Genoa 2001: This Is Democracy?
An eyewitness report by Cormac Sheehan of Globalise Resistance Ireland
Genoa 2001: This Is Democracy?
As we arrived in the square amidst drifting clouds of tear-gas, frenzied protesters chanting slogans and enraged anarchists trashing chain store shop fronts, I realised that things were going to be a lot different than I had expected. While tooled-up members of the revolutionary group COBAS and menacing anarchist Black Blockers began collecting assorted debris, the amassed riot police advanced from the boulevard to the East. We watched from the centuries old granite steps as a legion of the Bloc marched through the square, dressed from head to toe in black and equipped with iron bars and viciously barbed chains. I’ve seen few sights as powerful as this – two hundred heavily armed activists sporting spiked helmets, gas masks, visors and black bandanas marching in formation while displaying ominous black flags on banners and poles. I was struck with the thought that I was watching a marching band from hellª unholy majorettes, perhaps. As a police helicopter hovered overhead, tear gas grenades began to explode in the square below. I watched with fascination as three black blockers, rather than retreating, attacked the police lines and dispatched with an ill-fated officer before disappearing into the thick pungent clouds of gas. Another canister shrieked high through the air before exploding on the balcony of a nearby apartment block, and as we fled, I saw thick black smoke rising from a city block perhaps half a mile ahead of us. Peaceful protestª?
Like most others, I had come to Genoa to demonstrate against world debt, globalisation, the privatisation of health services and education, and other issues which the G8 (the seven wealthiest worldwide countries plus Russia) had met to discuss. I had made my decision to attend just three weeks before, when I heard about the buses Globalise Resistance (a new organisation comprised of socialists, environmentalists, Drop the Debt campaigners, anarchists, trade unionists and many other diverse elements, all dedicated to the opposition of globalisation & capitalism through protest and Direct Action) had organised and were running at a price I could actually afford. Over the last few years I’d become more and more concerned, and indeed dismayed, about the way in which the world is being run, and although I’d previously been involved in anti-capitalist and animal rights protests here in Ireland, I had yet to attend a large scale protest overseas. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to finally do something more than read, write and complain about the way in which I perceive capitalism and neo-liberalism (a new form of capitalism, which basically seeks to maximise profits on a global scale at any cost to the environment or mankind itself). So, bags packed and sun cream at the ready, we departed Dublin the evening of Wednesday 18th July to arrive in Genoa the morning of Friday 19th approximately 40 hours later following a journey of strange and wonderful Continental toilet facilities, threatened cavity searches at the border, and much heated political debate & discussion. What struck me immediately about our group was the diversity of those within it, and indeed how incredible it was that there had been so little argument amongst us as regards decision making and the direction we planned to take. Not so with the other Irish group who had arrived in the city a week before us; each meeting was marred by interplay between the various factions seeking to further their own ideology – the overzealous socialists giving it the hard-sell with their politics and publications, the autocratic environmentalist types pushing and shoving everyone into their place (as they saw it), and the anarchists sitting back, bemused expressions of tolerance upon their faces, smiling as perhaps a fond elder humouring a wayward child might do. However, perhaps this was unavoidable with so many disparate elements united under the one banner (Globalise Resistance).
Indeed, each of these disparate elements had their options open as to the form of protest they would take. The Direct Action demo on Friday was split into seven groups, each converging on a certain point bordering the Red Zone (the area in which the G8 Summit was taking place in the Ducal Palace, fenced off with 20-foot high barriers constructed of concrete and steel, and manned by over 15,000 Italian riot police ordered to protest the area at any cost). The different groups were as follows: The Black Bloc – a loose grouping of mostly anarchist protestors who believe in confronting the State and are not opposed to fighting back police who have attacked demonstrators. Many also believe in the destruction of corporate property such as banks, real estate agents, etc. as a symbol of protest against the incredibly (although not so directly) violent and brutal actions of such institutions. The Pink Bloc – also known as the Carnival of Frivolity. This is a grouping of protestors who voice their protest by dressing up in colourful and amusing costumes and loudly denounce the actions of the authorities while also distracting them from Direct Actions other protestors are involved in, through juggling, street-theatre, fire-eating, etc. Globalise Resistance – GR – was involved in a mass non-violent Direct Action, the aim of which was to gain entry to the Red Zone and shut down the summit. ATTAC – a completely non-violent French group committed to entirely peaceful protest. The Red Bloc – the socialist grouping, also taking part in Direct Action similar to that of GR. Ya Basta -a largely Italian organisation whose name means “Enough” in English. Ya Basta are trained professional protestors who are heavily equipped to allow free movement, e.g., to break down the barriers preventing protestors entering the Red Zone. Most wear white overalls and at their actions a number of the group link arms and encircle their fellow group members to stop non-YB protestors joining in, so as to prevent violence and danger to both Ya Basta members and other protestors. As far as I know, the other grouping was of Jubilee protestors -a large worldwide movement of people opposed to 3rd world debt.
Our group wandered through the city of Genoa (at this point seeming more like Beirut than a beautiful Mediterranean tourist spot) with the intention of joining the GR Direct Action. As we walked through the deserted streets with only a vague notion of where to go, tension was heavy in the air and explosions and gunshots frequently sounded in the distance as black oily clouds rose from various points in the city. We eventually met up with other Irish and British protestors marching from the scene of the GR protest who told us of what had happened. That morning, as they had staged a peaceful protest outside the Red Zone, police had fired tear gas into the middle of the crowd and baton charged them, seriously injuring many of the non-violent protestors. Later, I watched in shocked silence as Amanda, a petite and timid environmentalist from Dublin, showed me the multi-coloured ugly bruising on her back and legs where she had been badly beaten by Italian riot police (the infamous Carabinieri). I was also shown videotaped evidence in which a police officer attacked a peaceful elderly demonstrator. As he hit her with his truncheon, another police officer pushed him away from her and shouted for him to stop. He hit the woman again, the second policeman hit him, and the two began to fight. This was just one of the many instances of police brutality recorded over the course of the summit.
As we arrived at the site of the ATTAC protest, we were each checked by stewards from the French group, placed there to search other protesters joining their action so as to make sure they were not armed for confrontation with the authorities. However, at this point tensions were so high and so many protestors had converged at this point that confrontation was inevitable. Police and soldiers, armed with water cannons, tear-gas grenade launchers, machine guns, pepper-gas hoses and batons paced menacingly behind the 20-foot high barriers as thousands of angry protestors rattled the fence around the Red Zone, shouting insults and throwing water balloons over the barrier in response to the intense brutality they had earlier suffered. As the afternoon wore on, the situation escalated. A section of the fence was knocked over, and an armoured car advanced to push it back into position. A lone activist, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and sporting an impressive afro hairstyle climbed the fence and with help from others, erected a brightly coloured Rastafarian flag on the top. He began to unscrew bolts from the barrier, systematically dismantling the top section. As the crowd cheered him on, he was suddenly blasted off the barrier with a powerful water cannon and barely avoided serious injury as he was caught by half a dozen demonstrators 15 feet below. In response, the incensed crowd surged forward and I held my breadth as the barrier teetered on the brink of crashing over into the Red Zone. Carabinieri surged forward spraying pepper gas & water cannons through the barrier, and I staggered back holding my burning eyes and coughing as pepper spray scorched my throat & lungs. The skin on my face where I had shaved that morning burnt as though on fire, and I fell to my knees in a puddle of water, washing the pungent film off my skin as a concerned Italian girl helped by pouring water from a bottle over my face and hair. The crowd had soon recovered and again surged forward with masks and bandannas covering their faces. Suddenly shouted orders were heard behind the barrier and a tear gas grenade shrieked overhead, exploding amidst the retreating protestors. All but a few turned and fled as hysteria gripped the crowd, tear gas canisters exploding all around us, and as one landed beside me I turned and ran in panic only to crash into Elizabetha, an Italian woman who had travelled with our group. She told me our group was on the hill above, and as we left hurriedly I noted with astonishment masked-up protestors rushing forward to pick up discharged canisters emitting huge clouds of tear-gas and throwing them back into the police lines. As we escaped uphill, a sizeable proportion of the Black Bloc began moving big metal bins on wheels, dumpsters, into the middle of the narrow road, and while using them for cover they began wheeling them down the slope, beating the sides with crowbars and chanting “Black Bloc, Black Bloc”. It was obvious some serious shit was about to go down, so we got away as quickly as possible, and I managed to get some vinegar and lemons to squeeze in my eyes to get rid of the effects of the tear gas when we regrouped with some of the other Irish GR demonstrators. We arrived back at the convergence centre an hour or so later, to hear of the death of Carlo Giuliani, the 23-year old Italian anarchist murdered by the police.
Which brings us onto the question, who is to blame? Do we blame the protestors, for their violent protest and attempts to trap the Carabinieri land rover from which the policeman shot and killed Carlo? Do we blame the policeman, a 20-year old conscript who, quite likely fighting for his own life, shot Carlo in the face at point blank range with live ammunition? No, neither are to blame. After much thought on the matter, I blame the State. The Italian government. With the hype preceding the summit, it was almost inevitable that extreme violence and State-sanctioned murder would occur in Genoa last weekend. Indeed, it’s incredible that there was only one death. Why were the police armed with guns? Why were the police armed with live ammunition rather than rubber bullets or baton-rounds? Why were the police put in a position where angry protestors could easily surround and attack their vehicle? We still haven’t heard any answers. When we returned to the Convergence Centre that night, we learnt of how it had been attacked and tear-gassed that afternoon when rioters entered. I crossed the road from the Centre to make a phone call, and as fire raged through the high-rise bank building beside me, black smoke billowing from it as windows exploded outwards from the heat, I looked up and down the street and saw almost every commercial property upon it to be completely destroyed. Not just banks and chain stores, but small family businesses and the property and cars of ordinary working people. The economy in Italy is such that each family is lucky to have a single car, a single car for use by perhaps 3 or 4 generations of the one family, which may compromise of 10-30 people. I’m certain anarchists did not do this; the idea of an anarchist destroying working class property is an oxymoron. This leads me on to my next point – as has been well documented in many similar protests, the police routinely plant infiltrators and agent provocateurs in the crowd. Four men masked-up and dressed all in black, as if they were Black Bloc members, were filmed getting out of the back of a police van and smashing up a bank. A prominent Italian Socialist MP told of how he observed a large number of similarly dressed men armed with various different weapons in a police station the morning of Friday 20th. I heard from another Irish protestor how, wearing a black t-shirt, he had felt something on his back at the GR protest early on Friday morning. He turned around, and there was no-one there. Later that day, when changing his clothes, he noticed that a large white X had been chalked on his back. A number of other black-clad protestors had been marked or covertly sprayed with red and yellow paint, being marked out for police snatch squads, presumably assumed to be members of the Black Bloc. As one might imagine, these activities are all highly illegal. However, they pale in comparison with the actions of the police on the night of Saturday 21st at the Independent Media Centre.
As we sat around the campsite fire drinking wine and discussing the days events, spirits were high following what has since been hailed as the largest peaceful protest of our generation (the like of which has not been seen since the Sixties). The mood quickly turned as we were told of events at the Indy Media Centre that night by a clearly frightened and out of breath witness. A large squad of Carabinieri had stormed the IMC and the school beside it, also part of the IMC, and after locking the doors, had proceeded to violently beat all inside before arresting them on trumped up charges of resisting arrest and possession of weapons. They had claimed it was the headquarters of the Black Bloc; the real reason for this flagrant abuse of human rights was that much video and photographic evidence against the illegal actions of the police were contained within. They confiscated video cameras and tapes, computer hard-drives and photo films. I downloaded a video from the internet, filmed by one of the 6 who had escaped out a window at the back of the building, which showed a woman holding her hands above her head pleading “Non violencia, non violencia” repeatedly as a Carabinieri approached her. He drew back and smashed her in the face with his baton, and proceeded to kick and beat her as she fell to the ground. Another joined in, and continued to beat her until she stopped screaming. As the police left, photographs were taken of the blood-drenched walls and floor. 90 people from the IMC were arrested and badly beaten while in police custody. In a report written by an Italian police officer, we are told of the way in which those arrested were treated: “They lined them up and banged their heads against the walls. They urinated on one person. They beat people if they didn’t sing Facetta Nera [A Fascist hymn]. One girl was vomiting blood but the chief of the squad just looked on. They threatened to rape girls with their batons.” These actions were sanctioned by the State, and still have not been officially condemned, thus abolishing the thin veil of democracy under which we supposedly live. And still little concerning these atrocities has been reported in the mainstream media.
Those who write the news would have you believe that the protests were little more than an unruly gang of youths and hooligans smashing up shop-fronts with completely apolitical motivations. Although discouraging, it is hardly surprising that the media focused on 2000 rioters rather than over a quarter of a million non-violent protesters marching peacefully against the global ravages of capitalism on Saturday 21st July. The feeling of empowerment and comradeship was incredible as we ran, danced and sang our way through the streets of Genoa in the mid-day sun. Socialists & anarchists marched alongside Christian prayer groups & elderly Drop the Debt campaigners from every corner of the globe in a carnival of colour and solidarity. The 10km march ended in a square in the centre of the city, where a number of protestors had been organised to speak from a large platform erected at one end of the street. As things began to wind down, we made our way back towards the Convergence Centre. As we walked, we heard that the police had once again attacked peaceful protestors, and saw clouds of teargas rising above apartment blocks to the East. We moved on, and as the crowd grew I found myself separated from the group of four or five I’d been walking with when I turned to try and spot some others from our group. Making my way back to the square with the intention of finding some others who had travelled with GR, I began to notice how hundreds of tooled-up riot kids were converging where I was headed. After searching through the crowd in the square twice, I realised that everyone from GR must have already left. I approached a group of four Italian kids my own age, three boys and a girl, none older than twenty and each clad in gas masks, home-made body armour and goggles to save their eyes from tear-gas, obviously prepared for confrontation with the police. They told me how they had come from Turin that morning to avenge the murder of Carlo Giulliani. Their plan was to wait for the police to arrive, and rush their lines with the other protestors. I walked back along the route of the march, with the intention of returning to the Convergence Centre. As I walked, more and more masked and armed protestors passed me by. People seemed to be getting more violent, smashing up banks & petrol stations. I reached a long tunnel we had passed through on the march, and my path was blocked by hundreds of formed-up riot police at the other end of the tunnel. Protestors ran about collecting bricks and broken-up cobblestones, while others pushed parked cars towards the tunnel before overturning them and setting them alight. A number of demonstrators were screaming at a photographer who, apparently oblivious to the burning car about to explode behind him, remained focused on the scene ahead. Eventually a burly Italian man ran up and physically pulled him away; a minute later the car exploded showering the road around it with burning debris in a ten-foot radius. As the protestors became more daring, wheeling cars and trucks through the tunnel towards the police lines, the tension in the air was almost palpable, and everyone was waiting for the spark which would ignite a full blown riot. It came in the form of a screaming youth who ran from a side-street shouting that the police had blocked off all the surrounding roads and were advancing on us. The only way back to the Centre was through the police lines ahead. While I tried to decide upon my course of action, the police ahead of us attacked with water cannons and tear gas. Most turned and fled; a few surged forward to meet the police, screaming their disgust at the rest of us. I ran as fast as I could, with tear gas grenades exploding to my left and right. My eyes were streaming and I could hardly breathe, the police were coming from all directions and I was alone and lost. Near to complete panic, I watched as a gangly Italian youth in black gas-mask hid behind a burnt-out car holding a petrol bomb ready to throw as the police advanced. An armoured car with a water cannon on top drove up the centre of the street, oblivious to the petrol bomb kid, and as it came into range he lit the rag, stood and threw it at the vehicle. It exploded on the side, drenching the van in flames, and as the youth ran for cover he tripped and fell. As squad of riot cops ran towards him from perhaps 50 metres away, the kid’s friends dashed out and pulled him limping back into the clamouring crowd as a hail of stones and bottles fell upon the advancing police. I decided to get out of the situation and try to find my bearings elsewhere. Running up a side street, I climbed the narrow steps upwards and kept running until I was high above the scene of the riot. I asked directions from a confused looking tourist, deciding to head for the coast to try and find the Convergence Centre from there. I spent the next two hours searching through the maze-like centre of Genoa, trying to find my way back whilst avoiding the dangerously unpredictable police force. The city was like a warzone. I passed burning apartment blocks as their occupants evacuated them and gangs of discontented Italian youths smashing up shop fronts. While asking for directions, I met two German protestors who were also lost and trying to find their friends, one of whom was badly hurt and bleeding (anyone who went to the hospital was being arrested). I eventually got back to the sea front and found the campsite, hungry, frightened and convinced I was going to be picked up and violently arrested as so many others already had been. It turned out that many others were missing, and I was told of how John from Belfast had been arrested earlier that day. His crime? Carrying an anarchist flag. He was thrown in the back of a police van and driven off; none of us heard anything more until news of his release reached us on the ferry home on Monday night. As I write this, Jo Moffatt from Dublin who was arrested on Sunday morning as he walked back from the shop still has not been released. He is being kept in a jail in Italy because he had a penknife in his pocket, and has been ridiculously accused of being involved in the stabbing of an Italian police officer.
Since returning to Ireland, I’ve been appalled by the impression most here seem to have of the protests, aware of little more than what they’ve been shown in the mainstream media (most of which is owned by the same people who finance the government through donations and contributions). It seems that very little