Jun 05, 2003

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I boarded my early morning flight to Geneva last week. Although I have taken part in many demonstrations at home this year against the war on Iraq I had never been to a protest abroad and at the back of my mind were memories of police brutality during the anti-G8 protest in Genoa in 2001 that led to the tragic death of Carlo Giuliani. At the same time, however, I knew that this would be an experience that I would never forget.

Ever since 40,000 demonstrators grabbed the headlines during the WTO talks in Seattle in 1999, giving millions of people around the world the confidence to challenge neoliberalism, anti-capitalist demonstrations have become a permanent feature of practically every summit in which the self-appointed leaders of the world gather to dictate policies that will affect the lives of millions of people from Brazil to Southeast Asia.

Seattle established the anti-capitalist movement as a new and increasingly vocal protagonist that would not be silenced. As today’s media coverage of world summits is now evenly split between the political and economic wrangling that goes on at the heart of the rich man’s G-8 club and the counter-summits held by ordinary people who demand justice for the poor and disenfranchised of this world, the voice of those who feel they have fallen by the wayside in an era dominated by ruthless profit making can no longer be ignored.

People power has effectively become a counterweight to corporate power. The disruption caused by the Seattle protesters at the 1999 WTO summit emboldened Third World leaders and encouraged them to stand up to the rich and dominant states that impose the narrow interests of their global corporations on the increasingly marginalised countries of the southern hemisphere, thus leading to the collapse of the trade talks. Two years later, in Genoa, the violent confrontations between the Italian police and anti-capitalist demonstrators that resulted in the death of Carlo Giuliani, exposed the ruthlessness of the capitalist state, willing to wield its mighty forces against those who dare to dissent.

The Great Powers are now so afraid of the adverse publicity that has put the legitimacy of such summits into question that these events are held in increasingly isolated locations, as was the case this year, when the remote town of Evian in the French Alps was chosen for the 2003 G8 summit. The entire town effectively became a red zone with only residents being allowed into Evian but anti-globalisation groups, undeterred, established alternative villages in Geneva and Annemasse, holding counter-summits on topics ranging from Third World debt and privatisation to the occupation of Iraq.

Geneva welcomed us with rainbow-coloured peace flags that waved along the bridges that cross Lake Léman. As a peace-loving nation that has not been involved in any conflict for the past century or so, the majority of Swiss locals greeted us with friendly curiosity, proudly displaying peace flags in their shop windows.

Campsites had been set up before our arrival on either side of the border, under the supervision of civilian protection officers who provided us with maps and directed us to the town centre. It is hard to imagine the British government providing for anti-capitalist demonstrators in such a way!

Conferences held by the French movement against international financial speculation ATTAC opened the counter-G8 summit. The anti-capitalist movement is often accused of condemning neoliberalism without offering any viable alternatives. Brandishing the worn out thatcherite slogan “there is no alternative”, the movement’s opponents declare that despite its many failings capitalism is the only feasible economic system.

However, delegates from the four corners of the globe assembled there to prove them wrong. Indigenous groups from Chiapas, Mexico, spoke about the rebellion against the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under which peasants’ constitutional right of access to common land has been abolished, and the establishment of indigenous cooperatives that mark a return to their traditional models of subsistence farming that Latin America’s indigenous groups have practised for centuries. French ATTAC delegates argued for international taxation on the type of foreign speculation that drove Argentina to bankruptcy and was responsible for the East Asian crash of 1997-8 and revolutionary socialists spoke about radical alternatives that would sweep away market capitalism altogether.

NGOs, political activists, trade union representatives, people with different visions were all there, united by their common aim of creating a fairer and more peaceful world. The ideas and opinions put forward were as diverse as the backgrounds of the delegates, reflecting the varied nature of a movement that is still young but that is increasingly gaining strength and coherence.

The two main campsites in Geneva and Annemasse brought to mind images of 70s communes. People from different countries, backgrounds and political beliefs were camping side by side in “alternative villages”. Apart from the familiar faces from the UCL Stop the War group I met other students, socialists from Glasgow, an Australian herbal medicine practitioner, Swiss feminists and activists from Barcelona and in less than a day I felt that I had known these people all my life. Every evening we would gather to share a bottle of wine and discuss the events of the day and as night fell the reggae and ethno-fusion concerts brought a vivid and colourful atmosphere to our campsites.

The demonstration on June 2nd that marked the culminating point of the counter-G8 summit was probably one of the most amazing events I have taken part in. Two huge marches left Geneva and Annemasse on a six hour walk under the intense glare of the sun. Some danced to the beat of trance music, others chanted. As the group of Globalise Resistance demonstrators that led the Geneva contingent sang “Power to the People” the two marches from either side of the border merged like rivers into one huge human ocean. The organisers estimated that at least a quarter of a million people took to the streets that day and being one of them is an experience I will never forget.

As always there were outbreaks of violence, and sadly a 39 year old British protester suffered serious injuries when he suffered a 20 metre fall from a bridge crossing the Geneva-Lausanne motorway. While he was abseiling from the bridge in an attempt to block the route of the G8 delegates, the police cut the rope, claiming they had not seen him. Protests have already taken place outside the Swiss embassy in London and fellow activists have demanded an enquiry into this serious incident as eye-witnesses report that the police appeared more concerned with minimising the disruption of the traffic flow than with getting urgent medical assistance to the injured protester.

Our struggle against a system that breeds injustice, inequality and war will be a long and difficult one but every obstacle in our way will only make us more determined to prove that another world is possible. They are 8, but we are millions and we will not be silenced.

Louisa-Marina Reynolds

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