Global Policy Forum

Genoa on Minds of Protesters


By Richard Boudreaux and Marjorie Miller

Los Angeles Times
July 18, 2001

Judging from magazine covers, Luca Casarini's outfit is all the rage in Italy this summer--white overalls, plexiglass shield and a helmet over his long, disheveled hair. It's more than a fashion statement. The White Overalls is a militant leftist band whose activists, led by the burly 34-year-old, are coming here to disrupt this week's summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.

Sister Patrizia Pasini, 60, is more subdued in her style but not in her politics. The Italian missionary is leading a group of Roman Catholic activists, she says, "to fight the G-8 with prayers and hunger strikes" on the soon-to-be-embattled streets of Genoa.

The nun and the hell-raiser are unlikely allies in a populist movement that accuses the world's richest governments of neglecting the poor and harming the environment. Since wrecking the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the network has spread from America to nearly every corner of Europe, growing in size and sophistication while besieging one international summit after another.

The swarming of Genoa, starting Thursday, could be the movement's biggest show so far. Italian organizers, who struggled to unite pacifists and street fighters under a single set of rules, say 1,170 groups with labor, environmental and humanitarian agendas have signed up for Genoa and could deliver as many as 100,000 protesters from across the continent. "It's an enormous range," said Jonathan Neale, a U.S. veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement who is working with the Genoa-based organizers. "It's people who before this started really didn't think they could agree."

From London to Athens, an unusual number of activists has assumed specialized but loosely coordinated tasks in mobilizing Europe's citizens to rant against President Bush and their own leaders, rethink the continent's march toward standardization, defy the cops and party for days on end. The summit-hopping movement for global justice is largely a Western phenomenon. In Europe, it embraces Greenpeace environmentalists, Greek trade unions, Basque separatists, German punkers, faith-based groups such as Christian Aid and more. It backs mandatory curbs on "greenhouse gas" emissions, debt relief for poor countries and cheaper drugs to help them fight AIDS.

The call to Genoa has multiplied over the Internet, drawing a network of idealists who use global tools to rail against globalization--or at least demand a fairer distribution of its benefits. "It's all about how we're being mass-produced, all becoming little Americans--talking, eating, wearing the same things," said Maria Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old piano teacher from Athens who has no students over the summer and feels lured to Genoa because "it is supposed to be the biggest thing since [the European student protests of] 1968."

The movement has gained momentum in Europe as its key demands win public acceptance and as leaders of the G-8--the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia--make limited concessions on debt and AIDS relief. Pope John Paul II has urged the leaders to "listen to the cry of the poor" and lead the process of globalization "for the common good of the whole world, on the basis of justice and solidarity."

At the same time, G-8 leaders have belittled the protesters and condemned violence that has driven summits behind growing layers of armed protection. British Prime Minister Tony Blair last month denounced the movement as "an anarchists' traveling circus." Italy has mobilized at least 15,000 police and troops to protect an inner-city perimeter that includes within it Genoa's Ducal Palace, where Bush and other leaders will gather Friday, and the city's Mediterranean port, where most of them will sleep on a luxury cruise ship. Police Chief Francesco Colucci is monitoring this top-security "red zone" on computer screens in a central command bunker at police headquarters.

Across town, the protesters have set up their own nerve center--a cramped office suite holding three computers, several boxes of anti-G-8 posters and T-shirts, and a few casually dressed, heavily pierced young Italians furiously sending and receiving e-mail. This is the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum, created last year to coordinate protest groups converging here against the G-8. "It's a very informal network, about 30 people with cell phones," said Carlo Bachschmidt, 35, the oldest organizer in the office.

The Forum has a technical team with a $300,000 budget. The team's 11 members have solicited scores of volunteers to pitch tents for the protesters at schools and sports fields and to provide free legal aid for anyone arrested. Money comes from grass-roots subscriptions, a few rich individuals and well-endowed advocacy groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature. Major Italian and foreign affiliates of the Forum have pledged $750 apiece for its coffers.

Protesters pay their own way to Genoa, but many get "sponsorship" from teachers, co-workers and friends--the wider public that supports the cause. But the biggest protest booster is Genoa's leftist-run City Hall. Lobbying for peaceful debate around the summit, it dispensed $1.5 million for tents, running water, electricity, portable toilets and a teach-in venue--even as national police shut down the city's airport and train stations to keep demonstrators away.

The Genoa Social Forum also has an 18-member political board, which bickered for weeks over the meaning of nonviolent resistance before agreeing on some ground rules: The White Overalls and other groups trying to breach the red zone will not wreck the city or use offensive weapons against the police. (Shields are OK; clubs are not.) Nor will they intrude on space occupied by more passive protesters. Otherwise, no group will criticize the methods of any other. Veteran protesters welcome the accord as a step to broaden their movement and limit the kind of violence that has obscured its messages at previous summits. It is supposedly binding on the Forum's 1,170 affiliates.

Organizers admit, however, that up to 2,000 violent anarchists not pledged to the Forum's rules--gangs with names like Class War and Reclaim the Streets--may show up and hijack the event. Grass-roots disorder has been the rule since international summits became favored targets of street protest. Once a summit is scheduled, decentralized networks of crusaders and anarchists alike swing into action to rally their troops, deliver them to the site and deploy them on the front lines.

The very nature of the movement makes central command impossible. "In reality, this is all very spontaneous," said Andrezej Zebrowski, 47, a Polish Marxist who began recruiting for Genoa last month as he worked a Warsaw crowd protesting Bush's visit there. "Even if there were no organizers, thousands of people would go anyway, just as thousands of people always follow the pope," he added. "The situation with ideas is similar to rock music. People live in a global system. What happens in one country quickly spreads to another."

Still, the Genoa counter-summit is a huge production with a list of credits as long as a blockbuster movie's.

* Casarini, the White Overalls leader and Seattle protest veteran, is a recruiter. The white attire, he says, is meant to suggest ghosts--the "invisible victims of neoliberal globalization." A charismatic speaker at rallies across Italy, he lists Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatista rebel leader in Mexico, as a hero. To justify the group's planned assault on the red zone, he organized a public referendum on its Web site; more than 70% of the 12,692 respondents supported the right to "invade forbidden zones" and "arrange forms of self-defense" if police react with force.

* Petros Constantinou is a fund-raiser. From a kiosk in central Athens, the 40-year-old Greek labor activist sells a broadsheet titled "Financial Crimes," which brands the G-8 as "a gang of rich, spoiled murderers." The modest income pays for leaflets, posters and concerts in Greece publicizing the Genoa protest.

* Francesco Caruso, 26, is a "travel agent," one of many arranging anti-G-8 group charters. His Italian organization, Inflexibles of the South, plans to sail from Naples with 1,150 protesters on the Greek ferry Odyssey and invade Genoa's red zone by sea. If the ferry is attacked, he says, the 50 journalists aboard will become human shields. "In any case," he assured reporters, "we have enough lifeboats for everyone."

* Lisa Fithian, 40, of Los Angeles is a nonviolence trainer. A French group has paid her way here to conduct classes at the protesters' "welcome center" on direct action, mobile street tactics and techniques of self-protection against police clubs and tear gas.

* Chloe Davis, 18, just out of high school in Nottingham, England, is a first-time protester. Her Anglican parish church supports a London charity whose magazine turned her on to Drop the Debt. She and some school friends are coming here in a caravan organized by the debt-relief advocacy group to take part in pacifist protest. "I am quite excited and slightly scared," she said, but added, "I feel strongly about the issue."

The list goes on. A 20-year-old Italian student won a design contest and got his logo enshrined on the official Genoa protest T-shirt: eight red stick figures besieged by a sea of black stick figures representing the Earth's 6 billion people. Manu Chao, one of Europe's hottest pop singers, will kick off the entertainment tonight with a free concert.

Dozens of Italian Parliament members have volunteered as "guardian angels" to walk among protesters and monitor police behavior. Father Vitaliano della Sala, an Italian priest who wields a water pistol at protests, promises guerrilla theater.

To anyone who observed America's civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, or Europe's student protests of that era, the preparation for Genoa looks familiar. The Europeans running this show share the casual dress, democratic ethic and one-world idealism of that generation.

But the Internet makes today's protesters less provincial than their elders. It decentralizes organizing capacity, making the composition and conduct of a Genoa-type protest wildly unpredictable. "The Internet is instant and interactive," said Rodney Barker, professor of government and modern political ideologies at the London School of Economics. "One person can say, 'Let's go to Genoa dressed as inflatable George Bushes,' and hundreds will show up that way." The Genoa protest is certain to fuel the global movement, organizers say, because many of those coming are first-timers.

Several factors are driving expectations of a huge turnout, including the G-8's perceived identity as the ultimate ruling elite. For Western demonstrators, it's the first accessible G-8 summit since the muscle-flexing in Seattle. (Last year's G-8 was in less-accessible Okinawa, Japan.) For the Italian left, it's a chance to play havoc with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing media tycoon elected in May.

Then there's Bush, whose election "has provided a focus, a convenient enemy" for advocates of the arms-control and global-warming treaties that the president opposes, Barker said. "All of a sudden you have a new 'rogue state' tearing up all the treaties and unifying what had been disparate organizations."

A hint of the momentum came in London in February when a tiny new advocacy group called a meeting to organize for Genoa and 230 people showed up. The group, Globalise Resistance, had been formed to shape debate on global issues in Britain in the wake of street protests at a World Bank meeting in Prague, the Czech capital, last fall. Suddenly it became a travel agency, organizing a ferry, train and bus relay from Dover to Genoa. Nearly 500 people, ages 16 to 84, have signed up for the charter. "The anti-capitalist movement is growing immensely," said Guy Taylor, a 34-year-old co-founder of Globalise Resistance. "We're getting 30 to 40 e-mails a day. People want to find out what's going on, get a piece of the action."

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