Genoa: Dean from London likes a 'good' demo. But nothing prepared him for a day like this

Who are the protesters and what do they want? For this special report, 'The Independent on Sunday' followed a group of British activists from London to Genoa
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Dean Ryan packed his bag for Genoa helped by his 18-month-old son Quincy. A veteran of many demonstrations, Mr Ryan, 35, from east London, describes himself as a revolutionary. Though formerly a useful amateur boxer, he shows no signs of being a violent man, just quietly determined and committed to his cause.

He works with children with profound disabilities and challenging behaviour. In the evenings he hosts meetings and distributes political leaflets.

In Genoa on Friday, after several hours of being tear-gassed and herded along in the heat of the Italian sun, Mr Ryan spent his time handing out leaflets and flyers to "comrades". So what made him leave behind his child and partner just to get tear-gassed outside the ring of steel surrounding the G8 summit? He has a deep loathing of what he sees as the injustices wrought by capitalism. But there is more: clearly Mr Ryan likes a good demonstration.

Genoa, however, was not a "good" demonstration. He is distressed at the way it has turned out. It should have been a chance for the radical left to exercise their right to non-violent direct action in an attempt to shut down the G8 summit.

"We are a bit disappointed," he said late on Friday night, "because we missed the start of the mass demo. Instead we ended up in a square just chilling out with some pacifists. It was a bit fluffy, but then the anarchists turned up, followed by the police. We spent the rest of the day moving from place to place and being tear-gassed by police. And all we wanted to do was find a good place to demonstrate."

Clutching his rucksack, he was in a group of about 300 who shifted around Genoa until they could bed down for the night in the convention centre at Piazzale Kennedy on Genoa's waterfront. Earlier it had been the centre of the fighting. It was supposed to be a co-ordination point and refuge for anti-globalisation protesters. Anarchists used the centre as a redoubt, taking refuge from the police there between attacks until they were driven off by tear gas.

It had all started so differently. As Dean was packing his bag, a trainload of anti-capitalists travelled to the summit on a specially chartered train. The mood on board was celebratory.

"I don't care what they say about tear gas and make-up – I'm wearing my lipstick when I get to Italy," said Rosie Kirwan. "You have to look your best in Italy. They are so stylish."

Rosie, aged 40, and her daughter Sinead, 16, were heading for Genoa. Just 24 hours later the Kirwans were stuck in the middle of pitched battles, tear gas, flames and death.

The Kirwans do not fit most people's image of anarchist demonstrators. Rosie, from Hackney, east London, wanted to stress that she is not an anarchist but a die-hard Trotskyist and long-serving member of the Socialist Workers Party. Sinead, her daughter, led a walk-out of children at her school at the age of 14.

The Kirwans chatted with a retired vicar and an 82-year-old former army major. None of them was prepared, however, for the shock of the violence they witnessed in Genoa on Friday. The killing of 23-year-old demonstrator Carlo Giuliani caused widespread anger and trepidation.

"The police should be held accountable," Rosie Kirwan said. "The anarchists are crazy but the police caused a lot of confrontations yesterday. It was totally outrageous. There is no equation between people with sticks and stones, and shooting the anarchists who throw them."

Yesterday started in sunshine and solidarity. The British protesters attended a meeting of international socialists: Greek, French and British comrades sang The Internationale. They assembled for a Drop the Debt march, the planned highlight of the weekend attended by an estimated 300,000. Many wore black armbands in honour of Giuliani.

Despite the tragedy, spirits were high until a splinter group of around 2,000 broke off from the march to seek further clashes with the police. Soon they were engulfed in smoke as cars were set ablaze. The police replied with volleys of tear gas. The hardcore anarchists, frustrated by their inability to lock horns with the police, began to attack journalists in their midst. TV crews and reporters from Germany and Japan were jostled, struck and spat at.

At 4pm yesterday a rumour spread through the crowd that the G8 summit had been cancelled. Spontaneous dancing broke out as euphoric demonstrators hugged each other. "This is a brilliant day," said Dean. "Without a doubt this has made it all worthwhile."

The crowd saw it as a victory. But it was not true – Blair, Bush and Berlusconi carried on their talks, behind the wall of steel and a fog of rumour and tear gas. It was not what the passengers on the "Anarchist Express" had hoped for or planned.

Mick Cropper is 63; his partner Shirley is back home dying of liver cancer and he had hoped to make a difference. "I am not going to be able to stop much – it will be business as usual – but at least I will be an inspiration for my three grandchildren," said Mr Cropper, a former miner born and bred in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire.

"I do tend to lean towards anarchism. That doesn't mean I want to throw a brick through McDonald's – anybody can do that. but I do believe in freedom without licence." He explained that he writes for an anarchists' magazine called Raven.

Tom Conway, 82, who was an Army major in India, is the oldest of the protesters. He said: "I am here because I would like to be part of a world revolution which will mean that at long last there will be fewer poor people in the world." Demonstrating at Genoa with his friend Tony Hodgson, 66, a retired vicar, he explained: "I am the opposite of an anarchist. I believe in order but not order that is imposed from above but from the grass roots." By the end of his day he had been tear-gassed and marched through Genoan streets.