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Blood on the Streets as Guns Do All the Talking
Published on Sunday, July 22, 2001 in the Observer of London
Blood on the Streets as Guns Do All the Talking
Noreena Hertz joined a trainload of British protesters, hoping to be part of a non-violent demonstration. There was little chance of that
by Noreena Hertz

We are kept apart from the other travelers, taken into a pen to await the ferry to Calais, the first leg of the anarchist journey to the G8 protests - 300 people who, thanks to the armory of the movement [mobile phone and email] were able to mobilize within hours to board a train that only 13 hours before had been officially banned.

Among them is a 50-plus-year-old Manchester secretary who had never been on a protest before but had 'just had enough'. John, who is 18, has just taken A-levels at a comp round the corner from where I grew up. Also there is Brian the pacifist priest, and Doris, an 82-year-old pensioner. Age range diverse, accents diverse - this is not a middle-class rebellion, not anarchist chic - this is people who are united by ideals, not by class.

P&O reveals a sense of humor. 'We welcome the group of young conservatives aboard,' says the captain. We oblige and laugh. We stay together, while our guitar player attempts to compete with Hear'Say. A Brummie family ignores us and plays poker bang in the middle of our group. I mean, it's not like we look any different to the other travelers

Panic buying at Prisunic when we arrive. It is rumored that most of our group is still held up at passport control and will not have enough time to buy provisions before our train leaves. We buy for 300. Our train is really rather plush. SWP [Socialist Workers Party] bandannas are used as flags to wave out of windows along with Globalise Resistance T-shirts. Solidarity is the name of the game.

'The important thing is to remain together as a group,' I am told. We set up a communal food carriage to which travelers are told to contribute provisions. In the corridor, a GM versus anti-GM argument breaks out. A defender of GM technologies aboard an anti-globalization train! Unexpected, to say the least.

On the train
About 80 of us discuss our objectives. It seems there is only one - to tear down the fence. The fence has become a symbol of the issues that divide those that have and those that have not. I understand the symbolic value of the fence but I am unsure about the emphasis on tearing it down.

I am also disturbed by the tone of the meeting. The talk is of a 'jihad' as a response to the violence committed by those in power against those who are dispossessed. A key concern of the majority - who have never faced tear gas - is its effects. We have only half a dozen protest veterans. 'It's like pepper in your throat or chili pepper in your eyes,' we are told. 'Just keep walking ahead and remember why you are here. Remember what this mission is about.'

A girl of about 16 who is traveling with her mum tells us she is asthmatic. Can she put on her inhaler when the tear gas is fired? No, says a veteran of Prague and Seattle. 'It'll only pull more tear gas into your lungs.' We know the Italian police have rubber bullets. There were also reports last week that live ammunition would be used. This movement does not need martyrs but I am scared that with all this frenzy we will get them.


We arrive just as the violence erupts. I can feel tear gas vapor in my throat. There are clouds of black smoke and helicopters whirr overhead. I am not willing to die for this cause. The streets are eerily empty. I came to chronicle non-violent protests but there were none. Shop after shop is boarded up. I sit down in the middle of the road to gather my thoughts. I walk for miles in search of the nonviolent demonstrations that I am sure must be taking place.

Back at the hotel, I watch image after TV image of cars burning and smashed-up shops. I learn of the dead protester and see his image: his almost black blood matching his black uniform. These are pictures of war. I see the fence and I see a bare-chested man dancing while a water cannon is fired directly into his back. I see more and more pictures of police kicking and punching protesters who are clearly not throwing anything and seemingly doing nothing. I watch slow-mo footage of a policeman smashing his fist into a young protester's face.

My phone starts ringing and I hear more war stories from my fellow travelers I turn and look out of my open window. A gnarled old man is standing on the terracotta balcony of his home. I can hear the same news footage blaring from his TV. His head raises as he looks up at the helicopter that is circling. He does not know he is being watched. He makes the sign of the cross and slowly wipes a tear from his eye. What is this movement about? What has this day become?


I am back on the streets with hundreds of thousands of others. Drums are beating, whistles blowing. It is rumored that the G8 summit has been shut down. More jubilation. The dead man is forgotten. Then there is a surge as the crowd changes direction. People start running towards me. Tear gas fills my eyes, and constricts my throat. I run into an alleyway. Away from the crowds I understand how difficult it is to define this movement. Its goals, its objectives and its very essence keep on shifting.

Noreena Hertz is author of The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (242pp, Heinemann, £12.99)

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001


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