‘They make misery, we make history’: twenty years after the battle of Genoa

When the series of revolutions commencing in 1989 led to the overthrow of the Soviet Union, a gloating Rupert Murdoch declared the death of Stalinism to be the biggest news story of the twentieth century. Bestselling books echoed the corporate media, solemnly announcing that capitalism had permanently triumphed over its economic, political and ideological rivals, including socialism – a view widely accepted even on the left.

That sense of triumph, however, was short-lived. Within ten years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a global anti-capitalist movement shook ruling classes around the world. It emerged in the United States at the end of 1999, after mass protests ambushed and wrecked the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle. A new generation had started to question the consensus that capitalism was the only way to run society. Many began to believe that another world was possible.

The internet provided a new means for the anti-capitalist movement to achieve a global coordination. Activists and organisations were bought together in a series of Social Forums. Speakers including Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva, José Bové, Naomi Klein, Walden Bello and Hugo Chavez addressed football stadium-sized meetings from Mumbai to Porto Alegre on topics from global warming and species extinction to imperialism and war.

And a series of demonstrations at financial summits disrupted business as usual for the rulers of global capitalism. 20,000 people protested in Melbourne at the World Economic Forum in September 2000, another 20,000 in Quebec City at the Summit of the Americas in April 2001, then 35,000 in Barcelona at the World Bank summit in June. When the G8 summit of world leaders came to Genoa in July, the whole world was watching.

The Genoa Social Forum (GSF), convened to coordinate the protests, was mostly comprised of local activists. With only ten weeks to the summit there were many questions to answer. How would the city accommodate so many protestors? How many plazas and sporting fields could be commandeered as camp sites? How should the media be handled? The local council wanted to know who would pay for it all. Bruno Rossi, a union member in his early sixties, spoke for more than just local dock workers when he told a GSF meeting hosting international delegates, ‘Many of us have dreamt of this day.’

A few weeks later a coalition led by corrupt media baron Silvio Berlusconi narrowly won Italy’s general election. It comprised remnants of Christian Democracy, Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia, the secessionist Northern League and the fascist National Alliance, whose leader Gianfranco Fini was installed as deputy prime minister.

The new government denounced anti-capitalist activists as terrorists. It cancelled military leave and suspended freedom of movement, entitled by the Schengen treaty, for the duration of the summit. Fini announced he would travel to Genoa to coordinate security against the protests boasting that 20,000 Carabinieri (Italy’s gendarmerie) would be deployed. During the eight separate inquiries into police violence at Genoa, Fini maintained he gave them no directions while at police headquarters other than to strike first, before they were attacked.

A week before the summit, a bomb exploded at a Genoa police station, blinding an officer. Another bomb exploded outside the Carlini athletics stadium. The military announced an air exclusion zone around the city, as well as the stationing of anti-aircraft missiles. The Tuscania military battalion was mobilised – it had been used against Italy’s Roma community and stood accused of war crimes in Somalia in 1997, including the use of electric shocks during interrogations. University campuses and, ominously, court houses were closed by government decree.

The French government tried to stop a train chartered by Globalise Resistance to transport activists from the United Kingdom, but French railway unions overruled the order and waived the train through. Greek activists fought their way ashore from ferries. Thousands found ways across the border and thousands more travelled from across Italy. Many were members of Communist Party offshoot Rifondazione Comunista, whose leader Fausto Bertinotti had spoken favourably of the anti-capitalist movement in parliament. Some international contingents had travelled great distances, like Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

The summit of the world’s most powerful rulers including George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair cowered behind fences and shipping containers in barricaded suburbs designated as a Red Zone. Eighty thousand marched on the first day of the G8 for migrant rights and against the new governments’ anti-immigration bill, in what was the first ever national demonstration for migrants in Italy. The Carabinieri kept a watchful distance. But many officers had replaced the tri-colour sash of their uniforms with black to indicate their fascist allegiance.

The GSF agreed the next day would be reserved for direct action, including marching into the Red Zone. However, this unity concealed disagreements over tactics. The leaders of several unions and NGOs did not want to be associated with acts of militancy. The GSF was forced to agree to split the demonstration into seven different marches, so organisations could participate under their own banner and make their own decisions. In his book You Are G8, We Are 6 Billion, GSF member Jonathan Neale recalls:

In the north-west were the CUP, one of the two radical union groups. To the north were the mainly Catholic pacifists. In the north-east were the Tute Bianchie, the hard men and women of the Italian street left. In the south-east were COBAS, the other radical union group. And in the south were three separate groups: the mostly foreign anarchist Pink March, Globalise Resistance, the International Socialist Tendency, and ATTAC and Communist Refoundation. Several kilometres to the east the Drop the Debt group were holding a prayer vigil rather than march. The Black Block of anarchists had no one place of their own but moved between the other groups.

The decision to march separately was a gift to the police, allowing them to confront smaller numbers rather than one big demonstration. They could also pick and choose whom they confronted, avoiding more organised and experienced sections of the movement. Tens of thousands of protestors made it to the barricades that day and laid siege to the summit. But many did not make it that far.

All over Genoa, the Carabinieri poured out of the Red Zone and attacked using capsicum spray, water cannons, dogs, and snow ploughs. Police with helmets, gas masks and shields, shooting live rounds in the air, laid into protestors with truncheons. Screams of ‘Prensa’ and ‘BBC’ provided no defence. Thousands were injured. Hundreds were arrested and thrown into trucks. Some, beaten unconscious, were placed on railway tracks and left for dead. Several remained in comas for months. Others were taken to a special detention centre set up in Bolzaneto, 15 kilometres out of Genoa, where they were met by a ‘reception committee’ of police. The widespread torture of those in custody was later detailed by the European Court of Human Rights.

Police drove armoured vehicles into protestors at speed running them over. One overshot and stalled against a wall. Mario Placanica, a Carabinieri officer in the back of the vehicle, threw out a fire extinguisher at protestors. Twenty-three-year-old local activist Carlo Giuliani picked it up as if to throw it but then lowered it. Placanica shot him in the head, and the vehicle drove over his body.

Placanica has never been punished nor have his commanders. He later considered running for election for Catanzaro council as a candidate of the National Alliance.

Local and international journalists risked their lives alongside protestors to broadcast all this occurring outside what was supposed to be a global ruling class carnival and photo-opportunity for the new Italian government. But Berlusconi and Fini knew they had the support of the other G8 leaders to use violence. That evening, GSF spokesperson Vittorio Agnoletto delivered a simple statement to the media scrum: ‘Everyone to Genoa.’

The official figure for the next day was 300,000 protestors. Tens of thousands more cheered the demonstration along the streets. All over the city, home-made banners appeared on balconies, between lamp posts, and over the entrances to police stations reading ASSASSINI. Humiliated, the police sought revenge. They attacked the rear of the demonstration, inflicting terrible injuries and forcing tens of thousands of protestors miles up the coast. More was to come.

The GSF had temporary headquarters in Armando Diaz primary school. Many activists took refuge there along with corporate and independent media workers and several members of the European Parliament. In the dead of night, hundreds of police including the special national riot control group and the national anti-terrorist police stormed the school chanting ‘You’re the Black Block and we’ve come to kill you.’

Everyone in the building faced a line of truncheons before being thrown into ambulances and imprisoned at Bolzaneto. Months of campaigning, including strikes as far away as Canada, forced the release of most abductees. A police officer testified in court that the interior of the school ‘looked like a butcher’s shop’ after the attack. Students later occupied the school demanding the blood-stained walls and floors be cleaned.

The GSF called for demonstrations across Italy and for Berlusconi to resign. Hundreds of thousands marched up and down the country, including 40,000 in Rome and 100,000 in Milan. Months later, when Berlusconi tried to pass anti-union laws, three million demonstrated in Rome in a sea of red flags. Unions called for a general strike which saw the participation of nearly twenty million workers. Berlusconi was eventually driven from government along with the fascists.

Genoa mattered for several reasons. Nobody that witnessed the main march on Saturday winding its way along Antonio Gramsci highway, singing the Bandiera Rossa amid the tear gas, could fail to be struck by the moment. Genoa was more than just the European Seattle. It was a red demonstration.

The rulers of global capitalism chose Genoa to use mass violence to break the anti-capitalist movement. They failed. In the face of police terror, a common chant arose: ‘They make misery, we make history.’ Genoa also showed the limits of officially sanctioned opposition. Nelson Mandela attended the summit but issued no statement about the violence. Bono and Bob Geldof, both of whom travelled to Genoa on a private jet with Tony Blair, said nothing.

Most importantly, however, the Battle of Genoa demonstrated to many that the state is not neutral. Activists who had entered politics campaigning over single issues, or against individual corporations, saw that the state would intervene to protect the capitalist system as a whole and would use deadly force to do so. Hundreds of thousands took those lessons with them from Genoa. Twenty years on, we remember them for the struggles ahead.


Image: Ares Ferrari

Michael Douglas

Michael Douglas is a member of Solidarity in Sydney.

More by Michael Douglas ›

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  1. And what have we learned from Genoa?
    We have learned that the ruling class have become even more ruthless and opportunistic.
    As the pandemic cuts a brutal swathe through almost every nation, the ruling class have seized the day with more draconian laws and media censorship.
    Anyone questioning corporate and government narratives is either ridiculed or excised.
    Democracy, what’s that?

  2. Great article!

    It seems to be quite a thing at the moment to pan the Anti-Globalisation movement, including by people who were a part of it.

    The fact is, in many countries, those years of demonstrations from 1999 leading up to the Iraq War demonstrations saw some of the most significant politicisations in terms of raw numbers, since the 1970s and have not been seen since.
    That in and of itself is significant. It was also sustained over a period of about 5 years

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