Feature Articles

November 2009
La Compagnia Della Teppa

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

"Teppismo is simply a problem of the police, of protection, and of social repression. For years we have seen an increase in the large cities of young rogues and felons that have committed many crimes and that enjoy a freedom only to prepare themselves for even more mayhem." (Nuova antologia, 1904)

     In the early 1800s in the northern Italian city of Milan there arose a phenomenon (teppismo) composed (to quote from an old Italian dictionary) of a group of "vile people, capable of violence and destruction with brutal intent." These delinquent youth constituted a teppa, a mob, under the name "La compagnia della teppa" (The Company of the Teppa), the members called teppisti (singular: teppista). An equivalent in English is hooligans, which is derived from the Irish surname Houlihan, taking on the meaning ruffian or hoodlum (in England: teddy-boy).

(A similar manifestation in North Italy of the 1800s was the "barabba," composed of "canaglia della strada"�ill-bred rebellious street scum.  "Barabba" is Italian for the man Barabbas, the bandit held in jail at the time of Jesus' arrest. Pontius Pilate, who annually released a prisoner at Passover, offered to release Jesus, but the Jews demanded his death and Barabbas' delivery.)

     In the past, "teppista" was sometimes used to describe a person in place of calling him arrogant, overbearing, camorrista, mafioso or robber. Teppa criminality, which remains quite active, can be considered a breeding ground that can lead to recruitment into organized crime.

     In earlier decades, teppisti were easily recognizable by their form and mode of special dress. This is a description by Cesare Lombroso, the celebrated Italian criminologist (1899): " �a padded hat low on the ears; a large flowing cravat about the neck; trousers broad at the extremities. They carry themselves with the illusion of being both morally and brutally superior. A company of teppisti will rage without apparent motive."

     According to an Italian publication from the 1840s, La compagnia della teppa had its birth around 1816 when an idle crowd of youth from the Milan lower classes, without employment, began to congregate on the grounds of the Castel Sforesco. The authorities defined them as vandals who had violent anarchic tendencies; a rabble that did not observe the rules of law, rather seeking to live off others.

     They spent their time venting their acrid tempers, intimidating the citizenry, engaging in riotous behavior, in the process gaining a degree of attention and celebrity. They became infamous as fearsome street combatants with irrational impulses for destruction and deliberately upsetting the normal rhythms of life.

     Teppa, the term for the phenomenon, is the Milanese dialect equivalent of the Italian word "muschio" or "musco." Musco is a green carpet-like vegetation that covered the grounds of Castel Sforesco. The townsfolk began to use the word to refer to the noisey crowd that would gather there, and the name stuck. Teppismo, in Italy, has carried down to the present day. The specific crime of teppismo, however, does not exist because it is too vague. Teppismo is best seen as a delinquent proclivity out of which arises criminal activity.

     The teppisti would often take advantage of national crises to take to the streets with considerable effect. "In September 1904 a very serious situation was brought about by a general economic and political agitation. At Genoa, which was in the hands of the teppisti for a couple of days, three persons were killed and fifty wounded, including fourteen policemen, and rail communications were interrupted for a short time. Venice was cut off from the mainland for two days and all public services were suspended. Riots broke out also in Naples, Florence, Rome and Bologna. At Rome the violence reached such a pitch as to provoke reaction on the part of respectable people, and some of the aggressors were very roughly handled." (Hugh Chisholm, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 15, 1911)

     In October 2008, a band of teppisti assaulted a commuter train in Casalnuovo di Napoli. The rock-throwing youth broke train windows and sent the passengers into a panic. No one was injured�the train timetable was set back. The teppisti arrived at the station at five-forty and took aim at the train arriving from Naples. At first, the thought was of a camorra ambush or a terrorist attack. The episode was another example, the police noted, of a "youthful gang composed of boys who had nothing better to do then to carry out teppistic actions, potentially criminal."

     In the Guizza and Arre zones in the countryside south of the northern Italian city of Padova there was a delinquent association of twelve teppisti that the locals dubbed the "baby-gang" (in English). They robbed; they fought; they intimidated other youth; they were bent on gratuitous destruction. The gang broke into machines to extract coins. Motorbikes were stolen and destroyed and then documented using their cell phones. The motorbike helmets were sold back to their owners. The gang of twelve was about eighteen years of age.

     In July of 2008 the police finally decided to act. The Squadra Mobile and the Volanti carried out an early morning raid on the boys' residences to "put an end to these baby criminals." Material sequestered after the arrests included motorcycle equipment, toy pistols, Ipods, cellular phones and a quantity of cocaine. The photos they took of their dastardly deeds, including the destruction of a school, constituted strong evidence that they had begun their criminal careers years earlier.

     A testimony: "I was born messed up. At sixteen I was already a teppista with various preceding crimes. The first was a car that I blew up in Via Venezia with a friend who lived in the Palazzo Malcapitato. We were arrested and taken to the Via Milano police barracks and charged with theft, and the fact that I had switched vehicle license plates. My mother came to get me and, all said, it didn't go badly.
     "When I was 15-16 years old I enjoyed going around to stores, offices, hospitals to rob anything that struck my fancy. I infiltrated everywhere. My first cell phone, which cost 500,000 lire, was purchased with money I stole from a nurse. Neighbors would come to my house to complain about my behavior to my parents. After years of disasters, problems, damages and every sort of outrage, I began to be called, jokingly, "Teppa." In Genoa [his hometown] I created panic. I joined others in a band of delinquents. We went around stealing car-hood ornaments. The most valued was the Mercedes. One of the owners recognized me on the street and demanded I return his. Which I did. Soon after we busted the windows of his house and slashed his tires as a lesson to him.

     "We would rush into a place, distract the patrons by creating chaos, and then grab what we could of cell phones, briefcases, jackets�anything we could carry and sell. In one such raid, we shut off the lights and cleaned the place out. What a kick, the cops chasing us and getting cleanly away.

     "Now I am 25 years old, married for two and one-half years, and at this moment incarcerated in a Comunita? terapeutica, an alternative to prison, where reformation is the goal. Because of a stupid theft I was give a prison sentence of two years and eight months. To date, I have served four months in prison and five in the Comunita?.

     "Everyone tells me I should write a book. I've decided to do that perhaps because I have something to recount." ( official web site-leggi argomento-my life)


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