July 27, 2001

Analysis

What Went Wrong In Genoa? - A Movement At a Crossroad

By Paolo Pontoniere
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

What went wrong with the G8 protests in Genoa? Why did the city of Christopher Columbus get trashed by a movement that advocates humane globalization?

The event seemed cursed from the start, both by geography and by the recent change of government in Italy.

Genoa is a port city whose very topography — narrow, contorted alleys that open suddenly into large squares and piazzas — almost invites physical clashes. Like water through a hose, tens of thousands of fired-up protesters pushing through those tight alleys could hardly avoid a violent confrontation when those at the front of the human column were forced into contact with lines of police.

The script for the meeting had been authored by former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema and his center/left coalition government. D'Alema believed that Genoa, long dominated by communist or leftist administrations, would have just the right mix of progressive forces to diffuse any violence introduced by extremist protesters.

The idea was not without historical precedent. In 1977, Bologna — another city with a medieval topography that had historically been governed by the left — had been chosen by the student movement for a controversial national demonstration against police violence. During the subsequent youth occupation, Bologna's streets were transformed into a permanent political forum where the city's residents and their guests debated all sorts of political issues in an engaging and productive way.

Of course, the Bolognesi had to stomach some extreme behavior on the part of the students, such as shoplifting in the name of redistributing wealth. In the end, however, it was the national government, with its tanks, helicopters, and anti-riot paramilitary forces, that appeared extremist, not the students.

But the Bologna model, which seemed so promising to the D'Alema government, offered no such reassurance to the current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his center/right coalition. Rather than trusting in the collaboration of a city administration led by their political adversaries, the new center/right Italian government resorted to traditional tools of power. An army of 20,000 police and paramilitary officers descended on Genoa while the national government shut down ports, airports, and train stations, and installed police checkpoints, rendering the city all but inaccessible. Two hundred secret service agents sought to infiltrate the ranks of Tute Bianche (White Overalls) and the No Global movement, the two major political groups that had organized the antiglo-balization protests. To further underscore its anxiety, the new government arranged for the G8 leaders to stay on a cruise boat anchored in Genova's port, rather than taking up residence in the city's hotels.

As often happens in Italy when a political situation polarizes, the possibility of debate is replaced by an orgy of violence. This is exactly what occurred in Rome in 1977, the last time that a street protester was killed in Italy.

Like Carlo Giuliani, the 23-year-old casualty of the G8 protests, 19-year-old Giorgiana Masi seemed more emotionally than intellectually connected to the movement with which she was involved. A feminist involved with a consciousness-raising group, the larger political force that choreographed the clash in which she died was Autonomia Operaia (loosely translated as "Workers' Autonomy"). A nebulous umbrella organization of groups ranging from activists wanting to grant a salary to homemakers to those wanting to violently overthrow the Italian Republic, Auto-nomia Operaia gained its influence by capitalizing on the nihilism and discontent that characterized the times.

Giuliani, similarly, was a member of Punkabestia ("Punkbeast"), a group of squatters held together by their discontent. During the G8 protests, Punkabestia appears to have been influenced by Black Bloc, an equally nebulous international grouping of anarchists. Even the fighting strategy adopted by the Black Bloc seems to have copied closely that used by the Autonomia Operaia during the seventies: Essentially, both organizations encouraged members to infiltrate larger, nonviolent demonstrations and provoke violent clashes with police, or any other group then identified as the enemy.

Italy offers a useful lesson in the wake of the Genoa tragedy. At the end of the 1970s, protest movements in Italy were splitting into two camps. One went on to form "la nuova sinistra" ("the new left"), which worked for change nonviolently through electoral channels and labor organizing. The other gave rise to a series of terrorist initiatives. Similarly, today's antiglobalization movement is also at a crossroads.

On one side are those who reject the globalization of multinational corporations, but seek to unite the efforts of the disenfranchised in both the first and third worlds. On the other are the members of Black Bloc and other so-called anarchists whose goals are less well articulated, and tend to reflect more narrow, self-centered interests.

The choice seems clear: Either the antiglobalization movement creates a well-articulated political platform that unifies means and ends, or it deteriorates into further chaos.

Paolo Pontoniere is a correspondent for Italy's leading print and online magazine, Panorama. He can be reached at PMPurPont@aol.com.

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