Belfast with Sunshine - Battle of Genoa (Part 1)
Belfast with Sunshine- the Battle of Genoa (Part 1)
By SWO's Joe Carolan from Belfast
My name is Joseph Carolan, I am an English Language teacher who has just returned to Ireland after living abroad in New Zealand for two years. I have been an activist with the Socialist Workers Party for eight years, fighting against homelessness, political corruption, poverty, racism and pollution wherever I've found it. I was one of over 200 Irish activists that marched, demonstrated and took part in direct action in the Italian city of Genoa in July 2001, a battle that has left a deep impression on all of us, a watershed confrontation between our movement and big capital that has changed all our lives.
People took trains, ferries, cheap air flights and hitch hiked to Genoa. I went with the Irish anti capitalist movement Globalise Resistance, on one of two busses they had put on. Globalise Resistance is a coalition of environmentalists, socialists, students, trade unionists and human rights activists, all united in their abhorrence of the excesses of the system. On the bus, we discussed the grim and startling facts- the 19,000 children in the developing world, who die each day from malnutrition and preventable diseases; a system that can spend billions of dollars on a new arms race in outer space, yet tell ordinary people there is no money for health, education or decent wages; the new slavery of IMF and World Bank debt programmes in Africa and Asia, and the unbridled power of multinational corporations like child labour Nike and poet hangers Shell, who run roughshod over human rights, environmental safeguards and labour laws in their pursuit of profit.
Although people on our bus came from different groups and perspectives, we agreed that these huge problems would never be solved by the politicians of the G8- by idiots like George Bush who tore up the Kyoto treaty for short term oil profits. We were part of a new radical movement that saw the need for fundamental change to come from below, from the grassroots, and not through the discredited and corrupt politics of old.
The bus was also great fun, full of jokes, songs and music all the way from Dublin to Genoa. African hand drums followed the jigs and reels of accordions, tin whistles and guitars; we listened to Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, Rage against the Machine and Nina Simone. Khalid from Iraq, Jean Baptiste from France and Heather from New Zealand, told us about the struggles in their countries, and how they saw this new movement as a new Internationale. We noticed we had a disproportionate amount of activists from rural Ireland, a sign that people's anger was spreading out from the main urban centres and into the sticks. So Northmen, Southmen, comrades all- Cooley, Kerry, Cork and Donegal, we formed our own solidarity group- CAC! The Culchies against Capitalism- "Localise Resistance! Counties of the World, Unite!" A hastily made banner was designed, with our symbol of the united rural anti capitalists painted in hammer and sickle fashion- the Wellington boot and the hurley stick. Give G8 the Welly, our slogan!
After days of travel, we at last arrived in Genoa, where we were greeted by a young woman from the Genoa Social Forum, who were organising campsites, food, accommodation and festivities, as well as all the debates, discussions, demonstrations and direct action over the next few days. We got a taste of how things would go when she told us that a bomb had just exploded in the police station, injuring a cop.
"This is certainly the work of extreme right wing elements within the police themselves, part of a strategy of tension which will justify heavy handed tactics against the movement in the next few days" she told us. A debate about violence broke out on the bus- people from Northern Ireland discussed the many dirty tricks the British army had used that were common knowledge there. For my part, I recounted the story of the Bologna train station bombing in 1977, where over 80 people were murdered and hundreds horribly injured- the Omagh of Italy. The Italian radical left got the blame, and were subject to murder, long prison sentences and political suppression. Years later the truth came out, as it always will. The bomb was the work of extreme right wingers and fascists who were terrified of the upsurge in workers and youth struggle. They were sanctioned in their actions by police chiefs, big business and establishment politicians, who were organised in a shadowy group called P2 . I remembered the quote from the father in Dario Fo's famous play, the Accidental Death of an Anarchist- "The sons of Mussolini are still with us". We were to learn just how dirty the Italian far right can play when they are under threat.
Our camp site was set up, our cluster of tents nestling under the red flag, an Irish flag with the anarchist symbol in the middle, and the Aboriginal flag of Australia I had brought back. Camp Culchie it was soon christened, with its Via Larkin and its Via Connolly, pride of place going to the Piazza del Peadar O Donnell, where all meetings, councils, debates and drink ups were had. Around us were similar clusters of German anarchists, French trade unionists, Scottish socialists, Greek Greens. Many joined us that night at our campfire chorus of rebel songs, flavoured by the many international songs of labour- Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, Bandeira Rossa and Bella Chow. We slept sound, exhausted by our bus ride.
The next morning, the harassment began. Adrienne, a Dubliner, went down to the local shops to get some hang sangwiches for the starving culchies. For travelling on her own, she spend seven hours in a police cell. Chuck D's words became emblazoned in our instincts- "Move as a team, never move alone- welcome to the Terrordome".
Later that evening, more horror stories filtered back. Liz, an American woman, had been held for eight hours, strip searched, and made urinate in a bucket in front of twenty paramilitary Carbineri. She had gone to buy dust masks to help filter out tear gas- she received a three year suspended court case for having a Swiss army knife in her rucksack. We were aware that elements of the cops were targeting women they deemed attractive. Everyone began forming their close knit, eight person affinity groups- solidarity cells that moved together, that had first aid supplies, vinegar and lemon for the tear gas, a mobile phone with an English speaking lawyer's number, who would act as each other's eyes in the thick of it.
Travelling together, we got the lay of the land, and explored the streets, hills and beaches of Genoa. We stocked up on olives, cheese, salami, pesto, bread and wine- most shops were closing down that night. We visited the Indymedia centre, bustling with hundreds of photographers, sound recordists, video activists and old fashioned text journalists like myself. I got internet access after an hour sorting out accreditation, and fired off a quick email to friends and comrades around the world. It was the last time I'd see a computer in a week.
In the afternoon, we prepared for the first big action of the Social Forum, a march in solidarity with refugees and immigrant workers in Italy. The organisers were expecting this to be small, five thousand or so. In the end, there were sixty thousand of us, feeling the power and joy of being in a mass movement together. Borders and immigration controls had become all too real for us in the last 48 hours- the Globalise Resistance train from Britain had been cancelled by the French Minister of Transport. Comrades from Greece were also facing baton charges at the ferry ports. So it was with passion and vigour our voices soared through the streets of Genova-
"Hoch, Di! Internationale Solidarite! La blanc, la noir, la lutteensemble! Black and White, Unite and fight- smash the nazis, smash the right!" Refugees from Kurdistan, the Balkans, Africa and Iran were given a heroes welcome, Genoese grannies, mums and hardhat workers cheering us from their apartment balconies, waving red flags, holding up pictures of Che and Gramsci, holding up their hands in signs of victory, peace and the clenched fist of struggle. Electricity flooded through the huge march, bringing a powerful sense of history to the streets… "No Borders, no frontiers! Refugees are welcome here! We are the power! We are the power!"
Globalise Resistance sat down before an underground motorway tunnel, as did thousands behind us. Carefully, we all raised our voices from low bass to a joyful roar, slowly ascending to our feet until, with a jump, hundreds of us charged Braveheart style into the tunnel. The echo was deafening, exhilarating. "They make misery- we make history!" Everywhere, people were gasping, smiling, laughing- We were feeling the power of our mass movement, and it released all the fears and paranoia we had felt when the Carbineri were picking us off in ones and twos. We were ready for the battle.
As we came back down a hill towards the Covergence centre on the seafront, we saw the ugly reality of Fortress Europe. For days, the police had been building huge walls of metal transport containers, sealing off the forbidden centre of the city, the "Red Zone". It was a symbol of the Europe of exclusion they were creating, one that brutalised and scapegoated asylum seekers. They proclaim their globalisation, a world where big capital and multinationals can fly from country to country without hinderance- no borders for the wealthy and powerful. Yet to those facing starvation, famine, war and oppression in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, refuge and sanctuary are denied. Comrades from Globalise Resistance moved to the metal wall, and began a slow banging thud against it. Within minutes, thousands of hands and fists were pounding against it, to the chorus of "tear down the walls". Berlin 1989, the politicians celebrated the triumph of democracy. Now, in Seattle, Prague, Melbourne, Quebec and Genoa, it is they who cower behind fences and walls, shutting us out. The metallic pounding noise was ominous, a sound of the determination to enter the red zone the next day. We talked about Berlin, how walls could come down, how we would tackle the fence. Charged, we re entered the convergence centre, and sat down to a feast fit for Celtic warriors. "Tear down the walls!"
I met some old friends from Ireland I hadn't seen in nearly two years. Eamonn was a documentary film maker that I had made some short films for Irish TV with- he had organised four video crews to film different parts of the march, and wanted me to film the "Red Block". Each part of the movement had its own colour- Pinks for the fluffies, Black for the anarchists, Red for the socialists and trade unionists, etc etc. Eamonn put me on camera straight away, asking me what tactics were best for the assault on the Red Zone. I was still fresh to Genoa, and only learning of the many splits and divisions within the Italian left. Specialised "professional" demonstrators like Ya Basta! were armed with hard hats, protective padding and gas masks, and were going to attempt to break through police lines at the Hammer Head, the frontline streets of the Red Zone near the Piazza del la Vittoria. Other groups like the anarchist Black Blocks were going for a full scale attack just to the north. Rank and file trade union groups and breakaway "red" unions like COBAS and SUB had called a general strike, and were to march from the forbidden west of the red zone. Pacifists like the French group ATTAC and Drop the Debt were rallying on the fringes of the forbidden zone, then playing it by ear. I also learned of the Zone of Civil Disobedience, where three thousand Catholic nuns were on hunger strike in solidarity with the starving of the "developing" world.
Eamonn seemed pleased that the groups were split into different zones of attack, that this tactic was a reflection of the medieval nature of the city and the siege. Globalise Resistance, however, were arguing for a united rallying point to begin from, one that would show the size of the movement and one that would show the unity of purpose between the different ideologies commited to direct action. We argued that smaller rallying points could be easily cut off by the forces ranged against us- 18,000 heavily armed riot cops, 4,000 soldiers- teargas, pepper spray, helicopters, tanks, water cannon, and, in the end, live bullets. The media and politicians would also try and drive a wedge between the so called "pacifists" and "violent" demonstrators once the clampdown began.
We were joined in the discussion by a Canadian revolutionary, Lee, who had been at the frontline at the Wall of Shame in Quebec, just weeks beforehand. He talked about how the direct action kids of the Black Bloc had been joined by a huge breakaway section of Canadian labour, in particular steel and auto workers. This was the unity in Genoa that socialists wanted to see- the thousands of Genoese workers who were joining the general strike joining the direct action of the anti capitalist youth. This was in contrast to the professionalised elitism of Ya Basta!, who were treating the assault on the Red Zone like a home game, on their territory. Unable to win the argument, GR planned to march from the Convergence centre, with steel workers from FIOM, the French ATTAC, and thousands of revolutionaries from the International Socialist Tendency. We would go to the south of the hammer head, through the arches of the Piazza de la Vittoria. The lack of unity in terms of tactics and a joint assault already had me sceptical of our chances of success, and worried about the scale of murderous repression we faced. However, on the plus side, we learned that the Globalise Resistance train from Britain would get through France after all, with the rail workers there threatening nationwide strike unless protestors were allowed their democratic rights and freedom of travel. So, after a few celebratory glasses of wine, we formed into affinity groups, and headed back for our respective camp sites. Dust masks, bandanas, goggles and vinegar were prepared for the morning's tear gas.
That night, there was no singing in Camp Culchie. It was a dark moon, and heavy rumbles of thunder hung over the air. Eventually, it exploded in bursts of lightning and torrents of hot rain, all of us huddling under canvas of electric blue flashes. The more environmental part of GR saw it as an omen, some sort of Shakespearean natural phallacy. Little did we know how accurate their divinations would be.
INTO THE REDZONE
Rolecall 8.30am Camp Culchie. Affinity groups prepared, protective gear checked out. We elected our steward, the incorrugible "Uncle" Brendan O Donoghue, who had kept us all laughing and giggling all the way here. Brendan was our platoon representative, he would co ordinate with the stewards at the front and back. We were commited to upper middle left of the Red Bloc. Linking arms, we set off from the Covergence centre at 12.30, waiting until ATTAC and other groups rallied with us.
There were thousands of cops, the sun glinting on their visors. All of them carried heavy clubs and batons, many wore Darh Vader style gasmasks. Many carried guns, some had machine guns. APCs, Jeeps and several tanks were lined up in rows. Helicopters chugged overhead without stop. Now we felt the surge of fear, the anticipation of conflict. It was clear which side would be cracking heads.
We moved out, huge lines of fifty, arms linked together. I had been on the picket lines of S11 at Melbourne, and braved the horses and batons of the Victorian police force. But this was different- this was medieval siege warfare, and like roman soldiers linking their shields together, we tightened up, closed the gaps, moved left and right in synchronicity. As we moved up the Avenue of the Partisans, we saw another huge barricade of metal containers, with thousands more riot cops behind it. We were outnumbered already-Ya Basta were still nowhere near the Hammer Head. I had a feeling they were still fighting their way out of their stadium, miles away. ATTAC peeled off to march to their rallying point, a piazza in front of a beautiful Renaissance church.
We went through an Arc de Triumph at the Square, and entered the deathly silent red zone. The commercial centre was boarded up, deserted, empty. Turning right, we went down a pedestrianised street up onto the five metre high fence that marked the forbidden zone. Behind it were hundreds more riot cops, and two huge water cannon trucks.
Up went the shout, and we charged against the fence. Within minutes, comrades had scaled the left flank, and using equipment, ripped out a huge grill of the metal grid. The water cannon blasted at the comrades on the top, but to the roar of the crowd, they held their stance, and flung the grill down. It looked as if this fence could come down after all!
In the exhilaration, people moved forwards. People danced in the water cannon, cooling off from the midday sun. Roars of "One solution- Revolution!" went up from the International Socialists. As the left flank of the fence began to keel and sway, it looked like we would achieve our break through.
By this stage, our affinity group had moved to the right flank, where through an archway, we could see riot police advancing up a perpendicular street. We roared at Uncle Brendan about the imminent danger, but with the noise and roars of the excitement up front, and the huge groan of the water cannon, he couldn't contact stewards ahead of us. Suddenly the cops were charging down the street, batons held high overhead. We broke the sticks of the Culchies against Capitalism banner, so we would have something to fend off the batons with. Screams went up- "Form your lines! Form your lines!" I looked around, linked arms, still wearing a rucksack of food and water for our affinity group. Its weight pulled me back, as my arms were tugged by the line.
Thud. Thwack. Thud. Thud. The sound of plastic coated steel batons being driven down on people's flesh. Screams. The smell of fear. Darth Vader cops only inches away, pummelling into the line in front of me. "Get your head down, Joe!" shouted someone. I saw Terry get four or five in a row, as we retreated. The people who were at the front of the fence were getting pummelled, but had formed lines. The lines let us stand our ground, and the panicked rush subsided. No arrests- the injured were moved back to the ambulances. People were terrified and furious now.
As we were regrouping, and started to chant, we were baton charged again. People at the front rightly split as fast as they could. We turned the corner, we were going back through the Arc of Triumph and into the Piazza Della Vittoria. That was when I got my first mouthful of teargas.
I had heard the bang of plastic bullets in Derry before, but never the acrid burning taste of CS gas. We masked up pretty quickly in our affinity group, dust mask, red bandana and a pair of kids swimming goggles several times too small for me. They worked a treat, nothing could get near my eyes. All around me, I could see people in other lines who didn't mask up in time coughing and spluttering, their eyes and nostrils on fire. It looked like we were now moving out of the Hammer Head, we were going up the hill to try another approach. We would need to hook up with ATTAC, our numbers were not enough to sustain repeated baton charges on our own.
We washed out our comrades eyes with vinegar, brushing the active agents away from the nose. People gurgled water and spat it out, rather than swallow it. The red bandanas we wore had stopped the worst effects of the gas, giving new impetus to our rendition of the Italian revolutionary song, Bandiera Rossa. On the whole, we were still unbowed, Chris Bambery from the British SWP cracking in his Glaswegian accent that "Teargas is a pieche o pish! Ye get immune to it no problem!"
Coming down the hill, we could now see clouds of black smoke coming up from the city. This was probably around the Brignole Train Station, where the anarchists of the Black Bloc were engaging police lines, forming barricades with cars they had set alight. The most violent clashes would happen in this area, to the North of the Hammer Head, and it would be in this area a few hours later that Carlo Giuliani would be murdered.
Coming down the hill, our way was blocked by APCs and a huge phalanx of riot cops. We moved up, as this was not in the forbidden Red Zone. Suddenly, another phalanx cut off the top of the hill. We moved back to hold an escape route down a perpendicular street, but we were now firmly sandwiched between two heavily armed Blue Blocs. We would have to negotiate our way out.
The stand off was tense, lasting maybe half an hour. We told the cops we were meeting ATTAC up at the Renaissance Church, which would take us out of the frontline. People were preparing for the worst, expecting a bloody baton charge at any time. Lines were tight, gaps were non-existent. We were coming to realise that in a war, an army needs self discipline. If negotiations failed and we needed to break through, it would be tough.
Eventually, Chris Bambery came back from the no man's land where negotiators had met the cop commanders. They would give us access through a thin lane which would lead us out near the Renaissance Church. The Culchies quickly dubbed it Suicide Alley. Some people were so scared they were holding their hands above their heads as they walked between police lines. "Get your f*cking hands down!" said Bambery.
We were moving up, when suddenly this cop let a girl have his baton on her skull. Roars went out. "No provocation! No provocation!" shouted stewards. Then I saw one of the weirdest sites of the day- cops batoning each other….!
The girl had said something to the cop, and he'd laid into her. His colleagues had tried to stop him, putting their hands on his shoulders. He thought they were other demonstrators, and span around, letting them have it in the head. They laid straight back into him. These guys were unstable, highly amped and hyped up. They reminded me of bouncers on steroids outside Dublin nightclubs. Berlusconi's bouncers.
There was almost certainly huge divisions in the cop force, between Genovese and outside cops, between the right wingers and the more extreme neo fascists, between the young and the old. We learned that over 40% of the police force voted for the extreme right wing National Alliance, led by "post fascist" Fini, now in the government. Many of these guys were nazis in a blue uniform, and we heard stories later on of prisoners being beaten in police cells until they said "Viva Il Duce". The sons of Mussolini were right in front of us.
When we got to the square in front of the Renaissance Church, there was a huge gasp of relief. Comrades showed us the welts of the batons, skin already turning black and blue. GR and the IST got a huge roar from the ATTAC possee, there were hundreds of Italians clapping and flashing us Victory signs. We sat down, drank some water, and I got out the food supplies from my rucksack. I met more comrades from Ireland I hadn't seen in years- they told me that the rightwing Irish Independent had run a front page story claiming that Culchies Against Capitalism were marching into battle with hurley sticks! I replied that they had got their facts wrong- we were in fact carrying records by Red Hurley, a chronic Country and Western singer from the ould sod, but that use of such a fearsome weapon was clearly banned by the Geneva convention and we were only carrying them as a deterrent! Still and all, this was indicative of how the Irish establishment media were hyping up violence, to the detriment of discussing the issues behind the demonstrations.
Students in Action, an Italian sound system, blasted out Public Enemy and Rage. A brass band played the Internationale, Bandiera Rossa and a beautiful song called Bella Chow. This song captivated me from the first time I heard it the day before on the Refugees march. It tells the story of a young partisan, who is saying goodbye to his lover before taking to the hills. He sings about the new Italy and the love they'll have when the fascists are defeated. The Italians sang it with such joy and passion that it moved us deeply. You become aware that these people suffered fascism for decades under Mussolini, and in the end, took up arms and drove the blackshirt filth out. It was the background soundtrack for that heady day on the barricades.
Refreshed and regrouped, we were ready for the Red Zone again. Refoundiazione Communista, a left wing breakaway from the old Italian Communist Party, and the Verdi (Italian Greens) rallied with us. We were heading down a hill that would lead us to a huge fence of the Red Zone, underneath the towers of a huge medieval castle. We readied our masks and goggles, formed our lines, and went down the hill, our numbers quadrupled. The area we were approaching was a designated "pacifist" zone, but runners had told us that the fence was getting an almighty hiding, and that water cannon was being used. Green, red and black flags flew in the sunshine, as we joined the fray underneath the castle. Here, the revolt had truly begun.
For a length of about a hundred metres, the wall was under erosive attack. People were pulling at it with ropes, pushing the edges of the metal grill apart with placards and levers. Pacifists banged on the walls with plastic bottles as brave individuals scaled up the five metres and hung banners and flags from the top. One comrade wrapped in a Palestinian shroud was using his body to shake the fence over and back, weaking the bottom concrete structure. Another bare chested Italian rasta planted a Bob Marley freedom flag on the top of the fence, to a deafening cheer. Again, the parallels with the fall of the Berlin Wall sprang into my mind. Irish comrades ran to me from another part, telling me the base of the wall down their end had cracked. Near us, there was a space where just one person could squeeze through the fence. Whistles, horns and chants were blaring.
There followed a series of deafening bangs, and then silence. Suddenly, the gas was on us, people gasping and choking. More rained down, one hitting Heather on the leg. People masked up as soon as they could, but we had been caught off guard. Another series of bangs, and the gas hung heavy. Reluctantly, people retreated, and the water cannon came. A make shift barricade was thrown together to hold the rear against baton charges, as the mass headed back up to the Renaissance Church. Small arguments at this point between direct actionists and pacifists about returning to tear the wall down completely, before reinforcements of riot cops finished the argument. A huge rally outside the Renaissance Church resolved to march to the Covergence Centre, which was now under siege and being tear gassed. This was supposed to be off limits.
There were now some huge billowing columns of thick black smoke pouring skywards from the old city. The fighting around Station Brigniole was thick and heavy- some say that it was around this time Carlo Giuliani was killed. We had to reinforce the comrades at the Convergence Centre, and defend the Genoa Social Forum. We learned that the streets around it had been absolutely devastated, with hand to hand fighting between the Black and Blue Blocs.
The march to the Convergence centre was massive, the cops noticeably retreating from its confidence and combativity. When we got down from the Avenue of the Partisans and onto the Piazza Del Kennedy where the Convergence Centre was, we were stunned at the level of conflict. The Intifada had come to Genova.
The cops had retreated from the Centre, but not without gassing and baton charges galore before they pulled out. We took control of the perimeter, and I went with comrades to explore the battle zone. Graffitti everywhere. Windows smashed, small working class cars overturned and burned out as barricades. The road was smashed up (what could do this- a tank?). And the rumours, the rumours. Everywhere, rumours. They've killed someone. A Spanish guy. And a French girl. She was fifteen. Another person. You stopped believing it unless it came from someone you knew. Finally, the truth confirmed. Carlo Giuliani, the son of a well known Genoese trade unionist, in a group called Punkabestia, the Animal punks. He had been shot through the head and a landrover had driven over his body. Around 5.30pm, just an hour or so beforehand.
Everybody's faces changed. Something else, heavier, was now about. They had used bullets again, like in Gothenburg, but this time with fatal accuracy. We stayed in the Convergence Centre, many people having a pint, sad songs being sang in a dozen languages. We learned about the other groups, how Ya Basta had been held at the yellow zone, how the Black Blocs had been infiltrated by agent provocateurs who acted with impunity. Horror stories about arrests and treatment in the prisons were now flooding in- and Globalise Resistance Ireland had to take a vote. Would we try and return to Camp Culchie, or listen to what the Genoa social Forum were warning everybody about. We voted with the GSF, we would sleep on the concrete of the GSF with the masses. At least there was protection in numbers.
That night, myself and some GR comrades made a banner to carry at the front of the united Irish contingent. In our history, we knew the use of bullets against demonstrators.
We Shall Overcome
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