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Aug 2001

A city under siege

Auroville Today's correspondent Roger Harris reports from Genoa.


Genoa, seen from down the coast, flows like lava to the sea. In the Middle Ages, this once proud republic was granted trading concessions in the Mediterranean by Byzantium; it kept its arch-rivals Pisa and Venice at bay, and enjoyed a virtual monopoly of troop transports to the holy land during the crusades. The bank of St. George - named after the city's patron saint - was the western world's first bank - a word that comes from the small Genoese square: Piazza Dei Banchi, where money lenders and shipbrokers conducted their business from benches. Genoese banks financed the Spanish conquest of the Americas, as well as the journey of her most famous son Christopher Columbus. A third of Spain's plunder found its way into Genoese coffers. A proverb of the time went, "Silver is born in the Americas, passes through Spain and dies in Genoa." The choice of Genoa for the G8 meeting held in the city's ducal palace in July, was not therefore totally inappropriate.

Genoa is an organic, unplanned city par excellence, and the storeys of many of its buildings, added over the centuries, are like a catalogue of architectural styles in stone. A sense of verticality dominates the old city with the crumbling laundry-draped facades of its medieval high-rises, its winding alleys, marble portals, and shrines to the Virgin and St. George. The old section of the port is something of a North/South microcosm. Here, Ecuadorians phone home from makeshift booths, contraband of every sort is hawked by roadside vendors, sunlight is as rare as a letter slipped beneath the door, middle class Genoese ladies do their shopping in upscale boutiques, and open air vegetable markets are held in pocket squares where men play cards in griffon-draped cafés. On the corner of a shadowed street, three women - one stiletto-heeled in black - kneel and coddle their shared and common child, as a beam of sunlight briefly falls through a church's open door on a statue of the Virgin, the Madonna of the poor..

Genoa is not riot-squad friendly. It lacks the boulevards. And this normally teeming port became for four days in July, both a symbol and a city under siege. The port - Italy's busiest - was closed for a week, and one of the two main train stations for several days. Twenty thousand residents suddenly found themselves prisoners in their own city, three days before the conference began, when dozens of 5 metre high steel net gates embedded in concrete were erected overnight, sealing off the so-called red zone of the city. And video cameras connected to satellites provided the authorities with continual coverage of the comings and goings in the streets of the city. Sewers had previously been sealed, all this and more, for what amounted to a private meeting - of dubious legitimacy - in a ducal palace, of a group of potentates - the G8 - devoted to unchecked globalisation. A month before the meeting even a group of young entrepreneurs and industrialists at a two day conference in Santa Margherita, publicly expressed concern at the lack of governance of global capital.

But globalisation is not a one-way street and Jefferson's dream of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' remains the birthright of relatively few residents of our earth today.
Over a billion residents of our planet do not have access to potable water. A recent UN study estimated that it would cost ten billion dollars a year to provide drinking water to all residents of our planet. More than a billion people are illiterate but six billion dollars a year could provide elementary education for every child. Meanwhile Americans spend six billion dollars a year on cosmetics alone, and Europeans and Americans together spend seven billion dollars a year on dog and cat food. Americans also manage to consume a quarter of the world's petrol products, while even the Kyoto Treaty - watered down as it was - now like the Amazon, threatens to go up in smoke. According to Worldwatch's Jeremy Rifkin 40% of today's monetary wealth is concentrated in the hands of 366 individuals.

The 'People of Seattle' - so dubbed by the Italian press before the conference began - individuals and groups, many inspired by a tradition of libertarian thought ranging from Wycliffe to Bakunin, converged on Genoa to make their voices heard. Rag-tag band, rainbow tribe, or motley mix of both, it had been hoped that their campaign coordinated by an umbrella group, the Genoa Social Forum, would be one of creative civil disobedience. And if the vast majority of the over two hundred thousand protesters who converged on Genoa were intent on peaceful civil disobedience, the undiscriminating heavy-handedness of the police, and a hard-core anarchist fringe, soon turned Genoa into a battleground. With one young demonstrator dead and over five hundred wounded, the smoke rising from the streets rapidly eclipsed the discussions in the ducal palace.

Some would say that the G8 meeting is after all about relieving debt (whose debt anyway, and to whom?) and seeking solutions to the pressing North-South issues that the demonstrators wanted addressed now and for the future. One feels however that some of the participants in the ducal palace meeting had little choice and hardly could afford, given the events that occurred, not to pledge substantial sums for health and the relief of poverty in the world. But one is reminded of Sri Aurobindo's aphorism: "The existence of poverty is the proof of an unjust and ill-organised society and our public charities but the first tardy awakenings in the conscience of a robber.".

The Mother predicted the end of communism, but also foresaw the end of captialism as we know it. But where today are the practical alternatives? Where is the true third way? "There should be somewhere on earth a place...".

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