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Peaceful protestors seek new strategies after Genoa violence

NCR Staff

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. Catholics by the thousands came to Genoa to force these issues onto the agenda of the G-8, only to recoil from the violence.

Those Catholics offer different answers as to where to go from here.

Some say the moment for mass protest at big international events is over, given the inevitability of bloodshed. “Let’s not go to a G-8 summit again,” was the conclusion a group of CAFOD members from Leeds in the United Kingdom came to on their way home from Genoa.

“Our idea has been stolen,” the group concluded, according to a written summary of its discussions. “We need something that can belong to us and keep the debt focus. No point competing with the anti-globalization movement for the limelight.”

The Leeds group recommended local events in “every town and village in the world,” along with media spectacles such as “human chains around each country’s Treasury, plus the World Bank and IMF.”

Others argue, however, that not showing up at international gatherings such as the G-8 and meetings of the International Monetary Fund directors would be a mistake.

“I think we have to be very careful that people don’t give away, in the face of violence, their right to peaceful protest,” said Good Shepherd Sr. Carolyn Price, like Arata the peace and justice officer in her community. Price, an Australian, was also part of the prayer and fasting at St. Antonio Boccadasse.

Veterans of social justice crusades seem to concur.

“If we had to worry about ‘giving cover’ to violence, we could never demonstrate,” said Howard Zinn, longtime activist and author of A People’s History of the United States.

“I believe, despite the media attention to the rock-throwers, the sheer numbers of protesters have made the public quite aware that the nonviolent people have been the vast majority,” Zinn told NCR.

Some Catholic critics believe that by legitimizing the antiestablishment instincts of radicals and anarchists, social justice activists in the church have actually helped fuel violence.

“There is a movement within Catholicism today that is anti-Western, anti-capitalism, connected to the theology of liberation,” said Fr. Gianni Baget Bozzo, a priest in Genoa and an adviser to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“We have Catholics adopting politics that lead to a revolutionary attitude,” Baget Bozzo told NCR. “They are creating the water in which violence fishes for new adherents.”

Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota, another peace and justice promoter present in Genoa, rejected that criticism.

“There are people who are global-phobic, and people who are filo-global,” she said, quoting a Mexican priest-activist. “But we are neither. We are global-agnostics who know how to criticize but also how to be positive.”

Others argue that nonviolent protesters should be reaching out to the black block.

“We must not demonize these kids,” said Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, a progressive Italian priest who marched in Genoa. “We must try to understand why they create this violence, what disease in their lives they’re responding to,” he told NCR.

Della Sala is sponsoring a mid-August camp to bring together Italy’s young communists and anarchists, historically quite anti-clerical, with members of Pax Christi and other mainstream Catholic groups to dialogue about modes of protest.

Price agrees with the instinct. “We saw the destruction and we said to ourselves, these are exactly the people we should be evangelizing,” she said.

Della Sala concedes, however, that the Molotov cocktail crowd may not want to answer his invitation. He is seeking contact with the “black block,” but has not yet succeeded.

One problem may be the starkly different demographic profiles among the violent and nonviolent wings of the movement. It was a point noted by the CAFOD group from Leeds.

“They looked mostly in their 20s. Our average age was 45 (youngest 12, oldest in their 70s),” the group noted in its report. “They had piercings. We had knitting. Can we trust them to be peaceful? Can we work together in a wider movement? Do we want to?”

Both Della Sala and Zinn argued that the media should pay more attention to charges that police and right-wing forces infiltrate and manipulate groups such as the “black block” in order to discredit leftists.

Hirota says it may be time to think beyond mass protest.

“We need different structures for dealing with the G-8, where a real dialogue can take place,” the Japanese veteran of social justice work told NCR. She suggested that perhaps nongovernmental organizations should have an institutional presence within the G-8, as they have at the United Nations.

Arata expressed frustration with the media’s focus on violence.

“It amazes me that this small group, the black block, could do so much harm, and here are hundreds of thousands of us committed to giving a voice to the poor,” she said. “Something’s lacking. We haven’t been able to cause as much creative havoc as they have.”

Yet Zinn said this does not have to be the case.

“It is a myth that unless there is violence there will be no attention. The nonviolent protests at Vieques have received big press in the United States,” he said. “Civil disobedience, if done on a large scale (and of course it helps to have celebrities), commands attention.”

Arata said she hopes post-Genoa introspection will lead to a productive reflection on tactics and aims.

If so, “we may come to think about Genoa as a felix culpa moment -- a happy fault,” she said.

The first test of the “happy fault” theory may come Sept. 26 and 27 in Naples, when NATO holds a summit to discuss Bush’s proposal for a Star Wars-like missile defense system. Radicals have vowed resistance, while nonviolent critics seem divided on whether and how to be present.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001