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Julz’s World: The ins and outs of Riot Tourism

Julz’s World

The ins and outs of Riot Tourism

By Julie Symons

There’s a new and thrilling way to fill your evenings in Geneva this week: participate in the latest fad, Riot Tourism!

Forget leisurely strolls along the lake, spending up large in exclusive stores, wining and dining in fancy restaurants, or watching videos. Dull, dull, dull. Why waste precious hours doing the same thing you can do every week of the year, when a real-life movie is unreeling out in the street.

Yes, the G8 summit took place in nearby Evian at the weekend, and with it came tens of thousands of protestors from around Europe, armed with juggling balls, spray paint, flags, music and lots of hard objects designed for smashing windows. The nastiest of them apparently dressed head to toe in black, and had the mission to destroy everything in sight. Their name, translated into English, meant “the Breakers”.

And though the town was eerily devoid of traffic, the curious and the voyeuristic found it hard to keep away from the war zone that was Geneva.

Normally adorned with jewellery and clothes that cost the GNP of a small third world country, most of the stores are instead boarded up so well you sometimes can’t even tell there’s a store there. McDonalds, that prime emblem of globalisation, even went so far as to remove the Golden Arches. Those shops that weren’t boarded up have fallen victim to the new style of anti-G8 window decoration, involving shattered and fragmented glass in pretty spider patterns, apparently artistic enough to encourage photographers in their hundreds to take shots. (I probably shouldn’t be sarcastic about this though because I number among them!)

Last week the downtown area was a uniform yellow colour when the boards went up. This week they’re a splash of colour and wild designs, complete with anti-G8 statements, rude comments about what Tony Blair does to your mother, even ruder opinions on George Bush generally, and the odd anti-police remark. It seems that every minority group has taken this rare opportunity to leave their mark on the walls, from lesbians who hate President Bush to teenagers with a vengeance against all the injustices of the world.

And for the local who enjoys a bit of spectator sport combined with the adrenaline rush that comes with a dose of healthy fear, this has been a fine week for Riot Tourism.

I wish I could say that I stumbled upon some trouble on Monday, but in actual fact I went looking for it. The police got wind of an unofficial protest (Swiss-speak for a protest without a permit – yes, they have laws for that here) and warned us at work to avoid certain areas of town. Naturally, with the inquisitiveness of a three year old told “Don’t touch that!”, I left work at the first opportunity and dashed straight to the expected hot-spot to share the excitement.

The problem with Riot Tourism is that rioters don’t tend to riot in the place where the police expect them. So when I turned up at the venue in question and saw only a few people milling around, I had to walk around town for an hour trying to find myself some protestors. Eventually my suspicions were aroused when a bus went past on the wrong route. I followed the usual route and found, to my immense relief, about a hundred peaceful protestors blocking a major arterial route, about three hundred police and soldiers in full riot gear, blocking their way in every direction, and an equal number of cat-calling, jeering Riot Tourists blocking the famed “Robocops” with flashing cameras. There is something wildly exhilarating about seeing a row of heavily armed riot police march down a street 30-abreast.

I hoped to witness some window smashing, tear gassing or water cannoning, all major Riot Tourism Attractions, but unfortunately I got hungry instead (well, it was 8pm by this time) and went home for dinner. I heard later that the stand-off lasted till about midnight, at which point the Robocops dispersed the crowd and everyone went home.

But the thing is, was it even worth all the bother? The various Prime Ministers and Presidents that comprise the G8 were mostly flown around by helicopter, and all the roads to Evian were closed, so they didn’t get a chance to witness the protests or see the graffiti. The Swiss must be mighty annoyed as well, seeing as they’re not even part of the G8 yet they have to foot the bill for additional police forces, riot damages, loss of income from closed shops, and so on.

The locals have had to contend with closed shops (not that it matters much anyway because all the money has been removed from ATM machines for a week), erratic buses, and the noise pollution of military helicopters flying overhead constantly. The airport was all but taken over by the army (including a good number of female soldiers, to promote equality and all that) and many flights were cancelled. The lake, normally filled with yachts on a weekend, had no-go areas patrolled by police, in case any terrorists tried to target Evian from the water. All the loose stones at roadwork sites were removed so the Breakers couldn’t use them as weapons. I’ve even heard that Evian residents were basically placed under house arrest so as not to bother the G8, but I’m not sure if that was true or not. Worst of all, the insurance companies announced they wouldn’t cover people for damage caused by protesters, which makes me feel sorry for the shop that was targeted by a molotov cocktail.

Personally I’m not really clued up on the reasoning behind the G8 summit or the protestors, and I do wonder if some of the protestors fully understood why they were there. I’m sure the protestor numbers were over-estimated, and the bulk of the “protestors” were actually Riot Tourists, like a snowball gathering more snow as it rolls down a mountain. The onlookers by their very numbers gathered even more spectators, and the over-excitable crowds ended up joining in.

My best advice to the G8 is that next time they choose an isolated venue miles from civilisation, perhaps a prison on an island somewhere, or better still get with the times and discover video conferencing. Admittedly though, this will be quite a challenge to Riot Tourism, and might kill the craze before it really takes off.

Copyright Julie Symons 2003

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