Genoa and anti-capitalism

An eye-witness account of what it was really like at the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Genoa

The coach driver had been told not to take us into the city because it was dangerous, and left us at the outskirts. The Convergence Centre was five hours walk away. We had no maps, no money, and no idea where we were. All the shops were closed, and the banks. The buses were not running their full routes, there were no taxis, and the government had ordered the mobile phone networks to close down. An hour walking in ferocious heat and we encountered the steel barricades of the “Red Zone”, fenced by ranks of heavily armed carabinieri in battle formation. It looked like a scene from Gladiator, apart from the incongruous armoured cars and gas grenade launchers. In the harbour, the politicians’ luxury ship sighed gently at anchor.

“No bus. You walk, capito? Ha ha.”

Genoa is built on a cliff face. They had sealed off the centre of town, and the only way to reach our Convergence Centre was to go up and round, for a distance of six miles. The carabinieri grinned at us as we went. They might be hot under their armour, but we were going to be a lot hotter. There was nowhere to leave our luggage and large packs of leaflets, it all had to be carried. The older ones amongst us gritted their teeth, and said nothing. We were not fit, or trained, and it was clear this was already a battle, and one for which we were unprepared.

We were tired before we even arrived, that was the trouble. The journey had taken twenty-seven hours including three searches by British, French and Italian customs. One coach member was deported at Calais for possessing a gas mask. A move by some gung-ho SWP women to stage a sit-in there and then was defeated after much argument. We SPGB members kept an amazed silence as teenagers attempted to talk fifty people into certain deportation at the hands of French police who were clearly not going to tremble in the face of SWP agitation. Much the same thing happened at the Italian border, where two more were turned back for obscure reasons and certain SWP members again proposed blockading the whole road. The carabinieri looked on with amusement. You could imagine them thinking, like Dirty Harry: “Go on punks, make my day.” None of these setbacks, however, prevented certain members of the coach party from making speeches from the front about how we were all going to close down the G8 and bring down the multinationals. The young first-timers applauded, wide-eyed and enthused. The old-timers like me shut our eyes and thought, oh please.

When we were finally decanted at the drop point, it became apparent for the first time that Globalise Resistance, the SWP front which organised the coaches and trains from Britain, had not really thought the matter through. Nobody knew where the hell to go, and nobody had a decent map. Thoughts about buying what was needed evaporated into the hot air as it became obvious that the Italian government wasn’t joking about closing down the whole town. Even the gung ho women looked at each other uncertainly. It wasn’t that the plan was going wrong. There wasn’t any plan to begin with. Within half an hour the group was dispersed, “affinity groups” split up, and nearly everybody lost.

We climbed for hours, taking wrong turns and blind alleys, descending only to meet
barricades, climbing again. For every mile we advanced, we wasted at least three.
Every step was heavier than the last. A smoky cloud descended on us, a bittersweet and perfumed smell. Oh great, now they were tear-gassing us as well. Out came the masks and goggles, the vinegar, the lemon juice. This is the new stuff that sticks to clothes and skin, designed to make you suffer for hours. It all seemed ridiculously unfair, as if we were innocent bystanders in someone else’s war.

At one point we jumped a bus that should have taken us where we were supposed to go. Instead, after a few stops, it met a petrol tanker parked across the road, placed there by the police. Nothing for it, everybody out again.

Six hours, seven, eight, and we were close to collapse. We had still not found the Convergence Centre, that Shangri La of civilisation, food, shelter and money that all our hopes were pinned on. We never did find it.

“Don’t go there, it’s been gassed and burned out. Try and get across the river.”

Just as well we didn’t make it, or we’d have been batonned in our sleep and dragged off to the detention centres where, some embarrassed police later confessed, widespread torture took place.

From the heights we could see the fighting. Someone pointed out the Police Station, which had been attacked in an orchestrated assault that morning by the Black Bloc. Across the city there was a huge march down a boulevard. Between us and the river there was a street battle. Nobody wanted to go downhill, but we couldn’t stay where we were. The heat was unrelenting. Some nuns stood outside their convent gates and smiled at everyone while filling water bottles with a hose and offering sugar to keep people’s energy up.

We didn’t know much then about the Black Bloc, or the petrol bombs, or the dead boy and the terrified recruit who shot him. We only heard later about the wave after wave of Ya Basta forcing the police lines and retreating under gas and baton charges. But we were experiencing a profound political process of our own, the mutual aid and generosity of people who had almost nothing in common but who knew how to act in common. People helped us, and when we could, we helped them. In the heights above the war zone, a strange camaraderie took shape among political strangers. We relied on people for what they could do, not what they believed. Out of conflict, harmony, or at least tolerance. I thought, why can’t we be like this back home? Dunkirk spirit, I suppose. Pity we only get it when being comprehensively stuffed.

Finally we descended into the devastation. The streets were deserted, silent, horrific. Cars lay upside down, burned. Shops, banks, bottle bins, all smashed and laid waste. A cyclone had swept through the centre of town and left an eerie calm in its wake. On a bridge I saw a burned-out bicycle, former possession of some capitalist health nut, presumably. We trudged unmolested to the Carlini sports stadium, where 20,000 people were trying to rest amid endless Tannoy speeches, and constant low-flying police helicopters.

“ASSASSINI, ASSASSINI!” Fists waved as they passed. Everyone knew by now about Carlo Giuliani. A perpetual fear of police attack pervaded the place. Yet among the anarchists, the Wombles, Ya Basta and numerous injured fighters we at least felt safe. In the noise and the fierce glare of the stadium lights we finally fell asleep, exhausted, on the sloping concrete sides of a fleeting metropolis of Europe’s radical youth.

The march next day was vast and seemingly endless. The streets had been cleared and
cleaned in the night, so that, but for the smashed windows, there was almost no trace of what had gone before. It was bizarre, as if the city itself was in denial. Meanwhile the ordinary Genovese leaned out of their high-rise apartments and, wonder of wonders, cheered the procession, waving red handkerchiefs and throwing buckets of water down on the sweltering crowd. An enormous sign read: Workers of the World, Welcome to Genova. After everything that had happened, it seemed incredible that they were still on our side. The Black Bloc had not won, despite their best efforts to discredit everything about the anti-capitalist movement. The police agents who were no doubt behind most of the violence had not succeeded. The spirit of resistance to capitalism and to global poverty was alive and flourishing. A shout thundered through the crowd, as if from the heart of a mountain: “Genova Libera, Genova Libera!”

We gave out what leaflets and cards we had left, feeling like boys throwing pebbles in the ocean, but we couldn’t stay with the march. We had five hours to walk in an uncertain direction to find our pickup point later that evening. Once on the outskirts we found an open supermarket, and some kind SWP members who gave us Italian money, and we were at last able to buy food. In Italy, interestingly, they give away yesterday’s bread for free. We ate together that evening, feeling almost like family now who had formerly been strangers, preparing for the marathon coach journey home.

Reaction set in, under the stone arcades. In the incessant wail of police and ambulance sirens, we sat and regarded each other silently. Two days had felt like two months. We were lucky and we knew it. As this goes to press, 100 protesters are still missing and a second subsequent death has been reported.

More discussion of politics took place on the return journey, yet now it was more muted, more speculative and exploratory. The gung-ho had gone home for a rest. For the first time I felt able to contribute something, and some people came and talked afterwards, and asked questions. For what I had said was not something they had heard before. In the organisations they belonged to, Socialist Alliance, SWP and others, there is very rarely any discussion of what kind of society they would like to replace capitalism with. That this was our whole purpose in going to Genoa seemed a novelty to them. Even the few anarchists we had met showed no real curiosity about this aspect of anti-capitalism. It seemed as if, for the sake of a desperately fragile unity, it was better not to express any idea which might cause division. Not only did most of those present have no knowledge of the SPGB case, they seemed to have almost no knowledge of their own organisation’s case either. This is what happens when people idolise activism at the expense of “theory”. The Argentinean writer Miguel Benasayag , writing in the French paper Libération (21 July), summed it up:

“When you want to learn the clarinet, you know it’ll take time and hard work. You don’t expect to be a great musician straight away, and think it perfectly normal to take lessons. Changing the world is altogether more complicated but everyone wants to do it all at once.”

Whether anyone learned anything from Genoa is debatable. Members of the Black Bloc not actually working for the police still seem to believe they are the heroes and pioneers of a new social disorder, and that the rest of us should somehow be grateful for their courage and sacrifice. The white overalls, the “tutte bianche”, piously condemn violence yet manage to justify direct confrontation with the police as politically useful and ignore the inescapable conclusion that it was by their instigation that violent tactics became an inevitability. Some people shook their fists at the “vicious state murder” of a young worker while privately calculating the advantages of having a martyr and procuring more of the same. Others, confused and saddened, saw only two frightened young workers, one in uniform and one in denim, set against each other by forces neither could control. A senior Carabinieri officer complained bitterly that the killer was an untrained boy who should never have been there. Another unnamed policeman later expressed shame and humiliation that he had taken part in gratuitous beatings while his friends had threatened to rape captive female protesters with their truncheons. Politicians floundered for words as Berlusconi, the Italian PM, came out for the police and Romano Prodi, the EU president, came out against. Police violence overshadowed the anti-capitalist agenda almost completely, while the actual proceedings of the G8 summit disappeared without trace. If there was a point to all this it was not clear to anybody.

The repercussions continue still. There is talk of holding the next G8 summit somewhere remote and inaccessible in Canada. Yet everyone knows the G8 is just a photo-call by the puppets, not a meeting of the puppet-masters. For that, you need to target the annual and semi-mythological Bilderberg conference, yet strangely the anti-capitalist movement does not seem to have thought of this. All the argument is about the “next move” by both sides. As we warned at least a year ago in an SPGB leaflet, there would be deaths if this confrontational strategy were continued. There is still no consensus about any other strategy, even though it is obvious that you can’t defeat the army and airforces of the world’s capitalist states by street violence. The logical direction, into the political, ideological and economic spheres, seems shunned because it doesn’t fit most young activists’ concept of political activism. But despite all this, only a fool would write off this movement as politically doomed. It may thrive or it may die, but we are still only watching it being born.

Eight hundred different organisations are not a movement. They are not even anti-capitalist, in the sense that they haven’t yet agreed on a definition of capitalism. Far less is there yet any talk of “post-capitalism”, or what that might mean. But they are a stirring. In a world where political parties all offer listless soothing platitudes to cover the global screams of suffering, the initiative for change obviously does not lie with governments. There will probably be other Genoas. There will certainly be more violence, especially if the state gets its way. But if the police agents and the adolescents don’t succeed, the history of the future may well be written by the more sober-minded and serious majority who were there at Genoa and who have still to settle their own differences of opinion. That, of course, is the where the real battleground lies.

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