Libero Grassi (July 19, 1924 – August 29, 1991) was an Italian clothing manufacturer from Palermo, Sicily, who was killed by the Mafia after taking a solitary stand against their extortion demands. The businessman wrote an open letter to the local newspaper informing the extortionists that he was no longer willing to pay "pizzo", a Sicilian term for protection money. Despite his brave stance against the Mafia, other business owners and shop keepers in Palermo refused to join his campaign. Grassi was gunned down in the street near his home eight months after writing the letter.
Grassi, who was born in Catania, was married and had a son and daughter. Following his death, his family have continued his campaign, lending their support to the Addiopizzo movement, which is against pizzo.
Grassi ran the Sigma factory producing men's underwear and pyjamas in Palermo. The company had some 100 employees and a business volume of 5 million US$ in 1990. Like many businessmen in the city, he was soon subjected to demands to pay "pizzo" or face the consequences.
The "pizzo" – a form of protection racket – is demanded by the Mafia to local businesses and the refusal to pay up can mean vandalism or arson attacks on the place of business, or even physical harm, including murder, if demands are not met. The reputation of the Mafia is often enough to make people pay up immediately.
Refusal to pay pizzo
In late 1990, Grassi began to refuse to pay up, as an estimated 50% of Palermo businesses did. The extortionists demanded money "for their poor friends in jail" and threatened to kill him. On January 10, 1991, Grassi wrote an open letter in the Giornale di Sicilia, a Palermo daily, that began, "Dear extortionist" and denounced the Mafia's demands for protection money and publicly announced his refusal to pay. The same day, he reported the names of his would-be extortionists to the police, a move that resulted in five arrests in March.
The next morning after the letter was published, the Mayor of Palermo, the prosecutor, the colonel of the federal police and the press showed up at his factory to show support. However, even after he got police protection, two strangers appeared claiming they were health inspectors, and once inside threatened the workers. Grassi became something of a national hero in Italy after appearing on nationwide TV on April 11, 1991 (at Michele Santoro's Samarcanda on Rai Tre): a Sicilian businessman who stood up to the Mafia.
However, instead of receiving solidarity from other shopkeepers and businesses for his refusal to pay protection money, he was criticised, gradually isolated and accused of demolishing the image of the Palermo business world. In his interviews, he not only denounced the Mafia but also the way many of his fellow businessmen seemed to shun him, and how even customers began to cease to frequent his store in fear of being caught in the wrath of the Mafia who Grassi was provoking with his stance. Grassi stated in an interview:
My colleagues have begun to attack me, saying that one should not wash dirty clothes in public. But in the meantime they continue to put up with it; because I know that they all pay. In my opinion, being intimidated and being collusive is the same thing. Some confess to giving in out of fear, others boast about having important strings to pull. These are very common attitudes; but I think that if everyone was ready to collaborate with the police and carabinieri, to report and to name names, this racketeering would not last long.
Retaliations and murder
Grassi eventually had his shop broken into in early 1991 and the exact amount of money that had been demanded of him was stolen. An unsuccessful arson attack on his shop soon followed. On August 29, 1991, less than a year after taking his stance against the Mafia, the 67-year-old Grassi was gunned down in the via Vittorio Alfieri in Palermo at 7.30 in the morning. He was shot in the brain three times as he walked from his home to his car. No witnesses came forward. After the killing, 10,000 people took to the streets to protest his murder. On September 26, 1991, TV hosts Santoro and Maurizio Costanzo – in a unique cooperation between the public Rai Tre and the private Canale 5 – dedicated a joint five-hour nationwide television programme to the memory of Grassi, with the participation of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone.
Libero Grassi's wife, Pina Grassi, and her children, Davide and Alice, tried to salvage the family firm. "I was terrified for their safety so as the threats continued after Libero's killing, we reluctantly agreed to allow a state holding to run the company with Davide keeping a share," Pina recalls. Incompetent public sector management later sent it bankrupt.
Although it took some time, his killer, the Mafioso Salvatore "Salvino" Madonia and his father Francesco Madonia, the unquestioned patriarch of the Resuttana Mafia family in Palermo, were eventually brought to justice. According to a Mafia turncoat, Salvatore Madonia personally killed Grassi. A large trial in October 2006 saw thirty mobsters convicted of sixty murders dating back a quarter-of-a-century, with the Madonias convicted of Grassi's slaying.
In 2006, not long after Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano was arrested, a hundred shopkeepers in Palermo publicly declared their refusal to pay extortion to the Mafia, with Grassi's widow Pina Maisano, and son and daughter Davide and Alice, in attendance at public rallies denouncing the Mafia, jointly with the Addiopizzo movement.
On the spot where he was killed in the via Vittorio Alfieri a placard put up by his wife and children that says:
Every year on August 29 people gather here to commemorate the act of Grassi and protest against extortion.
- A Bullet For a Businessman, Business Week, November 4, 1991
- 'They say the Mafia is beaten. That's rubbish'[dead link], The Independent, December 18, 2000
- Milan and the Mafia: Who Has a Line on Whom? The New York Times, July 1, 1991
- (Italian) Libero Grassi, martire civile, La Sicilia, August 30, 2009
- (Italian) Un antieroe onesto e scomodo, La Repubblica, August 30, 1991
- Jamieson, The Antimafia, pp. 35-36
- Killing in Sicily Sets Off Backlash Against Mob, The New York Times, October 12, 1991
- (Italian) Rai e Fininvest contro la mafia, La Repubblica, September 26, 1991
- (Italian) 'Così uccidemmo Libero Grassi', La Repubblica, October 15, 1993
- Stille, Excellent Cadavers, p. 346
- (Italian) Morto Madonia, boss di Resuttana, La Repubblica, March 14, 2007
- One Hundred Defiant Shopkeepers Say "We Don’t Pay Protection Money", Corriere della Sera, May 5, 2006
- Jamieson, Alison (2000). The Antimafia: Italy’s fight against organized crime, London: Macmillan Press ISBN 0-333-80158-X.
- Stille, Alexander (1995). Excellent Cadavers. The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, New York: Vintage ISBN 0-09-959491-9
- Remembering Libero Grassi at Best of Sicily
- (Italian) letter of Libero Grassi, published in the Corriere della Sera, the day after he was killed.