A Personal Account of the G8 Demonstrations in Genoa July 2001

What really happened in Genoa?  Well, Ian Kitching was there, but he’s not sure, either.

We left Belgium on Wednesday 18 July in two cars. We had heard that it might not even be possible to cross the border. As was done in Sweden, we heard that they were going to suspend the Schengen agreement to allow the authorities to search vehicles and turn those away whom they considered a threat to public order. We left with high hopes, that as we had  nothing they could claim we could use as a weapon, we would be allowed into Italy.

We travelled through the day down to the Swiss border where we met up with the other car of Belgian activists. We decided that even though it was now quite late we would continue into Switzerland and try and cross the border late at night. If this plan failed we would set up camp in the splendour of the Swiss mountains and try our luck again in the morning. As we were driving through the tranquil valleys of Switzerland we received news from people who were already in Genoa that tensions were high and the police were out in force. As we had no accommodation confirmed we began to make plans as to what we would do when and if we managed to cross the border that night. As it turned out, we crossed the border without any problem whatsoever and although there was a line of police they waved us on with no questions asked.

However, before we crossed the border we received a call from a friend of a friend whose mother owned a house 30 km down the coast from Genoa. We were invited to spend what was left of the night there. This seemed like the most sensible thing to do, and the house turned out to be a pleasant and picturesque place to stay. Our hosts were extremely generous and after we had eaten they explained to us everything that had taken place so far during the Social Forum and the situation inside the city. It seemed the city had been turned into a police state and that the authorities had done everything possible to put people off travelling to Genoa. All the train stations had been closed, many of the buses had stopped running and taxis had been discouraged from working during the days of the demonstrations. Nevertheless, the Social Forum had got off to a good start and many of the sessions that took place were said to have been well attended.

The first of the demonstrations - entitled “Migrants processions” - was to begin at five in the afternoon. We had to catch a train to a station about 12 Km outside Genoa and from there a bus to the city itself. We arrived at the Social Forum about 2.30 pm and decided to meet up again for the demo at 4.30 pm. I decided to take a look around and get a feel for the place.

The Forum itself was being held outdoors in two large tents which were surrounded by stands handing out info and selling literature, t-shirts, etc. Just down the road there was the Convergence Centre (CC). The previous evening Mano Chao had taken the stage to give a free concert. Surrounding the stage were several huge tents which were selling food and drinks and lining the sides were more stands with information on many of the groups taking part. Although there were numerous organisations present, immediately recognisable were Attac, Globalise Resistance, the Italian Communist Party and Jubliee South. Overall I was informed that there were over 1000 associations, organisations and national and international networks under the umbrella of the Genoa Social Forum. Despite there own orientations or sensitivities there were all united in their condemnation of the G-8 Summit which they consider as a symbol of a highly undemocratic governing system of the world.

After a few hours of gathering information from the stands and talking to the Italian Attac group, I set off to meet up with others. The demo began more or less on time and we set off through the streets of Genoa. During the march I met up with some Belgians from Attac-Brussels who had arrived in Genoa on the first day of the Social Forum. They told me they were staying in a sports stadium which had been raided by the police the night before. The demo was attended by approximately 50,000 people, the atmosphere was vibrant with lots of singing and dancing and the demo passed without any obvious problems with the Italian security forces. The police kept their distance and we only caught glimpses of them down side streets.

At the end of the demo we met up with other activists from the CADTM (Committee for the cancellation of Third World Debt) who told us that tomorrow was the day of civil disobedience. Five demos had been planned in various parts of Genoa. The G8 summit itself had been cordoned off and a huge steel fence had been built around the Summit area in the old part of the city. Genoa had been split into a red zone (the G8 Summit) and a yellow zone around that. Some of the organisations were intending to try and force their way into this red zone without using any violence. Other demos intended to march to the fence and make a lot of noise. We spent the rest of the evening chatting to other protesters and listening to speeches before making the long journey back to our lodgings.

The next morning I set off with two Belgians, Stephane and Arnaud, to catch the train to Genoa. Each time we made this complicated journey we ended up on a different bus. Obviously, this was very confusing and when we arrived in Genoa itself we found ourselves ejected from the bus in a totally different place from the day before. We followed the crowd through the winding back streets towards the CC. The city was totally deserted with only a few locals watching us from their balconies high above. We eventually came to a bridge where everyone stopped and seemed to be watching something in the distance. From a certain viewpoint on the bridge we could see a section of road. This was the first time we saw the full extent of the police operation. There were tanks and huge army vehicles lining the street with groups of riot police performing what looked like a military operation. Groups of police were running from one side of the street to the other and they looked like they were preparing for something big.

We decided to take a side street to avoid the police and finally descended onto a road overlooking the harbour and the CC. Directly in front of the centre was a mass of maybe 500 people dressed in black with black scarves and motorcycle helmets to cover their faces. These were the infamous ‘black bloc’. As we watched from above they formed groups and smashed a few windows of the banks that lined the street. Then they began to swarm up the steps towards us and we realised that we would have to pass through them to reach the CC. It was at this point that we lost Stephane. By the time myself and Arnaud had reached the CC Stephane was nowhere to be seen. We waited around outside the CC, but to no avail. We found out later he had opted to take another route to avoid the black bloc. My first impressions of the black bloc was that they seemed very young. Many of them looked between 16 and 20, although there were clearly others who were much older.

The atmosphere was very tense inside the CC: everyone was concerned about what was taking place outside. The black blocs were smashing windows in all the banks outside the CC and yet the police were nowhere in sight. We decided to leave straight away. Attac and various other associations had planned a demo not far away so we followed a group of Italians  who had prepared a flotilla of balloons in red and white with the symbol of Attac %. There was also a group of Scandinavians dressed in pink and all the men were wearing women’s clothing and waving pink pom-poms. They had worked out several dance routines and songs and performed them on the route to the demo. At one point we passed two roads blocked off by police in riot gear. The pink cheerleaders decided to perform their act in front of the police and received huge rounds of applause from the crowd and puzzled looks from the police.

We preceded to a square not far from the red zone. On arrival we heard music and chanting and saw several thousand people with banners, flags and a variety of handmade monsters representing the G8. To one side of the square was a road leading down to the red zone. In the distance we could see the armoured vehicles behind the huge steel fence. Protesters were already lining up against the fence and chanting to the police and officials on the other side. For the next five hours protesters banged on the fence, jeered at the police and, accompanied by several musicians, sang songs in various languages. A sound system was playing music from a van parked in front of the fence and people danced in the sunshine. The atmosphere was good and I watched as protesters threw the balloon float of Attac over the fence. Every now and then the crowd would turn their attention to the police who parked a water cannon next to the fence and attempted to push the crowd back. However, as the water had to pass through the metal grid of the fence the effect was more like having a powerful shower which was quite welcome in the blazing heat. People danced around in the spray from the water cannon and provoked the police more by throwing water bottles over the fence and climbing the fence to stick flags in the top.

Later a van arrived with Iraqi dates that had been bought to break the embargo. Generally the mood was good until several of the police decided to spray something in the faces of people faces who were banging on the fence. The police looked nervous during the whole day, as if they expected us to storm the fence and suddenly turn violent. The crowd received news that there were running battles with the police in other parts of the city. Members of Attac formed a human line to warn people not to leave the demo via an alternative route as the police were at the other end of a long tunnel that opened onto it.

A meeting took place in the square with members of Attac where Bernard Cassen was present, and the decision was taken to march back to the CC from the demo at five. Around 4.30 pm people had begun walking up the hill towards the square. Whilst walking we heard behind us people suddenly start chanting and jeering. It seems the police had decided to launch tear gas at the remaining protesters and people began to panic and run up the hill. Thankfully, it didn’t last long and things soon calmed down. On reaching the square we heard a rumour that three people had been shot dead by the security forces. The mood of the crowd became very sombre and people began chanting ‘Carabineri Assassini’.

The march back to the CC began with two human chains, organised by Attac, keeping the crowd from taking an alternative route from that planned by the organisers. This sometimes created anger by those who just wanted to leave by their own means. After a while we came round a corner on to a wide boulevard leading into the centre of the city. At the end of the boulevard  we were faced by a wall of police with armoured vehicles and riot gear. The organisers stopped the crowd from progressing any further whilst several of the organisers seemed to go down the hill to talk to the police. When they returned we were guided halfway down the boulevard at which point we turned off onto another boulevard and back towards the CC. Many of the protesters stopped to chant at the lines of police. The mood of the crowd had changed significantly and the chanting was aggressive and angry. Thankfully the police kept their distance and the march continued to the CC.

When I got a chance I left the demo by a side street to reach the CC before the demo. When I reached the CC I saw the road scattered with glass and furniture from inside the destroyed buildings. Evidently there had been plenty of activity whilst we had been on the demo. My decision paid off as I entered the CC and found the self-service cafeteria virtually empty. After eating I rejoined the group from CADTM. Over a few beers a debate began about the violence.

It was confirmed from the stage that one person had been shot and killed by the police. For several hours the debate went on as people questioned the role of the black bloc and the police repression. I think most people left for home that evening feeling angry and disappointed.

As we walked for several kilometres in search of a bus, taxi, or any form of transport to reach the train station before the last train we saw the evidence of the battles with the police. Virtually every bank or big corporate building had had its windows smashed and debris from inside was littered across the streets. Big metal bins on wheels had been set alight and obviously used to charge the police. Some cars were burnt out or simply battered. We were told by the local inhabitants that the police had chased people through the streets firing tear gas. They had seen many people beaten with truncheons, arrested and taken away in police vans. We eventually found a taxi and made our way to the train station and back to our beds.

The next morning we watched the Italian TV and saw the pictures of the violent clashes, while no mention was made of the peaceful protests that took place. Several of the women decided they thought it would be too dangerous to go on the big demo planned for that afternoon and opted to stay at the house. Others of us set off with our mobile phones at the ready in case we got split up.

We arrived at the CC and listened to the Jubliee South speeches about debt before setting off on the demo. This time it was massive. The first group I saw was the Greek Communists who were out in force. Although the demo was supposed to start some way off we joined it near the front. Once we had established a place for the CADTM banner in the parade we had a central point to meet up.  I decided to walk right to the front of the demo and take some pictures. Once again Attac was very well organised and formed human chains where necessary. At one point the crowd stopped and directed their attention at a group of police down a side street. As the crowd screamed ‘fascists’ the police looked nervous. For the first time I noticed that many of the police were very young, no older than their early twenties. The march continued through the streets with locals waving flags from their balconies to huge cheers from the crowd. Once again the atmosphere was lively and defiant.

Groups of musicians were playing and people danced and sang along. Every now and then a local would turn on a hose pipe and spray cold water over the sweaty marchers, which was gratefully appreciated. The heat was oppressive and the march often stopped whilst people danced in the spray from the hose pipes. Finally the demo reached a square with a stage where several of the organisers spoke of their disappointment at the violence but most importantly their disgust at the police reaction which had seen a young man die and several hundred severely injured or arrested. Many of those arrested had yet to be accounted for and it was later revealed that they had been denied contact with legal representatives or even a phone call to let people know where they were.

José Bové spoke and suggested their were around 300,000 people on the demo, a figure I felt was a bit inflated. Afterwards the media and the organisers put the figure at around 200,000, the biggest anti-capitalist/globalisation demo so far.

Overall the demo was very well organised and it was only when we decided to leave that the problems began. We chose a parallel street to that of the demo to make our exit. We had heard there might be buses running from the closed Brignole train station. As we made our way through the crowd and down the streets we could see some people running in the distance. Then that distinctive smell of tear gas brought the by now familiar stinging of the eyes and throat. We realised the police were chasing the protesters back towards the square. There had been no violence - somebody told us but the police had just decided to push the crowd back away from the station. As we made our way as quickly and as calmly as possible across a bridge we could see a cloud of tear gas descending over the crowd. People ran choking and panicking to escape the fumes. Those well-prepared handed out lemon and water to dampen our clothing to use as a mask to breath through. Pursued by the police, we made our way through the streets until we were totally lost.

After being prevented, by police blockades,  from going in the direction we needed to go to get back, we arrived in a square where several locals, old men and women sat on benches and advised us which direction to try next. Suddenly in the distance we saw a huge crowd battling with the police and then a couple of young members of the ‘black bloc’ ran into the square pursued by the police. To our horror the police fired tear gas into the square and we had to help the old people into a church. People shouted abuse at the violent protesters and the police. A few people screamed at the black bloc youths - why are you doing this? A journalist told me they had replied that they were getting revenge for yesterday. He had also been told that the CC had been raided by the police and closed down.

 We spent some time in the church until the tear gas had mostly gone. During the next two or three hours we wandered through the streets trying to find our way back to the other side of town. In the distance we could see clouds of smoke as parts of the city went up in flames. Finally, we made it to a bus stop where people seemed to be waiting. Sure enough, half an hour later a bus arrived. The last I saw of the centre of Genoa was the smoke rising up from Brignole Train Station and thousands of tired and frustrated people strewn across the roads trying to recover from the last few hours’ chaos.

The next morning came news that the previous evening the police had raided the offices of the Genoa Social Forum and the Independent Media Centre where they smashed computers and confiscated valuable video evidence of their repression. They also entered a nearby school where people were sleeping. Under the pretext of looking for arms they beat people in their sleeping bags, many left unconscious in ambulances. The TV showed the rooms where the police entered with the floor and walls covered in blood. On Italian TV they showed the so-called weapons they had found. A bent piece of pipe and pick axe and several Swiss army knives. Quite a collection of deadly weapons. The pipe and pick axe the organisers said was from the building work that had been taking place in the school well before the demos. As for the Swiss army knives, well, it is surely not a crime to take a knife of this sort with you if you intend to be camping out in a school. How else do you open your can of beans ?

Ian Kitching lives in Brussels and is an activist with Attac and Oxfam-Solidarité.