Protected by miles of barbed wire fences and tens of thousands of tooled up cops, leaders of the world’s most powerful states gathered in Genoa, Italy, 20 years ago.
Outside, hundreds of thousands of raging protesters fought furiously to tear them down. It was a defining moment in the anti-capitalist movement that had swept the globe.
Politicians at the G8 summit that year pretended they were to discuss eliminating poverty and “Third World” debt. In reality, they would agree among themselves more of the measures—the business deals, privatisation schemes and loans—behind such extreme poverty in the first place.
Their system and their profit-seeking scheming made them killers. And the protesters outside knew it.
Some 300,000 defied police restrictions and took to the streets to wreck the summit. Their scale and militancy terrified the ruling class but inspired millions of workers globally.
It was a huge escalation of a new anti-capitalist movement that started in Seattle, US. Then, mass protests targeted and blockaded the World Trade Organisation conference in 1999.
In anticipation of protests targeting the summit, the state closed streets, created a Red Zone that was out of bounds for non-residents and set up huge military hardware.
The Italian government also suspended freedom of movement across their borders for the duration of the summit. They monitored the movement of many protesters arriving internationally.
The demonstrations were so powerful that they forced the rulers at the G8 to cancel their formal dinner
Veronique who attempted to travel from France told Socialist Worker, “Me and my friends arrived at the train station for our departure, but loads of trains were being delayed, redirected or even cancelled because of the protests, we never made it.”
The first demonstration on 18 July was in solidarity with refugees. It attracted 50,000 people—far more than organisers had anticipated.
Over the next two days, various political parties and campaigns marched towards the “Red Zone” surrounding the summit, guarded with water cannons and armed soldiers.
The police beat back protesters with batons and huge amounts of tear gas. Groups who converged on the Red Zone that day included thousands of Italian activists dressed in padded white overalls to protect them from police batons.
There was also a large contingent of organisations in the International Socialist Tendency, including the Socialist Workers Party from Britain.
The demonstrations were so powerful that they forced the rulers at the G8 to cancel their formal dinner. Tony Blair, then British prime minister, attacked the demonstrations as an “anarchists’ travelling circus”.
Amid the brutality 23 year old Carlo Giuliani was shot dead by riot police. His body was then run over by a riot van.
This enraged the protesters and motivated 300,000 people to march the following day. Socialists, trade unionists, students, communists and Italian workers stood in solidarity.
Filling the suburban car parks, hundreds of buses had arrived from across Europe.
Local residents handed out water, applauded from their balconies and hung out underwear in defiance of government orders to not air laundry during the summit.
Outside of Genoa, protests gathered at almost 50 Italian police stations, with 50,000 marching in Milan.
There were militant protests in Germany, Greece and Switzerland over Giuliani’s killing. In Hamburg, Germany, taxi drivers drove in a cavalcade through the city in solidarity with the Genoa protesters.
The police, although massively outnumbered, attacked the Genoa demonstration, arresting hundreds and injuring many more. But the protest went on undeterred.
The attack outlined the state brutality capitalists rely on. It also showed how much of a serious threat mass, radical protests are
It sent a shiver down the spine of the ruling class. They responded with violence the next day.
In the early hours of the morning cops brutally attacked the Armando Diaz school where many prominent activists were sleeping.
Cops shouted, “We’re going to kill you,” and attacked people still in their sleeping bags.
An interior ministry source admitted the raid turned into a revenge attack by police.
Socialist Worker at the time reported, “Peaceful protesters suffered repeated vicious assaults which left the walls and floors of the school running with blood.”
People were carried out stretchers whilst handcuffed, their clothes were covered in blood. People were arrested while cops’ attacks continued.
Vittorio Agnoletto of the Genoa Social Forum said, “I am a doctor, I saw injuries consistent with intent to administer as much pain as possible.
“He (the hospital’s director) said two people had traumas and compression, one man was paralysed down one side of his body and two men were unconscious.”
The attack outlined the state brutality capitalists rely on. It also showed how much of a serious threat mass, radical protests are.
The protests dominated the Genoa G8 summit and gave confidence to mass anti-capitalists revolts around the world.
Debating how to fight and how to win
The Genoa protests came after some two decades of the spread of neoliberalism—the idea that unrestrained, free market policies is the best way to run the system.
Working class people globally had suffered harsh cuts to services, unemployment and rising living costs. Meanwhile, multinational companies were given tax breaks and handouts by western states.
And some 800 million people across the world didn’t have a reliable source of clean drinking water and the divide between rich and poor was widening.
Big protests against police brutality continued in many Italian cities and towns in the following weeks attracting tens of thousands
A year later almost 100,000 people gathered in Florence for the European Social Forum conference. The gathering subsequently organised a one million strong demonstration against the US and Britain’s imperialist invasion of Iraq.
Also that year millions of workers participated in a general strike and huge protests in Spain. People opposed neoliberal policies and the reform of unemployment benefits.
Activists understood how multinational companies with the support of governments were the main force destroying people’s lives. This segued into people opposing arms companies profiting from imperialist wars.
The protest in Genoa forced a re-think among the left in Italy
Italian and British activists who had initially cooperated to organise the Genoa G8 protests called for an international day of protest against war.
On 15 February 2003, two million people marched in London, 700,000 in Rome and up to two million in Madrid. Some 16 million people in 60 countries protested against war that weekend.
Genoa was a turning point in the fight against neoliberalism and laid the foundation for the subsequent anti-imperialist movements to grow.
Many people leading up to Genoa felt frustrated by the “traditional left.”
But on the night of the murder of Carlo Guiliani, Vittorio Agnoletto of the Genoa Social Forum, and Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), appeared on television and called on people to join the demonstration.
It was an important symbol of coming together and it made a difference.
The protest in Genoa forced a re-think among the left in Italy. The White Overalls, whose tactic of padding up against police batons had run its course in the face of brutality, dissolved, reformed and looked for new initiatives.
And Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) party threw itself into becoming the “party of the movements”.
The protests against the gathering of bosses continued but the discussions of alternatives to the elite became seen as more urgent.
There were tensions at both ends of the new movement.
In both the reformist and revolutionary left an ideology grew around social movements. This included the idea that movements flourished without the involvement of political parties. Parties were formally banned from the social forums for instance.
In fact, parties had played a central role in organising the protests in Genoa alongside autonomists and activists not involved in any organisation.
Working class struggle failed to rise to the same level as the ideological questioning of the system. That created a gap. Unfortunately on the back of the great anti-capitalist mobilisations the left filled it by taking the movement back to a parliamentary dead end
But it is also the case that being the “party of the movements” was a double edged weapon. Being more political could mean pulling the movements back to the electoral system defending politics it had grown by appearing to reject.
So the social centres, which formed a mass movement at this stage in Italy, allied themselves with the left. To some extent the unity forged provided a new electoral base for the left.
But the PRC’s Bertinotti led his party back to the right to the extent of participating in a pro-war, centre-left government in 2006-7.
The withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq was not accompanied by an abandonment of the “war on terror” or a withdrawal of Italian soldiers from Afghanistan. Promised social reforms never happened.
This threw the social forum activists into disarray and the Italian anti-war movement collapsed. Networks of local organisation withered.
A right wing government led by Silvio Berlusconi was elected in 2008.
Struggle and resistance did not stop. Car workers struck. A militant student movement generated a wave of opposition to university reforms. Anti-privatisation and social movements defeated Berlusconi in referendums.
The left has not recovered but instead repeated the mistakes of 2006.
Working class struggle failed to rise to the same level as the ideological questioning of the system. That created a gap. Unfortunately on the back of the great anti-capitalist mobilisations the left filled it by taking the movement back to a parliamentary dead end.
The lesson of Genoa is the power to challenge the system lies in huge movements of working class struggle.