Ten years ago this week hundreds of thousands of people travelled to massive anti-capitalist protests at Genoa in Italy. Chris Nineham, who helped organise the protests, argues that we can still learn from the dramatic events of that weekend.

Even at the time it felt like history was being made. Tens of thousands of mainly young activists descended on the G8 meeting of the most powerful men on earth at Genoa in Italy for three days of protests. The stunning port city was stifling hot and half-empty – most people with money had been scared out of town by the media and the police. And in a medieval throwback the centre of the city had been fortified into a ‘red zone’ guarded with water cannon, armed police and soldiers.

It meant many of those who remained in town supported the protests. The mayor had said that Genoa should put on a good show for the rich and powerful and asked people not to put their underwear out to dry in public. Thousands responded by putting their knickers on the line out of the window for the whole weekend. When we marched residents poured jugs of water from their flats to cool us down, tracing beautiful rainbow arcs above the grand avenues. This welcome gesture dramatised the significance of the Genoa protests. The demonstrations were bigger than any of us had experienced and they were brazenly radical. They also clearly had the support of many ordinary working people.

The first two days were taken up with themed protests and direct action. A number of groups including the two thousand-strong British contingent and thousands of Italian autonomists dressed in white overalls and padding, challenged the red conference zone and ended up being battered back by the police. By lunchtime on Friday the bright blue skies were darkened by bitter clouds of tear gas and police sirens echoed round the city.

By late afternoon we heard the shocking news that a young activist Carlo Giuliani had been killed by the police. An hour or so later 500 of the key activists met outdoors in the convergence centre by the old harbor with tear gas canisters dropping nearby. The intense discussion that followed about how to respond to police brutality was a lesson in activist politics. The autonomists and anarchists argued that we should all march to the main Genoa police station and occupy it immediately. Some of the NGO activists argued ultra caution and against provocation, even that we should call off the major demonstration scheduled for the next day.

Most of the socialists present rejected both of these arguments. An attack on the police station would lead to more injuries or deaths and the isolation of the militants. Cancelling the demonstration would be surrender. What was needed was to turn the next day’s protest into a massive rejection not just of the G8 but of the extreme violence of the Italian state in their defense. To their eternal credit two leaders of the Italian movement, Vittorio Agnoletto, and the head of the breakaway Refounded Communist Party, Fausto Bertinotti, promised to send a message to every town and city up and down the country to put on extra buses and send out urgent appeals to mobilise.

The result was extraordinary. The next day 300,000 people poured in to Genoa from across Italy in solidarity with the protestors. The overnight mood of fear and desperation evaporated as the sun came up and hundreds of coaches parked up in the suburbs around Genoa, emptying banner waving communists, trade unionists, chanting students and other concerned Italians onto the warming tarmac. As the sheer scale of the mobilisation became clear it was obvious a tragedy had morphed into festival of humanity and resistance. Massively outnumbered, for most of the day the police were confined to barracks. Every time they were spotted chants of ‘asssassini assasssini‘ rang out. Such was the euphoria on that incredible demo that at one point word went round that the G8 had abandoned their meeting. Wishful thinking, unfortunately, but the demonstration marked a step change. Previous anti-capitalist protests had attracted tens of thousands at most. Suddenly we were linking with the population at large.

That night and the following morning the police wreaked terrible revenge for their humiliation. Fearful of taking us head on they attacked the back of the march and drove hundreds of people into the hills and some into the sea where they were picked up by police motor boats. In the early hours of the Sunday morning they brutally attacked the Scuola Diaz, a school in which many activists were sleeping. By the time they left with scores of handcuffed activists there were smears of blood on the walls of the building. Many of those arrested, including some British activists, were tortured in prison cells in the next few days.

Unsurprisingly such violence had horrible personal consequences. It took a long time for some people to recover from the shock and horror, and Carlo Giuliani’s family suffer to this day, particularly as they never got justice for the police assassination of their son. But it is impressive and moving how many of those who faced violence have stayed active. Carlo’s mother Haidi has spent much of the last ten years touring Italy and the world denouncing the Italian justice system and keeping alive the memory of her son’s indignation.

And no doubt partly because of the decision made collectively on that Friday night Genoa raised the sights of the anti-capitalist movement in Italy and around Europe. In the weeks after Genoa there were huge mobilisations against police brutality in most Italian cities and towns which led to a rapid revival of a flagging left. The next year in the wake of this radicalisation, Florence hosted an 80,000-strong convention of the European movement – the European Social Forum. That in turn organised a million-strong demonstration against war and globalisation, leading to further mass mobilisations, including mass strikes, in the years following.

In Spain the next year there were massive demonstrations and a general strike against neoliberal policies. Across Europe the anti-capitalist movement mushroomed. As Florence showed, Genoa also helped create the conditions in which a mass worldwide anti-war movement was possible. The turn to anti-imperialist struggle was controversial. Some in the movement didn’t believe it was possible or advisable, but through the argument and the examples of the British and the Italian movements they were overcome. Less than two years after Genoa on 15th February 2003, at least thirty million people marched against war around the world.

Genoa was a turning point. The decade since has seen a massive revival of street politics. Britain for example has witnessed the three or four biggest demonstrations in its history in the last ten years, including the anti-war demos and the great trade union-led demo in March this year. Since Genoa there has been an uneven but nevertheless continuous process of radicalisation of young people as well as an even wider cynicism about pro-market neoliberal politics and war.

But Genoa also offers us lessons that are still relevant today, lessons that challenge some of the shibboleths of the left and that we ignore at our peril. Events showed that the key to success was not autonomous self-organisation but on the contrary, that we had an opportunity to link the most militant people with the wider population.

But to do that requires an understanding of people’s concerns, and how ideas are changing. What was so startling about Genoa was that it was a deeply political protest against the priorities of the whole system, but attracted hundreds of thousands. It was one of the first manifestations of a pattern that has become characteristic, a pattern of radicalisation that starts with the political. Despite the left’s template of economic struggle leading to political generalisation, it was meetings and mobilisations against capitalist globalisation that started the process of the regeneration of the left and led in turn to mass popular action including strike action. Since then it has been the west’s wars that have led to the great mobilisations, and more recently the issue of democracy that has inspired uprisings across the Middle East and protests in city squares in southern Europe and beyond.

The project of neoliberal globalisation is so all consuming it invades every aspect of our lives. It has led to the dismantling of public space and the welfare state, the creeping militarisation of society, the commercialisation of education and the hollowing out of democracy. For these reasons it has led to a deep politicisation. The left has to find ways to harness this deep and ongoing political radicalisation if it is going to chart a way forward for the millions at the mercy of the market. To do that it needs to learn from the real, recent history of our movement.

Coalition of Resistance is hosting a European Conference Against Austerity, Cuts and Privatisation on Saturday, 1st October at the Camden Centre in central London. It is supported by anti-capitalist networks, trade unions, and left parties from across Europe.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.