David Boyle

Summit leaders, protesters, police - who do they think they are?

Liberator, Autumn 2001

I might have given the Genoa protesters a quiet word of warning before they left, based on very personal experience. If you think the G8 leaders are brutal maniacs outside democratic control, you are probably right - but it's really nothing to your average big city Italian policeman.

It isn't so much that, as an associate at the New Economics Foundation, I've been involved in challenging the legitimacy of G8 economic summits for well over a decade. It's that, almost exactly 23 years ago, I fell into the clutches of the Italian boys in blue myself - and only the unexpected death of a Pope rescued me from a long and equally brutal period behind bars.

It was a midnight stroll through Rome that caused the trouble. I was with two friends, one of them carrying a guitar - well, it was 1978: we did things like that in those days. Up ahead of us suddenly was a screaming melee of police cars and vans, a large posse of policemen and two hysterical American girls.

It's never a very good idea to intervene in these situations, and we had absolutely no intention of being heroic. But we had met the Americans only about 30 minutes before and liked them - and one of us insisted on a closer investigation. It transpired later that the police had descended on the two lone females quite unexpectedly as they walked home to the youth hostel just a little ahead of us. But dashing in to rescue my curious friend, I found myself right in the heart of the melee.

One of the girls was being sexually assaulted by three policemen inside the car. Another was next to me, having her head smashed down on the ridge of the car roof by a burly policeman with an unpleasant moustache. As she went cross-eyed, I told him to stop. When he carried on, I pushed him a little.

This had the desired effect, but unfortunately transferred the exclusive attention of the whole group to me. The policeman shoved his gun in my stomach, getting gun oil all over my hands. The others knocked me down on the road and gathered into a circle to kick me. We were all taken to police headquarters, dashing through the night-time streets of Rome in a convoy with sirens blaring, as if we were the hottest of international criminals, rather than a handful of dazed British students.

My friend with the guitar came along for the ride - having nowhere else to go - and when the charges came to be doled out, he received the worst: insulting behaviour and armed assault on a policeman. Charged with simple assault, I found myself on remand at Regina Coeli prison - only the Italians could possibly call a prison 'Queen of Heaven' - locked up for 23 hours a day in a small cell with eight homosexual Egyptian pickpockets, and a number of tourists with experiences similar to mine.

It was a formative experience. I was told to expect a two-year jail sentence, and tried piecing together a little Italian from the scraps of newspaper we were allowed, and sending messages out to the British embassy asking them for help.

To this day, most of the words of Italian I know have something to do with penitentiaries: magistrate, warder, handcuffs. But three days later, it was the unexpected death of Pope Paul VI - this was the year of three popes - that led to a general amnesty for people like me, and I was released and thrown out of the country. The American girls had been sprung almost immediately. Their fathers were US diplomats.

As a Liberal-inclined student, used to nodding my head sagely whenever anyone discussed police brutality, I found that coming face to face with the real thing was actually a terrible shock. So reading the accounts of encounters with the police in Genoa, the beatings given to protesters and journalists alike, the pools of blood after a police raid on the anti-summit offices in the city, came as no surprise.

The New Economics Foundation pioneered the idea of on-the-spot challenges to the G7 - as it was then - back in 1984. We emerged out of the first of these events, The Other Economic Summit (TOES) in 1984, held alongside the London summit that year. It was an intellectual affair, attracting radical economists, futurists and greens from all over the world. Something of the kind, challenging the right of the summits to speak for the people of the earth, has been held alongside nearly every year since then.

If you want to trace the lineage of the anti-globalisation movement, that was where it began. It wasn't all tame. All the TOES organisers were arrested on the eve of the Munich summit in 1991. And if you look back at the radical new ideas of the original TOES - green taxation, ethical investment, alternative indicators - they are all now mainstream. All, in fact, Liberal Democrat policy.

The parallel People's Summits reached a crescendo in Birmingham in 1998, with the peaceful huamn chain of 70,000 people protesting against third world debt, organised by Jubilee 2000. It was moving and massively influential. Given that background - of Queen of Heaven prison and TOES - I know I might once have been cheering on the protesters in Genoa. But I wasn't.

Ironically, the violence that have followed world summits since the police so over-reacted in Seattle in 1999 has put the G8 on the defensive in a way that 16 years of TOES never achieved. That's a serious condemnation of political cynicism. But it has also entrenched attitudes and undermined the ability of the wider movement to put an alternative vision across.

As if globalisation can be reduced to a simple right or wrong. As if there was nothing particular the world leaders could do to create a just and sustainable economic system. If the summit leaders lack any kind of democratic legitimacy, so do the rioters.

The leaders certainly don't speak for me - or any of the people of those nations excluded from them. But neither do the people who beat up TV camera crews in the name of the excluded, or who smash up the premises of small businesses - wearing balaclavas and Nike sweatshirts - in London, Gothenburg and Genoa.

Nor is it good enough any more for the rest of us counter-summiteers to dismiss the violence as just a minority - when we all know the minority will hitch themselves to any demonstrations we organise.

So Genoa leaves me a with a feeling of exhausted rage. The smugness of the pampered politicians - G8 summits cost anything up to $500 million a throw. The continued scandal of the Italian police. The rioters and protesters who are delaying the moment when we call the world's leaders to account for the state of the planet.

As a graduate of Regina Coeli prison, I feel as suspicious as ever of unchecked state power. As a graduate of Earth and G8 summits over the past decade, I'm beginning to suspect we're missing the real challenge - whether the politicians are able to deliver on the greenhouse effect, or anything else. Whether it is corporate power, or the sheer complexity of the modern world, if politicians no longer have the power to solve the problems ahead - we urgently need to work out what to do instead.


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers