From the Streets of Genoa

Reports Published July 17, 2001 in Published in New Internationalist online, July 2001

An on-the-ground report from the protests against the G8 in Italy in July 2001

Day One: Wednesday 18th July

For the last three days, the sun has been blazing down from a clear Mediterranean sky onto the domes and avenues of Genoa. Today though, the city awoke under a bank of grey cloud that no signs of lifting. Without wanting to labour the analogy, the symbolism is appropriate. For today is the day that the military-style operation to close off the streets of this city begins in earnest.

The reason is simple. The day after tomorrow, the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations – the G8 – meet here for their annual summit. In the harbour, ringed by security fences and closed off to everyone without an official pass, the good ship European Vision is providing a floating hotel for George Bush, Tony Blair and the other leaders of the free world. In the town centre, the ancient and beautiful Ducal Palace has literally laid out the red carpet, decked with the national flags of all the attending nations, under the watchful gaze of hundreds of armed police.

Meanwhile, here on the other side of the city, the protesters are gathering. As in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Nice, Gothenburg, and anywhere else where the architects of the global economy gather to hobnob and plan the next stage of their neoliberal conquest of everything, those who object are arriving here to say so; loudly and clearly. It is hoped – or feared, depending on your point of view – that up to 200,000 protesters will be here by Friday, the day when the summit begins and a vast march through the city is planned.

The Italian authorities, as a result, are taking no chances. Repression is not a word to be used lightly, but what is happening here in Genoa must be the closest thing to a police state that Western Europe has seen for quite some time. The new, right wing government of the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi (‘you say far right – I say fascist’, as one protest organiser put it to me yesterday) has inaugurated a sweeping array of ‘security’ measures which verge on the totalitarian, to keep the hordes of objectors out of this medieval port.

The facts are frightening for those of us in the middle of them. 15,000 soldiers and police are to be deployed, armed with live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas launchers, water cannon and armoured personnel carriers. Christopher Columbus airport has been fitted with surface to air missile launchers – the first thing I saw when I arrived on the plane – in case of ‘terrorist attack’. Anti-terrorist scuba divers patrol the harbour, and a US aircraft carrier is reportedly moored off the coast. The whole of the city centre has been designated a ‘red zone’ – from today, only residents, journalists and politicos are allowed to enter. Last night I took a stroll down there and saw the final preparations being put in place; a 10km long security fence, five metres high, was being installed. Shops were being boarded up. Police were, and are, everywhere. Look like a dissenter and you’re likely to be hauled over to the side of the road and searched; it’s happened to many protesters already. The cost of this little circus to the people of Genoa has so far been reckoned by the authorities at 250 billion lire – about $110m.

And that’s just in the city itself. Outside the Genoese border, Berlusconi (who has personally inspected the security arrangements here, and declared himself ‘satisfied’) is taking no chances either. From last weekend, Italy formally suspended the EU’s Schengen Agreement – which guarantees free movement of EU citizens within the Union’s borders – with the express purpose of keeping protesters out. Trains and planes into Genoa have all been cancelled and motorways are being patrolled. The results are already becoming clear. A trainload of 500 British protesters due to arrive here yesterday was cancelled by the French authorities on the request of the Italians. A refugee caravan from Germany was turned back at the border, and a caravan of cyclists (read: dangerous terrorists), also from Germany, was stopped and searched. Three of its members who were found to have been at the Prague protests against the World Bank and IMF last September were banned from Italy. Another carload of people was stopped and searched at the border; when they were found to have gas masks in their luggage, they were turned back. The police kept the gas masks. These are just the confirmed stories; the tip of an iceberg of hundreds, probably thousands, of people, who will never make it here, and whose supposed human right to public dissent is being unapologetically steamrollered for the sake of Berlusconi’s prestige and the G8’s peace of mind.

With such draconian measures in place, the threat from the motley crew of vicious anarchists, terrorists and baby-eating protesters who surround me as I write must be pretty serious, right? Certainly the papers here are full of screaming front-page stories about the Tutte Bianche, or white overalls, the Italian anarchist collective who specialise in bouncing through police lines dressed like Michelin Men. They’ve already been accused of making bombs, though when police raided the homes of their ‘leaders’ at dawn yesterday they found nothing even potentially criminal.

The real threat, though, must come from the Genoa Social Forum, the coalition of 500 or so Italian and other groups who have organised much of the Genoa protests. The GSF are clearly dangerous criminals. Down on the seafront they have erected a vast convergence centre in a complex of tents which contains beer and pasta stalls and tables full of subversive leaflets. A stage is being erected for a party tonight in which Irish and local bands will be playing what will doubtless be dangerously political songs. Most terrifying of all, the GSF have organised a week-long series of workshops with unacceptably anti-social titles like: ‘do we need trade liberalisation?’ ‘the ecological debt of the north’, ‘food is not a commodity’, and ‘our alternatives to economic globalisation’. Speakers include vicious terrorists like Walden Bello, Susan George and José Bové, representatives of Brazil’s Movimento Dos Sem Terra (Landless Movement), Jubilee South and many others. Clearly enough to justify that 250 billion lire.

The real clashes, of course, if they come, will come on Friday, when most of the protesters, including those under the umbrella of the GSF, have vowed to penetrate the ‘red zone’ and demonstrate outside the Ducal Palace, in full hearing, if not view, of the G8 leaders. This is what all those police, soldiers, and possibly even scuba divers are hanging around waiting for. The GSF have vowed not to commit violence against the structure of the city, or any of its people – including those in uniform. In return, they ask for ‘solidarity’ from the people of the city in their protest against the increasingly obtuse and unaccountable economic and political leadership of the G8 leaders. Tactics planned for the demonstration of the 20th sound little like a threat to lives and property. Without wanting to give too much away, I can reveal that a platoon of dancing fairies, a radical samba band and an Irish revolutionary Riverdance squad are likely to mingle with Buddhist monks meditationally breathing onto police and 200 hunger-striking nuns, protesting about Third World debt. Does this sound like terrorism to you? If not, then Berlusconi obviously knows something you don’t. It might explain why he has ordered the closure not only of all the internet cafes in the city, but all the fancy dress shops too. It makes sense not to take too many chances.

What the people of Genoa think of all this is unclear. One taxi driver told me that the protesters were ‘animals, not people’. On the same day a woman in a greengrocers, seeing my ‘No G8’ t-shirt (caps and keyrings also available) insisted on buying my fruit for me. But the people haven’t been consulted on the transformation of their city into a militarised zone. This is political. Very political.

I’m writing this in the garden of the GSF’s alternative media centre. The clouds are closing in. It looks like rain.

Day two: Thursday 19th July

The contrast couldn’t be greater. Last night I was down at the seafront convergence centre, where the Genoa Social Forum had organised a concert for activists. A vast stage, lots of dry ice, thumping music in the dusk, and maybe 2000 people dancing, drinking and laughing as the sun went down. All the atmosphere of the Glastonbury festival, right down to the queues for the portaloos. Around the edges, newly-minted banners were being hung, and a troupe of radical cheerleaders were practising their steps for tomorrow. Creativity was everywhere. I’ve been on quite a few protests in my time, but I’ve never seen anything quite as brilliant as a specially-made mini-banner which someone had trained his dog to carry in its mouth (radical pooches for revolution?!) The police, whose own ‘convergence centre’ has mysteriously been placed right next to that of the GSF, looked on enviously as they ate their sandwiches below the haunting blue lights of their sirens.

Now, it’s Thursday morning, and I’m writing this from the capacious press room of the G8 conference centre, having ridden here through the red zone on a special bus with my official press accreditation pass. It’s the usual story for such big international shindigs; freebies everywhere, smiling, smartly-dressed staff anxious to please. I’ve already been given a tasteful G8 bag, a book about the G8, a DVD and a CD about Genoa, newspapers extolling the summit’s ‘history-makers’, and lashings of free coffee, iced croissants … you name it. Gratis, signor, gratis.

If you ever wonder why most of the stories you will read about Genoa – and every conference like it – churn out the establishment point of view, here’s your answer. Why would any self-respecting hack hang around a chaotic convergence centre being stared at suspiciously by activists when they can sit here in the sun, being fed press releases and sipping free coffee and wine served with a smile by waiters in bow ties? Answer: they wouldn’t. I’ve asked several journalists here whether they’ve been to any of the Social Forum meetings or the convergence centre, or talked to any activists. Mostly I got blank stares, as if I was asking whether they’d ever been to Mars. ‘Social what?’ asked one. An American journalist assured me forcibly that the activists were planning widespread violence. ‘I read it in Time magazine last week,’ he said. Case closed.

What’s striking though, is the lack of information available, even here in the belly of the beast. There is no official agenda for this summit; we don’t know what they’re going to discuss. This is the way it’s always been with the G8. Critics rightly attack the WTO for its lack of democracy, but compared to the G8, it’s a model of accountability. Since this club of top nations began getting together at Rambouillet in 1975, its members have fiercely resisted attempts to set official agendas and tell the press, let alone the public, what they’re discussing inside those marble halls. There is no G8 charter, no criteria for choosing new members; not even a reliable historical record of what past meetings have discussed and decided. This is the ultimate old boys club; ‘fireside chats’, as the official history they are handing out here puts it, are the order of the day.

The G8 leaders say that this ‘informality’ is vital to making real decisions that will stick, without any of that pesky accountability to the people who elected them. The leaders who will arrive tomorrow will discuss the future of trade (read: the expansion of the neoliberal agenda), military cooperation, technology, terrorism, and anything else that crosses their radar screens. They will make decisions that affect us all, in every conceivable sphere. They will then issue a few ‘communiques’ to the press, detailing some of their more palatable decisions. Then they will go home.

Nice work if you can get it.

Back on the streets this evening, the first mass action of the summit, the migrants’ march, is just drawing to a close. Thousands took the opportunity to use the march, organised by the No Borders Campaign, to advertise their own disparate causes. Anarchists, socialists, communists, unions, greens, debt campaigners, AIDS campaigners, animal liberationists, and plenty more who wouldn’t give each other time of day at home, buried their differences in their overarching opposition to global capitalism. It was a dry run for what will happen tomorrow, when the ‘big day’ will see up to 200,000 flood into the city centre, just as George Bush’s official jet touches down at Genoa airport. Part of this dry run, unfortunately, were some masked-up hard nuts hurling abuse, if not much else, yet, at the police; and the machine guns – yes, machine guns – on show on top of the carabinieri vans that covered the entrance to every alleyway.

Exactly what will happen tomorrow is anybody’s guess. Right now, all bets are open. Whatever it is, though, the world will notice. They’ll have to.

Day three: Friday 20th July

And so, it happened. It happened the way we all hoped it wouldn’t, but all knew it might. As I write this, a protester lies dead in a Genoa hospital; shot in the head by armed police. Another is in a critical condition, apparently hit at point blank range by a tear gas canister. There may be more. News from across this ravaged city is patchy, and rumours are common. No-one, not the police, not the protesters, not the journalists, knows quite what is happening out there.

But one thing is clear. If it ever was, this is no longer a game.

The atmosphere is heavy and hungover; anger, frustration, depression, fear, a dullness of emotions; everyone here will experience all of these at some stage today. Where do we go now? What was this for? What did we achieve? It’s 8pm, and the streets are still heavy with tear gas. The banks have been looted, helicopters rattle above me as I write, cars still burn, there is glass and paint and ash and blood ground into the pavements of this shaken city. It is a warzone. And we have our first casualty.

With 100,000 others, I am numb. Oh, you can talk – you can talk about ‘police brutality’ and the ‘fascism’ of the authorities; you can say that any system which needs five metre fences and live ammo and tanks and the rest to defend it is no system worth the name. You can say all this, and you can mean it. But when you walk these streets, and you see the tears and the fear in the eyes of those who were there when that 20-year old was gunned down; when you log onto the Indymedia website and see the photo of him lying there on the asphalt, his blood a river in gutters that were made for rain: then, it’s something else. Something none of those direct action training sessions or banner making workshops or translated speeches or plenary sessions could ever prepare you for.

Perhaps we should have known. Perhaps the military preparations that have been underway here for weeks – the guns, the fences, the talk, the determination – perhaps it should have told us what was coming. It’s easy to be wise when you’re still alive. Perhaps we should have known. But we didn’t.

It started well enough. Up at the Carlini Stadium, where many of the protesters are staying, and where the civil disobedience planned for today by the Tutte Bianche and others was organised, the crowds milled about, put on their defensive suits made of old life jackets, plastic bottles and bedrolls, drank coffee, smoked and organised. Down at the seafront convergence centre, I joined the pink and silver group as it began its march towards the red zone. Protests like this now follow a familiar pattern: different groups, with different tactics, take different routes towards their goal. Sometimes they mix, sometimes they don’t. There is a semi-organised chaos of colours and intentions. Sometimes it works. Sometimes…

The pink and silver ‘tactical frivolity’ group made their way up towards the red zone on a route agreed with the authorities. No-one, not even the police – tooled-up and rasping for a fight – saw them as a threat. Pink fairies, samba bands, dancers, an old man dressed as the Pope, a ‘peace car’ and hundreds of whistling, singing activists danced through the winding streets. Residents waved from their windows at us. Some waved underpants, which have become a symbol of what has happened to this city under the cloud of this iniquitous summit. Berlusconi, for reasons best known to himself, has banned the hanging of washing outdoors until Sunday. Waving your pants sends a clear message that probably doesn’t need to be spelt out.

The pinks reached the red zone fences, sat down and sang. A man handed flowers to the police, who threw them to the floor without smiling. This was carnival, not war. But if any protest highlighted the split – and yes, it is a split – within this movement between the ‘spikies’ and the ‘fluffies’ it was this one. Down by the Brignole station, you could see why.

For there, the Black Bloc were doing their work. Quite who they are is unclear. They call themselves ‘anarchists’, but any veteran of the Spanish Civil War, where genuine anarchists fought for genuine freedom, would not have recognised this lot. Dressed all in black, marching what looked like a goosestep to the sound of military drums, they emerged from the sidestreets to do their work. First they went for the banks. They broke the windows and threw the computers out onto the streets. Then they smashed every window in sight. Yes, every window. I was there, I saw it all, and I nearly ended up in hospital myself when a masked-up Bloc-er with an iron bar took exception to my camera. When they set fire to the litter bins, the police moved in. Within minutes, the tear gas had done its work, I was in agony and I could see precisely nothing. A friend came to my aid with vinegar and water. When I could see again, I saw what they had done.

Every petrol station on their route was trashed. Cars and trucks were set alight. Every shop front was wrecked – and no, not just the big multinationals, but the small shops too; shops owned by the ordinary people of this city who will wake up tomorrow with nothing. More bins burned, bus shelters and phone boxes fell. A mobile phone store was trashed, and streams of people ran out of the shattered windows with three or four new phones in their hands. Off-licences were broken into and the wine stolen and drunk. No-one was even pretending this was political anymore. And the real beneficiaries were the G8 leaders, who will tomorrow make pious statements about violence, tar us all with the Black Brush, and sleep easy in their five star beds, behind the heaving lines.

Five hundred yards away, at the Brignole station, around 500 police were marching, stomping and slamming their batons on their riot shields. And what did they do? They did nothing. They saw everything that the Black Bloc-ers did, and they did nothing. And it all became clear to me – clear as the glass shards on the pavement. This military might, this show of force – it wasn’t to defend the cars and shops and windows of the ordinary people of this city from the savagery of these proto-fascists in black. It was here to defend the powerful in the Ducal Palace, way behind the fences. The police didn’t move an inch. And the Bloc marched on – a few hundred of them at most, laying waste to everything they passed.

Enter the Tutte Bianche, from the east. The white overalls are the bravest people here. Armed with nothing but their bodies and the padding that surrounds them, they push into the police lines, taking blows but never returning them. Usually, as their name suggest, they dress in white. Today though, in solidarity with the diverse groups here, they left their overalls behind.
Five thousand of them advanced towards the police lines at Brignole. They pushed, and they pushed. But it didn’t work the way it should. Plenty of others, who had no truck with such peaceful tactics, joined it. Chaos. And then the war started.

They rushed the police. Tear gas canisters shot through the air like missiles. They pushed the police lines back and blockaded the road with barricades of wood and rubbish bins. The police drove their vans at them at top speed, it’s a wonder no-one died then. Out came the stun grenades. Out came my vinegar-soaked face mask. The tear gas was so thick I could hardly see. The police retreated. Protesters captured a police van and set it alight. The police regrouped and rushed them. When the gas cleared, I saw an unconscious Carabinieri carried back towards me and laid on the pavement, his face pale, his eyes closed.

And it went on. On and on and on. Attack, regroup, retreat. Attack, regroup, retreat. And then, the shooting.

I didn’t hear it, I was three streets away. By the time I got back to the Indymedia centre, which I’d been filing reports to on my crackling mobile phone all day, the news was in. An Italian protester had rushed a police van. The police shot him through the head. Then, they ran him over with a jeep. I could hardly believe it myself until I saw the pictures. At first, the police tried to claim he had been hit by a stone. But when the pictures came out, they couldn’t pretend any longer. They’d been batoning journalists all day in an attempt to prevent footage of what they were doing. But it didn’t work.

And now, here we are. Protesters are regrouping at the convergence centre, holding press conferences and deciding what to do next. What will happen to the march planned for tomorrow is anybody’s guess. But people here are angry. I am. But I hope with a passion that this anger will not lead to more confrontations tomorrow, maybe even more deaths. Some people here seem to think they can take on the police and win. Even now, they believe it. Half an hour ago I listened to a speaker from Globalise Resistance (aka the Socialist Workers Party) give an imbecilic speech that sounded like it was read from a card, about why we should now ‘destroy this system’ and ‘fight back’. He gave a similar speech yesterday, and the day before. His words were as empty as the tear gas canisters littering the streets. A man lies dead, and he wants to fight some more. Words, all words. Let him fight. I won’t be going.

More of what happened today will undoubtedly become clear tomorrow. Some protesters apparently broke into the red zone, but nothing has been heard from them since. The question now, for me at least, is where do we go from here? Do we want more actions like this? More advances on our heavily-armed leaders? More deaths? Is it worth it? Can we afford it? Some will be say that this is the first casualty of the anti-globalisation movement. They’ll be wrong. Down in the South, in Papua New Guinea, in Bolivia, in Mexico, in Brazil, in India, all across Africa, people have been dying for this cause for years. Few up here have noticed. But still, this movement has to ask itself now what happens next. The movement itself is not going away. It can only grow stronger. And even now, I believe with a passion that we have those leaders, those economists, those corporate top dogs, on the run. We will keep going, and we will grow.
But please, no more summits. Not like this. Not any more.

Day four: Saturday 21st July
Where now? That’s the question everyone is asking now; the Day After. Today’s international solidarity march through the city was again marred by violence. The newspapers have already decreed that this was the ‘biggest ever anti-globalisation riot’, at least in the West. They’re probably right. I was in Prague last September, and yesterday’s carnage made that event look like a tea party.

The story, and the reporting, are similar though; hundreds of thousands of peaceful, if determined and (rightly) confrontational protesters; a few hundred maniacs – many police among them. An equation that adds up to mayhem. If the people of Genoa were widely supportive before yesterday – and that seems to be the feeling – they must be anything but now, as they survey the carnage waged on their city by the hard nuts, and sealed by the criminal inactivity of the police.

Over a hundred people are in hospital. The carabinieri who shot and killed the protester has been charged with murder. The G8 leaders have reacted with a mixture of arrogant and ignorant dismissal – ‘they don’t want a dialogue’, said the stunningly uninformed Tony Blair, who went nowhere near the Social Forum meetings all week; ‘they want to storm the building and create an outrage’- to the apparently concerned – 100,000 don’t take to the streets unless something has gripped their hearts, Jacques Chirac observed. Though Clinton said much the same after Seattle, and nothing changed.

But amongst the activists, the anger is mixed with concern. ‘We have been provoked by a level of state and anarchist violence that is unimaginable’, a GSF spokesman told The Guardian. ‘Fuck the Black Block’, reads one of many similar angry postings on Italy’s Indymedia website, which has provided frontlline news and opinions from the streets all week. As one protester said to me this morning; ‘militarism from both sides. What happens to those of us who want something different?’

And this is the key. The power-mongers of the G8, protected by the militarism of the police and the army, have been mirrored here by those who would call themselves part of this movement, and who still, even now, talk about ‘smashing the system’ and ‘seizing power’ on behalf of the people. Unwilling to confront the fact that such revolutions have always failed before (as if this movement had the popular base necessary for revolution anyway, even if it were desirable), they still talk of power as if it were something to be seized and used, from the top down. They still talk as if this would not lead, as it has always done , to the inevitable; the oppressed becoming the oppressor.

But a still, small voice can be heard, growing stronger, even here; even now. The voice of a new movement; new ideas grasping upwards towards the light. New ideas that I hope and believe can lead to a new politics, which treats power as something to be distributed locally; treats land as a part of life, not a private resource; treats the state and big private interests with equal suspicion. An idea fuelled all week at the Social Forum meetings, by speakers from Brazil, India, France, Malaysia and all over the world. Ideas about local power , real markets and real democracy. Neither the neoliberalism of the new right, nor the deathly statism of the old left. That’s the direction this movement must now take. I believe that it can, and will. But the journey will be long and hard.

It starts now. It has to.

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