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The City Burns, A Young Man Lies Dead...And Around Him the Battle Rages On
Published on Saturday, July 21, 2001 in the Guardian of London
The City Burns, A Young Man Lies Dead...
And Around Him the Battle Rages On
by John Vidal
 
In front of me a young man lies dead under a white sheet. His body is surrounded by 80 police officers in gasmasks, with riot shields, truncheons and guns. Not one looks more than 20 years old - the age, it is said, of the dead man.

They shift nervously. No one knows exactly what happened. A doctor says the man has two head wounds. One looks like the wound from a stone, she says. The other, in his cheek, could be that of a bullet.

He has already become the unknown protester. One demonstrator says he heard a gunshot. Another says he saw the body driven over by a police van. All that is certain is that it happened at the height of one of the worst riots that Europe has known in decades.

The youth lies dead and Genoa is burning, a city in which Tony Blair and his fellow leaders of the G8 group of the world's richest countries are meeting behind 13ft steel barricades protected by 18,000 police officers.

There is a temporary silence as an ambulance comes to take away the body, and both sides contemplate what has happened. But just 200 yards away, on a side street, eight officers have cornered another young man fleeing from them. They pile in with truncheons and he takes 20 blows to his head and body. Amazingly, he gets up, bloodied, staggering and disoriented. A minute later he collapses. The volunteer medic teams rush over to him.

The helicopters buzz 75ft overhead, and back in the square the shocked crowd is furious. They chant "assassins, assassins" at the police.

This was one of most beautiful cities in Europe. Now stones and rubbish litter the streets. Shops, banks, super markets, post offices, garages and other businesses are destroyed. All around is desolation, fury and destruction.

Fires still burn round Brignole rail station. Police vans, armored personnel carriers, water cannon and protesters rush through the town. Teargas is fired in one direction as the stones fly in another. Nobody knows quite what has happened or where trouble will flare next. The only certain thing is that there have been many injuries - 93 by the official tally. Behind me a park of 20 cars has been torched. The air swells with smoke, teargas and anger.

The accusations of overzealous policing and violent demonstrators now fly. Questions are also asked about whether city-based G8 summits like this can ever be held again. But this is a complex situation. Not all protesters or all police have been intent on wreaking havoc.

Up to 2,000 anarchists pulled the trigger for the violence. They are mainly German, with some Italians, French and other Europeans. Some are British members of the Animal Liberation Front, scrawling "ALF" on the walls.

Of the 35,000 to 40,000 demonstrators here, all but that small minority of anarchists have signed up to the principle of peaceful protest. At meeting points protesters are searched to ensure no one is carrying sticks or stones. But the activists say the way the police reacted to the anarchists and ambushed peaceful marchers has inflamed thousands.

The Genoa Social Forum, with its 700 groups from across the world committed to non-violence, negotiated with the police and is devastated. "This is unacceptable," says a spokesman. "We have been provoked by a level of state and anarchist violence that was unimaginable. The G8 and the government must be blamed, but we must accept our share of responsibility."

In Via Tolemead, confrontation becomes inevitable the moment the police rush forward to grab the plastic barricades of one of the marchers. The crowd behind surges forward and three people fall. The police beat a man. The protesters surge forward and gain 20 yards. Suddenly the police are in retreat. A spokesman for the protesters comes forward to negotiate: "We had agreed this route," he says. The police retreat again.

But now some of the anarchists have started stoning the police from a side street. A van of carabinieri stalls and the anarchists launch themselves on it, as if on a wounded animal. In minutes they have broken all its windows. The five policemen inside open the doors and run for it. The van is torched, to cheers.

All day there has been mayhem. Sticks, stones, teargas, fireworks, flares, bottles and truncheons have been thrown back and forth. Barricades of wood and metal have been set alight under a bridge. It is now 7.30pm. In the distance protesters and the police are beating their drums under a pall of smoke. The battle for the city has lasted eight hours and may go on sporadically all night.

In one square, the anarchists still rule. A dozen have broken into a small supermarket, ransacked shelves and are handing out ice-cream and wine. They are dangerously drunk.

One, a German, snatches my notebook, spits in my face, raises his stick. He looks no more than 20. His comrades strut around behind black flags and drums, smashing and burning everything, turning on anyone in their path.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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