Twenty years ago hundreds of thousands confronted the world's elites in the Italian city of Genoa. Chris Nineham looks at the significance of the events and their legacy
Four July days in Genoa in 2001 changed the fortunes of the European left. The great anti-WTO protests in Seattle at the end of 1999 had mainstreamed anti-capitalist protest. Suddenly, meetings of the international financial institutions that were imposing debt and pro-market policies around the world became a natural focus.
A call was sent out by a broad coalition of movement, left, NGO and autonomist groups for days of action and mass protest at the G8 summit scheduled for Genoa in July 2001.
The response was spectacular. Across Europe, mobilisation groups were established and transport organised. In Britain, activists from the left anti-capitalist network Globalise Resistance worked with NGOs and trade unions to charter a train to travel across Europe to the Northern Italian city. The new international ATTAC network, calling for taxes on the movement of capital, became the organising centre of the mobilisation in much of Europe.
The hard right Berlusconi government built a steel fence around a 'red zone' in the old centre of Genoa to protect the politicians and financiers from the protestors. They urged the people of Genoa to leave the city and called on those who stayed to behave and not to put their washing out to dry on their balconies.
In response, thousands of Genoese hung underwear on their balconies for the whole weekend.
The first two days of protests were designed to symbolise the damage done by globalised capitalism; the ravages caused by third world debt and structural adjustment, the devastating impact of agribusiness and the miseries of forced migration.
Though the protests were entirely peaceful, the police began to harass protestors. On the second day, the Globalise Train finally reached a Genoa station shrouded in teargas and surrounded by skirmishes between protestors and police. The Italian government had persuaded the French to refuse the train permission to travel across the border. Dramatically, the French rail unions overruled the government and ensured the train could pass.
The third day, July 20, was direct action day. Thousands of activists rallied near to the red zone. Some, including British and Italian contingents, marched directly on the fence and met brutal police baton changes, teargas and water cannon attacks.
Then, in the afternoon, an Italian policeman shot protestor Carlo Guiliani dead. The assassin's police van twice drove over the dying Carlo's legs.
From anger to confidence
The killing caused uproar. Later in the day a huge and angry meeting at the activists’ centre on the harbour front discussed how the movement should respond. Some of the NGOs urged abandoning the following day's mass demonstration for fear of more police violence. Some of the autonomists called for an immediate march on the police station with the few thousand activists present, a move that would have led to a confrontation with the massive police forces on disastrously unfavourable terms.
I remember speaking in favour of a third option proposed by Fausto Bertinotti from the left wing Communista Rifondazione. The idea was to send out an immediate message to Italians to join the following day's demonstration to protest the assassination and the police's savage defence of the G8 delegates.
Our argument won the day. Bertinotti used his appearance on a news programme that evening to summon all justice-loving Italians to the city.
The next morning was very hot and very tense. Police and soldiers had been withdrawn to their barracks while an assessment was made of the balance of forces. Gradually the streets surrounding the city centre filled with cars and coaches from all over Northern Italy and beyond. The anti-capitalist core was being joined by tens of thousands of trade unionists, socialists and sympathetic citizens.
Soon the assembly point was overrun with people. Many spent hours in the searing heat waiting to move off. Organisers estimated that 300,000 people had assembled. Few had ever seen a demonstration of this size. Certainly not one directed against the institutions of the system itself; not one with 'Another World is Possible' as its central slogan.
The mood turned from anxiety and anger to confidence and pride. The police stayed in their barracks and, as the enormous demonstration passed, a huge cry of ‘assassini! assassini!’ rose up from every section of the march. As we approached the centre, people came out on to the balconies in every building to raise their fists, cheer and sing partisan songs. Many threw buckets of water onto the demonstration to cool protestors.
The demonstration was a humiliation for the G8, Berlusconi and the police.
Early next morning the police exacted a brutal revenge. They stormed the Diaz school, where hundreds of activists were staying and beat them indiscriminately until the walls of the school were smeared with blood. Hundreds were arrested, some later tortured in what even mainstream papers called the most violent police attack on protest anywhere in Europe for two or three decades. Some protestors were driven into the sea where they clung on to boats and buoys to save themselves from drowning.
Many activists, including some from Britain, spent years campaigning for justice and accountability for this co-ordinated police riot.
Giving a lead
For all the sporadic violence and horror of these days, Genoa sparked a wave of radicalisation across Italy and beyond. In the days that followed there were massive solidarity protests in towns and cities across the country. A left cowed by years of defeat and right wing rule exploded into life, generating a wave of further protests and a surge in support for the far left Rifondazione Communista.
The protests had helped to crystallize an international network of anti-capitalists across Europe. Crucially too they had shown that the left could once again connect with masses of working people and articulate an anger that had been growing under the surface against globalised capitalism.
The bourgeois papers began to anxiously discuss not just the new anti-capitalist movement but a much wider anti-capitalist mood. The left regained a sense of power and the ambition to shape real outcomes and set about organising a Europe wide anti-capitalist movement in earnest.
When George Bush and Tony Blair responded to the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks later that year to push for war in Afghanistan and then Iraq the left had something to build on. Galvanised by huge anti-war demonstrations in Britain, the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 saw a million people march against an attack on Iraq.
Amongst many other things the Forum backed the call for an international day of protests against war on Iraq on February 15 2003. This was to be the largest co-ordinated protest in world history involving at least 30 million people around the world.
There have been many ups and downs in the fortunes of the left in Europe since then. But ever since Genoa, there has been a level of street protest in many countries not seen since the 1970s. From the anti-war movement to the great anti-austerity protests of the last decade, the student climate movement and Black Lives Matter, protest movements continue to make history. Many of them have combined mass mobilisations with a radical, sometimes anti-capitalist sentiment.
The left has a huge amount of work to do to find ways to broaden and co-ordinate these initiatives and to strengthen the radical ideas at their heart. But we must hold on to the realisation that emerged in the summer heat of Genoa twenty years ago. In a more and more brutal and unequal world, if we are united and audacious we can give a lead to mass popular anger.
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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.
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