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World: Reporter's Notebook -- The Legacy Of Genoa

Last weekend's G-7 plus Russia summit in Genoa will be remembered for its excessive violence on both sides, and for giving the anti-globalization movement its first victim at the hands of police. It may also finally convince peaceful protesters to break with the more violent elements that have seemingly hijacked their movement. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker was in Genoa to report on the summit and the riots. In this Reporter's Notebook, he assesses the violence and its possible consequences.

Genoa, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he thinks the legacy of last weekend's G-7 plus Russia summit in Genoa will be the group's commitment to Africa. He points to a $1.3 billion fund to fight AIDS and new efforts to increase trade and investment in the developing world.

But to anyone who witnessed Genoa's two days of riots -- perhaps the worst yet between police and protesters at an international gathering -- that statement rings false.

The legacy of Genoa is unlikely to be anything that went on in the formal meetings -- however well-intentioned -- but rather the doubts that it has raised about the purpose and future of such gatherings.

This reporter witnessed two protracted battles between police and violent groups of protesters. On the afternoon of 20 July, some 1,000 demonstrators attempted to breach a chain-link fence security perimeter that police had built around the city center, where the summit was being held.

The following day, a planned peaceful march of more than 100,000 ended when small groups of violent protesters began hurling rocks and bottles at police, who then responded with tear gas and water cannons.

In both instances, the situation quickly deteriorated into something resembling a war zone. The material damage was substantial: several city blocks of looted shops, broken windows, and overturned cars. The air was still thick with tear gas and acrid black smoke an hour later. The summit's host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, says the damage runs into the millions of dollars.

It's not easy to say with certainty who bears primary responsibility for the violence.

The hard-core anarchist and other protest groups -- which have little in common with the overwhelming majority of peaceful demonstrators -- obviously get much of the blame. In several instances, their attacks on police were unprovoked, with no regard for life or property.

These organizations -- once seen as mere nuisances at international conferences, but now viewed as threats -- will surely receive increased police scrutiny in the future.

But it's not only the violence-prone demonstrators who were at fault for the havoc. The Italian police must shoulder responsibility as well.

To be fair, most of the 20,000 law-enforcement officers assigned to guard the city behaved professionally. They responded proportionately to incidents under difficult and highly stressful circumstances.

But this reporter saw numerous instances of police firing water cannons and tear gas into crowds of demonstrators without any apparent provocation. The intention seemed to be to stir up the crowd.

Predictably, protesters responded by throwing rocks and bottles. This, in turn, gave police an open invitation to fire more tear gas and move in with truncheons. When they did move, they came in hard.

Friday evening, a police officer shot and killed 23-year-old Italian demonstrator Carlo Giuliani. The circumstances of the shooting are unclear. Some reports say the officer fired in self-defense after Giuliani attempted to attack him. Other reports say the officer fired at close range to the head with the clear intent to kill.

Either the officer panicked and fired without thinking or his intention was to kill Giuliani. Authorities are now conducting an investigation and hope to be able to answer that question soon.

Giuliani is the first protester to die at the hands of police since the recent wave of anti-globalization demonstrators began in earnest in Seattle in 1999. Some news reports have dubbed him Genoa's martyr.

In addition to the pockets of violent protesters and overeager police units, another group bears at least a small measure of responsibility for the violence: the Genoa Social Forum.

The forum was set up as an umbrella group to coordinate the activities of peaceful demonstrators. It's not clear what measures the forum could have taken to rein in the anarchists and other relatively small groups that allied themselves with the broader protest movements. But the forum -- at least in its public pronouncements -- did not go far enough in denouncing the violence.

At a press conference on 21 July, Vittorio Agnoletto -- the charismatic public face of the forum -- blamed the police almost exclusively for Giuliani's death, instead of using the opportunity to call for an end to violence on both sides.

Reporters in the room recognized a political spin when they heard it: "Police bad, demonstrators good." Agnoletto's voice rang hollow. A clearer message from him on the dangers of violence to peaceful protest would have been welcome.

After Genoa, legitimate protest groups are likely to increasingly regard violence as a threat to their own aims and begin to put pressure on these kinds of forums to do more to stamp out the violence.

That would be a welcome legacy.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.