The changing tides of protest: G8 to 15-M

Since the anti-globalization movement, opposition to economic power has shifted from global to local

On 20 July 2001, the Italian port city of Genoa was under siege, divided into security zones, with 20,000 police and soldiers patrolling its center. As host of the G-8 summit, the city had attracted 150,000 protestors from all over the world, the largest demonstration of its kind. The day would end with hundreds of injured as a result of clashes with the police, and one death: Carlo Giuliani. The violence was a milestone at a time of mass protests against the symbols of globalization that had begun in the US city of Seattle in 1999. A decade later, what remains of the movement that defined a generation but appeared to collapse in the days after Genoa? And is there any link to the wave of protests that are now sweeping Europe?

The violence of Genoa forced a rethink from the G8 and the protesters
"We predicted an economic crisis with serious social consquences"

"The G8 decided to rethink its approach to these hugely symbolic summits in the world's great cities. In Genoa, with the historic city center under siege, the impression was of a medieval battle. For its part, the protest movement reconfigured in the wake of the repression and thought a lot of things through. The idea now is to keep protests local, but from a global perspective," says Spanish activist Chabier Nogueras.

His explanation is pretty much the same as Susan George's. As the vice president of the Attac movement and president of the planning committee of the Transnational Institute of Amsterdam, she was one of the leading voice of the anti-globalization movement at the beginning of the millennium.

"Things changed. There were no more mass demonstrations after Genoa. Following the death of Carlo Giuliani, people began to think that it was impossible to expose themselves to violence. We began to work in small groups to address specific issues. But the movement wasn't weakened by Genoa, we just decided to go about things differently. Less mass demonstrations and more in-depth work on trade, feminism, taxing global financial movements, Europe, and neo-liberalism," says George.

Nogueras was in Genoa in July 2001. He had travelled there from Zaragoza with other protesters from Spain. On the night of 21-22 July, he and hundreds of others were sleeping in a school following the marches of the previous days. During that night, dozens of police stormed the premises, arresting many and injuring others in the process. An Italian court later found some of the officers guilty of assault. Noguera suffered a fractured skull and other injuries that kept him off work for 40 days.

According to Enara Echart, a researcher at Madrid's Complutense University, and the author of several books on the anti-globalization movement, Genoa marked the end of a cycle. "There was a tactical withdrawal to a strategy that highlighted ideas rather than conflict. It hasn't gone away, it has simply become more local. The anti-globalization movement needed to find ways to mobilize that were appropriate to each place," she says.

The lack of specific proposals was one of the most frequent criticisms leveled at the anti-globalization movement, in much the same way as was done more recently in the case of Spain's 15-M movement and its exhortation to "Become outraged." Echart says that as with a decade earlier, the criticism is based on a misconception.

"When large numbers of people create these kinds of movements, too much tends to be asked of them. Political processes take much longer. Mass movements are active from the get go. What is nice about them, politically speaking, is that they are transversal, as is the case of 15-M. They are not about political programs, they are about a longer process."

The media has been quick to point out the comparisons between the anti-globalization movement and the protests that have taken place across Europe over the last six months, but there are also many differences, chief among them their transversal nature.

"Sociologically speaking, the 15-M movement is transversal, which is why governments have been more cautious. They have attracted a much broader range of people. But they are asking many of the same questions that we were asking a decade ago, and there are links with groups in other countries, but it is also true to say that it is not an international movement," says Nogueras. He believes that the 15-M movement is transversal because in the face of the global economic crisis, "even the experts accept that the model has failed. And people understand this."

It is also true that the 15-M movement has a much broader support base than the anti-globalization movement ever managed to attract. In an article last week about the protests, The Economist refers to a survey carried out in June by Havas Media which says that 80 percent of Spaniards support the 15-M movement, and which defines the protesters as "the most conscientious protesters in Europe."

They don't throw rocks, but they make their demands heard, says The Economist , quoting the Socialist Party's Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, Spain's former deputy prime minister and candidate for premier in next year's general elections, in reference to protesters' emphasis on the need for electoral reform and on the problems facing hundreds of thousands of homebuyers unable to meet their mortgage repayments.

"There was no stone-throwing, and no tear gas," writes the right-wing London-based weekly about the most recent demonstration on July 19. But there were plenty of stones thrown, and a lot of tear gas fired at the demonstrations in Seattle, Genoa, Gothenburg, and other cities, with the actions of a violent minority dominating media coverage. So far, the protests of the 15-M movement have avoided violence. "But what will we do when the demands of the new protests are ignored," asks Aitor, a veteran protestor who also suffered at the hands of the Italian police in Genoa a decade ago, and who remains active in preventing the police from issuing eviction orders to home buyers who have fallen behind with their mortgage payments.

"It is true that the approach is more strategic, and is focused on non-violent direct action. But if things come to a head in a given situation, then it is difficult to predict what might happen," he says.

Vittorio Agnoletto was the spokesman for the World Social Forum, an annual meeting of civil society organizations during the protests in Genoa in 2001. He says that the protest movement of the time cannot be reproached for what happened.

"We were completely transparent, and were victims of internationally coordinated repression," he says, adding that if mistakes were made, "they were political, strategic, insomuch as we failed to capture the imagination of the general public, we failed to transmit out concerns to people, because they were issues that affect everybody.

"But in Genoa, we sowed a seed that we have seen grow: last month there was a referendum that rejected privatizing water and nuclear energy. We were right when we spoke of a development model that threatened the biosphere, we were right when we said that we were facing an economic crisis with serious social consequences. Things are much worse than they were a decade ago." Agnoletto says they have just organized an exhibition in Genoa called Cassandra, which looks at the movement of 10 years ago that failed to change the course of history.

Nogueras is in Genoa at the moment to commemorate the events of a decade ago. He says that it is important not to lose sight of events that Amnesty International described shortly afterwards as "the most serious suspension of civil liberties in a Western nation since the second world war." That was before 9/11. Since then, events have moved on, largely overshadowing the tragedy of Genoa.

In 2009, in the introduction to the latest edition of her book No Logo, Naomi Klein, a key mover and shaker in the anti-globalization movement, looked back over the 10 years since the cult title was first published. "In some parts of the world, and in particular Latin America, the wave of resistance developed and grew. In other countries, social movements grew enough to be able to merge with political parties, winning national elections and setting up a new system based on fair trade. But in other places, the movement disappeared with 9/11. But if there is a moment to remember what we learned at the beginning of the millennium, it is now," she says.

Confrontations between the police and protesters in Genoa, 20 July, 2011.
Confrontations between the police and protesters in Genoa, 20 July, 2011.L. BRUNO (AP)


Key moments in the anti-globalization movement

- Sleepless in Seattle. On 30 November 1999, a group of protesters prevented delegates from entering the World Trade Organization talks in the Pacific coast city. Clashes with police continued throughout the four-day meeting.

- The Big Leap . In April 2000 in Washington, some 3,000 people attempted to prevent the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting. In September, 10,000 demonstrators gathered in the Czech capital of Prague against the same two bodies. On 23 September, a meeting was organized between representatives of the anti-globalization movement and the World Bank through the mediation of Czech President Vaclev Havel.

- The Social Forum. In January 2001, in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, a counter-summit was organized at the same time as the Davos World Economic Forum met in the Swiss ski resort. The first three summits were in Brazil, followed by Mumbai, Caracas, Nairobi, Belem, and Dakar.

- The Battle of Genoa. In July 2001, the Italian port city hosted the G8 Summit, as well as attracting some 150,000 protesters. What started out as a peaceful march ended in the death of 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani, along with hundreds of others injured. The city was converted into a battleground.

The revolutions of our knowledge societies

There were dropouts in Genoa, just as there were in Seattle and Prague, and as there were in Madrid's Puerta del Sol this spring. But aside from the homeless urban hippies with their underfed dogs and penny whistles, there were also university graduates, volunteers, grass-roots Christians, labor activists and the middle class unemployed.

The movement seemed born fully formed in Seattle in November of 1999, when a vast human tide invaded the World Trade Organization's annual summit. The media dubbed the protesters anti-globalization, but they saw themselves as campaigners for an alternative economic model. Even in those early days they communicated via internet and cell phone text messages, and were clearly well-organized. They also had a series of divergent demands that were impossible to properly coordinate, and most of all, they wanted to change the world.

And what were they protesting about anyway? These were the boom years, a time when technology was changing rapidly; communism had fallen a decade earlier, and with it had come the end of history. Nevertheless, the masses from around the planet were taking over the streets to protest against the symbols of triumphant capitalism: the World Trade Organization; the IMF; the World Bank; and the G8. Some were there for their own reasons: workers fearful of immigration; farmers afraid of losing their subsidies, but most had rallied to the call to fight poverty.

Yes, the dropouts were there, with their dogs and penny whistles, but the majority were kids from nice middle-class families, just as those who threw paving stones outside the Sorbonne in Paris, or who took over the University of California at Berkeley in 1968. These kind of revolutions are the offspring of the knowledge society, not the result of class struggle. The wave spread to Latin America, where the anti-globalization movement was welcomed by Lula in Porto Alegre, and where it even found its way onto Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's agenda.

A few voices suggested that the movement did not really reflect the concerns of the poor countries, and that it perhaps made more sense to be sitting at the tables inside the meetings, rather than protesting outside. Others were worried that legitimate governments were coming under attack (in the same way that the pickets outside the Catalan parliament building earlier this year damaged the 15-M movement). The violence in Genoa led to bloodshed, prompting many people to distance themselves from the protests.

Genoa was almost the end. The full stop came with 9/11. The world was about to go to war against terror, and picketing buildings full of world leaders no longer seemed such a good idea. Public opinion fell in behind the powerful.

But the near collapse of the global economy in 2008 - which exposed the failings of neoliberalism - has propelled the anti-globalization movement to a level of renewed relevance.

Positions the movement had in the late 1990s, such as the need for greater regulation of the financial markets, are among the main demands of the 15-M movement.

That's quite a leap from 2001, when more than a few critics had written off the anti-globalization movement as a relic of the 1990s and a victim of the shift in discourse that followed the terror attacks in New York and Washington.

Time has put things into perspective. Neither the IMF or the World Bank, or any of the other multilateral institutions have enjoyed any increase in popularity since the protesters stopped banging on their doors. The G8, seen as too exclusive, has morphed into the G20, or the G20 plus in a bid to be seen as more reprsentative of the new world order. A large part of the energies of street protesters was directed against the war in Iraq, with significant results. Lula emerged as a capable and pragmatic leader, disappointing many revolutionaries, but retained his aura of charisma and popularity. Obama moved into the White House, promising to change the world, if allowed. Seen with hindsight, the protest marches were a disaster, but the message sunk in. It can be heard today among the 15-M movement, which, precisely because of its moderation and inclusiveness, is arguably more likely to achieve its goals.

The Economist says that the 15-M movement may not really know what it wants, but is already achieving some of its goals. For example, legislation has been passed to help homeowners who can't meet their mortgage payments. A debate is underway about electoral reform. The myth that young people are only interested in having a good time has been dismantled. First they were accused of failing to engage, now they are being criminalized for speaking their minds. Does the 15-M have the answers? No, but they are already part of the solution.

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