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Genoa and the New Language of Protest

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Among the Thugs: Genoa and the New Language of Protest by David Graeber, In These Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 9, 2001
      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo

      Among the Thugs: Genoa and the New Language of Protest

      by David Graeber, In These Times

      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 to
      produce.

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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) started exploring 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 as 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.

      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 to 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."

      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.

      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.

      One Dead in Genoa: The Movement and Its Martyr

      by Geov Parrish, In These Times

      For some 20 months, from Seattle through Washington, D.C.
      and Melbourne and Windsor and Philadelphia and Los Angeles
      and Prague and Davos and Quebec and Gothenburg, tactics have
      been escalating on both sides as the protests against
      gatherings of the world's political and economic elites have
      grown larger and more raucous. In Seattle, some 50,000
      nonviolent protesters and blockaders, enraged by
      international institutions that exacerbate global poverty,
      environmental destruction and the loss of democracy, were
      overshadowed by a few dozen window-breaking vandals. By the
      time of Quebec and Gothenburg, large blocks of protesters
      had come to tolerate property destruction, and the hurling
      of everything from teddy bears to Molotov cocktails, to make
      their points.

      On the police side, the brutality that shocked the world in
      Seattle was actually a step removed from what it could have
      been. National Guard troops with live ammunition stood by
      but never opened fire. As the protests have escalated, the
      wholesale use of chemical warfare against
      protesters--whether they were breaking any laws or not--has,
      at least in the public eye, become old news, an acceptable
      price to pay to keep the "hoodlums" at bay. The media surely
      have helped; in Quebec and Gothenburg, the worst of the
      police mayhem was best reported not by the combined
      resources of the world's elite media, but by
      http://www.indymedia.org . The U.S. networks almost
      uniformly ignored it, blaming the victims of police
      violence.

      And now, in Italy, a man is dead. It was coming to this.

      Perhaps more telling, even, than the death of 23-year-old
      Genoa anarchist Carlo Giuliani at the hands of a terrified
      paramilitary conscript three years his junior, are the
      hundreds of serious injuries that occurred as Italian
      security forces launched repeated, unprovoked attacks on G8
      Summit protesters. Of the 150,000 or so estimated to have
      gathered on the streets of Genoa, all but about 2,000 are
      thought to have been committed to the nonviolence pact
      agreed upon in advance by the Genoa Social Forum, a
      coalition of some 1,300 groups that was an umbrella group
      for many of the protests. It didn't matter. Italian
      authorities, working closely with U.S. and other police
      agencies, dramatically escalated the levels of violence with
      which these protests, now inescapable at international
      summits, would be met.

      There are numerous chilling accounts of the contempt for
      civil liberties and human rights that marked security during
      the Genoa summit, but the image that has circled the world
      is the prone body of Giuliani. He died, in part, because he
      and his comrades cornered terrified young paramilitary
      officers in a tactically foolish way. But he also died
      because Italian police weren't carrying rubber bullets, only
      live rounds. And beyond Giuliani, hundreds more
      people--anarchist black bloc, "pacifisti," journalists and
      bystanders alike--were seriously wounded, not because of
      their actions or tactical mistakes, but due to intentional,
      premeditated attacks by militarized police. It was a
      bloodbath. War.

      When the weekend was over, each side saw what they wanted to
      see. Establishment politicians and media, as well as a few
      of the more moderate protest groups, railed against violent
      protesters bent on disrupting the gatherings of
      democratically elected leaders. But it was individuals who
      engaged in the thuggery and vandalism; the pools of blood
      and a dead body were the calculated work of 20,000 public
      employees. Those are the images that will resonate.

      Genoa is reminiscent of nothing so much as Kent State,
      where, after (at least) hundreds of thousands of deaths in
      Southeast Asia, it took the deaths of four young, privileged
      American students on a Midwest campus in May 1970 to
      galvanize opposition and transform the U.S. anti-war
      movement into a force that shut down campuses across the
      country. At the time of Kent State, public opinion, shaped
      by contemptuous politicians and judgmental media, was that
      the guardsmen acted properly and the Kent State students
      were anti-American thugs who had it coming.

      This time, unlike at Kent, the violence was planned and
      approved by the highest levels of government. In tandem, the
      Italian Constitution was thrown out the window, starting
      with the government's suspension of E.U. rules allowing free
      passage of citizens among European countries, all the way
      through overtly fascistic, Mussolini-invoking cops who
      brutalized thousands without provocation. Such dangerous,
      menacing behavior--intended as much to dissuade future
      demonstrators as to control crowds at Genoa--is likely to
      continue to escalate until it proves either politically
      ineffective or no longer necessary.

      Global justice activists may be in shock after Genoa, their
      largely abstract concerns (at least in the Western countries
      where these protests have blossomed since Seattle) grounded
      by the realization that they, too, could be shot for their
      opinions. In the Third World, of course, this has been the
      reality for decades, with the grave sites to prove it.

      And, as in the Third World, the threat will not suppress the
      movement. George W. Bush's smug platitudes notwithstanding,
      things are getting worse, at times rapidly, even
      irreversibly. And since the global justice movement itself
      is essentially leaderless--or full of leaders--and
      transcends so many different issues and places, it cannot
      easily be co-opted or repressed. Yet politicians can't
      satisfactorily address any of its core demands without
      damaging at least some of the corporate and economic
      interests that put them in power. This leaves policy-makers
      with three generally unworkable options: 1) dramatically
      change policies; 2) use reforms to split or coopt the
      movement; or 3) repress the movement, violently if
      necessary.

      In the face of escalating security measures, global justice
      advocates have managed to disrupt summits exceedingly well,
      repeatedly drawing the attention of the world media and the
      ire of paramilitary state forces. They also, in some arenas
      (especially around debt relief), have won reform-oriented
      gestures that are grossly inadequate but still far better
      than could have been imagined two years ago. They have broad
      public support in some parts of the world, especially in the
      Southern Hemisphere. In Bush, like Ronald Reagan before him,
      the world sees an ignorant American fool with terrifying
      power; and Dubya, unlike Bonzo's buddy, has no competing
      superpower to either slow him or scare allies into
      submission. Bush's friendly, arrogant, clueless face may
      turn out to be the best recruiting tool global justice
      activists ever could have wanted.

      But is public opinion enough? As enraged activists rightly
      charge, supranational institutions like the G8, the WTO,
      World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, FTAA and so on have no provisions
      for democratic input on policies that are literally
      reshaping the world. And the spectrum of changes demanded by
      advocates is so sweeping, and the principles invoked so
      counter to the interests of corporate rule, that they are in
      fact revolutionary. The global justice movement, so far, has
      been a spectacle, but hardly the stuff of such changes.

      We saw, a dozen years ago, how rapidly a popular movement
      can take hold and shake a world. More than 30 countries
      experienced nearly entirely bloodless revolutions in the
      span of a few months in 1989-1990, and nobody saw it coming.
      The people in those countries were often responding to
      generations of cruel repression, but they were also
      rebelling against forces thought to be impervious that
      proved (except in Beijing) to be deadly but paper-thin. And
      in 12 years, there have been vast changes in the speed with
      which the planet can be circled by information, tactics,
      inspiration and images like a dead Genovese man in the
      street.

      The global justice movement may be on the cusp of something,
      but nobody seems to know what. It is far too multi-faceted
      and scattered to "lead," or even steer. Here at home, a
      majority of the public knows that these protests are
      occurring, but doesn't even have a clear idea of what the
      protesters are upset about, let alone what they want.
      Clearly, the global justice movement is not going to get any
      significant help from mainstream media or politicians in
      popularizing either its grievances or any possible
      solutions.

      But even as American activists point toward IMF/World Bank
      meetings in Washington from September 28 to October 4, they
      must start envisioning beyond the street warfare. What must
      emerge are not ideologies or utopian blueprints, but
      practical, just, achievable and necessarily imaginative
      solutions to vexing problems and conflicting needs--and ways
      to make those solutions visible, understandable and
      desirable to the public. It's a tall order. But if activists
      show that an entire constellation of global policies is
      fundamentally flawed, and don't give others a clear idea of
      what they want instead and how to get it, somebody else will
      fill that vacuum. And it won't be good.

      --
      Dan Clore
      mailto:clore@...

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