Chaos Incorporated

11 minute read
ROMESH RATNESAR

Anarchy is supposed to be fun. “If there’s no dancing,” the 20th century American anarchist Emma Goldman famously said, “count me out.” But when 150,000 anticapitalist-if-not-all- quite-anarchist demonstrators greet George W. Bush and seven other leaders of the industrialized world in Genoa, Italy, this week, it will hardly feel like a party. Once the G-8 summit gets under way, Genoa’s airport will close. At least 15,000 police will pour onto the streets, armed with tear gas and water cannons. Naval gunships will trawl the Italian port, looking to pick off any suspicious dinghies headed for the European Vision, the cruise liner on which seven leaders are staying. Forget about grabbing a cappuccino: coffee-bar owners have already made plans to seal their windows with steel curtains. The area surrounding the Palazzo Ducale, where the delegates will meet, usually bustles with activity; by the end of the week it will resemble a ghost town. And that’s if things go well.

If they don’t, Genoa will probably witness a version of the riotous unrest that has attended every international gabfest since the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999. The most violent clash yet erupted last month in Gothenburg, Sweden, when a demonstration of 25,000 people against a summit of European Union leaders turned into a melee that injured dozens and resulted in hundreds of arrests. Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini predicts Genoa “will be like Gothenburg, or worse.” On the websites that summit-hopping protesters use to swap intelligence, the three days of action in Genoa are being hyped as the culmination of Europe’s “summer of resistance,” an antiglobalapalooza that included bust-ups in Gothenburg, Barcelona and Salzburg. A convergence of events — Italy’s election of megamogul Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister, the shooting of three demonstrators in Gothenburg, the presence of Bush — will make Genoa, says Bernard Cassen, founder of the French antiglobalization group attac, the “biggest demonstration against globalization ever.”

Most who will participate — a brigade clumsily classified as “antiglobalization” and with agendas that range from saving the earth to defending workers’ rights and opposing free trade — don’t intend to get violent. They say their aim is to gather peacefully in the streets, to stage a democratic carnival next to a gathering of suits. Only a tiny fraction of the throng at such events turns militant. But authorities say that some of the mayhem at several recent anticapitalist rallies was perpetrated by serial rioters. A top Swedish official investigating the Gothenburg disturbance believes a nucleus of 500 European radicals has played a part in more than one violent clash. Says Bengt Landahl, a chief prosecutor on the case: “We’re dealing with an organized network of troublemakers.” Yet authorities say they have little power to crack down on such groups before they act up. “We don’t consider them terrorists,” says a spokesman for Europol, the Continent’s transnational police agency. “They are rioters.” Even Landahl concedes, “We’re not yet sure how to even label them.”

Everyone is sure, however, that the demonstrations have become combustible. At last September’s IMF -World Bank summit in Prague, demonstrators put 20 policemen in the hospital and injured 103 more. The Gothenburg melee ended with three people shot, the first time live ammunition has been used against antiglobalization demonstrators in the Western world — an incident that has radicalized many of them. (A 19-year-old Gothenburg protester who was shot in the stomach remains hospitalized.) “Things are coming to a head,” says Shaun Dey, an activist in the London-based outfit Globalize Resistance. “The way things are going, somebody is going to get killed.”

The radical surge presents a moral dilemma for those mainstream organizations that make up the core of the sprawling antiglobalization movement. With the lives of people on both sides of police lines in greater peril, some groups are grasping for a new strategy. The environmental activist group Friends of the Earth announced last week that it will stay away from Genoa. “We’re not going because we’ve received no guarantees it will be peaceful,” says Duncan McLaren, a spokesman. Others may yet pull out. Says Fleur Anderson, head of campaigns for the Roman Catholic relief charity CAFOD: “We’ll be monitoring the situation the whole time we’re in Genoa.”

Intelligence officials from the G-8 countries have spent weeks exchanging ideas for containing the mayhem. The police have divided the city into a “yellow zone,” where people will be free to roam but not demonstrate, and a “red zone,” which will encircle the summit venue and be heavily barricaded. A shields-to-fists confrontation seems inevitable on Friday, when protesters will attempt to breach the red zone. “In Italy the police can’t fire on the protesters,” says a security official. “The problem comes if one of the protesters fires on the police.”

Italian authorities expect trouble from homegrown anarchist groups, like Ya Basta! (Enough Already!), a loosely organized network founded in 1996 and inspired by Mexico’s Zapatista rebels. Ya Basta!’s members show up at European demos clad in white overalls to symbolize “the invisibility” of marginalized people, and while they claim not to engage in rock-hurling aggression, they don’t condemn the use of violence. In 1998 Ya Basta! gave rise to a more expansive anarchist movement that calls itself Tutte Bianche (White Overalls) and draws its members from Italy’s 200 “social centers” — communes where young radicals organize and live. Both groups have Genoa police on edge. Last month Ya Basta! issued a “declaration of war” against the G-8 gathering.

The Italian radicals will have plenty of allies. A Time investigation found connections among rioters at several recent European summits. Activists linked to the wombles (White Overalls Movement Building Liberation through Effective Struggle), a British imitator of Ya Basta!, plan to hook up with as many as 1,500 other European anarchists in Bologna before continuing to Genoa. Globalize Resistance has chartered a French train to transport 600 demonstrators to Italy. Some of the manifestations of globalism have made it easier to demonstrate against it: the Internet facilitates exchange of protest strategy, the English language’s conquest of Europe gives the polyglot protesters a common tongue, the E.U.’s elimination of border controls means activists can more easily hook up with foreign comrades, and free-market competition has slashed the cost of travel throughout Europe.

All that has spawned a breed of anticapitalist nomad. Says Canadian anarchist Jean-Francois Hamilton, 25, who has turned up at protests in Washington, Seattle and Quebec City: “It’s like following the Grateful Dead.” Naomi Klein, whose book on the corporate takeover of everyday life, No Logo, is the Atlas Shrugged of the antiglobalization set, says, “Activism is global because multinationals are global and the IMF is global. Of course there has been networking among activist groups around the world who say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s happened to you too?'”

Klein says “there’s a growing militancy” but insists that “trying to present it as some international conspiracy is to me really offensive.” Well, maybe, but law-enforcement sources tell time that dozens of the most violent participants at several recent protests do indeed share a common affiliation. The Anti-Fascist Action, one of the radical groups that joined an unprovoked charge against the police cordon guarding the IMF-World Bank meeting in Prague last September — touching off 10 hours of rioting — was founded in Germany in the 1930s to oppose the Nazi regime. It now has branches in most European countries, including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Italy. The group is known for its attacks on neo-Nazis, but its website says it has broadened its mission to “fight capital and its institutions.” In Prague about 300 radicals — mostly Czechs, Germans, Danes, Brits and Swedes — marched under the AFA flag, united by their determination to disrupt the meetings by any means necessary. They did, with cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. “We are one of the groups that don’t shy away from using violent methods,” boasts Jan Kensky, 25, spokesman for the Czech branch of AFA. “If we engaged in peaceful protest, 80% of the public would ignore it.”

Each national branch of AFA sends at least one of its members to the large anticapitalist demonstrations. The disorder committed by the group at each protest is coordinated by local afa members. That’s why, two weeks before the Gothenburg summit, a team of Swedish police began shadowing radical cells in Denmark that were mobilizing for Gothenburg. “We made extensive effort to contact the afa people who were the ringleaders,” says an official. After a bus carrying a group of suspicious Danes entered Sweden, a single cop went undercover to monitor their moves. “He trailed behind them, watched them organize at a hotel and then take to the streets to execute their plan the same day,” says Landahl. The Swedes say AFA-linked radicals subsequently formed the bulk of the black-masked contingent that began pelting police during the Gothenburg street rally on June 15. Last week six Swedes went on trial for violent rioting and attempting to seriously injure a policeman. “What happened was not a spontaneous outburst of violence,” Landahl says. “It was planned.” Five more suspected Danish AFA activists were arrested before the summit began, after a police raid of their apartment turned up explosives and cans of acid. Genoese intelligence experts are monitoring an AFA website that details some protest plans for Genoa — where AFA’s activities will mostly be carried out by members from Spain and France.

But the violence at anticapitalist demonstrations can’t be attributed solely to radical groups like AFA. Sebastian Stein, 19, of Bad Muenstereifel, Germany, says he went to Sweden on a fishing trip and thought the “Reclaim the City” rally in Gothenburg would make for an exciting diversion. But when baton-wielding police moved in to break up the march, Stein shouted something and threw a rock at them; he was shot in the leg and arrested. He now faces up to three years in Swedish prison. “Nothing was prepared here,” his lawyer, Claes Ostlund, says.

That’s a sobering lesson for the moderate forces who oppose globalization and condemn violence but believe mass demonstrations are necessary to deliver their message. Stein was hardly a political martyr; he acted, and was shot, for reasons that have nothing to do with structural adjustment programs or Third World debt. As the antiglobalization movement swells, so too will security forces’ sense of siege and the chances that future protests will bring serious casualties. Europe’s governments are beginning to address the threat. In a special meeting last Friday, the E.U.’s interior ministers agreed to share information with one another on potentially dangerous activists and prevent any suspected criminals from crossing borders. But they stopped short of creating a database on individual radicals, as exists for soccer hooligans.

Some moderates have started to realize that in order to sustain public support, they will have to root out the thuggish elements themselves. “You’ll never see us breaking a window or hitting a policeman,” says Cassen of France’s ATTAC, which boasts 30,000 paying members. “We think it’s absurd and provides a means of criminalizing the movement. We’re doing everything we can to marginalize the violence.”

But maybe it’s time for groups like Cassen’s to go further and suspend large-scale demonstrations, like the one scheduled for Genoa. Such an action would argue powerfully, not just against violence but for the movement’s capacity to grow beyond raucous protest. Chelsea Mozen, 25, a former local government employee in Washington, moved to Prague last year to help organize the anti-IMF protests. She and fellow organizers tried to make the demos “fun and colorful and exciting”: they brought in bands and a “samba van” and made sure all their pamphlets included statements against violence. It didn’t work. “I can understand how some people can be really, really upset about what’s going on in the world,” she says now. “They feel like violence is the answer. How do I still work with them? Can I still work with them? I still haven’t answered that question.” If activists like Mozen want their movement to stay viable — to say nothing of danceable — they had better answer it soon.

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