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Europe Faces Genoa

08.14.2001 | ACTIVISM

The aftermath of the recent Genoa G8 summit's police brutality (in which one protestor was killed and 500 injured) has moved Europe in much the same way the 1970 National Guard's killings of four students attending an anti-war rally at Kent State galvanized North America. Where this will ultimately lead is unclear, but the genie is undeniably out of the bottle.

Of course, brutality against protestors is nothing new. The London-based Guardian noted, "Recently three students protesting against World Bank privatization were shot in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Young men fighting World Bank-imposed water privatization have been tortured and killed in Cochabamba, Bolivia."

The difference this time, obviously is that the protestor killed was white and European, and that his death was caught on film. Images of 23-year-old Carlo Guiliani hoisting a fire extinguisher and then being shot in the head were broadcast internationally, and the media reaction was predictably one-sided: blaming Guiliani and supporting both the summiteers and Italian police. The July 30 edition of European Newsweek noted "Astonishingly, under the circumstances, some protest leaders denounced the death as murder, blaming police brutality," and clips of Tony Blair's sanctimonious assessment, "It is always a source of regret if anyone loses their life ... but when there is violent protest, people can get hurt" were shown over and again.

Meanwhile, however, the unprecedented and indiscriminate police brutality which culminated in the July 21st vicious assault on the Genoa Social Forum (GSF), Independent Media Center (IMC), and Radio Gap headquarters at a local school, went virtually unreported in the mainstream press. As recalled by eyewitnesses, a UK journalist was "attacked by the Carabinieri (Italian military police) beaten, left on the ground, and repeatedly kicked and beaten by every passing officer over the next hour despite his critical condition." (August 1, Indy Media Print). The police then invaded the GSF office and as an eyewitness recounts, "The media and politicians were kept out. And they (the police) beat people. They beat people who had been sleeping, who held their hands up in a gesture of innocence and cried out ,'Pacifisti! Pacifisti!' They beat the men and the women. They broke bones, smashed teeth, shattered skulls. They left blood on the walls, on the windows, a pool of it in every spot where people had been sleeping. When they had finished their work, they brought in the ambulances. All night long we watched from across the street as the stretchers were carried out." Over 50 people were badly injured and at least three carried out unconscious.

What awaited the battered journalists and activists next was arguably even worse. As told in an anonymous interview with La Repubblica (a major Italian newspaper), one of the police officers involved said that when the wounded were removed from the GSF headquarters and taken to jail, "They were beaten, forced to stand up against walls, and they were forced to sing fascist songs. Officers urinated on detainees, and women were threatened with rape via batons. Prison police authorities watched as one girl vomited blood."

Corporate media reporting was at first cryptic to the point of being incomprehensible. The Wall Street Journal noted, "Italian police raided a school building housing activists and arrested all 92 people inside. Afterward, the building was covered in pools of blood and littered with smashed computers. Several reporters at the school were hurt; one had his arm broken. Police said 61 of the detainees had been wounded in riots that preceded the raid, but neighbors described hours of beatings and screaming coming from the school during the raid." CNN ran clips of bloodied people being removed from the GSF building but gave no context or further reporting, despite the fact that most of the assault had been broadcast live over the internet.

It was only when public outcry became intolerable and abused activists began returning home and giving interviews that the media, and attending governments, took notice. Since the summit ended, across Europe there have been over 200 large and noisy protests against the brutality shown by the Italian police during at the G8 summit, with 100,000 protesting across Italy alone. Britain's The Weekly Telegraph (August 7) ran a front-page story entitled "Britons tell of beatings by G8 police" which opened with, "Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, bowed to pressure to investigate the claims of police brutality at the G8 summit in Genoa as bruised and battered British protestors flew home last week without being charged." Amnesty International demanded a "comprehensive investigation by an independent commission of inquiry regarding the conduct of Italian law enforcement and prison officers," and Reporters sans Frontieres reported multiple instances of police assaults on journalists and also called for an investigation.

In perhaps the most contentious case, on July 22 the Austrian theater group "VolxTheatre" was arrested more than 10 miles from Genoa. The members (between 17-25, exact number arrested still unclear) were charged with vandalism, endangerment of public safety and membership to a criminal organization, the "evidence" consisting largely of their stage props: juggling and fire-eating equipment and a 50-year-old gas mask. But as reported by the Austrian Der Standard (August 4-5) it was when the head of the Genovese Anti-terror Unit received incriminating information from the Austrian Interior Minister Ernst Strasser, suggesting that the theater group had a history of antisocial behavior, that the treatment of the group and charges against them became more severe. Unlike government officials from other countries who actively lobbied for the return of their jailed compatriots, Austrian Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner simply stated "No one should be surprised if they get arrested for trying to rob a bank with a toy gun," and then later on national television repeated her "trust in the Italian administration of justice."

The minor detail overlooked was that none of those arrested from the VolxTheatre in fact had any police record in Austria at all; editorials have since suggested that it may have been bias against protestors in general that was to blame for the incorrect initial assessment. Regardless, public outcry over the affair has been intense and Austrian government officials are now falling all over themselves to prove how seriously they take the situation. As of Monday August 6th, the VolxTheatre members still languish in Italian prisons while most protestors from other countries (who were not so badly beaten that they had to remain in hospital) have already returned home. The Austrian government will reportedly submit an updated assessment to the Genovese Anti-terror Unit, this one emphatically denying any history of violent action on the part of the theater group. Clearly, the ultimate political repercussions have yet to be seen.

Fallout has also occurred in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian premier, was jeered in parliament as he stated regret for the violence but ultimately blamed the protestors. The center-left had called for a full parliamentary commission to investigate the way the protests were handled, but with Berlusconi's conservative forces in opposition, only an inquiry was agreed upon. Berlusconi promised that there would be no cover-up in the inquiry, and Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said he would hold Berlusconi to that pledge. The Interior Minister Claudio Scajola, has meanwhile survived a 180-106 vote of no confidence, and three top members of the Italian police force were fired (it has since been learned that they were immediately appointed to other executive jobs in the Italian police force). There are currently lawsuits against the Italian police and government being prepared by activists from the UK and Germany, and no doubt more on the way.

All of the above has received little or no coverage in the mainstream US media, but perhaps officials should start taking notice--the next stop in the "Summer of Protest" is the International Monetary Fund and World Bank summit in Washington D.C. this September.

About the Author
Heather Wokusch, who is a freelance writer, can be visited at
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