Peaceful Protesters Seek New Strategies after Genoa Violence

By Allen, John L. JR. | National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

Peaceful Protesters Seek New Strategies after Genoa Violence


Allen, John L. JR., National Catholic Reporter


School Sister of Notre Dame Cathy Arata recalls the moment during the G-8 conference in Genoa when the uneasy coexistence between peaceful protestors and rock-wielding insurgents was brought home.

It came when a group of black-clad radicals, who allegedly shared her concern for poor people, began shouting, "F-- you, fascists!" in her direction.

An American who serves as the peace and justice coordinator for her order, Arata was part of an interreligious coalition praying and fasting at the Church of St. Antonio Boccadasse on the outskirts of Genoa. The aim was to push debt relief for impoverished nations at the July 21 and 22 G-8 summit.

Arata vividly remembers seeing members of the "black block" during a march that passed by the church. These young, largely male extremists led street battles that left hundreds injured and caused $40 million in property damage over three days. On this occasion, without stopping to inquire what the group at the church was doing, some began to scream abuse.

"It scared me," Arata said in an Aug. 10 interview with NCR. "You could see the anger in their faces."

By all estimates, the black block represented a tiny minority of the protesters, perhaps as few as 200 out of the estimated 200,000 who demanded that G-8 leaders do more to combat poverty, hunger and war. Yet the mayhem they caused, as well as the brutal police response (ironically directed more at nonviolent protesters), became the media's dominant storyline.

In the wake of the carnage, much soul-searching is underway within the ranks of religious communities and Catholic activists, disproportionately represented in Genoa given the proximity to Rome, who only recently were brimming with optimism about joining the "People of Seattle" in a struggle for a better world.

The discussion is not confined to the Catholic world. For at least six months preceding the G-8, an intense debate went on inside the diverse antiglobalization movement. The discussion in Italy was perhaps the most intense. It occurred largely within the Rete di Lilliput (Lilliput's Net), an umbrella organization for some 500 associations, Catholic and non-Catholic, dedicated to social justice. Through an online forum the organization worked on strategies for nonviolent mobilization. Ideas focused mainly on participation and education, rather than confrontation.

The approach was different from that of that of Ya Basta! (Enough Now), a youth-oriented forum that was in favor of nonviolent disobedience but also "active defense," which did not exclude clashes with the police.

The street battles in Genoa, in addition to leaving 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani dead, injured some 300 people. By no means was the violence one-sided. Eight separate investigations are looking into accusations of police misconduct, with one magistrate using the word torture to describe the way police allegedly beat leftist detainees and forced them to stand against walls for hours shouting right-wing slogans such as "uno, due, tre, viva Pinochet!" and "viva il Duce!" The latter phrase refers to Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator assassinated in 1945.

Meanwhile cleanup efforts continue. Authorities so far report that protesters damaged seven banks, two post offices, 51 credit agencies, three insurance agencies, 45 shops, 20 gas stations and 23 public offices. More than 90 cars were set on fire.

Security concerns, coupled with philosophical objections to violence, led many Catholic activists to rethink their engagement in the protests. The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the British organization known as CAFOD, brought 500 people to Genoa, but at the last minute pulled out of the main march.

It was not supposed to be this way. In the weeks leading up to the G-8 summit, a budding alliance between Catholics and the People of Seattle seemed on track.

A "Catholic manifesto," released July 7, called for measures such as debt relief, the Tobin tax (on global currency markets designed to discourage currency speculation and raise funds for international development) and more funding for medical research in the Third World. …

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