Journal from Genoa

The former executive director of Reno’s Theater Coalition joined G-8 protesters in Italy this summer; here’s what she saw

Photo By Maija Talso

First of all, this is not a story of Molotov cocktails or deep global issues; if you wanted that, you probably got a smattering on the TV news and a slightly more considered analysis on National Public Radio. No, this is just me taking advantage of an opportunity to do something new and spend a little time with my Italian friends.

I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even know there was a G-8 summit, much less that it was going to be in Italy. All over Europe, trains and buses were arranged to take demonstrators down to Genoa. My informal poll of the people I was with showed that they either had a specific issue that got them going, like debt relief for developing nations or the environment; they wanted to be part of the history-making general protest against the idea that the “Great Eight” can decide things for the rest of the world; or they just wanted to see how this sort of demonstration happens.

The train we took from Ancona was an extraordinaria, a special train just for Genoa that picked up a total of about 1,200 demonstrators. At both ends of the trip, and most stops in between, the train stations were thick with carabinieri (police). On our train, many protesters came prepared to practice civil disobedience—and a few did look capable of violence—but mostly it felt like a rally.

On Thursday, we made our way downtown to Piazzale Kennedy, a longer trip than normal because much of the city center was barricaded off in a Red Zone, la Zona Rossa. The Italian press said most of the barricades had to do with threats to George W. Bush.Italian prime minister Berlusconi also raised a few hackles by telling people they couldn’t hang their laundry outside—as if any of the eight world leaders were really going to be outside long enough to even see the streets! Some of the demonstrators carried clotheslines with hanging underwear to make their feelings known.

Piazzale Kennedy on that first day had a real Burning Man feel, with hacky-sack and soccer players, a sculpture artist, music, pizzas for a price determined by the customer, free sandwiches and water at Bar Clandestino. Members of protest groups and the coordinating organization formed for the event, the Genoa Social Forum, manned information booths.

The Immigrant March started at 5 p.m. in a ridiculously small piazza considering the estimated 50,000 people who showed up, so the beginning was rather chaotic. The purpose, as I understood it, was to promote open borders and the right to work throughout the world. The realities of immigrant life precluded having many actually in the march, so most of the demonstrators were promoting the same anti-G-8 issues they would be promoting the entire weekend. About 16,000 police in town certainly kept an eye on things, but the most that they had to deal with this day were hundreds of people chanting “Siamo-tutti clan-des-tini! Siamo-tutti clan-des-tini!” ("We are all illegal immigrants.")

On Friday, protests were supposed to happen at different places along the Red Zone. The pacifistic groups met at one point, the more political groups met at Piazza Dante and the anarchists were supposedly meeting at the Cardini stadium. I wanted to go to the political point, but ended up at the “pacifist” demonstration, which was definitely peaceful. They tried a sit-in, but “anarchists” like me—I really don’t consider myself one—kept refusing to cooperate. Two or three times, people started running from the barricades because of something that was happening; that was typical for the whole two days. We’d never really know what was going on even two blocks away, much less in other parts of the city.

Finally, I convinced my group of friends to walk with me around to Piazza Dante. Streets were blocked off with wire fencing, and many police were watching from the inside. These parts of the city were totally quiet—no residents or businesses open, no one at all except us.

When we got to Piazza Dante, however, we found the political demonstrators. There was a theater group performing. A lot of people hit on the barricades, calling and chanting “Genoa–Liberà!” Others, like us, just watched. At one point, one of the groups threw giant balloons over the barricades written with slogans about debt reduction and other issues.

As things went along, I walked up to the barricades to see what was happening, just as some of the stupider people started to throw bottles and other things over the fence at the police. A few people climbed the walls, and the police started spraying them with high-powered hoses—and tear gas, as we could see by several people who came to where we were standing by the first-aid station. This seemed like a bit of an overreaction to me even at the time.

About 4:30 p.m., Vittorio Agnoletto, a spokesperson for the Genoa Social Forum, appeared and shouted to us all that we were going to form a corteo and march peacefully back to Piazzale Kennedy, which we did. But when we arrived there, friends had news that an English girl had been killed by tear gas. Then we heard that another boy had been killed.

During a 6:30 p.m. press conference, police helicopters were everywhere. A fire, maybe a tire, burned right outside the Piazzale. The microphones were opened up on the main stage, and people really began to call the police “asasini.” All of us had a moment of silence for the ones who were killed, and we even sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Friends heard that one of the new TV stations was going to do a live broadcast to discuss what had happened, with a panel of people from both the government side and the demonstrators. We got prime seats on the asphalt, but when the first guest, the mayor of Genoa, started to speak, he was shouted down by screaming people from outside the broadcast area. Then the moderator took a break and came back to speak with people from the protest groups, and two girls ran up on the stage and started screaming at him to talk to the crowd, not the leadership—at which point the whole thing was stopped. We decided to go home.

That night we stayed up late watching the news and found out that there was really only (only!) one person killed, Carlo Giuliani, and we saw some of what the police and Black Bloc anarchists had been doing in other parts of the city.

On Saturday, we drove down to where the biggest march of the weekend was supposed to begin, and it was huge. At first it was really fun and exciting. There were old people, children and demonstrators. We had a great time getting water thrown down on us by Genovese people from their balconies, trying to cool us off in the hot sun.

But as we came around the corner and started walking along the ocean, Corso Italia, things started to get a little more complicated. At one point, we could see police up on the hillside watching, and I don’t have any idea why, but the police shot some tear gas into a group across the street from us. We walked a little further, and every 10 minutes or so, people from the front of the corteo would start running back toward us. Eventually we decided that it wasn’t a good idea to keep moving forward.

We were sitting around resting and talking, when suddenly the entire corteo was moving back toward where we started, instead of going on to finish the march. When we looked back, we could see smoke from fires and tear gas. We were told that Piazzale Kennedy was closed. So for the rest of the afternoon, we walked back to where we started, with no idea what was going on.

Back at a friend’s home, we watched the news and stayed up talking about it all until 3 a.m., me with dictionary in hand. Samples from my Genoa glossary: casino (mess), divisa (uniform), mazza (bat), ferito/a (wounded), urlare (shout), teppisti (hooligans), sfaciare (shatter), sfrenare (let loose, as in violence), uccidere (kill), imponente (imposing—as in the corteo of 200,000 of peaceful marchers who got hardly any mention in the press, not to mention a photo).

Sunday morning, we found out that the Genoa Social Forum press headquarters had been raided. We saw what really happened at Piazzale Kennedy, how the police had decided to break the corteo in the middle and how many peaceful marchers and journalists were beaten and tear gassed 500 meters from where we stopped walking.

Like probably 99 percent of the people who were there, we were peaceful, interested in the issues and completely ignorant of most of the violence until after the fact. Then, unfortunately, the violence became the issue.

Maija Talso, former executive director of Reno’s Theater Coalition, is living at a work camp in a French village. This journal is an excerpt of a much longer piece that she sent to us via e-mail from Europe.