NYU professor Kaia Shivers in Florence, Italy.
NYU professor Kaia Shivers in Florence, Italy.
Photo: Kaia Shivers

The moan of a harmonica woke me up early Tuesday morning. It was my phone’s notification alerting me of an email from New York University’s global office. All classes on their campus in Florence, Italy were suspended immediately. As a visiting professor from NYU’s New York campus, my life changed with an email.

Students living on the 57-acre estate housing NYU Florence had two days to leave before it shuttered. Undergraduates living off-campus were strongly encouraged to go home as well. All in-person classes would go online, due to unknown complications that the novel coronavirus would bring as it spread throughout Italy. Similar to what NYU Shanghai and NYU Beijing did earlier in the semester, faculty had a week to tweak their syllabi and learn online tools to resume classes.

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I was given the option to fly back to New York along with students, but I stayed. “We’re fine. I’m fine,” I messaged my dean, my colleagues and my mother. All the problems were in the north, the areas that had just been cordoned off were called “Zona Rossa.” Although Tuscany, the region in which I live, bordered one of the quarantined regions, I assured everyone that things would be okay. That was 16 days and 187 COVID-19 cases of infections ago. Today, the count in Italy is just shy of 12,500, with 827 deaths.

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This week, Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, ordered the whole country to be quarantined. For the nationwide Zona Rossa, residents were allowed outdoor activity from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m, and only for necessary travel. On the whole, travel is limited; so much so, to go from one district to another you must get written permission from the local Minister of Interior. All sporting activities and religious ceremonies have been suspended, even those in the Vatican. Pope Francis, who became sick after kissing believers in Rome as the virus began to percolate, now has gone virtual with streaming masses.

Italians were pissed by the orders of full Zona Rossa. They went out anyway. But the numbers shot up thousands more in a matter of days. As a result, two days after the initial quarantine, PM Conte issued stricter guidelines. In the upgraded version, the only businesses allowed to remain open are grocery stores and pharmacies. All public meeting places such as popular plazas and piazzas are shut down; plus, exhibition buildings such as museums and galleries were ordered to close. Just about anywhere crowds gather, they are now prohibited. To curb the local culture of outdoor lounging, authorities have removed seating and tables at key locations.

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Since then, most European countries have prohibited Italians from visiting. Most recently, US President Donald Trump placed a ban on all travel from Europe with the exception of the UK.

Now, Florence is eerily quiet, but tranquil. There is an unspoken anxiety. The streets are vacant for the most part, but fear oozes from windows as I walk the neighborhoods. The provincial city has a modest-sized population of 383,000; however, 16 million visitors come annually to this historically rich area. The economy abruptly stopped and Italia’s telecom services have sputtered, yet though PM Conte announced a €7.6 billion commitment to emergency rescue, there seems to be no clear answer.

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When NYU Florence shuttered weeks ago, each day I purchased something to add to a stockpile of food and water. My partner thought I was overreacting, but he has never lived under martial law. I have.

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I was 16-years-old when the civil unrest in Los Angeles kicked off on my best friend Selma’s street, just one block away from the infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. Selma and I were on the phone that late afternoon on April 29, 1992. Earlier that day, the controversial trial ended for the four white officers who had beat a black motorist named Rodney King to a pulp. They were acquitted. Los Angeles blew up; then it burned.

The angst and rage mushroomed from the boys on the block who knew Selma and me. Some of them went to high school with us. Every 15 minutes, my bestie called to give me details of the bangers and block’s boys gathering around to articulate their brewing frustration with the injustices of America, and specifically, the LAPD. So, they went to the main intersection and lit it up. Within hours, L.A. was aflame.

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When a firefighter was shot in the face that night, all law enforcement and other emergency services abandoned the inner city. But the police created a perimeter to sequester black and Latino neighborhoods and keep rioters from leaking into whiter, wealthier districts in L.A. County. We were placed under martial law. Everyone had to be in by sundown.

While black and brown Los Angeles burned because firefighters also failed to show up, we became our own emergency responders. Shortly thereafter, the military arrived, driving tanks and Humvees down Vermont Avenue. At specific points, soldiers camped out at impromptu satellite stations. Meanwhile, white and Korean store owners of buildings that survived the mayhem were perched atop their brick and mortars with high powered rifles.

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Days after, ashes of burned buildings were still warm, but we were the ones who cleaned up our neighborhoods.

During that time, my parents ensured that we had food and water, but many families were not prepared and suffered. So, when NYU Florence closed, I felt something might happen. When the quarantine dropped, I was bags of rice and bottles of water deep.

Moreover, my stockpile was created with the notion that I am a black woman with Bantu knotted hair in a white nationalistic-sympathizing country. I read as African, not American to many Italians—whether they be white, browner or Black. Because there is a minuscule black professional class, to the outside world and my NYU Florence colleagues, I am a nanny, a maid, or an undocumented West African to most who see me on the street.

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Only one family speaks to me in my apartment complex. Plus, a day before campus closed, myself and a female colleague, a Black Italian with Eritrean roots, were called “nigger” by a car of white men passing us as we walked from NYU Florence. Added to the “jiggaboo” caricatures splattered on food brands and trinkets, racism is real here. Not blatant, but palpable. So, what would it be like for me if there was a shortage of basic resources?

Unexpectedly, what I’ve seen most is the invisible folk on the streets—Africans and South Asians—walking to-and-fro to their service jobs or going to hawk money. Here, if you’re undocumented you cannot work, so many either sell trinkets or beg for a few Euro a day. As I saw them, they saw me. “Ciao,” we say, putting that melanin affect into our greeting.

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However, quarantine in Italy isn’t anything remotely like Los Angeles. I chuckle watching mothers allow their children to play in the park and cafes open their outdoor seating to patrons. For some, this is a hoax.

Yet, this morning, as I picked up some olives from a Carrefour market, I was whipped out of my somewhat safety net. While standing in line awaiting check out, a white woman in front of me determined that I was too close. She, who was wrapped with an expensive scarf up to her eyeballs started fussing, then cursing at me.

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I didn’t understand much because my Italian is very limited. However, a man behind me did and said something to her, then shook his head in an apology to me. But she kept going. My response was silence; however, that silence was her license to continue her barrage of insults. She then began to stare me down and stopped the line.

Wait a minute.

Coolly, I said in my broken Italian: “Parli Inglese?” (Do you speak English?)

She cocked her head more. “Bene,” (Good) I told her. “Bitch, take your motherfucking ass on.”

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She backed away. She understood. Clearly.

The woman thought I was like many brown and black residents—vulnerable and silenced. She had done this before; I’m sure of it. But I had a blue passport, a few family lynchings and a city riot in my memory.

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The cashiers didn’t say anything to me, but chastised the white male patron who interceded. As I walked the three minutes to my house, I thought: “Three days into this shit and this happens. Let me go study my Italian.”

Kaia Niambi Shivers is a professor, writer and media studies scholar. Outside of class, she runs Ark Republic and makes documentary films. She lives between Italy and NYC, but is an L.A. homegirl.

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