Police Brutality in Italy: Remembering Genoa a Decade Later

Translated from Spanish by Alex Cachinero-Gorman

En Español: Italia: Recordando Genoa Una Década Despues

Ten years ago this past July, protests were organized against the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy. All of us in Europe had images of the movement born in Seattle in our eyes, and all of this Genoa business seemed to us like a date that you couldn’t miss—the chance to affirm that we were not a generation lacking ideals.

In the first few days, the tension was so thick that you could practically touch it: a packet-bomb exploded in a carabinieri barracks, another in the headquarters of a right-wing channel. The city was occupied by over 11 thousand men from the police force and—according to the BBC—the Italian government purchased some 200 body bags.

On Friday, July 20th, 2001, there was a veritable battle in Genoa. An authorized march of 15,000 activists that were dressed in protective/padded clothing, ready to react only if provoked, were attacked suddenly by the carabinieri. Looking at the pictures it’s hard to believe that they were taken in Italy: police beating bloody protesters lying on the ground; doctors with their Red Cross shirts struck with batons; police wagons barreling towards the crowd; protesters hurling rocks and other objects in a reaction that, according to the judges, was “justified” when faced with the “unjustified aggression by the carabinieri.” It is in those hours that Carlo Giuliani, 23 years old, died from the impact of a bullet fired by a young carabiniere, who then ran over his body two times with his Land Rover Defender. “1-0, us. I hope they all die”, said another cop over the radio to his colleague, referring to the violence against Giuliani.

Not long before, a platoon of police entered Plaza Manin, where the Rete Lilliput pacifists had gathered: they were beaten and insulted; some were arrested. Marina Pellis Spaccini, a doctor who found himself in the plaza, notes: “I am traumatized terribly because of that experience, and if this is true for me as an adult, then imagine how destructive this kind of thing could be for youth, who might have had, for the first time, the chance to express their ideals with joy.”

He was right: rage fills my eyes with tears when I see images from that day, and there are thirty year old men who still cry as they recount their experience in the Bolzaneto barracks or in the Diaz School. For years, many youth who had been in Genoa woke up in the middle of the night screaming, thinking that they were still in that hell.

In spite of everything, on July 21, 2001 we were 300,000 strong, and some of us were very young (as I was then), others older. From Catholics to kids squatting in social centers, everyone was behind placards that said “they are G8, we are 6,000,000,000.” The sun was beating down hard and we walked, sang, and received applause from people sticking their heads out of windows. A few hours later, those same people were witnesses from their houses to another day of insanity: again, youth, the elderly, doctors and journalists were beaten savagely by the police. “We did not distinguish between the forces of violence and the spokespeople for the Global Forum”, said Berlusconi, already prime minister then, demonstrating his solidarity with the forces of order.

All told, during those days 20 pistol shots were fired and 6,200 tear-gas canisters were launched, with almost a thousand injured demonstrators, one dead, and 250 detained. Some of the arrestees, selected randomly from among those assaulted by the police, were taken to the Bolzaneto barracks. “I thought I was having a nightmare”, a student and photographer for Indymedia stated: he was stopped in a bar bathroom, assaulted, insulted (“damned communist, we’re going to kill you all”) and taken to Bolzaneto.

“1, 2, 3, long live Pinochet”, the police sang while they subjected demonstrators to physical and psychological torture. The youth who found themselves in Bolzaneto were beaten, threatened with death and rape, and forced to march in file doing the fascist salute.

Richard Moth, from London, remembers being denied food and sleep for more than thirty hours, without even knowing what he had been accused of doing. “People there had serious head wounds that needed to be treated in a hospital. It was a climate of terror—we were in the hands of an arbitrary power.” A similar sensation is described by the Italian journalist Lorenzo Guadagnucci: “No one could have saved us: the police were already there, and they removed all points of reference. The moment that I returned to normalcy was when the magistrate arrived; the magistrate came to accuse me, but paradoxically, I felt relieved because it meant that I would return to the realm of law and order.”

On July 21, Guadagnucci found himself in the Diaz School, where a group of demonstrators had been sleeping, when police forces burst in and began to brutally attack everyone there. The break-in—later defined by the judges as “foreign to every rule and principle of humanity”—was documented live from the building in front of the school, headquarters of the Genoa Media Center and of the Genoa Legal Team. That is, until the police entered their facilities as well to destroy everything. Michelangelo Fournier, deputy chief of the police, testifies that “the scene was a Mexican slaughterhouse. There were four or five police just attacking the protesters viciously.”

Lena Zühlke, a German woman who found herself in the Diaz School, recounts: “I fell to the ground after the first or second time they hit me, and then they started hitting and kicking me. When I fell I was surrounded by at least ten or fifteen police, who were kicking me in the back, stomach, and legs. They hit me on my right hip and I felt my ribs cracking. They punched me in the head and I felt warm blood fall down my face. Later, they hauled me up and down the stairs, holding me by my head, and beat me again.”

Eighty-seven people were injured in the Diaz School, among them English journalist Mark Covell, who was left in a coma for four days with four broken ribs, a fractured hand, and a perforated lung. Almost all of the youth who slept in the school that night, which many have called “the Chilean night”, left on stretchers.

The pretext the forces of order used to justify the operation was that the school was a refuge for the black block—as if this could justify brutal violence against people sleeping. At any rate, the 97 youth in the school who were accused of property destruction and looting were all exonerated, and the evidence that the police gave against them was revealed to be fabricated by the police themselves.

Why did this happen? We still ask ourselves this question. Who ordered the Diaz School raid and the torture at Bolzaneto barracks? Who was in charge in those days?

During the last ten years, justice, with its slow gears, has begun to lurch into effect, and some of the culprits have been found and prosecuted. There have been numerous attempts to divert the process in order to protect the maximum amount of police officials from being implicated, to the point where judges have opened an investigation on this matter. Two high-ranking civil servants, one of whom is ex-chief of police Gianni De Gennaro, were convicted and sentenced to more than a year in jail for intent to falsify testimony. Despite this, both ended up being promoted. De Gennaro is today the head of the Italian secret service.

Mario Placanica, the carabiniere accused of killing Carlo Giuliani, was released on the basis of “legitimate self-defense”. According to the judges, Placanica fired into the air and the bullet hit a rock thrown by a protester, ricocheting into Giulani’s face and killing him. All 44 accused of the tortures committed in the Bolzaneto barracks have been required to pay compensation to the victims, but, in terms of the criminal implications, 37 of them saw their crime reduced before arriving at a final judgment. Police accused of the events at the Diaz School had similar luck: 25 of them were convicted in the second degree, but the crime could be reduced before a definitive conviction is reached. Ten executives who stood accused of serious crimes for what happened in Genoa have since been promoted.

This past July 23, 50,000 people marched in Genoa to demand truth and justice, and to remind everyone about the events of ten years ago. We were there and we will never forget it.

Photo from Flickr by San Soete