And Balanced With This Life, This Death (Genoa, the G8 and the battle in the streets)
Genoa, July 2001
The Siege of Genoa
The walls went up around the old quarter of Genoa, enclosing the group of 8 (G8) and their cohorts. Huge heavy walls of concrete and metal, like medieval fortifications or prison fences; walls to keep the people out, the world leaders penned in. Genoa is a beautiful renaissance city carved out of a treacherous mountain slope that seems as if it might slide irrevocably into the sea. Its pulsating streets, the mystery of its dense labyrinth and the expansive calm of the seafront a surreal theater for the battle ahead.
Leading up the summit, the authorities had close down the airport, the main railway stations and severely restricted access by road. Aside from the center of town (the red zone), which was completely forbidden to citizens, the surrounding area (the yellow zone) was also restricted with people enduring random stop and searches. Local people fled the town in droves, and most businesses closed for the duration of the summit. The G8 has transformed Genoa from a thriving commercial and tourist metropolis to a war zone under a form of martial law.
As if to justify the extraordinary security measures, the media has reported various bomb scares and explosive finds, all of which protesters view skeptically. No groups present claim responsibility. These are not tactics used by the alternative globalization movement. The Italian military brought in an array of defensive missiles. War ships are stationed in the bay. A state of paranoid terror has been created to dissuade protestors from coming, and to criminalize those who did.
On the Austrian border, activists from the group NoBorders were attacked; one woman lost 5 teeth. A boat full of protesters from Greece was held and the passengers attacked by riot police. Several hundred British protesters traveling by train were detained in France and a group of cyclists were held at the German border. Seventy migrants traveling from Germany to attend the Migrant March on the Thursday prior to the Summit were refused entry into Italy. People disembarking at airports in Milan and Turin were subjected to interrogation and searches. Cars were routinely pulled over and the occupants detained. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of outsiders have made it to Genoa and as many as 200,000 demonstrators will attend the final demonstration.
The Genoa Social Forum – One No, Many Yeses
The logistical setup for the protesters centered around the Genoa Social Forum (GSF), the organizing body representing over 800 diverse groups advocating an alternative to the current corporate globalization. Their slogan was “A Different World Is Possible.” They pointed out that the movement was not anti-globalization, but for an alternative vision of globalization, one that does not put profits before people, free trade before free movement; a movement that seeks to eliminate the gap between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. In a word, to democratize the process of globalization.
The GSF is based in a huge parking lot on the sea front. From this Convergence Center, people are dispatched to camps in various stadiums and parks across the city, loosely based on group affiliation. A thriving Indymedia Center is located nearby. There are legal, medical and administrative centers demonstrating how the movement organizes itself autonomously. Café Clandestino provides free food and drink, while Manu Chao played a free late night concert before 25,000 ecstatic revelers the night before the summit began. A message from sub-comandante Marcos was boomed over the PA. How can one town hold so many Che Guevara t-shirts, Zapatista paliacates, Palestinian scarves?! The international connection, bridges between 1st and 3rd worlds, North and South, are everywhere to be seen, not just in the presence of Kurdish, African, Russian or Indian delegates, but also in the Europeans who bring their foreign experiences home.
The paramilitary police raided the camping centers at dawn on the 20th, even before the summit began. From the start it was clear: heavy repression would be used to stifle protest with an iron fist. At the Carlini Stadium, temporary home to the strong Ya Basta faction, the loudspeakers woke us at 5:30 am. “The police have surrounded us, everybody defend the gates!”
Outside, lines of heavily armed paramilitary police stood ready. They demanded to enter to search for “arms and explosives.” Ya Basta is a non-violent direct action organization. To show we have nothing “to hide” and to diffuse the situation, the central committee allowed a delegation of cops in to search the premises. Many activists were furious to have to submit to this search, but the Ya Basta leaders prevailed. From early on, a split was emerging within the protesters’ ranks between those who wished to resist the repression, and those who wanted to avoid confrontation. All around the city campsites were raided, causing distress, confusion, fear, and depriving people of sleep. Meanwhile houses of activists preparing to go to Genoa were rained in other cities; doors were kicked down, people detained. Five Germans here were arrested while driving in a car close to the red zone.
The first mobilization takes place on Thursday 19 July. About 50,000 people gather for a Migrant March. The day is warm and sunny and the streets throng with a peaceful, high-spirited multitude. There are no cops in sight, and the mood is light. The first demand: open the borders to people as well as goods. We are not against globalization, but against globalization that criminalizes and marginalizes migrants. Are the G8 listening? Do they care? At least it is reported that they are shifting their agenda to talk about debt relief (for people who never themselves borrowed the money which invariably benefits those nearest to the top of the pyramid) and an AIDS fund for Africa ($10 billion is requested, $1 billion is considered). The media is a choc-a-bloc with street stories, scare stories, spectacular images, all fueling the tension. The stage is set: The New World Order, the Global Empire, protected by 20,000 police and military, besieged by the new Global protest movement. Graffiti appears on the walls: “They make misery, we make history.”
Friday 20 July: Death in Genoa
A day of civil disobedience. The aim, to shut down the G8 by attempting to breach the fortifications enclosing the summit from a variety of positions. The tactics: direct action. The strongest continent was the Ya Basta grouping, numbering more than 10,000 militants. Up at the Carlini Stadium, preparations began early with talks followed by training sessions. Resembling an army preparing for war, men and women, predominantly young and Italian, spent all morning taping up their fragile bodies with foam and padding. The atmosphere was tense, the mood defiant. It really seemed that anything was possible. There was an ecstatic mood of celebration when we finally set off on the 4 kilometers march to the city center. An endless sea of bopping helmets interspersed with a vast array of flags of every hue and color. At the front a long line of Ya Basta militants pressed forward behind a wall of plastic shields.
Bad news filtered through from around the city. The Italian trade union group, Confederazione dei Comitati di Bace (COBAS), has been badly beaten before they had even gotten close to their target. In another part of the city, the Pink Block, a theatrical and prankster group of several thousands had also suffered heavy repression. A women’s pacifist block had been attacked from the air by tear-gas firing helicopters. A strong section of anarchists and “Autonomes” had come close to the Red Zone but were now being brutally dispersed. The police were making pre-emptive strikes with tear gas and batons on every block. Only one of the roaming black bloc groups was not getting pounded, as they engaged in property destruction aimed at banks and multinational businesses. The only good news: one elderly man had, remarkably, penetrated the Red Zone before being arrested.
Despite all the ominous reports, we swept down the wide boulevard confidently – we were so many! Like an unstoppable river! So many people prepared to use their bodies to break through, to defend themselves, to struggle. “El Pueblo Unido, Jamas Sera Vencido” they chanted. “Genova Libera!” “E-Z-L-N!” Rage Against the Machine blasted from the mobile P.A. as “Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me!” was screamed along with by thousands. It was momentarily powerful and wonderful.
Two kilometers from the Red Zone, the police attacked us. First a frantic barrage of tear-gas canisters were lobbed over the front lines, deep into the heart of the demonstration. Nobody here had gas masks. The poisonous gas first blinds you, painfully, then disorientates you. The people, packed in tightly, panicked and surged backwards. 500 heavily armed Riot squad stormed the front lines. In brutal scenes, the Ya Basta militants crumbled despite brave resistance. All were battered. People screamed, turned, fled, falling over each other.
We retreated up the road. The sky was heavy with gas and helicopters hovered overhead. A water cannon blasted away, throwing bodies around like paper bags. What now? People looked to the Ya Basta leadership in all this horrible disarray but there was no Plan B. The microphone that issued commands during the march was now silent. People retreated further and further, eventually sitting down. Meanwhile the front lines struggled to hold on, and the fighting was intense, the tear gas volleys raining down, the police hitting out viciously as the plastic shields shattered and the helmets cracked. Bleeding people were rushed to the back with head injuries some inflicted when they had been shot in the face with tear gas canisters.
We were defeated before having even begun. The non-violent direct action tactics failed, an active defense crushed in the face of decisively brutal police tactics. As the majority of the march sat down further up the road, thousands of others streamed off into the side streets. The right-side was blocked by the railway track, while to the left lay a labyrinth of small enclosed streets. “Open new fronts! Break through police lines at 2,3,4 different points!” Spontaneous and enraged, thousands ran into the side streets. Meanwhile, the Ya Basta loudspeaker requested people to stay put on the road, far from the Red Zone.
Rebel Joy and Sorrow
In a beautiful old barrio, the battle raged. Protesters charged up tight streets flinging stones at police lines. The police, protected head to toe, amassed behind shields and flanked by armored vehicles, responded with tear gas and by flinging back the rocks. The ferocious spirit of the protesters more than the paltry stones pushed back the police lines. Barricades were built with dumpsters, cars, anything at hand. The front lines would retreat nursing wounds and poisoned eyes. The more seriously injured were carried to ambulances. New people rushed to the front, while others tore up the pavement for ammunition. A tall gentleman fell back saying “We almost got through, we almost did it, we just need a few more people!”
Another surge, everyone rushed forward on 2 or 3 different streets. Some riot cops got stranded in their retreat and hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Those fighting are not necessarily in black, though some are masked. Some have helmets. It is not the black bloc, and there are no agent provocateurs. This is a militant energy driven by people who have said – Ya Basta! Fuck the police! rage! energy! resolve!
They move forward. Tear gas is everywhere. The police are retreating. An armored carabinieri truck is captured and the occupants flee. It is smashed up and set ablaze. This symbol of the hated oppressive state is burning and everyone is cheering, filled with rebel joy. Someone sprays, “We are Winning!” on the side of the carcass of the armored beast. Now they are pushing the police back, two blocks, then three, further and further. Protesters are euphoric, storming forward, overwhelming the despised carabinieri. Approaching the hated wall of the G8,“Here we are,” they chant, “we resist!”
Hundreds strong, they pour into the expansive Piazza Alimonda. Two police vehicles drive recklessly into the crowd, one drives away, the other stalls; people rush toward the vehicle. Shots ring out. Rubber bullets? No, the ominous thud of live ammunition. The air heaved. The protesters stopped, reeled around, and fled.
Carlo Guiliani was 23 years old. A rebel. The papers belittled him, called him a “ne’er do well,” a squatter. But we know him as a comrade and a revolutionary. He fought the paramilitary police bravely, fearlessly, pitting the little streets against the great. He was involved in the Zapata Social Center of Genoa. Carlo’s death was not heroic, nor tragic. It was the consequence of his life, how he lived, how he resisted. Moments before he was shot in the face, Carlo probably felt the extraordinary rebel joy of this spontaneous uprising against power in the little side streets of Genoa. He died instantly, or else when the police drove over him, not once but twice, as if to make sure he was dead, really dead. For the police, Carlo had to die. Now they must kill us because we are beginning to really threaten their power. Carlo was murdered. We are all Carlo.
The Ghost of Pinochet, Saturday 21 July
This is how the police works… It is Saturday afternoon and there are as many as 200,000 people marching on Genoa again the Eight most powerful economic powers in the world. It is not a combative march. As they swing onto the sea front, a group of agent provocateurs began throwing stones at the police. These are undercover cops, or secret police, or mercenaries or Nazis. They are used by the police the same way the paramilitaries are used by the state in Chiapas or in Belfast, or even how they used them in Italy in the 1970s. The police want to pick the time and place of the confrontation. They are ready and prepared. This was planned. This is how the police works: a few stones fall harmlessly into their ranks and they open up with tear-gas. The canisters fly deep into the multitude, immediately creating panic and chaos. People flee, young and old, parents with babies in their arms. But there are too many people, with nowhere to run, they are hemmed in and poisoned from the gas. It is horrific.
This is how the people resist…
The militants steam through the crowd to the front. There they attempt to build barricades and hold back the advancing cops. The sky fills with stones. They hold the police and those behind them have a few moments more to retreat. Those who needed to get away from the zone could. Communist party stewards directed people away, but many people stayed, indignant that the demonstration could be so brutally dispersed even before it could get to the piazza. Now is the hour of the black bloc and the insurrectionary anarchists. All afternoon the streets were mad with tear-gas, with stones, with burning banks, burning cars, barricades. The air was shrill with screams, of beating, violence and fear.
Eventually the barricades were overrun. The police advanced ferociously, beating people indiscriminately. In a most surreal scene, cops in gray overalls beat up people on the beach, the Italian Riviera, while bathers looked on. Police in small boats launched tear-gas onto the beach. A helicopter overhead fired gas into the fleeing hordes. Further up, people jumped off the rocks into the sea. The huge march ended in absolute mayhem. Let it be recorded – 200,000 overtly peaceful protestors were not allowed to demonstrate. “The Genoa Social Forum favored and covered the black bloc”, said Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by way of explanation the next day. We are all guilty. We are all Carlo Giuliani.
At midnight, the next police operation began. We were eating in a restaurant near the Indymedia Center. The quiet residential street was silent, the neighborhood sleeping. A long line of heavily armored men rushed by, masked and with their batons swinging. They’re in a single file, silent but for the thumping of their boots on the pavement. The next moment, a fleet of armored police vehicles rushed by. Suddenly a helicopter shattered the night sky. Finally, a long line of ambulances blasting their sirens passed by. All this in a couple of minutes, a surgical strike on the movement’s offices. The police were extracting revenge. They crashed through the front gates of the Indymedia Center in an armored truck, then smashed up the computers, confiscated files and film and broke cameras, terrorizing the journalists inside.
Across the road in the school building being used by the GSF as offices and dormitory for people who felt unsafe in the camping grounds, the real horror occurred. Police and plain-clothes cops reportedly from the special penitentiary police unit, Gruppo Operative Mobile, burst in and attacked everyone inside. Most were sleeping on the floor. 93 people were injured as the police closed the door and inflicted heavy punishment. Scores of people were eventually carried out on stretchers. Pools of blood remained on the floor, streaks of blood across the walls. Attacks on property cannot be equated to the legions of broken limbs, broken teeth, broken ribs and damaged skulls that a squad of police men inflicted on a somnambulant group of weary protestors as they lay on the floor of a school.
State Sponsored Terror
These men were following orders. Those who gave the orders get their general directives from a higher authority. The blame for this state terror lies at the feet of Berlusconi’s regime, and ultimately, the G8. This is why we protest the G8. This is why comrades move from protest to resistance. The midnight attack on the school and Indymedia, the ensuing torture of the prisoners afterwards, was an attempt to terrorize the movement, to inflict extra-judiciary punishment on activists, and to instill mind-numbing fear within the hearts and souls of protestors. In many ways, it was successful - Saturday night in Genoa was one of widespread fear and terror.
At the Carlini Stadium, bastion of the Ya Basta movement, the officials ordered an immediate evacuation. “Like Saigon”, reported one eyewitness. Hundreds of other activists not present at the time were left stranded. Plain-clothes police swarmed in, and criminals were allowed in to rummage through peoples’ belongings. That night, all over Genoa people fled from camping sites to roam the streets and alleys and back lanes of the city in fear, hunted like escaped convicts. It was the longest night. Eventually dawn came, but everything had changed.
Genoa was gutted. No city will host the G8 for a while. 34 banks burnt. 83 vehicles, both police and civilian, were destroyed, 41 businesses torched or looted, 6 supermarkets, 12 government offices illustrating the belief that some protestors have that targeting the economic organs of the enemy is the most effective tactic. (No buses were burnt, apparently because the bus drivers union was in solidarity with the protestors, ferrying everyone around for free the whole week). With Genoa in ruins, the G8 left quietly with a few promises to give some money to Africa. Berlusconi blamed not just the Black Bloc and the anarchists, but the whole movement, rendering any distinction obsolete.
The GSF has since uncovered damning evidence of police collision with agent provocateurs, and the inquiries into the night of terror at the school and the denunciations of torture afterwards continues, unrelenting. 200 people were arrested, 600 injured. In the jails, the protestors were tortured while police mocked them with pictures of Mussolini and Nazis. They tortured them, as they have done in Seattle, Prague and Quebec. They tortured them as they did in Pinochet’s Chile, in Argentina; everywhere activists have unsettled power, they terrorize them. They attempt to the destroy the movement by spreading panic and fear, to break the back of the militants of this totally unarmed global protest movement.
A Summer’s Day
A lovely tree-filled piazza deep in the heart of Genoa. A pile of flowers. An endless flow of citizens pass by to pay their respects at the sight of Carlo’s murder. A memorial across the road beside an old church is overflowing with little gifts and offerings. Che Guevara images dominate amidst black, red and green flags, candles and flowers, cigarettes, beer bottles, tear-gas canisters, Zapatista scarves, sunglasses, gloves. An array of notes and poems and good-bye letters from his friends. A photo of Carlo with his school class. He is the one with the shoulder length hair and the “Fuck Nike” t-shirt. Politically conscious at 16. People weep gently. Two squatter girls tie up a banner with the help of a posh older lady. A Mexican woman offers clasps from her coat to secure the banner. “We with our hands”, it reads, “they with their guns”.
Someone else leaves a poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet No.18. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” On a summer’s day in Genoa, July 20, 2001, Carlo fell. Let the July 20 Movement flourish.