Compare two abandoned streets in Genoa during the weekend of the
G8 summit, immediately after confrontations between protesters and
police. The first, a mile-long stretch along Via Tolemaide overlooking
a train yard where Ya Basta! had faced off against riot cops on
July 20, was scattered with oddly whimsical debris: slabs of rubber
padding, bits of mock-Roman foam armor, balloons and abandoned plexiglas
shields with inscriptions like "Yuri Gagarin Memorial Space Brigade."
The other, along Corso Marconi (one of the city's main thoroughfares)
the next day, was the sort of scene one might see in the aftermath
of a riot almost anywhere: shattered glass from storefront windows,
charred automobile parts, and, everywhere, spent tear-gas canisters
and jagged rocks. It was the first kind of confrontation, not the
second, that was anathema to the Italian police. The carabinieri
set out to create a riot, and that was exactly what they managed
A word of background: Ya Basta! is an Italian social movement most
famous for their
tutti bianci, or "white overalls," a kind of nonviolent army
who gear up in elaborate forms of padding, ranging from foam armor
to inner tubes to rubber-ducky flotation devices, helmets and their
signature chemical-proof white jumpsuits to create what Italian activists
like to call a "new language" of direct action. Where once the only
choice seemed to be between the Gandhian approach or outright insurrection--either
Martin Luther King Jr. or Watts, with nothing in between--Ya Basta!
has been trying to invent a completely new territory. The tutti
bianci completely eschew any action that would cause harm to people
or even property (usually), but at the same time do everything possible
to avoid arrest or injury.
Pacifist marchers painted
their palms white.
Ya Basta!--which began as a Zapatista
solidarity group but has since evolved into a political network
linking dozens of squats and social centers in major Italian cities--combines
innovative tactics and an increasingly broad and sophisticated set
of demands. To the usual calls for direct democracy, the leitmotif
of the "anti-globalization" movement everywhere, they've made three
major additions: A principle of global citizenship, the elimination
of all controls over freedom of movement in the world (Ya Basta!
especially has targeted immigration detention facilities); a universally
guaranteed "basic income" to replace programs like welfare and unemployment
(originally derived from the French MAUSS
group); and free access to new technologies--in effect, extreme
limits to the enforcement of intellectual property rights. (Most
Americans assume these ideas derive from Michael Hardt and Antonio
Negri's book Empire.
They don't. They got them from Ya Basta!) As an idea, Ya Basta!
has been expanding rapidly: there are already offshoots in England
(the Wombles), Australia (the Wombats), Spain, Finland and many
U.S. cities such as New York and Cincinnati.
After the June 15 demonstrations in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which
three activists were
shot with live ammunition, Ya Basta! became seriously worried about
what might happen in Genoa. The organization made an offer to the
police: They would guarantee no aggressive behavior of any kind toward
persons or property, if the police would use only non-lethal arms--rubber
bullets but not real guns. The police reply amounted to a snort of
contempt: Not only would they be carrying guns, they were already
ordering body bags.
Protesters came prepared
for street theater not warfare.
Nonetheless the first day of protests, on Thursday, July 19, began
auspiciously enough, and very much in the Ya Basta! spirit with
a march in favor of "freedom of movement"--an estimated 60,000 people
led by pop star Manu Chao
and representatives of Genoa's immigrant communities. Despite occasional
attempts at police provocation, the march was entirely peaceful.
"It was the first time," a young Irish participant told me, watching
line after line of marchers--Italian communists, Swiss syndicalists,
Danish pacifists, all calling for Europe to open its borders--"that
I actually felt proud to be a European."
On Friday, however, more than 100,000 people were preparing to
march from half a
dozen different locations to the "red zone," that section of the city
surrounding the old Ducal Palace where the G8 leaders were meeting.
The marchers ranged from radical labor unions and reformist groups
like the French ATTAC to pagans
and a theatrical "pink bloc." Ya Basta! itself had marshaled a column
perhaps 10,000 strong. Some were simply intending to march up to the
wall, others to blockade the entrances. Still others were determined
to get past the elaborate fortifications. By the end of the day, every
single group had been assaulted by the police. The police strategy
was clearly planned well in advance. What made this situation distinctly
abnormal was that this time, the police had provided a "Black Bloc"
of their own. Over and over, on Saturday came reports of a mysterious
group of 30 to 40 "anarchists" whom nobody else had ever seen before;
huge guys, for the most part, and extraordinarily violent--willing,
even, to physically assault other (real) anarchists who tried to stop
them from attacking small shops and setting fire to cars.
Carlo Giuliani, who's shocking
death was captured on film.
By the end of the day, after countless sightings of these "Black
Blockers" emerging from police stations, hobnobbing with carabinieri
or assisting with arrests, the only question left in anyone's mind
was whether one was dealing with undercover cops or fascist vigilantes
working with the police. (The tendency of carabinieri stations
to sport portraits of Mussolini and fascist insignia inside suggested
this might have been a somewhat blurry distinction.)
The phony bloc would suddenly appear, smashing windows and overturning
dumpsters, right next to each column the cops wanted to attack; the
police themselves would show up a few minutes afterward and proceed
to lob massive amounts of high-intensity tear gas and pepper spray
into the area just after the phony bloc left; this would be followed
by baton charges meant to break bones and splatter blood. Pacifists
were charged while holding out palms painted white; a women's march
was attacked after performing a spiral dance ceremony. Ya Basta!,
who came in a column headed by giant eight-foot plexiglas shields
borne by padded youths in motorcycle helmets, was entirely unprepared
for the intensity of the chemical warfare--much worse than anything
used in Italy before. They arrived with musicians and even padded
dogs, aiming simply to march up to the red zone and perhaps push at
the barricades once they got there.
Carlo Giuliani, a local man,
was 23 years old.
Under past, Social Democratic regimes, the police often seemed
rather bemused by such games; under newly elected President Silvio
Berlusconi, however, the attitude was completely different. Police
cut off the march before they reached Bringole Station and started
a major gas attack, lobbing shells like mortar fire well behind
the front lines; people started collapsing and vomiting behind their
shields; at the front, police were firing gas canisters like bullets
directly at people's heads and, eventually, shooting live ammunition.
With the march stopped in its tracks, many people (myself included)
side streets looking for a way around; carabinieri helicopters were
dropping tear gas canisters like bombs overhead, but their numbers
on the ground, in those twisty streets and tiny piazzas, were much
smaller. Angry protesters, and even angrier local residents who did
not appreciate the massive use of chemical weapons on their apartments,
started throwing stones; on several streets, the police had to beat
a hasty retreat; in others, there was veritable hand-to-hand combat.
It was in the ensuing chaos that Carlo Giuliani, a local kid, was
shot and killed.
As soon as they heard that someone had died, Ya Basta! pulled their
people out. This was not the sort of battle they had come for. But
battles continued to rage for the rest of that day and into the
next. Near the convergence center at Kennedy Plaza, people started
setting fire to banks; what was supposed to be a peaceful march
on Saturday ended in a pitched battle where hundreds of people threw
rocks and bottles at the carabinieri, who could only dislodge
them by bringing up a tank. That evening ended with a midnight raid
on the Independent Media
Center, in which the police's fascist auxiliaries were unleashed
on sleeping activists.
No one is quite sure why the Italian police raided the IMC. It
might have been a sheer
act of terrorism. It might have been because they were aware that
videographers inside had compiled a good deal of compromising footage
of the phony Black Bloc working with police. The latter would explain
why, once inside, they put so much energy into appropriating every
video cassette in sight. (If so, it was all to no avail--footage of
"anarchists" emerging from a police station appeared on the nightly
news in Italy a few days later.) The IMC itself was a five-story building--donated,
oddly enough, by the city government--which contained a clinic, space
for press conferences, radio stations, offices for writers, film editing,
and one suite being used by the Genoa
Social Forum, an umbrella group that coordinated arrangements
for the protests, and which had mainly concerned itself with managing
a nearby welcoming center and sponsoring an ongoing five-day lecture
series about democratic alternatives to corporate globalization.
Sleeping teenagers were attacked
Italian police at the Indymedia Center.
There, the amount of damage the police could do was limited by
the fortuitous presence of a Minister of the European Parliament.
("When she held out her identity card," one eyewitness reported,
"it was like holding up a cross to vampires.") They still held everyone
in detention for most of an hour while they appropriated films and
documents. Across the street, however, was a "safe space," an unused
schoolhouse in which at least a hundred activists were sleeping
and preparing food; there, the police allowed their allies to take
off their black sweatshirts (revealing "polizia" T-shirts)
and go on a total rampage, beating sleeping teen-agers, leaving
shattered bodies, broken bones and pools of blood.
Everyone inside was arrested, many carried out in stretchers (according
unconfirmed reports, at the time of writing 18 activists are still
unaccounted for). Like almost everyone arrested in Genoa (many of
them actually removed from hospital beds and carried off to jail),
they returned to their own countries reporting systematic torture.
The police justified it all by saying they were raiding the offices
of the Genoa Social Forum, nerve center of the violent Black Bloc
activity. And sure enough, the next day Reuters headlines affirmed:
"Genoa Police Raid Headquarters of Violent Protesters."
A sign urges activists to
the evidence at the Indymedia Center.
The very existence of something called the IMC was not even mentioned
in any mainstream American reporting that I have seen so far. All
of this is in accord with common journalistic standards, whereby
the word "violent" can be attributed, generically, to protesters
on the slightest provocation, but never, under any circumstances,
to forces authorized by the state. But it is a matter of no little
irony that even in Italy, where much of the press is actually owned
by Berlusconi, the coverage was far more skeptical of the official
version than in the U.S. media.
What is called the anti-globalization movement (increasingly, people
within it are just calling it the "globalization movement") is trying
to change the direction of history--ultimately, the very structure
of society--without resort to weapons. What makes this feasible
is globalization itself: the increasing speed with which it is possible
to move people, possessions and ideas around.
What politicians and the corporate press call "globalization,"
of course, is really the
creation and maintenance of institutions (the WTO, G8 summits, the
IMF) meant to limit and control that process so as to guarantee it
produces nothing that would discomfit a tiny governing elite: Tariffs
can be lowered, but immigration restrictions have to be increased;
large corporations are free to take profits wherever and however they
like, but any ideas about forms of economic organization that would
not look like large profit-seeking corporations must be strictly censored,
etc. The threat of real global democracy is probably their greatest
fear, and the unprecedented growth of the movement--Seattle was considered
huge at 50,000 protesters; Genoa, a year and a half later, drew perhaps
200,000--must seem utterly terrifying.
Carabinieri beat a
This is why the battle of images is so strategic. Ya Basta! understands
that "protection" for activists can never consist primarily of foam
rubber padding. When the state really wishes to take off the gloves,
it can. Violence is something states do very well. If their hands
are tied, it is because centuries of political struggle have produced
a situation in which politicians and police have to be at least
minimally responsive to a public that has come to believe that living
in a civilized society means living in one in which young idealists
cannot, in fact, be murdered in their beds. It is precisely this
kind of padding that the rulers of our world are now frantically
trying to strip away.
Will it succeed? This remains to be seen. Signs in Europe are actually
rather hopeful. The media have begun to tell the real story of what
happened. The governments of France and Germany are putting intense
pressure on the Italian government to explain what happened to their
nationals in Italian jails; huge marches have occurred in every
major Italian city. It is a bit sobering, however, to observe that
the U.S. media ultimately proved far more willing to defend fascist
thuggery than their counterparts in the actual lands once governed
by Petain, Hitler and Mussolini.
David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at Yale
University who is currently working with Ya Basta!, Direct Action
Network and other groups.
Now read Geov Parrish's article, "One
Dead in Genoa."