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ITALY: Genoa Awaits Protestors

by Alessandra StanleyNew York Times
July 19th, 2001

GENOA, Italy, July 18 -- Scrubbed, freshly painted and sealed off with metal fences, the harbor where a summit meeting for the world's major industrial nations will begin on Friday is quite calm -- the shuttered-down silence that enveloped the western frontier town before the shootout in "High Noon."

"It's a little scary, and I am coming home," a young woman whispered in Italian into her cellphone this morning as she turned her 2-year-old's stroller away from the harbor where the Group of 8 is to gather. Today it was all but deserted, except for roaming packs of police officers.

"It really does seem like we are under siege in some kind of war," the woman, Geraldine Brown, said apologetically, explaining why she was turning back.

British by birth, Ms. Brown is married to an Italian and works at a hair salon that will not open for business on Friday when President Bush and seven other government leaders arrive. Neither will almost all of the other shops and restaurants inside the so-called red zone, a secure six- square-mile area where leaders will meet from Friday though Sunday. Some anti-globalization groups have pledged to penetrate the zone.

More than 100,000 demonstrators are expected to come to Genoa to protest what they view as a United States-led global capitalism that exploits and further impoverishes the third world.

The surrounding counter-summit in many ways mirrors the meeting it seeks to denounce and disrupt tidy white canvas banquet tents, information booths, brochures, maps, housing (mostly of the squatter/tent variety), scheduled meetings, discussion groups and news conferences. The protesters, however, want the two parallel universes to collide.

And fears that groups of protesters and riot police officers will clash violently, as they have almost routinely since the first major anti-globalization protest in Seattle in 1999, is one reason so many residents have fled to other towns or other parts of the city. Others fear a terrorist attack, or anarchist bombs. Those few who remained watched uneasily as the police this morning erected the last gratings, concrete lined metal fences bolstered with steel poles, that seal off small alleys and other access routes to the harbor.

"Inside the red zone we are really protected, but we are so protected our clients can't get to us," Marisa Salvi, 55, complained as she stood guard over the veal in her empty butcher's shop a few blocks from the pink, motel-style Jolly Hotel Marina on the harbor where President Bush and about 130 members of his 700-member entourage will stay.

Genoa, a small medieval city whose port -- an odd blend of South Street Seaport-style restored warehouses and modern jetties -- is surrounded by high-rise-clotted hills, was not an obvious choice for a G-8 summit meeting. The last major international conference in Genoa was in 1922, a meeting of leaders discussing economic reconstruction of Europe after World War I. The meeting was hailed then as the largest international conference in history. It failed after Germany and the Soviet Union signed a separate pact of their own in nearby Rapallo.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a conservative media tycoon who was elected in May, initially said his center-left predecessors should take the blame if anything went wrong in Genoa, but has more recently decided his own prestige is also at risk. Italy spent more than $100 million on pre-summit restoration, infrastructure and security.

The prime minister, who has a keen sense of "bella figura," has made three inspection trips to Genoa since taking office. A little like a regional Soviet party boss, Mr. Berlusconi personally pointed out flaws and ordered last-minute changes, minor and major. Among other things, he called for a different color for a repainted facade across the street from the Ducal Palace where key meetings will take place, and ordered that a row of potted lemon trees be realigned.

When the prime minister asked that Genoese remove wet laundry from their windows while his important guests were in town, however, he went too far for some residents. Today, at least, damp sheets and undershorts fluttered proudly near Italian national flags.

Security, fueled by fears of terrorism and riots by protesters, is audible from the helicopters hovering above rooftops, and visible on the streets, where more than 16,000 police officers and army soldiers have been assigned to keep the peace, many of them already carrying riot helmets and batons on their belts.

But proper protocol is also a concern. At 11 tonight, Genoa police drivers, with the nervous solemnity of ushers at a wedding rehearsal, were practicing aligning their cars in a motorcade to pick up world leaders from the summit sessions at a snappy but dignified pace.

And nerves are edgy. A letter bomb exploded today in the Milan office of a television network news station that belongs to Mr. Berlusconi, lightly injuring a secretary, and in the northeastern city of Treviso an envelope sent to the headquarters of the clothes retailer Benetton burst into flames when it was opened in the company's mail room. No damage or injuries were reported.

But both attacks echoed a letter bomb that injured an officer in a Genoa police station on Monday. Dozens of false alarms have followed. The main wholesale produce market of Genoa was evacuated today after the police received an anonymous bomb threat at 5:40 a.m. that turned out to be a prank.

Also at dawn, more than 300 police officers in riot gear raided a Genoa stadium turned tent city that serves as the counter-summit headquarters of the more radical protest groups, whose slogan is "civil disobedience" and who promise to break through to the red zone. The police checked the tents and sleeping bags, but did not confiscate anything, not even shields and helmets kept in plain view.

"We have nothing to hide," said Luca Casarini, a leader of Tutte Bianche, or White Overalls, an Italian anti-globalization group. "If we did, we wouldn't have spent the last month talking about how to carry out civil disobedience at the G-8."

Genoa's four McDonald's restaurants were closed today, their windows shielded by wooden planks. The fast-food chain has become a target of protests at such gatherings.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jos Bove, the French farmer who became a cult hero after he went to prison for vandalizing a McDonald's in France, showed up in Genoa today.

For all the heightened security, the red zone, like many forbidden things in Italy, is not totally impregnable. One 21-year-old French protester, a university student who declined to give her name or hometown, confessed she had toured the zone with a male companion this morning.

"It looks like an occupied zone," she said with contempt. Asked how she managed to get past checkpoints without a pass, she blushed and explained, "I was wearing shorts."

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