Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills

Geoff Andrews
1 August 2001

Wednesday 18 July: “We’re not anarchists”

Along with everyone else heading for Genoa on one of the last flights before the curfew, I am diverted to a control desk at Stansted airport. “What are your reasons for travelling to Genoa?” Before I can answer, a voice booms out from behind me, a mixture of indignation and triumphalism. “We have come to halt third world debt.” Pamela is travelling to Genoa with a group from Jubilee 2000 and CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), many of whom are in their sixties. “If the eight richest nations can’t sort out third world debt, then we have to do something,” she tells me. “We are not anarchists,” she adds, as if to reassure me. “We are here for peaceful protest. We are the wrinklies.”

In fact, the £54 Ryanair flight is made up of a range of pacifists and idealists, reformists and revolutionaries, wrinklies and grungies, a mixture that typifies the diversity of peaceful protesters. It makes for a change from the corporate greyness of the business travellers and middle-class angst of Brits on holiday. Full of optimism, they discuss their plans and map out the red zones where entry is denied and the yellow zone where the police can prevent demonstrations.

I sit next to a couple of undergraduates at Wadham College, Oxford, who tell me they are not part of any political group but are going because the gap between the world’s rich and poor is wrong. They are planning to avoid Friday’s “civil disobedience” demonstration, however.

No hold-ups on arrival at Genoa airport.

Thursday 19 July: a peaceful start

The ticket clerk at Camogli station, the coastal village where I am staying for the first couple of days, is determined to get me as close to the centre of Genoa as possible, the first indication of unease amongst local citizens about the closure of their city. On arrival at one of the suburban stations, I join up with others to board one of the free buses supplied by the city council to get us nearer to the centre.

When we arrive at the Genoa Social Forum HQ in Piazza Kennedy, the place is buzzing and people are gathering around Bar Clandestino for free food and drink, provided by the “community of San Benedetto”. Somebody is flying a kite with “NO G8” on it and the meetings that make up the “alternative summit” are in full flow. At one of these, “The Court on the Gross Violations of the World Order”, I hear Dennis Brutus, one of Nelson Mandela’s fellow Robben Island prisoners, call to bankrupt the World Bank.

As I make my way to the “Migrants March”, the week’s first demonstration, I stop at one of the entrances to the red zone, where I meet a group of bemused and discontented local citizens. “I’m Genoese, why can’t I walk along my own streets?” asks one.

The march itself is a very joyous occasion, with music and general good humour amongst the 35,000-strong contingent. A chorus of communist and partisan songs, such as “Bella Ciao”, get the locals involved. No sign of the Tute Bianche (White Overalls). Not a sniff of trouble. At a packed meeting that night, Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communists, embraces Vittorio Agnoletto, the convenor of the Global Social Forum, and both proclaim the beginnings of “an alternative left” in Italy. Share a taxi home with a Dutch journalist and photographer who are following a small Trotskyist group in the “Globalise Resistance” organisation. Outside thunder and lightning beckon.

Friday 20 July: “Who are the Black Block?”

I’ve now moved to Nervi, a posh suburb of Genoa which is to become a key site for the protesters. Many camp out in the parks amongst the palm trees, while Nervi station is one of the main links to the centre. I travel in on a packed bus and then walk the remainder of the way with a group of students from Rome. The highlight of today’s demonstrations (which also includes a “Pink Silver March” promising “tactical frivolity”) is the “Civil Disobedience” demonstration, and trouble is expected. As we approach the centre in search of this demonstration we find the police blockades have extended well past the “yellow zone” and now block our street in both directions. Some locals find us a shortcut which involves clambering down steps and through gardens. They shout words of encouragement: “keep going, you are right.”

As we get to Piazzale Martin Luther King, we witness the aftermath of a clash with police that has left broken windows and phone boxes. A cameraman has had his equipment smashed, and is berating the line of Carabinieri who have remained outside the Global Social Forum base. Where yesterday the place was a vibrant community, today there is anxiety and fear. Some of the Carabinieri drum their shields.

Sirens sound continuously as I make my way towards the trouble spot. I bump into Claudia, a young communist from Milan, who is very angry. “I really hate this fucking black block,” she says. “Who are they? What are they trying to create?” The police have now cut off the main thoroughfares and there are rumours that something major is happening near the Brignole Railway station. Impossible to get any nearer, I walk back to Nervi and pass a trail of smashed banks and offices, including “Istituto Bancario”, “Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro” and a branch of the Italian post office. In Via Felice Cavalotti I come across the unlikely sight of a red London double decker bus, with destination G8 Summit, predictably broken down. It is only when my friend Filippo rings from London that I discover that someone has been killed in the disturbances. Later that night, in a crowded bar, we watch Bertinotti and Gianfranco Fini, the “post- Fascist” Deputy Prime Minister, argue over the circumstances of the killing on Porta a Porta (the Italian news analysis programme).

Saturday 21 July: Middle England in protest

In possession of what seems to be the last copy of Il Manifesto, the left-wing daily, I am instantly popular as protesters in Nervi search for explanations of the previous evening’s tragedy. Some hear the news for the first time and one girl bursts into tears. Today is the International Mass March, and numbers are expected to be high, despite stories that police are stopping coaches and trains.

Hundreds of protesters arrive at Nervi station and crowd on to the buses. As we head towards the meeting point of the march I notice a small group of forty or so who split and head off in another direction. Unmistakably British by their eccentric array of headgear and other garments, I discover they are members of British Jubilee 2000 and Christian Aid. My quip that they must be the hardcore anarchists goes unappreciated. “We wanted to avoid the rabble on the corner,” says Simon who had set off from Nottingham days earlier (“Rabble?”) Indeed, many have been travelling for days, some have cycled from Leeds, while others have been turfed off trains and unable to persuade coach companies to bring them. Some, including many in their seventies, are exhausted after walking miles from the outskirts of Genoa. A heroic feat in the circumstances.

They join a service and silent prayer session in the Boccadasse church, as part of their own campaign to cancel the debt, though this is overshadowed by the noisy procession of nearly 200,000 demonstrators, some of whom are shouting “Berlusconi Assassino, Berlusconi Assassino”. The organisers of Jubilee 2000 took the “difficult decision” the previous evening not to join the march, so as to avoid the violence. Instead, they organise their own chain around the church: a few hundred metres further down Corso Italia, the demonstration has gone as far as it can and has been met by police lines. Outside Boccadasse church, a woman in an extraordinary straw hat is wearing a Malvern Churches T-shirt. This is middle England in protest.

The red London bus, now roadworthy again, is parked on the corner of the road. Up above, helicopters are circling. A hearty rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” has to compete with the sirens of three ambulances hurtling towards Piazza Kennedy. Now they are dancing a conga, out of step and white hats flopping. “That’ll show them,” somebody says after as the first signs of smoke appear in the distance.

Sunday 22 July; Carlo’s shrine

The Italian press is dominated by what it sees as the destruction of Genoa. The headline in La Stampa is: “The Black Block Devastate Genoa”; in La Repubblica it is “G8: Another Day of War”; Il Mattino: “Genoa On Fire: Victory For Violence”; 24 Ore: “Genoa: A Devastated City”. Italian TV, meanwhile, runs continuous coverage of the trouble.

Outside the Genoa Social Forum, where the latest battles took place, burnt-out cars and smashed-in shop fronts are the source of much interest to passers-by. The residents of the flats above the trouble spot are debating the causes of the conflict amongst themselves. TV cameras and journalists pick up the debates which take on an operatic air as the two protagonists rise to the occasion. This is Italian “piazza politics” being played out, where the local experiences of ordinary citizens become transformed into major worldviews.

However, the most serious story emerging is the unprovoked attack overnight by the police on the sleeping quarters, press and legal centres of the Genoa Social Forum. I hear horrifying accounts of demonstrators being dragged from their sleeping bags and beaten. Other journalists tell me that cameras were deliberately smashed to destroy any evidence of the attack. However, at the Genoa Social Forum press conference in the afternoon, video footage is produced which heavily implicates the police. Meanwhile rumours are circulating that the “black block” have been infiltrated by the far right as a way of undermining the anti-capitalist movement. The infiltrators include a neo-Nazi from Birmingham, who tells Il Manifesto that he was recruited by his “Italian brothers”.

I am at the shrine of Carlo Giuliani, the 23-year-old demonstrator shot dead by police on Friday evening. The spot where he died is marked with a range of personal donations left by fellow demonstrators. Flowers, helmets, candles, a gasmask and the remnants of a petrol bomb. A young man, of similar age to Carlo, is sitting with his head in his hands and sobbing. A police car drives by and people shout “go away”. Other drivers cross themselves. Amongst the messages left, someone has written; “J’accuse Berlusconi, Jospin, Chirac”. Another reads: “A boy has died in the piazza where I was born.” The road sign that read “Piazza Gaetano Alimandi” has been replaced by “Piazza Carlo Giuliani (Ragazzo)” (boy). It is a very moving scene.

Dinner with some British journalists in the evening reveals that some of the white overalls group gave up their usual attire as a goodwill gesture in order to integrate with the other demonstrators, while more evidence suggests the far right infiltration of the “black block”. Outside, the barriers that divided the red zone from the rest of the city have been pulled down. Traffic is busy once again and demonstrators are making their way home. In the taxi on the way back to the hotel I ask the driver what he thinks. “The war is over,” he replies. “For now.”

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