Death In Genoa

5 minute read
Michael Elliott

It has already become one of those iconic images, like the picture of a naked, napalmed girl running down a Vietnamese road, or a bloodied American being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Last Friday afternoon, in the Piazza Alimonda in Genoa, Italy, a photographer caught a young man getting ready to hurl a fire extinguisher at a police Land Rover trapped against a wall. Inside the van, a police officer can be seen aiming a pistol at the demonstrator. One, possibly two shots were fired; Carlo Giuliani, 23, the son of a labor union official from Rome, fell, bleeding through his ski mask from a wound to the head. The van ran him over as it backed away, and Giuliani died.

There was a sad inevitability about it. The death in Genoa is the first fatality in the wave of riots that have touched three continents since the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. But over a year and a half, the level of violence has been gradually stepped up. At the annual conference of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Prague last September, protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and chunks of pavement into the faces of Czech police officers. At a summit of the European Union in Goteborg, Sweden, last month, live rounds were fired by the police, and three protesters were injured, one seriously. In a story on the riots last week, TIME quoted Shaun Dey, an activist based in London: “The way things are going,” he said, “somebody is going to get killed.” Somebody has been.

Most deaths of 23-year-olds are pointless tragedies, which does not stop us from asking why they die. Giuliani lost his life through a witch’s combination of rage, fear, panic, idealism and devil-may-care. He was on the streets of the port city because eight world leaders, including President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were also there for their annual gabfest. Safely sequestered in a medieval palace a mile from the Piazza Alimonda, the issues they talked about–such as a possible world recession and global warming–were overshadowed by the mayhem. In much the same vein, few will remember Genoa’s peaceful side. On Saturday a crowd estimated by the police to be 100,000 strong marched through the city. Its banners spoke for the poor, for workers’ rights, for all the issues of those who oppose the way in which the world has become knitted together by globalization. But there were gaps in the throng. A little late in the day (for it has been clear since Prague that peaceful groups were being used as cover by a violent fringe) some well-known organizations, like the environmental group Friends of the Earth, had been sufficiently worried by the prospect of violence to stay away from Genoa.

Who makes up that violent fringe? Who throws the cobblestones and the gasoline-filled bottles? Ask national police forces–they too have woken up to the threat of violence at these meetings scandalously late–and they will tell you they are baffled. The world today, after all, is not that of 1968. No young Americans are about to be drafted to fight in an unpopular war; no young Europeans have their rights and pleasures routinely stifled by a jackbooted state. Indeed, never before have those who live in Europe and North America been so prosperous, so safe, so free to wander the world, so richly endowed with the wonderful toys of high technology. Why, beyond the boredom that comfort always brings, have a few thousand self-styled anarchists decided to don face masks and body armor? Why fight?

Because, those who do so would argue, it is only through violence that the rich world’s leaders will be forced to address the fate of the poor and marginalized in whose name the protesters claim to speak. But this is false. At the G-8 meeting of 1998 in Birmingham, England, and the one a year later in Cologne, Germany, a sandal-wearing, hymn-singing crowd–many of whose members had been recruited in churches–ringed the host cities to argue peaceably for a reduction of the debts owed by the world’s poorest nations. In very large measure, that campaign has been won; in their statement about the riots in Genoa, the G-8 leaders explicitly said: “We recognize and praise the role that peaceful protest [has] played in putting issues like debt relief on the international agenda.” Politicians should, in fact, listen to those who argue that globalization has losers as well as winners; it does. But few leaders are going to find new ways to protect displaced workers or the environment with bricks held to their heads. If the young of the rich world truly want to help the poor, this is not the way to do it.

It is, in any event, a self-destructive course. One man died in Genoa; a man, we must presume, who was swayed by the false promise that violence–not peaceful protest, not participation in the democratic process–is the best way to advance a political cause. It is not too much to hope that the next time his friends stoop to pick up a cobblestone, they will remember a lesson learned when plows first broke the Mesopotamian earth: You reap what you sow.

–Reported by James L. Graff and Greg Burke/Genoa and John Dickerson with Bush

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