The Genoa Tales
Dominic Standish reports from Genoa, Italy, on the tales and truths about the G8 summit.
The G8 summit in Genoa has sparked many modern tales about direct action, global capitalism, and police brutality. What really happened inside and outside the security ‘Red Zone’?
Tale one: a war broke out at the G8 summit.
The Tale: Across the media, the riots at Genoa have been reported as a ‘war’, some blaming anarchists and others blaming police and security forces. ‘Protesters turn Genoa into war zone’, wrote the Los Angeles Times (1).
The Truth: Several anarchist groups stated before the summit that they intended to try to breach the four-metre fence of steel erected to protect the delegates inside the ‘Red Zone’. Their attempts to do this failed. But there were clashes as demonstrators tried to break through and police drove them back, firing water cannons and tear gas.
It is reported that 500 people were injured during the first two days of the summit, out of an estimated total of over 100,000 demonstrators. A further 40 demonstrators were taken to hospital after police raided their accommodation early on 22 July, arresting 92, and collecting knives, pickaxes and petrol bombs. One person was killed in Genoa and the costs of destruction have been estimated at $120 million.
These scenes were ugly, the injuries horrible, and the death tragic. But from the start, the media have talked up the level of possible and actual violence, encouraging politicians, police and protesters to get ready for the worst – and helping to turn the whole thing into a self-fulfilling prophecy (2).
In Genoa there were riots, looting and fighting. But there were no reports that demonstrators used any firearms, and the police didn’t use the surface-to-air missiles they had amassed before the summit. Yes, it was nasty. But a ‘war’?
Tale two: the Italian police and security forces behaved like those from a fascist or authoritarian regime, not a democracy.
The Tale: The Italian police and security forces were said to have acted like ‘fascists’, bent on attacking peaceful and violent demonstrators alike (3). The killing of protester Carlo Giuliani, shot by policeman Mario Placanica, is given as the primary evidence of this. Amnesty International demanded a review of the Italian police, while Vittorio Agnoletto, leader of the main umbrella protest organisation the Genoa Social Forum, called for further demonstrations on Tuesday 24 July against the government’s attempt ‘to institute a police state’.
The Truth: The police and security forces routinely charged protesters and attacked peaceful demonstrators, residents, journalists and others. This was no doubt an overreaction to the protests. But it is not unheard of for police to behave like this in formally democratic countries – remember the Poll Tax demonstrations and the miners’ strike in the UK during Margaret Thatcher’s administration?
The murder of Giuliani was particularly extreme. He was shot as he threw a fire extinguisher into a Carabinieri jeep where Placanica was under attack by several rioters. The jeep then drove over Giuliani’s body. For several hours after the shooting, the authorities tried to argue that Giuliani had been killed by something thrown by a protester, even though they had a corpse with bullet wounds. And the excellent photography of Dylan Martinez (Reuters), showing a pistol pointing at Giuliani as he threw the fire extinguisher, helped to expose what happened, and should go down as a key moment in photographic journalism.
The police deserve all the criticism they got, as protests against them broke out on Monday 23 July outside the Senate building in Rome with chants of ‘Assassins’. (Also on Monday, police made 30 more arrests in raids in Genoa.) But this was not a conscious armed shooting with the full backing of an authoritarian state, so much as the panic reaction of an inexperienced, isolated 20-year-old conscript officer under attack. The consequences might be no less deadly; but ignoring the context clarifies nothing.
Tale three: the violence was organised by the Black Block movement.
The Tale: The hardcore group of anarchists has been identified as the ‘Black Block’, with estimates of their numbers ranging from hundreds to thousands – even though none of the media reports on the militant groups before or after the demonstrations properly explained who they are or where they come from.
According to the UK Observer, they were supported by the German group FAU (Freie ArbeiterInnen Union), AP (Arbeiter Partei or Workers’ Party, affiliated to FAU), TIKB (Union of Revolutionary Communists of Turkey), AntiKapitalist/ISCI Demokrasisi (Turkey), Ya Basta! (the international wing of Italian anarchists Tute Bianche), and the British-based Globalise Resistance. (4). A middle-aged man, Roberto, explained to me that they are so elusive and powerful because they use the modern power of information technology.
The Truth: Some demonstrators looted, burned 24 cars and destroyed 59 more, and smashed the windows of 41 shops, 16 petrol stations and 34 banks (according to city officials). Most of this was mindless violence, not directed at anything or anybody in particular. Protesters also threw objects such as bottles, sometimes lit with petrol, and rocks. Most of these were directed at the police and security forces. There were very few instances of other demonstrators or residents being attacked.
Some of the protesters were probably from the groups listed above, identifiable by their t-shirts and banners. But there were also youths with local accents and people not attached to any group who were simply angry for a variety of reasons. Carlo Giuliani, the protester who was shot, was not a member of any group, according to his friends and family. But he lived in a squat and had occasionally dropped in on meetings. I even saw a man fighting with fascist insignia on his t-shirt (many fascist groups are also against ‘globalisation’).
The violent protesters were a mixed bunch, not solely an organised group identifiable as the Black Block.
Tale four: a new militant anarchist movement in Italy is prompting political violence.
The Tale: There is a growing and increasingly militant anarchist movement in Italy based in ‘social centres’ that provided the core of the G8 assaults. As Naomi Klein, author of the famous anti-corporate book No Logo, warned: ‘They are also ground zero of a growing political militancy in Italy – one that is poised to explode on to the world stage when the G8 meets.’ (5)
At the core of the social centres are the Tute Bianche group – named after the white overalls they wear during protests as a symbol of their invisibility, according to Luca Casarini, widely regarded as the group’s leader. He made a declaration of war against the G8 summit before it began, which launched the group into a highly visible position: ‘We will storm the city’s off-limit zone and we’ll be ready to defend ourselves.’ (6)
The Truth: There are roughly 150 ‘social centres’ in Italy where anarchists have taken over derelict buildings and started ‘semi-autonomous communities’ – the largest being Leoncavallo in Milan. Although several ‘social centre activists’ have recently become city councillors in Venice, Rome and Milan, these communities are largely defined by their isolation from society and from national political life.
The lack of direction to the violence is a sign that this is not a new political movement of anarchists. A highly politicised anarchist movement began in Italy when the Russian Michael Bukunin came to Italy in the 1860s. Between 1877 and 1900, Italian anarchists murdered the president of France (1894), the Spanish prime minister (1897), the Austrian Empress (1894), and Italian King Umberto (1900).
On the morning of Saturday 21 July in Genoa I spoke to a group of six anarchists from Milan, Rome and Liguria. They were very political and knew their history. But their aims were vaguely against ‘globalisation’, ‘the corporations’, and ‘the media who cannot be trusted’. The Tute Bianche leader, Luca Casarini, has stated as one of his key aims: ‘I would like to say that I am part of the movement for a fair market.’ (7)
Weak leadership and terrorist violence has always been a consequence of anarchist politics. But a movement that aims to make capitalism fairer and is limited to rioting and failing to break through barricades surely represents the degradation of anarchism, not its militant revival.
Tale five: there has been a return to terrorism in Italy.
The Tale: Before the G8 summit began, numerous bombs went off. Letter bombs went off at the Benetton administrative headquarters near Treviso, in the face of a police officer in Genoa, and at the headquarters of TG4 News in Milan, injuring a secretary. A small bomb was disarmed in the centre of Bologna, and a petrol bomb set a temporary employment agency on fire in Milan with the Red Brigades’ five star symbol painted on the wall, as a group called ‘the revolutionary front for communism’ claimed responsibility.
During the summit there were bomb scares across Italy, with police responding to 24 bomb threats in a 48-hour period. On Monday 24 July, another letter bomb was intercepted by police in Genoa.
The Truth: Most of the bomb scares were hoaxes. And where there were explosions, to use the term ‘bomb’ is an exaggeration. In Florence, a bag with a ticking clock was left outside a post office; and in Naples, a bag soaked with flammable liquid was found outside a Deutsche Bank branch.
The above incidents were useless acts of violence by isolated groups and individuals. They do not represent a return to the highly organised terrorism Italy experienced during the 1970s and early 1980s. The Red Brigades and left-wing terrorist groups killed 29 people in 1978, 22 in 1979 and 30 in 1980, especially police, judges and journalists. But the Red Brigades also kidnapped and killed Aldo Moro, the president of the Christian Democrats and a leading political figure of the mid-1970s. There is no movement in Italy currently capable of such organised terrorism.
Tale six: the violence prevented the protesters’ arguments from having an impact.
The Tale: The rioting protesters prevented the key protest messages on debt, poverty and injustice from putting pressure on the G8 leaders. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and the Catholic Development Agency, withdrew from the main organised demonstration on Saturday 21 July after the rioting the day before, and held separate vigils. The NGO Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité issued a press statement to the G8 press office with the headline, ‘Violence steals limelight at Genoa, but G8 continues to steal money from Third World’.
The Truth: NGOs experienced the consequences of the long-term integration of their agendas into the mainstream concerns of governments. The NGO Drop the Debt campaigned for 100 percent debt forgiveness for highly indebted countries, while the G7 (G8 minus Russia) have already implemented partial forgiveness for 23 poor countries and have discussed extending this further (8). I saw nobody protesting against debt forgiveness or the Kyoto Protocols on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And there seemed to be more disagreement on the environmental issue inside the summit than there was between the G8 leaders and the protesters outside.
The principle reason that the protesters failed to put pressure on the G8 leaders was that most of their arguments differed occasionally in tone, but rarely in substance, from those of the leaders.
The outcome: world leaders run scared.
In the aftermath of Genoa, Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien proposed that next year’s G8 summit, which his country will host, should be held in Kananaskis, Alberta – a mountain resort with only 350 hotel rooms. This proposal has been widely welcomed because it will be a more modest affair, as the G8 leaders were quickly put on the defensive about their display of power and luxury in Genoa while seeming to express concern about poverty and inequality.
The G8 choice of their next venue expresses the desire for distance between the world’s political elite and the populations that they rule. Holding the summit in the city of Genoa gave an image of being in touch and allowing democratic protest, even though I could not even hear the protests from inside the Red Zone, where the G8 leaders were meeting at the Palazzo Ducale. Now, the fact that the November World Trade Organisation meeting will be held in inaccessible Qatar has been widely welcomed.
On 23 July 2001, UK prime minister Tony Blair was asked whether summits like Genoa could continue. ‘So these guys can come and riot, and we the democratic leaders should conclude from that that we should never meet again…. Not as far as I’m concerned’, retorted Blair (9). Yet world leaders do conclude that, faced with protests, they should go in with all guns blazing – and when that fails, that they should run away.
What a tale for our times.
Dominic Standish writes comment articles for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consulting in the Veneto region of Italy. Email him at email@example.com
G8 expectations by Brendan O’Neill
(1) ‘Protesters turn Genoa into war zone’, Los Angeles Times, 21 July 2001
(2) ‘On eve of G8 meeting, Genoa is battening down the hatches,’ Il Sole 24 Ore, 19 July 2001; ‘Fortress city waits for repeat of the sacking of 1522’, The Times (London), 19 July 2001
(3) ‘I’m ready to fight…this is a war’, Financial Times, 22 July 2001
(4) ‘Who’s who: the militants’, Observer, 22 July 2001
(5) ‘Squatters in white overalls’, Guardian, 8 June 2001
(6) ‘The road to Genoa’, International Herald Tribune/Italy Daily, 28 June 2001
(7) ‘The road to Genoa’, International Herald Tribune/Italy Daily, 28 June 2001
(8) ‘Debt relief and beyond’: report transmitted by G7 finance ministers to the heads of state and government, Genoa, 20-22 July 2001
(9) Daily Telegraph, 23 July 2001