From the Streets of
An on-the-ground report from the G8 protests of 2001
New Internationalist online, 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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.