants who have forgotten the island?

“According to my vision, when a Sicilian chooses another Country he has the right to forget what he had. That is, the exodus of the Sicilian cannot be but a life sentence. For this reason, among Sicilians who leave, there’s someone who remembers Sicily and someone else who forgets it but legitimately. Where is it written that I’m sentenced to my father and mother’s blood? When will we realize that identity is the ultimate expression of liberty? I’m not Sicilian just because my father and mother were Sicilian, I don’t have Sicilian blood in my veins. Tonight, I’ll ask a hematologist what the difference is between my blood, Milanese blood and Pakistani blood. I am Sicilian because I chose to be Sicilian. I was born in Palermo to Palermitan parents, I could just as well have chosen to be German, Hindi, Moroccan or Hebrew.”

So then?

“Identity is the ultimate expression of liberty. Those who go to America can choose to be Sicilian or can chose to be American. Do I challenge the Sicilian American who forgets about Sicily? No! Because it belongs to his past. It pleases me if the Sicilian who becomes American remembers Sicily, but the idea of considering it a type of genetic sentence is unacceptable. Young Americans of Sicilian origins do not want to hear that they are sentenced to be Sicilian. Is that clear? Let’s take three children with the same father and mother: the first says that he wants to go to Sicily on vacation, his sister says she wants to marry a Sicilian and the third child decides that he has no intentions of having anything to do with Sicily.”

Palermo, Arab-Norman Cathedral

Palermo Capital of Culture 2018: how will the city change?

“We’ve had six international recognitions. We were recognized in 2015 for our UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Arab-Norman Palermo. This year we were proclaimed Youth Capital, in competition against Venice and Bari. Not for the youth that will come but for the young Palermitans who presented things they already are doing because in Palermo. Finally the number of those who leave Palermo is growing, those who have understood that they must go abroad for a little while, and that if possible they will be able to return. A choice, not a sentence, to leave; not a sentence to return. Do you know that 80% of youth, from 18 to 32, voted for me?”


“Because they saw other realities and they separated from their parents, who obviously don’t know the world…! This is a city in which there’s someone who knows about the world because his cousin went to Rome on his honeymoon and says Mayor this city is not European because my cousin told me what he saw in Rome. This is a city that made choices: the tram, pedestrian zones, taxi sharing, car sharing, bike sharing, broadband… In July, we won the IBM Foundation Smart City of Europe, winning over 100 cities. Do you know what the decisive factor was?”


“We presented our dossier, then there was an hour-long teleconference with Jennifer Ryan Crozier, President of the IBM Foundation. I spoke for an hour about migrants. I told her: “I’m not talking about technological innovation, we’ve already documented that, we need only innovation to win…”. And she said “Your strength is that you are a city that has made a technological choice, you welcome migrants.” So then next year we are Cultural Capital and will be hosting Manifesta in June, the largest travelling art biennial in the world. Six achievements. We are the fourth tourist city of Italy. In 2015, we didn’t even place last because we never made the list of tourist cities. We had an airport that was a sort of workshop on a runway. Today, it’s an airport that no longer connects just 5 cities but 95 cities in the world with direct flights.”

Palermo is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy.

“If you think that just seven or eight years ago in Palermo there for four or five restaurants that were considered good because you paid a lot. Currently we have many restaurants. B&B was a word that some didn’t even know the meaning of. The CEO of Air B&B came to Palermo this summer and in the last year, Air B&B business volume increased by 52% in Palermo. It’s a record for any city. We are a city that’s galloping toward change: Exciting, Safe and Not Expensive.”

Galloping toward Sicilian beaches. What are your projects?

“Today the southern coast is once again swimmable. We’ve approved them for the use of the tourist industry. There are 7 kilometers: half are already swimmable, there’s a plan that sees 4.5km being given to private operators, and the rest for public beaches. It’s a cultural change and requires time. I ran for re-election to secure the changes that I made. Because in five years I hope to make it so this city doesn’t need an asshole mayor like me.”

What are you going to do when you grow up?

Probably write another book, rather than make another film or I’ll keep busy with other things. I hope Palermo will finally have the luxury to do without Orlando, to have a normal mayor and not an asshole like Orlando.”


Translated by Enza Antenos

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