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The Genoa Experience

by Andrew Arendt Wegerif

Posted 17th August 2001

This is my story of what I experienced in Genoa before, during and after the G8 summit that was held there on 20 to 22 July. A lot of what I saw was deeply shocking and disturbing to me, hence it has taken a while before I felt able to put it down in writing, which I will now try to do.

I arrived in Genoa on the morning of Tuesday, 17 July. The atmosphere in town was a little tense; the large police presence was obvious already then, especially in the area around the Palazzo Ducale, where the G8 summit itself was to be held. Thousands of police and the carabinieri (connected to the Italian army) were concentrated in the infamous 'Red Zone', a sprawling area of perhaps 400 by 500 metres directly surrounding the palace and incorporating the harbour, which was completely barricaded off by high fences and industrial containers.

During the week there were daily bomb-scares, for which the police of course blamed activists. The police also claimed that they had found demonstrators carrying guns, and that an officer in town had received a letter bomb from an unknown sender. The implications of these supposed bombs and finds were that some activists were planning violence. In this way the police built up a media backup for them to undertake their repression of the activists that they would come to call terrorists. Several Italians I spoke with drew a clear parallel to the police tactics of the seventies, when activists in Italy were very harshly targeted by the Italian secret police.

On the days leading up to the protests I took part in some meetings to plan demonstrations, and just walked around town, getting to know the area a bit. I spent my nights at the Carlini Stadium, a sports stadium that the town had given over to the GSF (Genoa Social Forum) for the week, to house activists. On Wednesday morning at around 6 am there was a car bomb planted just outside the stadium entrance, so the police went in and woke up everyone in the stadium. One obviously wonders who would want to plant a bomb at the place where a number of activists were staying. The activists themselves? I find that hard to believe.

Later in the day I became a part of the so called 'Pink Block', a group of people who's main aim was to "turn the revolution into a party". This was to be done by music, street-theatre, circus, gay clothing and a general display of happy frivolity during the demonstrations. The Pinks did not want to use active violence, that is to say, no weapons or missiles of any kind at the police and/or the surroundings. The hope was that during the Friday it would be possible to enter the Red Zone, and even the palace where the G8 functionaries were to meet, and have a party there. However, if that was not possible the party would be held outside the barricades.

Thursday was the day of the international immigrant's march. This march was organised mainly by the illegal immigrant's organisations in Italy and worldwide. An estimated 50 000 people took part in the march, which skirted parts of the Red Zone, and ended with speeches at the GSF Convergence Centre. As far as I know, there were no violent incidents during the march. The police held their barricades in the 'Yellow Zone', that is to say the area surrounding the Red Zone, and the demonstrators walked peacefully past. On Friday the 20th the G8 summit was to begin, and this was also the day that a number of organisations and groups had declared their intent to attempt to stop the meeting. It is important to remember that a very large number of different organisations had come to Genoa to show their dissatisfaction with the G8, and that these all had their own tactics, viewpoints and agendas. Therefore, there was not one single demonstration or march. Instead a large number of different events took place all around the Red Zone, and in other parts of the town.

We Reach the Fence to the Red Zone

The Pinks that I had joined marched north from the Convergence Centre. There were perhaps a thousand of us. We walked around part of the Red Zone, and made contact with the fence to the north-east of the palace. When we reached the fence a few people tried to climb it, but were pushed down by water from the water cannons on the other side. Riot police moved in from behind and for a while we were shut in on all sides. The troops on the other side of the fence then shot teargas at us, and we were allowed to retreat slightly up one street. This happened a number of times, and there were also some minor skirmishes with the riot police, who were shutting us off from some of the side streets.

After some dancing and music and a good deal of gas we moved back from the Red Zone, to regroup at a square about 500 metres from the fence. Here we sat down and had a bit of a meeting and a rest. This square, the Piazza Manin, was also the meeting point for a number of pacifist organisations, so there were several thousand people there at the time.

All was calm for a few minutes, until a group of perhaps 50 to 100 'Black Block' activists came running down the street towards us, closely followed by a large number of police. The Blacks crossed straight over the square, desperately retreating from the police lines, and the police moved in on us with their truncheons and gas. There was total chaos, as everyone tried to get away and police bore down on those that weren't quick enough. I was pushing a shopping trolley full of water and food at the time, and so couldn't really run very fast, and didn't really feel like it anyway.

Instead I moved up towards a wall and started walking calmly away from the mess. A police truncheon then got me on the head and I fell over and was beaten and kicked on the head, back, arms and legs, maybe 15 times by what must have been at least two officers. All around me teargas canisters were flying and completely peaceful people were being brutally beaten up. I was curled up against the wall and sitting very still, so they probably thought I had passed out and moved on to someone else. Then I saw an opening and made a run for it. Happily I made it down a side street, where I hid by some bushes for half an hour together with about 20 shocked pacifists.

Hiding out in the side street I made an interesting observation. The police that had driven the Blacks over the square and down towards the Red Zone now calmly walked back over the square, got in their vans and drove off, letting the Blacks roam as freely as they wished. The unpleasant conclusion I could not help drawing from this is that the police were not trying to actually arrest or stop these Blacks. For the time being they simply wanted to drive them over the square where we Pinks and others were gathered, thereby creating an excuse to violently end the peaceful meetings that they knew were being held there.

A Difficult Retreat

After an hour or so a few hundred of the Pinks managed to meet up again in Piazza Manin. Many of us were beaten and badly shocked, and a decision was made to try to get back to the Convergence Centre. This turned out to be quite difficult, and took us the rest of the day. All the way back we had to keep avoiding riots, which now seemed to be happening all over town. Everywhere the same pattern seemed to be being played out, with small groups of Black Block activists being driven around quite purposefully by the police, and always being given time to smash some things before being pushed on.

On the way we heard that the police had shot at least one person dead and our retreat turned into a funeral march. Finally we made it to the Convergence Centre, where we got a chance to relax slightly, and to hear a little of what had happened to other groups during the day.

The Tutti Bianchi (white overalls) had moved out in organised mass from the Carlini Stadium, aiming for the easternmost tip of the Red Zone. The 'Whites' wear body armour, shields, helmets and gas-masks as protection. They had only their bodies as weapons and were met with very hard resistance from the police and carabinieri, who used teargas, pepperspray, truncheons, tanks and battering-rams to stop them. The resistance that the Whites met was so hard that in the end they decided to retreat back to Carlini. They had hardly reached the outer perimeter of the Red Zone.

Attac staged a 'Virtual Siege' on the south-east border of the zone. They never actually tried to enter the zone physically, and used no violence whatsoever. As far as I heard, their action went reasonably well and according to plan.

Most of the anarchists that make up the so-called Black Block had been staying at a squat north of the Red Zone. According to what I heard, the police surrounded their squat on Friday morning, denying anyone exit. What exactly happened then I do not know; if the police let the Black Block out, or if they broke out, or if the police went in, I haven't heard. I only know that the outcome was a number of small groups of Blacks running wild in many parts of town, sometimes chased by police, sometimes not.

Apart from the groups I have named, there were many more doing their own actions - members of political parties speaking, trade unions marching, nuns on hunger-strike, etc, etc - all around the Red Zone.

In general it seems that almost all the actions that took place anywhere near the Red Zone were sooner or later met with violence by the defending police and carabinieri, regardless of whether the activists themselves were actually using violence or not.

I heard that the carabinieri had even raided the Convergence Centre during the day, harassing the few people that were there and making a bit of a mess. This seemed like yet another completely uncalled for action from their side.

By the end of the day the situation was very tense. People had been gassed, beaten up and in some cases even shot at. The death of one demonstrator was definitely confirmed, and many people were hospitalised, arrested, shocked or reported missing. During the evening there were reports of the carabinieri just picking people up off the streets and arresting, humiliating or simply beating them up. People began to be afraid of leaving the Convergence Centre. Many made it back to their sleeping places as night fell, but there must have been at least a thousand people that simply slept on the ground at the Convergence Centre, feeling safer there than anywhere else.

Myself, I made it up to the Independent Media Centre, a school building rented by the GSF, on a quiet street not so far from the Convergence Centre. There I was examined by a doctor, who thought I would be all right. I then went to sleep in the school across the street from the Media Centre, which the GSF had also been allowed to rent, to serve as an Internet point and sleeping place.

Saturday Begins With a Huge Demonstration

Now came Saturday, the day of the international mass demonstration. This march started far to the east, followed the waterfront towards the Red Zone, but turned north before reaching the actual zone, then headed north for a while, and theoretically ended in a mass rally at Piazza G. Ferarris. Estimates vary as to how many demonstrators took part that day, some mainstream media said 50 000, others 100 000, and the official Indymedia figure was 150 000. Whatever the numbers, it was a huge demo. I again marched with the Pinks. We were relatively far forward in the march, playing samba and hoping for a peaceful day. When the march passed by the Convergence Centre, we saw that the carabinieri had massed up down a street. It seemed they were waiting for any excuse to attack and we walked passed slowly, not taking any chances.

When we were some way up the street the message reached us that the G8 was ending earlier than expected, due to we knew not what. Nobody knew for sure if it was just a rumour or the truth, but we celebrated a bit anyhow. Shortly after that the smell of teargas became very heavy in the air. We could see a lot of gas coming down behind us, but we had no clue what was going on back there. From what I have heard, it seems that at a certain point in the march, when some anarchist organisations were marching past, the massed carabinieri simply attacked. This time they were even shooting gas from helicopters. There was also pepper spray, and some say they even a kind of nerve gas was being used, but I do not know if that is true. The anarchists stood their ground for a time, but were then dispersed, and parts of the march were turned into a good old mess, with more rioting and more violence. Once again the city was unsafe, with bands of police and carabinieri everywhere, gassing and beating as they went along. The Pinks I was with managed pretty much to stay out of trouble. I was only gassed a few times that day, and not too badly.

As the day drew to a close, special trains were organised to get demonstrators out of town. Very many wanted to leave, the atmosphere in town was scary, the streets were simply not safe, nor the sleeping places or even the Convergence Centre. At the Media Centre there was a rumour that the police were planning a raid on the place, and people were very busy trying to get all the film, documents and pictures to safer places.

The Pinks, now down to maybe a hundred active people, had a meeting at 9 pm outside the Media Centre, to discuss plans for a mourning demonstration at the place where the shooting had taken place on the Friday. Everyone was scared of more violence, but still wanted to do something, and in the end a small and very cautious manifestation was decided on for midday Sunday. I hung around outside the Media Centre for awhile, planning to sleep in the school opposite, as I had done the night before.

Police and Carabinieri Come into the School and Media Centre

At 11.30 pm on Saturday I was sitting in the street outside the school when I heard some commotion further up the street, and then a few people came running, screaming that the police were there. Everyone in the street went crazy, trying to get into the Media Centre or the school as fast as possible. I opted for the Media Centre as the safest place and got in there just before the gates were shut.

People were badly scared inside, some trying to barricade the doors and others just panicking. We could hear screaming coming from the street, but I couldn't see much of what was going on out there, since I was on the bottom floor, slightly below street level. Two minutes later the police were in, they had simply broken in via a neighbouring building, directly onto the second floor, where no one expected them to come in. I was in a large room on the bottom floor with maybe fifteen other people when five policemen entered the room.

We were made to lie down on the floor, and those who had put helmets on were made to take them off. Only one of the officers was in uniform, the others were in plainclothes, jeans and shirts, with little pullovers that said they were police. They all wore scarves to cover their faces, and carried truncheons and helmets.

I could not tell whether the police were ordinary police or a special force called in to create chaos. We could smell teargas from the next room, but they didn't gas us. I think we were all pretty convinced that they were going to beat us up badly at the time, at least we were all scared as hell. We lay there on the floor for perhaps twenty minutes, while the police snooped around a bit in the room, turning things over but not really looking very hard.

Then, strangely, they just said bye and left. We were perplexed and really didn't know what to think of it all. Getting out of the room and moving around in the rest of the building, it seemed that the damage had not been that bad. Some computers had been smashed, some film taken, and the independent lawyer centre on the second floor had been smashed up. I didn't see anyone who had been beaten, but heard later that a few people were beaten who had been higher up in the building.

Then, looking out on the street, it dawned on me that the school opposite and its inhabitants had fared much worse than us. The carabinieri were still outside the school, blocking anyone from entering or leaving. Then the ambulances started coming. For an awfully long time stretcher upon stretcher was wheeled out of the school, many of those on the stretchers were unconscious, and many were bleeding. People were in the windows of the Media Centre, and on the street and all around, crying, praying and screaming at the riot-lines to let them through, to stop this madness, to just go away. But we were powerless, it was too late, the carabinieri would not budge, and still there were more ambulances, and more stretchers, and then two body bags were carried out of the school, and everyone just went mad.

Later that night when the troops had finally left I went into the school.Together with many other shocked people I saw what was left. Nobody there, only proof that people had recently been sleeping there, and blood. There was blood on the floor and on the walls, much too much blood. The figures I got later say that about a hundred people were in the school when it was raided. Sixty of these were so badly beaten up that they had to be hospitalised, about ten managed to get away, and the rest were arrested.

Coming to Terms with What Happened in Genoa

Sunday afternoon I got on a train to Milan, together with over a hundred other activists. I stayed a few days in Milan, taking part in some peaceful demonstrations against the police violence, and trying to come to terms with all that had happened in Genoa.

The situation was pretty tense, even in Milan. So much bad news was reaching us all the time; more and more reports of beaten up people, of people being arrested leaving Genoa, people being arrested leaving Italy. There were even some reports of people being arrested in Germany by German police, after returning from Genoa.

On Wednesday the 25th I nervously crossed the border into Switzerland, and only then did I know that I had survived, and was probably safe. There are several facts about what happened in Genoa, and the implications of these events, that I feel must be stated.

It is terribly obvious to me that the carabinieri and police knew very well what they were doing. They were not panicking in any way, they came prepared, and they had their tactics well sorted out. It is also clear that they were not acting on their own, the blame must not fall on them alone, but travel all the way to the very top of the Italian government, and thereby also to the other countries that are a part of the Greedy Eight. On Tuesday the 24th there were still about 600 people in hospital in Genoa, and something like 200 were under arrest. People who were well when arrested were later found badly beaten in hospital. There have been terrible reports from the prisons. People have been repeatedly beaten, humiliated, made to chant fascist slogans and even gassed in their cells. The message of this is all too clear, the police were not really out there to control and arrest people, they were out there to hurt and scare people. And I suppose that is because they can't really get at very many people legally, while they can hurt a lot of people quite easily.

There were a great number of reports of police infiltrators actually taking part in the rioting and fighting in Genoa. There are so many pictures, videos and eye-witness reports of people dressed as Black Block activists rioting and fighting and then speaking to the police, getting in and out of police vans and even leaving police stations that even the mainstream media (at least in Italy) haven't been able to ignore it.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the police are tactically using parts of the Black Block to cause havoc, beat innocent people, and turn different groups of activists against each other.

Sadly, the police tactics were partially successful. I witnessed organisations and groups arguing endlessly over whether or not to permit anarchists to demonstrate with them, over whether there is any point at all to being there when there is a large chance of getting beaten up. And of course, whether they should be defending themselves against the violence or not, and how, and what tactics to use, and so on.

Important as these tactical discussions may be, I believe that we must try to remember what this is actually about, remember why we are out there demonstrating in the first place. We must try to find strength in the great diversity of activists that really want a change, focusing more on our common goals than our differences.

The positive implication of all this madness I suppose is that the government and economic leaders are really showing that they are scared of what the demonstrators represent. Their need to repress more and more of the population is becoming increasingly obvious. The eyes of many are being opened and new activists are being created every day.

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