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2001 In Review: Terror Hushes Voices Of Antiglobalization Protesters

  • Mark Baker

The year 2001 saw the antiglobalization protest movement reach its apex, amassing 100,000 protesters in Genoa in July to demonstrate against a summit of the G-7 plus Russia. But less than two months later, the future of the movement was unclear. The 11 September attacks put a damper on dissent, particularly the anti-Western variety, as citizens of all political stripes united in the war against terrorism. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker was in Genoa for the protests. He takes a look back at events there and assesses the protest movement's uncertain prospects in 2002.

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The year 2001 gave the antiglobalization movement its first martyr: 23-year-old Italian student Carlo Giuliani.

Giuliani was shot and killed in July by Italian police after taking part in a demonstration against a summit of world leaders in the port city of Genoa. The circumstances surrounding Giuliani's death are still unclear.

More than 100,000 demonstrators had gathered in Genoa for three days of protest, in what with hindsight may have marked the high point of the antiglobalization movement.

Less than two months later, after the September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the movement's future was uncertain.

Demonstrations planned for later in September to protest the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington -- originally billed as the biggest protests in the U.S. capital since the Vietnam War -- were called off after the meetings were canceled. Plans for a massive demonstration in New York in November were dropped after organizers feared the protests would be seen as unpatriotic.

The terror attacks galvanized public opinion on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The question now is whether the antiglobalization protests -- sometimes violent and often anti-American or anti-Western at their core -- can continue to find support or sympathy among citizens.

George Monbiot is a U.K.-based globalization activist and a commentator for Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper. Speaking to RFE/RL not long after the events of 11 September, Monbiot confirmed the attacks had changed the protest environment. But he insisted that the need for protest is still there.

"[The 11 September events have] certainly made a difference, but it's not clear what that difference is. There's no doubt that the fundamental problems that we were protesting in the past have not gone away, and, in some ways, they are accelerating. We've seen [U.S. President] George [W.] Bush, for example, gaining fast-track trade powers in the wake of the 11 September attack. There's no doubt that there's still a need for protest, but whether we can protest in the way that we protested before is another question."

The antiglobalization movement emerged from protests against the World Trade Organization in the northwestern U.S. city of Seattle in November 1999. Small groups of mostly environmental and fair-trade activists gathered to criticize what they said was the WTO's bias in favor of industrialized Western countries at the expense of poorer countries.

Subsequent protests at international events united groups espousing causes as disparate as debt relief, animal rights, and the environment around a fundamental belief that the world's trade and financial structures favor North over South, rich over poor.

The start of 2001 saw the movement hoping to capitalize on momentum generated by last year's demonstrations in Prague against the World Bank and IMF that brought tens of thousands of people to the Czech capital.

Protest rallies drew thousands to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Canada, in April and to the European Union summit in the Swedish city of Gothenburg in June.

But the big rally came in July in Genoa at the summit of the G-7 leaders plus Russia. More than 100,000 demonstrators descended on the city. Italian authorities erected a 10-kilometer metal fence around the city center and deployed more than 20,000 police and soldiers to keep demonstrators out.

The protesters, pushing against the metal fence, managed to breach it on the summit's first day.

The violence continued into the night as protesters threw rocks and bottles at police who responded in turn with tear gas and water cannons.

More than five months later, it's still not clear how protester Carlo Giuliani died that night. Either he was threatening a police officer, who shot in self-defense, or he was an innocent victim, shot by an officer who lost control. Officials are still investigating the shooting.

The violence continued the next day during a planned peaceful march by protesters on the center of city. More than 200 people, including dozens of police officers, were injured. The material damage to the city amounted to millions of dollars.

The protests divided city residents. Many, mostly young people, supported the protesters. Others decried the violence and the damage.

"Annelise", a 23-year-old Italian protester with the group "Tute Bianchi," told our correspondent that such demonstrations are necessary so the voices of what she called the "invisible people" -- the poor and disenfranchised -- can be heard.

"Invisible people [are] all the people who haven't any rights in the world. So they're [immigrants], women, people who are not strong in society, students, working class, and many, many people."

But "Michel," a Lebanese immigrant in his 30s who moved to Genoa eight years ago, took a dimmer view. His house was just blocks away from the worst of the violence. While he talked to our correspondent, the smell of tear gas was thick in the air and police helicopters could be heard in the distance.

"It's nonsense to protest against the G-8 [the G-7 summit plus Russia] because we are [all] automatically globalized, in the way we are dressing, all of us have the Internet. It's nonsense."

Participants at the G-7 plus Russia summit, including the U.S. president and the British prime minister, expressed sympathy with the aims of the protesters, but asserted the right of democratically elected leaders to meet at forums such as the G-7.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was emphatic. He told reporters it would be a "dangerous thing" if the leaders of the developed and democratic world felt unable to come together to discuss issues of vital importance to their citizens.

But in spite of the tough words, summit leaders appeared to cave in to pressure from protesters. Canada, the host of next year's G-7 plus Russia summit, said that it will not hold the meeting in a large city but will move it to a remote location in the far western Rocky Mountains.

In subsequent weeks, other international organizations would follow suit by postponing or canceling meetings amid fear of attracting demonstrators. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization -- bowing to pressure from the Italian government -- agreed to postpone for six months its planned World Food Summit that was to be held in Rome in November. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi even went so far as to suggest the FAO move the summit to Africa, where -- he was quoted as saying -- people understand hunger better.

Such was the state of things in the run-up to September 11.

Now, the protest movement is largely dormant. The protesters' aims feel out of step with the public mood. But activists say it is too early to write off the protest movement, and that once the war in Afghanistan is over, the protests will return.

Susan George, the U.S.-born leader of the French protest group ATTAC, goes further and says the terror attacks only affirm the movement's basic message that economic inequality breeds discontent.

"From our perspective, our message is more important than it ever has been. And it should be clear that, now, this shock must have jolted people into understanding that with huge inequalities in the world, we are not going to be able to have a stable life at home. We are not going to able to isolate ourselves from the world simply because we happen to live in rich countries."

Some organizations have tried to re-energize the movement by reinventing themselves as antiwar groups. The U.S.-based group Mobilization for Global Justice, which had earlier targeted the lending practices of the World Bank, recently rechristened itself Mobilization for Global Peace.

This has met with limited success. Scattered antiwar protests in the U.S. and Europe to date have drawn respectable crowds but nothing like the numbers who came to Genoa.

Monbiot defends the swapping of labels from "antiglobalization" to "antiwar": "There is no question that the antiwar movement is a priority because something is happening that needs to be urgently responded to. And in many ways, what's going on in Afghanistan is a concrete example of some of the more abstract things [such as unfair labor or trade practices] that many of us were protesting against."

Next year will offer ample opportunities for protesters to reassert themselves. The World Bank and the IMF, after canceling their Washington meetings in September, plan to return to regular spring and fall meetings next year. The UN's World Food Summit is now set for June. Prague, in the fall, holds an important meeting of NATO heads of state.

But the success of the antiglobalization movement will depend on progress in the war on terrorism and the capacity for citizens of Western democracies to once again tolerate dissent within their own ranks.