First Tear Gas, Now Bullets

Activists Weigh the Cost of Confrontation

Hannes Westberg, 19, has spent the past few weeks in a hospital bed in Gothenburg, Sweden, the victim of panicked cops who fired live ammunition into a crowd of anti-globalization protesters during the June European Union summit. The son of a renowned Swedish physician and anti-nuclear activist, Westberg was one of three youths hit; he lost his spleen and a kidney.

That same month, police in Papua New Guinea shot 17 university students—killing three—who were peacefully dispersing a demonstration against the World Bank and IMF. These shootings have significantly upped the ante in the escalating war between police and protesters at global summits. "It's definitely a wake-up call," says Eric Laursen of the New York City Direct Action Network, which has been staging weekly vigils outside the Swedish and Papua New Guinea consulates. "People have to realize that these are international protests, and that there were Americans in Gothenburg who could have been shot, too."

While many activists feel galvanized by the repressive policing, others question whether the level of street combat at recent events has gone too far. They fear the violence from small factions of militants—greatly amplified by the media—plays to police efforts to demonize the movement, while obscuring its pro-democracy aims.

In Genoa this week, authorities have responded with near hysteria to the 100,000 demonstrators expected to descend on the ancient Italian port city during the meeting of the G8—the seven richest nations plus Russia. A missile defense system has been installed to guard against airborne attacks (there've been rumors of an assassination plot on President Bush by Osama bin Laden), and more than 18,000 police and paramilitary troops have been mobilized in one of the biggest security buildups in the country's postwar history. The airport, train stations, and access roads will be shut down and the center city blockaded with armored trucks. That hasn't daunted the militant anarchists of Italy's Tute Bianche (White Overalls) movement, whose members are plotting a mixture of seaborne assaults and medieval-style attacks using battering rams and catapults to launch dead fish and paint bombs at police.

The mere threat of mass demonstrations has succeeded in putting the global elites on the run. Last month the World Bank decided to hold its June meeting over the Internet rather than risk a tear-gas-soaked riot in Barcelona. (Thousands turned out anyway, resulting in violent clashes when police stormed the crowd.) And with few places willing to endure another "Battle of Seattle," the World Trade Organization is hosting its November ministerial in Qatar—a repressive monarchy where street protest is illegal.

But disrupting the pageantry of trade summits is one thing; building a broad-based, enduring campaign against global inequity and the abuses of corporate power is another. Though the vast majority of protesters remain nonviolent, in Europe at least, the violence of a few threatens to alienate the public at large. Covering Sweden, the press was more outraged by the rowdy "mobs" who tore up cobblestones and set café chairs ablaze than by the cops who lost control. Mainstream groups like the U.K.'s Drop the Debt considered pulling out of this week's actions in Genoa because of the prospect of further violence between police and protesters there.

"All this whiz-bang of tear gas and rubber bullets diverts the public's mind from what's at stake," says Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange. "We're losing the substance of our critique. If anything, we need to be superdisciplined. The movement is still trying to work out how we police ourselves."

With confrontations ranging from dangerous to comic, imposing order may be impossible. In Prague, during the IMF and World Bank meeting last fall, police were set aflame with molotovs. This spring in Quebec City, the violence at the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas summit was more a defensive, even sardonic, measure. Cops were hammered with everything from snowballs and teddy bears to chunks of concrete, pool cues, slingshot marbles, and a couple of flaming Christmas trees.

Carolyn Bninski, 51, of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, watched from a hotel room as riot police advanced on a crowd gathered round a bonfire in the middle of a downtown Quebec City thoroughfare. "I'm fully committed to overturning the FTAA and the economic oppression that lies behind it, but I want to do it nonviolently," said Bninski, as skirmishes broke out below. "To me, nonviolence is not a strategy or a tactic; it's a philosophy. It's about being willing to take on suffering so that people will be won over to the righteousness of your cause."

At the word suffering, Blackstar, an 18-year-old anarchist from Denver, grimaced. "People between 16 and 22 years old are pissed off as hell because in 15 to 20 years, the planet is going to be a fucking wasteland," he said. "So we don't want to be passive anymore. Those are old tactics for older times."

Their late-night exchange shows the difficulty this still congealing movement has in forging a coherent strategy of mass protest. At one pole are pacifists like Bninski, veterans of the anti-nuke and Central America solidarity efforts, who take their model from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. At the other are a small but increasingly visible group of radicals who believe that militant confrontations—everything from smashing Starbucks to chucking rocks at police lines—work.

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