Johann Hari: These G8 protests are vital for the world, so we must avoid the violence of Genoa

My favourite were the Pink Fairies, dressed as their name demands, who preached 'tactical frivolity'

Share

The Make Poverty History protests in a fortnight give us an incredible opportunity. The leaders of the world's most powerful states, gathering in Scotland, will be faced by the only superpower that should count in the end - global public opinion. Hundreds of thousands of protesters will form a giant white band around the city of Edinburgh demanding justice for the people of Africa. They want an end to the unfair trade rules that suffocate Africa's economy, a doubling of aid, and a cancellation of African debt. They will be reflecting the will of Africa's 900 million people, unrepresented at the global top table.

The Make Poverty History protests in a fortnight give us an incredible opportunity. The leaders of the world's most powerful states, gathering in Scotland, will be faced by the only superpower that should count in the end - global public opinion. Hundreds of thousands of protesters will form a giant white band around the city of Edinburgh demanding justice for the people of Africa. They want an end to the unfair trade rules that suffocate Africa's economy, a doubling of aid, and a cancellation of African debt. They will be reflecting the will of Africa's 900 million people, unrepresented at the global top table.

If these voices are drowned out by aggressive policing and a small minority of violent protesters, this opportunity will be tossed away. It has happened before. Last time there were huge demonstrations outside a G8 meeting was Genoa in 2001. I still remember the body of Carlo Giuliani, a protester gunned down and run over by the Italian police. I remember slipping on a carpet in a youth hostel that had been raided hours before by the Italian police, and realising the crunch beneath my feet came from broken teeth. I remember how badly it all went wrong.

Thanks to the violence, most people remember Genoa - if at all - as a brief whiff of rage and teargas and nothing more. This is a travesty of what Genoa was about, and it will be a travesty if Edinburgh goes the same way.

So what went wrong in Italy that summer, and how can we avoid it happening here? First, the myths must be debunked. The vast majority of protesters who went to Genoa were peaceful and - far from being the "football hooligans" or "anarchist travelling road-show" conjured up by the right-wing press - extremely smart and clued-up.

They were people like Anna Tuit, a Dutchwoman in her mid twenties whom I met. She worked for several years for Médecins Sans Frontières, a humanitarian aid charity that had a strong unofficial presence in Genoa. She explained that she had recently worked in Africa and was protesting that corporate globalisation is denying Aids drugs to dying people.

"I was seeing people who could be treated - whose lives could be extended by 10, 20, 30 years - but we could offer them nothing. The Western pharmaceutical companies do not permit the manufacture of cheap generic Aids drugs in Africa, because they want to protect their copyright and their patents. Our governments put this corporate interest before the human interest. So thousands of people die. I can't just forget the people we turned away."

Or they were groups like - my favourite - the Pink Fairies (dressed as their name demands), who preached the doctrine of "tactical frivolity". They built a "revolutionary spaghetti catapult" to "splatter the leaders with pasta". It didn't work out, but they did succeed in organising a "mass laughing session". When the leaders gathered for their pompous photo-shoot, tens of thousands of protesters simultaneously fell into long, infectious laughing fits, to show - as one protester put it - "how ridiculous, how offensive, how beneath us we find their little power games while so many people are starving". Genoa shook, not with bombs but with laughter.

So how did this sound get drowned out? The main reason is unbelievably aggressive policing. The Italian police weren't just cack-handed; they went out of their way to provoke the protesters, tossing around teargas like it was confetti. I even saw them gas a gaggle of nuns protesting against debt. Hundreds of people determined to protest peacefully saw red and rioted.

Ah, we cluck, but our police aren't so frightfully vulgar, are they? Our police will be the opposite: hands-off and cooling-down - surely? We can't take this for granted. At the recent May Day demonstrations, the Scottish police were notably aggressive, and the Scottish Centre for Human Rights warns they are under huge pressure from the security services of eight countries - and especially the UK national government - to be even tougher.

So what red flags might be waved at the protesters? The police are likely to resort to Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, as they have across Britain over the past few years. This allows them to stop and search anyone they like, without giving a reason and without any reasonable suspicion, in any area they deem risky.

Many of us would accept these powers if the police used them only, say, to track a Madrid-style train bomber, but they are being routinely used against peaceful protests. In 2003, a group who gathered to protest against the Defence Systems and Equipment International arms fair in east London were detained under Section 44. How are they "terrorists"? Indeed, they were trying to stop the sale of weapons to leaders - like those of Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan - who terrorise their own people.

The human rights group Liberty predicts that Section 44 will be used in Edinburgh. Memo to the police: tell people they are being stopped under a law designed for mini-Bin Ladens, and you are guaranteed to provoke rage.

That's not all. The police are also trying to block a demo that would pass by the Gleneagles Hotel on 6 July. Why are we giving the security services £10m a PM or president if they can't deal with a simple, peaceful march? In Genoa, this kind of ban - erecting a stupidly large "red zone" in the centre of town where protesters were forbidden - was a boon to the small "black bloc" of violent protesters. Why repeat the mistake?

But the responsibility isn't only on Them; some of it falls to Us too. To the protesters - it is essential that, if the police do play up again, don't let yourselves be provoked. Don't play into the hands of the people who want to dismiss this movement as the ravings of the irrelevant or irreverent. And that goes to the people considering violent protest too. Whatever you think of the ethics of violence - and I'm no pacifist - please realise that in this instance, every violent act will be a gift to the enemies of the African people and of global justice.

Remember how high the stakes are. In the first week of July, the world will only hear one message. It could be the sound of breaking glass and the hiss of teargas. Or it could be the sound of millions of people united behind Nelson Mandela's message to the End Poverty History campaign: "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Many of the world's poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free." It's down to you.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

HR Advisor (Employee Relations) - Kentish Town, NW London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor (Employee Rela...

Derivatives Risk Commodities Business Analyst /Market Risk

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Derivatives Risk Commodities Business A...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: eurogloom, Ed in Red and Cameron's Wilsonian U-turn on control orders

John Rentoul
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering