A city under siege
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
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...".