The Genoa Protests: Democracy at the Barricades

by Susan George


[As part of our continuing coverage of discussion around the events in Genoa we are posting this article for the information of our readers. The author is vice-chair of the anti-globalization organization Attac France; she is the author of two books: Rapport Lugano (Paris: Fayard, 2000) and Remettre l’OMC à sa place (“Putting the WTO in Its Place”) (Paris: Mille et Une Nuits, 2001). This is an edited version of the translation by Barbara Wilson posted by Le Monde Diplomatique.]

Heads of state were besieged in July in Genoa. They talked trade and money inside a guarded, if luxurious, compound, while outside the Italian carabinieri confronted demonstrators, only a few of whom were violent. Results: news footage of handshakes and governmental agreements, their details already forgotten — and of an unwarranted death, 600 injuries, beatings, and frustration. The next talks will be in the safe enclave of Qatar.

After the disgrace of Genoa, multinationals and European and international institutions targeted by “anti-globalizers” have a recurrent problem: how to discredit, weaken, manipulate, and, if possible, annihilate the international citizens’ movement which has disturbed the gatherings of the masters of the universe since Seattle. Police retaliation and direct repression are the most obvious weapons in the anti-anti-globalizer armory. This April, spring in Quebec smelled of tear gas: the official figure for the number of canisters fired against anti-FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) [1] demonstrators was 4,707—“excessive” according to a committee set up by the government of Québec [2]. Asked by doctors about chemical components and propulsion agents, the authorities professed ignorance: “We only do testing in terms of how effective the gas is on people” [3].

In Europe, too, the use of force and manipulation has reached new extremes. In Göteborg, during the demonstrations at the summit meeting of heads of state and government of the European Union in June, the Swedish police used live ammunition. In Barcelona, on June 22, where forums and demonstrations went ahead although the World Bank had retreated from holding its new economics conference, plainclothes police infiltrated the end of the march, vandalized property, and attacked uniformed officers to provoke them into violent reprisals against demonstrators and journalists.

In Genoa, the Italian police went further: one dead, more than 600 injured, hundreds of arbitrary arrests, and a real political plot. There is evidence of complicity between the authorities and gangs of “Black Bloc” agents-provocateurs that damaged parts of the city [4].

But force seems to have little effect, so the authorities are resorting to legal harassment. A leading member of the Ruckus Society [5], known for its training sessions in non-violence to prepare for occasions like Seattle, was picked up on the streets of Philadelphia the day after demonstrations at the Republican Party convention. He was questioned for six hours by an officer who cheerfully admitted that he had orders to “dump a bunch of shit on his booking papers” [6], indicted on 13 counts and (unprecedented for such minor offences) required to put up bail of $1 million.

Wrongful arrest, intimidation, ill treatment of detainees, and closing meetings “as a preventive measure” are common wherever opponents of globalization meet. For evidence, visit one of the independent, decentralized Indymedia websites [7] that are causing headaches in Washington. On the day of the big demonstration in Québec, FBI and U.S. secret service agents appeared at the Indymedia office in Seattle with court orders requiring it to disclose the names and e-mail addresses of everyone who had visited the site in the previous 48 hours — several thousand people. This was in flagrant violation of rights guaranteed under the U.S. constitution [8]. In Genoa, on the night of July 21–22, carabinieri raided the alternative media center without a warrant, beat and arrested people, and claimed they were looking for evidence of infiltration by “rioters.”

Throughout Europe, governments have shown they have no compunction about taking liberties with the law. In December 2000 an attempt was made to reduce the scale of the demonstrations against liberal policies pursued by the EU. At a European Council meeting in Nice, 1,500 Italian nationals were held at the Franco-Italian border although they had valid tickets and passports. In January 2001 Swiss authorities blocked all
access roads to Davos, transforming the region into a military stronghold. The Italian government suspended the Schengen agreement [allowing free travel in the European Union] for four days in a vain attempt to prevent demonstrators from other countries congregating in Genoa.

The Backlash

There is a serious ideological backlash, too. How can the powers regroup after a fiasco like Seattle? The first ploy is to accuse opponents of being “enemies of the poor,” a ploy used by London’s Financial Times and The Economist, and by Mike Moore, director-general of the World Trade Organization, who said in Geneva “these protesters make me want to vomit.”

Paul Krugman, economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and media darling, added: “The anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.” Of the demonstrators in Geneva, he said: “Whatever their intentions, they were doing their best to make the poor even poorer” [9].

President George W. Bush took up the theme on the eve of Genoa, in a statement to Le Monde: “The demonstrators are condemning people to poverty.”

In its first issue after Seattle, The Economist tried a second argument. Faced with the success of the NGOs, it claimed that they “represented a dangerous shift of power to unelected and unaccountable special interest groups.” The alleged lack of legitimacy of the “anti-globalizers” has been a constant complaint in business circles since the publication of the Geneva Business Declaration in September 1998, an outcome of a dialogue organized by Helmut Maucher, then president of the International Chamber of Commerce (also chairman and managing director of Nestlé and president of the Round Table of European industrialists), and the UN secretary-general.

The declaration said that: “Activist pressure groups should place emphasis on legitimizing themselves. Where this does not happen, rules establishing their rights and responsibilities should be considered. Business is accustomed to working with trade unions, consumer organizations, and other representative groups that are responsible, credible, transparent, and accountable, and consequently command respect. What we question is the proliferation of activist groups that do not accept these self-disciplinary criteria.”


The third ploy is to repeat that the protesters don’t know what they are talking about, to label them and their organizations “opportunist” or “alarmist.” Their ideas and opinions are described as “disinformation,” “blatant lies,” and “nonsense.” Thomas Friedman of the New York Times says opponents of neo-liberalism are “despicable [and] deserve a slap in the face” [10]. The Financial Times, mildly threatening, says that if the advance of globalization’s foes is to be halted, “now is the time to draw a line in the sand” [11]. But what happens if the “self-discipline” is not forthcoming, if no one takes any notice of the “line in the sand,” and the opposition continues to “talk nonsense”? A great many people are considering this.

In the Middle of the Desert

In March 2000 the Cordell Hull Institute in Washington [12], a pro-free-trade think tank, ran a seminar “After Seattle: restoring momentum to the WTO.” Of the 50 participants — senior civil servants, government ministers, advisers to big firms, ambassadors — only two represented NGOs. One, scandalized by the proceedings, posted an account of them on the Internet [13]. The meeting had been less concerned with the WTO than with
finding ways to silence the opposition. Cecil Parkinson, who had been British minister for trade in the government of Margaret Thatcher, began by saying they must never have another WTO meeting on U.S. soil, as it was far too easy to organize protests there.

Clayton Yeutter, former U.S. secretary of agriculture, agreed. They should choose a place where “security could be assured” and give little advance notice to “keep the protesters off balance.”

The Brazilian foreign minister favored holding the next meeting “in the middle of the desert” — which is more or less what will happen in November when the WTO conference meets in Qatar — or “on a cruise ship.” In fact, the G-8 summit in 2002 will be held in a nearly inaccessible place in the Canadian Rockies. To general applause, he then passionately defended child labor: children in Brazil helped their families by earning a few reales hauling bags of coal from depot to steelworks.

A senior U.S. civil servant suggested they should “give the NGOs some other sandbox to play in”: they could be told to take their concerns to the International Labour Organisation, which has no powers.

Another senior U.S. civil servant, keen to “delegitimize the NGOs,” suggested persuading the foundations that fund them to turn off the tap. That would force them to back down.

And whatever the real reasons, the most important American foundations are changing their approach. According to reliable sources — who prefer to remain anonymous — think tanks and organizations opposed to globalization are beginning to be denied resources. Also, and unusually, the presidents of major foundations are personally monitoring allocations of funds by their program managers in cases where, in the past, they have funded groups in the Seattle constellation. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations now favor think tanks like the Economic Strategy Institute, whose president is a former adviser to Ronald Reagan and whose list of donors reads like a Who’s Who for the world of U.S. transnational corporations [14].

Electronic surveillance is another powerful business weapon. The eWatch company  [15]. illustrates capitalism’s ability to profit from anything, including the activities of those who question its supremacy. This subsidiary of a public relations company offers to monitor everything on the net about its corporate subscribers, checking not only the media, but also a database of 15,000 on-line public discussion groups and 40,000 newsgroups. For an annual fee of $3,600–$16,200, “you can monitor the competition, government regulators, activists, opposition groups, and anything else that impacts your business.”

Cheap at the Price

Such tactics are not expected. And maybe they prove that the opponents of corporate-led globalization are having a real impact. Otherwise, why would the masters of the universe bother with them?

But that is to underestimate the importance international capital attaches to this battle. Its hatred of democracy has never been so clearly displayed. It must, by fair means or foul, establish the legitimacy of its domination before any more shocks. (From this point of view, for the capitalists, the elections of Bush and of Silvio Berlusconi are heaven-sent.) Social movements have to watch their step now, especially since Genoa. They are entering a minefield.


[1] See “Chasing the holy grail of free trade,” Le Monde diplomatique (English edition),
April 2001.

[2] Toronto Star, May 3, 2001, quoting official sources.

[3] Quoted by Cathy Walker, national health and safety director of the Canadian
Auto Workers union (CAW), in Now magazine (Toronto), May 17–23, 2001.

[4] A churchman, Don Vitallano Della Sala, reports having seen Black Bloc members
emerging from a police van (La Repubblica, July 22, 2001; Le Monde, July 24, 2001).

[5] See Bruno Basini, “Avec les maquisards anti-mondialisation,” L’Expansion, Paris,
June 7, 2001.

[6] Personal statement by John Sellers.

[7] www.france.indymedia.org and www.indymedia.org.

[8] Communiqué issued by the Seattle Independent Media Center, April 27, 2001.

[9] Paul Krugman, “Why sentimental anti-globalizers have it wrong,” International
Herald Tribune
, April 23, 2001.

[10] New York Times, April 19, 2000.

[11] Financial Times, April 19, 2001.

[12] The Cordell Hull Institute is one of the American partners of the Institut français de
relations internationales (Ifri).

[13] Bruce Silverglade, Center for Science in the Public Interest, “How the International
Trade Establishment Plans to Defeat Attempts to Reform the WTO,” electronic message, April 5, 2000.

[14] See www.econstrat.org, in particular announcements of Rockefeller and Ford Foundation grants for studies on international trade.

[15] eWatch, based in Dallas, is a subsidiary of PR Newswire: www.ewatch.com