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Out of Control

Last weekend’s explosive protests against the Group of Eight economic summit in Genoa left grisly milestones scattered along the path of the burgeoning anti-globalization movement. The first activist, Carlo Giuliani of Genoa, was killed in action. More than 500 serious injuries were reported on both sides, with life-threatening beatings almost reduced to a sickening routine. (By contrast, about 50 people were hospitalized at Quebec‘s 50,000-strong protest, with limited beatings). It was also the most divisive summit action, with the press and the police exploiting a widening gap between ”peaceful protesters“ and misrepresented ”Black Bloc anarchists.“ The Genoa demonstrations drew the most protesters of any global meeting -- estimated at up to 150,000; they were met by the largest police response -- 20,000.

In the midst of this crazed outburst, other movement ”firsts“ almost went unnoticed. Genoa saw the first direct attack on the press at a summit protest, and a brutal stomping of the nonviolent umbrella protest group, the Genoa Social Forum. This action left many hardened organizers to question their safety in an era of increased violence and repression.

This account of the violence is based on e-mails sent by people working at the Independent Media Center (IMC). Shortly after midnight on Sunday morning -- nearly a day after the shooting of Giuliani -- battles raged in the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Five or six paddy wagons full of Italian Carabinieri -- state police -- poured into two buildings used by the Genoa Social Forum and the IMC. At the IMC, they were eventually confronted by an Italian member of Parliament who had the authority to order them out. The state police trooped across the street to the Diaz school building, where journalists and organizers were sleeping, and engaged in an underreported bloodbath that left at least 24 hospitalized.

Lisa Fithian, a Los Angeles--based union organizer, wrote me, ”We had just finished a meeting to plan a march the next day to respond to police violence, killing and jail torture. We were setting off to work when there were screams. I looked out the window and saw a sea of helmets and clubs and some tear gas. I took [Bay Area peace activist] Starhawk and some others and headed for a top floor to find cover. I heard screaming and yelling and banging. People sat nonviolently on the floor with hands raised.“

Independent Media Centers are a decentralized network of linked Web sites (www.indymedia.org) set up by local activists in scores of cities all over the world. The first IMC emerged in Seattle to provide an alternative to mainstream media coverage of the soon-to-be-successful shutdown of World Trade Organization meetings in November 1999. IMCs are heavily used by both ”corporate“ and independent journalists alike, particularly during summit actions. Though often at the center of police-raid rumors, no IMC had been attacked at any summit protest, until tear gas came through the doors in Italy.

”IMC journalists stood with hands against the walls of the halls,“ wrote witness David Christian. ”Police gathered all journalists, and then searched the rooms. They confiscated mini disks, a digital camera and other materials, like gas masks and Swiss Army knives.“

Computer disks and film were reported lifted. Meanwhile, police trashed the Genoa Social Forum’s legal office in the same building. This room, a repository of police-brutality evidence, was perhaps the target of the raid. (Another theory was that some IMC reporters had video of police dressed as Black Bloc -- unfortunately now a commonly seen police tactic -- leaving their police station.) Computers and phones there were smashed and hard drives confiscated, and all the papers were ransacked. Police then attempted to take one reporter out of the building behind police lines, but others with official G8 press credentials intervened, and after some jostling the reporter was released. Within a half-hour, a female member of the Italian Parliament hustled in and shamed the police into leaving.

Down in the street, police confronted journalists and activists at the doors of the Diaz school, which was used for Genoa Social Forum meetings, press conferences, and sleeping quarters for organizers, journalists and some nonviolent marchers. Two British reporters were arrested, one outside beaten to a bloody unconscious pulp. According to one e-mail report, he later had to have his pancreas removed. Another well-known independent journalist from New Zealand, Sam Buchanan, was among the arrestees. Once a squad had moved inside, IMC members watched from open windows only yards away.

A correspondent who calls herself IMCista writes, ”Tears and shouts of ‘Assassinis!’ [assassins] followed the police who for another half-hour or so were still blocking off exits. Inside the building, many people raised their hands. They were beaten . . . from the long stream of stretchers came [sic] out of the building, they were obviously trying to injure people as seriously as possible -- at least five were brought out unconscious.

“Later after more arrests in the street, the police and fleet of ambulances departed, leaving us access to the building,” continues IMCista. “Inside the sight was sickening. There was thick dark blood all up the walls, over the floor and at the bottom of stairs. It looked like several people had been beaten while on the ground from the blood spatters low down on the walls. Even the ambulance staff were obviously shocked.”

Ninety-three persons were arrested and charged with possession of firebombs and criminal association to commit vandalism. According to The Wall Street Journal, police later claimed that 61 of those arrested were injured while “rioting.” Police displayed two bottles filled with gasoline, swim goggles, cell phones and tanning lotion (get that Black Bloc tan . . . ) as well as black hoods they said they confiscated in the raid. They made direct insinuations that IMC reporters participated in much-vilified Black Bloc actions. The Black Bloc is an affinity group--based street-action tactic (not an organization) that has been blamed for most of the property destruction and violence in Genoa. In one of the worst instances of yellow journalism attending this event, NBC‘s television coverage on Saturday called the Black Bloc “apolitical” and “often drugged.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has come under widespread criticism for the violent actions of riot police in Genoa, later claimed that the Genoa Social Forum building was housing “violent anarchists.”

Questions remain about the killing of 23-year-old anarchist Giuliani. Reuters photo sequences available on the IMC suggest he was shot down in cold blood while others attacked the police vehicle. As IMCista put it, “This is a sad day for democracy.”

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