G8 Summit 2001 - a Mistaken Protest

Poggibonsi Communist Party

The towers of San Gimignano, built by two feuding families competing for the tallest.

21st July, 2001. It's 6am and I'm on a bus, leaving the beautiful walled city of San Gimignano in the Tuscan countryside. I've spent too much of the week on the Internet trying to find a way to Genova (Genoa), but despite all the hype about a globalised protest movement, nobody is posting useful instructions on their web site. I'm trying to wing it - my plan is to get the train as near as I can, and then go by bus or hire a bicycle for the last few kilometres.

Even with these troubles, I have no regrets that I'm not on an official Drop the Debt coach. Visiting Italy while I'm here is too good an opportunity to miss. So I'm on my way to join their protest march, to call for cancellation of third world debt. In particular, cancellation with the money hypothecated so it is spent on primary education. Every child can have a basic education. To learn simple reading, writing, arithmetic. To learn who they are, and what the world is.

The only way into San Gimignano is via Poggibonsi, where the next generation can afford to buy their houses, and where I can get the train to Pisa. On the way down the hill to the station I see a strange looking group of people outside. They scare me a bit, not because of how they look, but because it is curious to find a large number of organised, awake people at half past six in the morning. What on earth are they are doing? I decide to walk quickly past them and into the station.

"No G8!" shouts the red T-shirt. Ah! That's who they are. Instantly rerouting, I stride straight up to him, and say in foggy Italian "Parla een-glay-zay?" and he stares at me like I'm mad. Luckily I'm wearing my Oxfam T-shirt, and somebody finds Francesca who speaks excellent English. Within half an hour I'm sitting on a comfortable coach, my name added to the roster to efficiently make sure I don't get lost, and a relieved grin on my face.

Somebody explained afterwards that communists are very good at organising things. These folk are from the Poggibonsi communist party, and various hangers on. There are two Communist parties in Italy, and this one is the more extreme Partito Comunista Rifondazione. They have about 5% of the vote - the other communist party has more like 16%. A few years ago they were in coalition government, but left because they were refused a national 35 hour week during policy bargaining. They aren't revolutionary any more, just very socialist. Communism has a benigner meaning in Italy than in America.

On the coach. I'm on the right and Francesca, who speaks English, is in the middle.

Most importantly for me they're very kind, and look after me the whole day. The coach journey is beautiful, very relaxing with amazing views of the countryside. The Italians build their roads more dramatically than the British. Our motorways are hidden in ditches so all you can see is grey tarmac and dull embankments. Italian roads have as good views as British trains.

We make it through the toll booths with no trouble. I half expected the Carabinieri (Italian military police) to search us for pen knives and gas masks, but they don't. Saying that, I spot someone on board with a gas mask. Veteran campaigner, or violent nihilist? I'm reassured that we are all going to the peaceful protest march starting at San Antonio Church. I suspect that when I get there some people might sneak off for more direct action.

Genova is a sprawling metropolis on the Ligurian sea, vast and mountainous. The views as we come down to the coast are astonishing. We arrive with every other coach in Italy, and get off several miles from the official start of the march. Really, the protest begins now... With over 100,000 people it is impossible to start something. You just all mill, and then walk in the same direction.

21st Century Protesters

Nearly everyone is here.

Italian politics are very different from British politics. The democracy is newer fresher, only fifty years old rather than hundreds. Lots of small parties are still jostling for position, coagulating into two coalitions, one left wing and one right wing. Perhaps, like Britain, these will be two parties soon.

Francesca is briefing me on Italian politics as we head towards San Antonio Church, where I'm hoping to find some Drop the Debt folk. We're walking with the people I met on the coach, all armed with fluttering communist party banners. They don't seem to ask for anything in particular, just to proclaim who they are.

We're soon surrounded by an infinite number of protesters. I'm tall and look over the crowd... It fills the wide streets and stretches in all directions. There is a huge range of banners. Every little left wing Italian political party seems to be there, along with all the Greek ones as well. Everyone in Europe who has an even minor grudge against globalisation has turned up.

Bravely I go right up close to the police with my camera, and get an excellent shot.

Even the Italian bird protection organisation LIPU is here, shouting with banners "Un Altro Mondo E' Possibile". They seem worried about all sorts of globalisation issues that frankly have nothing to do with birds. I can't quite imagine the RSPB being here. In Britain, charities complement political parties. In Italy there isn't the concept of a charity, they get blurred with the political parties and protest groups.

I spot the word "analfabetismo" in a slogan. I wish our word for illiterate was so cool.

Two people come up to me, pointing at their Oxfam T-shirts. They're from the Belgium arm of Oxfam. We grin and exchange sightings of other Oxfam folk, which unfortunately doesn't take long.

Non-violent direct activists or chaos-mongering nihilists? Who decides.
(Out of politeness, some faces pixellated)

After some time, I see our first police. They look harmless in their way, hidden behind riot shields down a side street, everyone keeping away from them. Suddenly I find I'm walking through and across the ranks of another organised force. They've got moto helmets, masks and mainly black clothing. They hold steady in formation, letting other protesters flow through them.

We wait for a while for some people to catch up, so I photograph the police. Then I reach up to photograph these people, probably who the media call the Black Block. One of them spots what I'm doing, and they wave my hands down shouting for me not to photograph them. I feel lucky that the film isn't torn from my camera.

Morally, should I, or should I not protect their anonymity? Do I agree with them as to how corrupt the people in power in the world have become? Or do I think that their violence, if they commit violence, is worse, more destabilising, than our leaders' crimes of complacency deserve?

Genovese Solidarity

Genova is a ghost down. It's raided, raped, graffiti ridden. I have no sympathy for this assault, which will only ruin the locals as it must take a year to fully recover. Most annoyingly for us, there are only a handful of locals about. One of them applauds us from a balcony, and someone tries to call her down to join in.

Feeling like a film star, a lady throws cooling water onto the crowd.

It's scorching hot.

An elderly lady spots our plight, standing at her window six floors up. She fills her washing up bowl and throws the water over the crowd. It's a beautiful sight as everyone underneath reaches up to the gorgeous shower, and cheers and claps. We all chant and call for more. The fame soon rushes to her head, and she goes back and forth, filling and refilling her bowl. She looks amused but wise.

Soon some others pop out of their flats, and more water tumbles down onto the crowds. We all applaud and call every action, like they are virtuoso musicians completing the best solo act. A small boy enthusiastically squirts his water pistol through the balcony railings... Their flat is host to a TV station with video cameras focused on the crowd.

This is true solidarity. I never knew what the word meant before, but the simple action of giving water to us deeply touched me.

A gardener leaves his hose on, poking out of the fence. I fill up my water bottle, someone half touches the end of the pipe, making it spray all over us.

Bystanders are essential for a protest march. It was naive to think we could have any affect with Genova closed for the day. Who are we protesting to? The converted.

Cancella il debito!

As ever, people associating themselves with Gandhi.

The road opens out to the coast, and I spot San Antonio Church. The atmosphere is beautiful, Mediterranean summer. The air has a touch of carnival. I see this perfect sea for the first time in a decade, and I'm blown away by its richest blue.

There's the bright red London double decker bus. Surprisingly congruous at this alien event. It's driven across Europe full of drop the debt supporters. I go and talk to them, elderly ladies who seem out of place with yesterday's death souring the summit. They've come from the parishes of England to change the world. It's only just after lunchtime, but already they're thinking of leaving, to get to Firenze (Florence) in time for dark.

At the Drop the Debt tent they give me a placard to carry. Unfortunately, the rest of the debt marchers are too far ahead, too fragmented for me to catch up. I decide it isn't worth it anyway, but it makes me despondent. My rendezvous has failed, so there is no point me being here except to observe the protest.

Things are a lot more spacious now. The road is wide, and we march along the coast. High above us police look down from a grass covered cliff. Then many near me start to shout "Assassini!" ("Murderers!") and raise one finger up at them. This is a reference to the protester who was shot dead yesterday. He was ransacking and smashing a police car which had been isolated from the others. A scared, rookie soldier inside the car shot out the window, killing him.

Calmer, open space; the nearest to a carnival atmosphere that day.

What is the point of the protesters coming here and simply shouting against the police? They aren't the real enemy. A this point the Carabinieri haven't performed their brutal raid beating up sleeping protesters; that will happen later tonight. For now, shouldn't we protesters be concentrating on telling the G8 leaders what they should be doing?

Slogans like "Free Genoa", a reference to the fortifications protecting the summit proper, and "Assassini!" don't help. They escalate conflict, and miss why most people are here. With those slogans, everything becomes self referential. These are people protesting about the response to their protests, in a self-creating spiral of hatred.

"Drop the Debt" is a much better slogan. I see no protesters actually shouting about any of the underlying issues, and feel isolated from the crowd. Guys, don't protest against, but demonstrate for!

I don't like this police goading. I don't trust the protesters or the police. I'm nervous and worried that someone will provoke a response out of someone else, and I'll get hit in the crossfire. Luckily, there are 100,000 people here and we're surely a long way from any trouble.

Tense and Nervous

People are starting to get twitchy.

Suddenly, everyone is running towards me.

Instinct takes over and I'm running too. It feels like a war zone, fear of an unknown attack. After a few seconds I realise I'm losing my companions, and that I can't see or hear anything else strange other than the running. Smoothly, we all stop and regroup. The run was just a spontaneous spasm of the crowd. Emergent behaviour, showing how highly strung everyone is. Just one or two people running for some other reason spooks everyone into running.

After a while the steady progress along the coast grinds to a halt. We're meant to be marching across Piazzale Kennedy and meeting the coaches in a different part of town. Nobody knows why we have stopped. People clamour for news from mobile phones, but the information networks seem very inefficient.

Eventually, people give in, and somehow the march is turned round. Later we learn that the police managed to split us into two, sending my group back the way we came. On our return things are more resigned. More people are nervous, and we form two chains of hands on each side of the march. These are to keep out people wearing helmets and masks.

When helicopters buzz over we now raise the palms of our hands up in peace. Who controls this change? There's no leadership, it just seems to happen. Anyway, I'm much more comfortable and join in. The TV that night describes it as the peaceful protesters "surrendering". How silly! We weren't fighting a war anyway.

Mobile Telephony

A makeshift ambulance arrives, its rear window smashed. The crowd always parts to let ambulances through.

The journey home is a fitting lesson in the joys of globalisation. We were turned back, so our pre-arranged meeting point with the coach is useless. Ever organised, the communists had planned for this.

We ring up the driver on his mobile phone, and arrange a new place to meet. As we head back, there's a whole network of mobile phone calls as we regroup. By the time we get to the coach everyone on the register has converged.

Would we really have mobiles without globalisation? George Bush was right to say that it makes no sense to be against globalisation. The globalisation of information and personal travel is superb. These protest movements wouldn't exist without it.

Originally globalisation didn't so much mean people and information, but the process by which companies and financial markets come to operate internationally. However, I don't see even that as bad. A globalised music industry is a good thing, as it enables local culture to have a broader reach.

What is bad is the manipulation of globalisation to the unfair advantage of Western corporations. They lobby and control the legislation that our governments and international organisations produce, leaving people doubtful about the power of their democracy.

What is bad is when globalisation depersonalises companies. When a company is no longer run by people, but is just a force of its own, then it is a monster to be fearful of. Who is accountable for what it does?

So you see, by bundling all our causes together, we protesters have made people think that we are all revolutionaries or fools.

Changing the World

Trudging home, weary.

After this somewhat depressing experience, the question left in my mind is how do we protest in the future? How do organisations like Drop the Debt avoid their precise, goal-directed protests from getting lost in a huge wash of anti-globalisers?

Here are some suggestions.

The G8 summit protest was very chaotic. It only added discord to the world. We need to use more postive ways of protest, which make the world a calmer place. There is hypocrisy, idiocy, greed and complacency in the world. Plenty to expose without helping society degenerate in a spiral of violence.


Roma's civilisation collapsed 1500 years ago. On the way to the G8 summit, I travelled round Italy for the first time. The Colosseum is an amazing building in Rome, a well preserved gladiatorial arena built 2000 years ago. It just stands there, part of the ancient world still alive in the midst of the modern. You can see the bricks that people, real humans, baked and built with not so long ago.

This made me realise that our Western, capitalist, globalised society is just another civilisation. At the peaceful G8 protest march the stirrings of violence and dissent showed how precarious society can be.

How many centuries will our civilisation last?

Ruins of the emperor's palace, Roma.

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