On a quiet Tuesday in July 2019, Paola Sacripante and her sister attended to customers in their Nails Café salon on Via Goito, a one-way cobblestone alley of small businesses and low-rise houses in the historic center of Bologna, Italy. The sisters had founded the salon eight years earlier (along with their other sister and brother, who were not there that day), and the business had recently begun to encounter financial difficulties. That morning, only a few tourists basked in the sun in between sightseeing destinations or strolled in the quiet, narrow street.
Shortly after lunchtime, the sisters saw about 10 people approach the shop and huddle outside. They all wore identical white cardboard masks, and one held a megaphone. The Sacripante sisters thought they were being robbed. But before they could step outside, the group began plastering the salon’s windows with stickers depicting Rich Uncle Pennybags — the capitalist from the board game Monopoly — with his thick white moustache, cane and tailcoat, in a red circle with a slash through it, with text reading, in Italian, “This place has a shitty owner.”
A woman shouted into the megaphone: “We came here to show what hides behind this beauty salon: exhausting shifts, unpaid overtime, and stolen salaries. The masks will no longer let you exploit your employees!”
The salon’s owners had recently had a disagreement with Armenia Hilton Brown, a former employee who had worked with them for more than a year before resigning, saying she hadn’t been compensated for five months. Now, the masked vigilantes were demanding that Nails Café pay up.
The group stepped inside the salon. They continued placing stickers and speaking into the megaphone. The sisters (one of whom has not been publicly identified by name) raised their voice and demanded that they leave. Then, they called the police.
The noise reached Paola Sacripante’s partner, who owned a hair salon nearby. He dashed to the scene, alarmed. What followed is unclear. Quoting a medical report, Giulia Maria Bellipario, the lawyer representing him and the owners of Nails Café, says the masked people assaulted Paola’s partner by punching, kicking and strangling him, causing injuries to his knee, shoulder and neck. One of the two sisters had a panic attack.
One of the masked people — I’ll call him Davide; he agreed to speak with me only on the condition that I preserve his anonymity — denies that any attack happened. He claims the man assaulted the group, pushing them and taking off their masks. He says they never responded to the provocation. As for the medical report, Davide says it was written by an unquestioning doctor. When the police arrived on the scene, they arrested one protester but released him a few hours later.
The protesters returned to the shop over a week later to confront the owners again. They came back yet again in November 2019, though this time they targeted the nearby hair salon, where they thought the Nails Café owners were hiding. Again, they demanded that the business owners pay up.
The Sacripantes also received comments and messages on the Facebook accounts they used to market their business, from people they believed to be linked to the group, demanding that they pay their former worker some €7,000, or roughly $8,500.
Before the end of the year, Nails Café filed for bankruptcy. Bellipario, the lawyer, says the salon saw its customers halved in the weeks after the first protest. (The bankruptcy process is ongoing. A judge has yet to ascertain the masked protesters’ role in it and what their penalty might be.)
A year after the events, Paola Sacripante says that she remains traumatized and unable to work when she is alone. “I’m afraid,” she told local politicians in a public hearing in December 2020 as she fought to hold back tears. “This is not the way to work in Bologna.”
Bellipario, who says that when she was younger she was interested in the left-leaning student groups that have been popular in Bologna for decades, believes that this group has crossed a line. “If everybody who was waiting for money would rebel in this way,” she says, “you know … we would have leveled our cities by now.”
The masked protesters don’t see their actions that way.
“Our vendetta doesn’t end here,” they wrote in a Facebook post after the incident in July 2019. “We will be back because we want everything. … Shitty owners can’t get away with this.”
Bologna is a town of traditional food, study and leftist activism. More than 87,000 of its 390,000-strong population are students who have flocked to town for the prestigious University of Bologna — considered the oldest in the world, established in 1088 — and over the years, students have contributed to Bologna’s reputation as a cradle of grassroots activism. The cobblestone streets of its medieval center are flanked by long porticos filled with bars, pizzerias, and all manner of other eateries typically crowded with students and tourists grazing over lasagna or drinking spritzes.
Davide, 28, worked a kaleidoscope of odd, poorly paid jobs — never making more than €6 per hour — before leaving his hometown in Tuscany. When he arrived in Bologna to pursue a master’s degree in political science, he brought his résumé to dozens of eateries and shops, hoping to find part-time work to cover his rent — only to watch as his phone remained silent for weeks. Instead, he found work cycling around Bologna as a courier for two popular meal delivery apps, Deliveroo and Glovo.
As he zipped in and out of porticos, making about €5 per hour, he came to see Bologna in a new light. Some restaurant owners were adamant that he couldn’t come into the premises — even if it was raining outside or it was winter and temperatures were close to freezing. As Davide waited for orders to be ready, he sometimes had a cigarette with waiters on a break; many seemed unhappy about their jobs. A few said they were routinely shouted at. Others were paid off the books so that their bosses could save on mandatory pension and social security contributions. And there were people working without regular contracts, doing unpaid overtime, and even some left waiting months to receive their salary.
Davide came to understand that what he and the waiters experienced was a common problem facing lots of young people, not only in Italy but also across the West. He has studied how, over the last three decades, governments in some European countries have rolled back progressive labor laws, curtailed the workers’ rights obtained from years of strikes and protests, or failed to increase minimum wage provisions. In Italy, a 2015 law made it easier for companies to fire employees without “just cause.” At the same time, the emergence of the gig economy was diminishing the power of unions and their ability to fight for workers’ rights.
Things were especially bad for those in Bologna’s food and hospitality sector, where informal jobs, off-the-books pay and irregular contracts have been established practices for years. A 2017 government report indicated that 72 percent of the city’s restaurant laborers were working without a regular contract.
Davide never confronted any of the restaurant owners he encountered. A bad review by a restaurant owner could lower his rating on the delivery app and make it more difficult for him to work. The workers he met shared the same fear of retribution if they spoke up.
One day in December 2018, seven inches of snow fell over Bologna. Davide had registered to work a few hours that evening, but when he woke up to the snow he thought it would be unsafe to cycle before the snowplows went to work. He opened the app and canceled his shift with a few hours’ notice.
For days after that, he wasn’t able to put himself down for work; he appeared to have received a penalty for canceling the shift. That was the last straw.
He formed a plan while chatting with friends over coffee breaks in the university’s study halls. “We wanted to reverse the direction of this fear, this insecurity,” Davide says. “It isn’t us who should be scared.” It should be the other way around: Business owners should be afraid if they treat workers unfairly.
Their group, six men and women between the ages of 20 and 26, were students, researchers and full-time coffee shop workers. All were fed up with the injustices they believed permeated workplaces. But what they wanted went beyond simple justice. It was more primal than that. They wanted vengeance.
They reasoned that customers would want to know if a business exploited workers, didn’t pay them, or treated them unfairly. So why not create a workers’ certificate, like the “TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence” Davide saw on the doors of so many bars? But instead, theirs would be a sign warning that an establishment had a “padrone di merda” — a “shitty owner.”
The group created a Facebook page where anyone could report their boss for mistreating them. The group would publish the reports anonymously, then organize protests to publicly shame the businesses in front of the customers, reading the reports aloud and plastering the windows with their “certificate” — the Rich Uncle Pennybags sticker.
The vigilantes wore masks to protect themselves from repercussions in their own workplaces, and to encourage others to join, knowing they would retain anonymity.
Their first target was a bar in the university district where they’d heard the owner harassed his female employees, groping them and making sexual remarks.
On January 31, 2019, Davide woke up late in the tiny apartment he shared on the outskirts of Bologna, where he slept in the living room and lived with a housemate who never cleaned. He picked up the gray bike he used for deliveries and cycled 30 minutes along the main road leading into town. He stopped at a small store to buy a handful of white cardboard masks for €1 each, then cycled to a spot around the corner from the bar. As the others arrived, they recapped the plan: who should hold the megaphone, who should place the stickers, who should talk. After the action, they would dash off via secondary roads, remaining together until they found a place without security cameras, where they could take off their masks and disperse. It was critical to remain focused, precise and fast — if the owner called the police, they should run for it.
Shortly before lunchtime, they stamped out their remaining cigarette stubs and pulled the masks over their faces. It was time for vengeance.
The protest was quick, only around 10 minutes long. A member of the group filmed as they stood outside of the bar and placed stickers on the windows and the portico’s columns. Another person read a statement through a megaphone, listing their accusations against the owner, then said: “It’s nothing new: Exploiters are in charge in all work settings. … It’s time to fight them, report them, unite!” He encouraged customers to look for the “Shitty Owners” Facebook page and add their own reports.
Over the next few days, Davide watched as the Facebook page boomed, gathering thousands of likes and dozens of reports.
“I worked there for about two months, the worst months of my life,” read a post about the bar, published on February 1, 2019. “God, how long have I wanted to say what came out of your megaphone! Thank you!!!” The author of the post wrote that the bar owner recommended she “fuck more” and “wear short skirts to work,” and that the abuse led her to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks.
“I worked at the bar for a few months,” read another post, published on February 6. “When the owner wasn’t around, everything was all right. … But as soon as he arrived, it was a feast of comments, calls (once he barked under a girl’s skirt), kisses on the neck, sexual references.”
“I don’t know where to start,” began another report. “I was exploited, worked for a pittance — rigorously paid off the books, I didn’t make more than 5€ per hour.”
Some said they had sought justice via official channels but had been put off by steep legal fees or union membership dues. So, they turned to the white masks.
After the group had received more than one report about the same place, they sought to verify the claims by checking the authenticity of the Facebook accounts they came from and asking the authors more about themselves, or by meeting them. Then they requested the scorned former employees to mask up and join a protest in front of their former workplace.
Between February and July 2019, the vigilantes, who would become known as the White Masks, went on a spree of demonstrations. They rallied and placed their stickers at bookstores, pastry shops, pizzerias and even university professors’ offices. A few times, business owners lashed out at them, trying to take off their masks and beat them. The group vowed never to respond with violence but to stand their ground, like door-stepping reporters.
As the weeks went by, the White Masks set their eyes on other, less obvious targets than cheap student eateries, to demonstrate that exploitation also reigned in flashier venues with wealthier customers.
On March 20, 2019, Lucia Principe was at home doing some administrative work when White Masks showed up at Zoo, a bar and exhibition venue popular in creative and left-leaning circles. Lucia, who co-founded Zoo with two other women, was expecting their visit: The “Shitty Owners” Facebook page had reported their business in a post on March 10.
The masked group stormed into the bar. While a person shouted into the megaphone that Zoo belonged to shitty owners, others roamed about, placing little bags of animal dung on the tables as customers ate lunch. They accused Zoo of paying workers off the books, exploiting immigrant laborers, and fraudulently mislabeling food as organic. Lucia Principe says that all of the claims are inaccurate or misleading. She says Zoo clearly labels its organic and nonorganic food and does not pay workers off the books. She admits that they did pay some asylum-seekers on traineeships less than staff earned on other types of contracts, as established by regional government regulations, but that they offered many of them the same pay and guarantee after the training period.
In May, the White Masks showed up at NaturaSì, a popular grocery store specializing in organic food and natural products, to protest against a new internship for business or communication studies graduates, which was listed on the store’s site. “They were offering internships for some €3 an hour,” Davide says, a rate he says isn’t illegal but demonstrates how exploitation can sometimes be perfectly legal. “A kilogram of zucchini costs €4 at NaturaSì,” he says. “So, a kilo of zucchini was worth more than an hour of work by a human being.”
Fabio Brescacin, the owner of NaturaSì, met the group publicly, apologized for the advertisement, and said that his company would no longer offer such internships. He said that his company cared about workers, paid them fairly, and that only 34 of its 1,200 employees were interns.
In early July, the group was contacted by Armenia Hilton Brown, a beautician in her early 20s. For the second time in her short career, she said, an employer wasn’t paying her — this time, she was owed five paychecks, worth thousands of euros, from Nails Café. (Bellipario, the Nails Café owners’ lawyer, says that her clients were aware of Hilton Brown’s claims, which they disputed, but that they believed they would sit down together and settle things. After the standoffs in front of the salon, the Sacripantes refused to engage in dialogue with Hilton Brown because, Bellipario claims, the damages caused by the protests exceeded any compensation owed to the worker.) Hilton Brown told the group she was suffering from anxiety, cried frequently, and had lost more than 15 pounds. She suddenly lacked the money to help her mother pay rent and to repay a loan taken out to train as a beautician. She didn’t have the money for a lawyer, and the advice provided by a union leader had proved unhelpful. She was eager to try something different.
By the time the White Masks took to the Nails Café in July, they were flying high. Their organizational WhatsApp group had grown to between 30 and 40 permanent members. Their Facebook page had garnered thousands of likes, and their audience seemed to increase by the day. In those weeks, national and international media including The Guardian and the BBC descended on Bologna to tell their story. What was more, their activism seemed to be bearing fruit, as the NaturaSì example showed.
To Davide, it seemed like the group was achieving what it had set out to do. “Lately, shitty owners in town are scared to be what they are and to exploit,” he told me, “because they know someone can confront them on it.” What he and the other White Masks might not have realized, however, was that others had taken notice of their activism too.
After the protest at Zoo, Lucia Principe spent days feeling floored. It felt like a double blow. On a professional level, her business’s reputation had been attacked without a chance to reply to the allegations. When the post had appeared on Facebook, dozens of current and former employees and customers of hers had commented to deny that the owners of Zoo had been “shitty” to them. But then the post disappeared a few days later. The White Masks said Facebook had removed it; they published it again later in the day — but much of the solidarity in the comments had disappeared.
On a personal level, Principe felt that her very name was being smeared; she had been close to left-leaning student groups in the past, and Zoo had hosted fund-raising events for some lefty causes.
The more she and her co-owners thought about it, the more they became convinced that the report was malicious. They reached out to the worker they suspected to be behind the report, but the young woman and her family denied penning it.
In the weeks after the protest, Principe says she received several phone calls by the Italian investigative police, who reminded her that she had only 90 days to sue. Principe says they sounded eager for her to do so.
Even though the White Masks returned to Zoo with more leaflets and smoke bombs on May 1, 2019, the owners decided against suing. “It was a clearly ideological decision,” Principe says. After all, they had sympathized with similar groups and causes in the past, and she didn’t doubt that some of the city’s hospitality sector had a problem with workplace malpractices. They waited for the storm to pass.
Masked protesters have not returned to Zoo since, but a sense of fatigue has remained, and Principe says that the future of the venue remains uncertain with the added difficulties posed by COVID-19.
Local politicians also began to watch the movement more closely. Where some saw a just cause, Umberto Bosco, a city council member in Bologna, saw a hidden danger. He twice tried to pass a motion about the group — what if someone used the group to smear a business that had done nothing wrong? — but the council dismissed both motions.
In Bosco’s view, the White Masks were not promoting social justice. “They manufacture private vendettas based on sometimes anonymous reports, on the verification of which we know nothing,” he says. “The idea that you can’t obtain justice, but you could have a vendetta, caught on in part of the population, especially young people,” he says. “For me, this is a dangerous message.”
Despite the fact that the council dismissed Bosco’s motions, the White Masks stormed the city council on November 4, 2019. “You wanted to talk about the White Masks … here they are,” they shouted at the council members assembled in the vast, baroque room. They threw leaflets into the air and accused the council members of being useless. “Why do you talk about us? You should talk about shitty owners!” they shouted. “Do you know there are people who live making four or five euros per hour?” After a couple of minutes, they dashed off — only to find police at the exit, who caught and identified some members of the group, before letting them go.
Months later, on May 18, 2020, Davide’s mother woke him up at 7 a.m. at their family home in Tuscany. The first wave of coronavirus infections had come and passed in Italy, and Davide had continued to cycle around town to deliver warm meals. On May 4, as Italy gradually lifted its restrictions, he had graduated, then returned to Tuscany.
His mother sounded alarmed — she said the police were at the door looking for him. Davide got out of bed and dashed to the entrance wearing only his boxers. Three plain-clothed investigators asked him to follow them to the station.
He spent three hours at the station, where police took his fingerprints, mug shots and a DNA sample. They asked him who his lawyer was, then told him what was happening: Nineteen members of the White Masks had been indicted and were under investigation for the events at the Nails Café in July 2019. They were charged with counts of attempted extortion, causing personal injuries, and defamation, among others. The Sacripantes had opened lawsuits against the group for the incidents at their salon, and now the police investigating the group had unveiled their identities. Five members of the group, including Davide, were slapped with restraining orders directing them to stay away from Bologna.
After he returned home, the relief of not having been arrested turned into anguish. He could no longer see his friends, as the restraining order prevented him from returning to Bologna. His life there was over.
After the vigilantes published the restraining orders on Facebook, they received messages of solidarity from Spain, Ireland, Brazil, the United Kingdom — a testament, Davide says, to the fact that what they fought for resonated around the world.
Little has changed since May. Many Italian workers lost their sources of income during the coronavirus lockdowns. A recent report found that the pandemic destroyed almost 250,000 jobs in the country’s restaurant and hospitality sector in the first half of 2020, hitting young people between ages 15 and 34 particularly hard. The government introduced extended furlough and support programs, but some of those who had been paid off the books weren’t eligible. As businesses and the university shut down, many students and workers left Bologna.
Armenia Hilton Brown has found another job, where she says she is treated fairly and paid on time. In February 2020, a judge ordered Nails Café to pay Hilton Brown €7,627.73. She says she has still not received any money. The owners’ lawyer, Giulia Maria Bellipario, says that her clients consider the amount disproportionate and hope to seek damages because of what they experienced.
The criminal court case against the masked vigilantes also remains pending. A judge has yet to decide if the group will face a full trial, and the first preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 2021. Members of the group could face years in prison if sentenced for attempted extortion — a crime punished heavily in Italy because of the long history of organized crime.
I asked Umberto Bosco, the Bologna council member, what he thought would happen to the masked vigilantes. He said the pandemic and the trial were likely to make the movement fizzle out: “They have been identified, and the investigative police have done a good job with them.”
The last time I spoke to Davide, he was still in Tuscany and had only returned to Bologna twice on special permits to bring home his belongings. He acknowledged that the trial had slowed down the movement, but he insisted that it would not be enough to stop it. “There are other factors that might spell the end of a political project, but I don’t think a trial alone could do it,” he said. “Perhaps now, with a pandemic and insecurity, people will try to bite the bullet and hold on to their jobs, even if they suck. Perhaps our methods will not be enough. … Perhaps workers will start to look elsewhere. But I don’t think there could be an external factor that tells us, ‘No, you have to stop doing this.’”
He mused that the group had changed a lot since that first action in January 2019. A new branch has been born in the southern Italian city of Cosenza, using the same methods, name and logo. It marked the group’s first-ever expansion beyond Bologna. It could be a short-lived fluke before the group’s impending collapse, as Bosco believes — or another step toward bringing fear to “shitty” business owners all around the world.