Associate professor Gianni Piazza
At first glance, Giardini Naxos, Sicily, doesn’t appear to be on the brink of anti-globalist chaos. Families gallivant on the beach. Men with torsos the colour of burnt umber play volleyball nearby. Tourists debate the relative merits of dinner and pre-dinner sundowners. The lido hangs suspended between the twin pillars of crassness and luxury that seem to define resort towns the world over.
And then, out of nowhere, two helicopters come buzzing low over the Mediterranean like insects bearing viral infections and head towards the picturesque town on the cliffs to the north-east: the impregnable, inaccessible Taormina, where this year’s G7 summit begins today. A fighter jet makes a similarly ominous pass, more like a bird of prey than an insect, swooping and roaring and giving one the impression that it may yet dive into the ocean and come out having murdered a shark. A shopkeeper boards up his windows as though preparing for a hurricane. A police car passes and then another. Three more do the same by the end of this sentence. The people watch with a mix of boredoms. Then one hears that talismanic place name, uttered in either anxiety or anticipation, and not only when one brings it up in conversation: Genoa. It’s not far from anyone’s mind.
In 2001, the G8 summit in Genoa was, depending on your position on these things, either marred or consecrated by violent clashes between protesters and police. The event left two dead, hundreds injured, and a mottled, crimson stain on the state that refuses to come out more than a decade and a half later. Only Seattle’s anti-WTO protests in 1999 command as important a place in the No Logo generation’s imagination.
Genoa is certainly looming large in the imaginations of those now gearing up to protest this weekend’s summit, even though they will be unable to protest it in Taormina itself. (The summit’s name change — the subtraction that shocked no one — was necessitated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea three years ago. The country’s invitation was rescinded, and we’ve been living with the results ever since. The G7 only discusses the state of the world. It’s Vladimir Putin who determines the fate of it.)
A tourist favourite for its Greco-Roman ruins, stunning vistas, and proximity to Mount Etna — the most volatile thing in the region after Donald Trump — Taormina will be locked down for the duration of the event, much to the reported ire of the town’s hoteliers. (My own was devastated to have to cancel my booking. He practically begged me to return and forgive him.) Drones will hover overhead throughout. Both the Manchester terror attack and Monday’s broad daylight Mafia hit in the Sicilian capital of Palermo have only increased security concerns. Protesters and journalists have been relegated to Giardini Naxos just to be on the safe side.
Gianni Piazza is an associate professor of political sociology at the University of Catania. His office is decorated with Occupy Wall Street posters and fliers advertising demonstrations in support of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units, in Rojava. Tano d’Amico’s famed portrait of a masked protester facing down a carabiniere at a 1977 demonstration against Giorgiana Masi’s murder takes pride of place above his desk. It serves as a reminder to get and stay angry. He tells me that while violence on the scale of Genoa is unlikely to occur at this year’s summit, concerns remain that the Italian authorities will attempt to curtail freedom of movement and assembly in the lead-up to events in both Giardini Naxos and Catania, where marches, concerts and a “counter-summit” have been planned.
“Italian police have ways of controlling the protesters and preventing them from attending demonstrations,” Piazza said. “They can stop buses outside Giardini, hold the protesters until the demonstrations are over, and then let them go again. This is pushing the limits of the law, but they did it in Rome [when activists flocked to the capital in March to protest the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome]. The police can then point to the ‘failure’ of the demonstrations. This is a great risk.”
“In theory, you are able to demonstrate,” he says. “In practice, it will be very difficult.”
Vanya, 19, is a German activist currently based in Palermo. She’s one of more than a hundred from the city — “One of the great things about Palermo is that our collectives are all connected,” she told me — who have committed to making the 250-kilometre trek to the east coast this weekend.
She says that if any violence occurs during the events, it won’t be because the protesters have instigated it.
“We don’t want anything like that to happen,” she said. “All we want is to peacefully protest against racism, unemployment and war.”
But she admits that the possibility of anonymous “black bloc” protesters hijacking events does exist and always will. And even though she was only a toddler 16 years ago, Genoa has been on her mind as well.
“Some members of my collective were in Genoa in 2001,” she says, “but they don’t want to get too nostalgic about it.”
“When you get nostalgic, you start to protest against the old issues. We want to look forward and fight against what matters now.”
It’s true that a lot has changed over the past 16 years, not least in southern Italy. For many, the selection of Sicily as the site of the summit suggests a certain tone-deafness precisely for this reason.
Piazza points out that Sicily has long been home to a substantial movement against the US military presence on the island, particularly its Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) near Sigonella, which activists oppose on health, environmental and moral grounds. (Australia hosts a MUOS ground station at the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena near Geraldton. Professor Piazza marvels that we haven’t protested against it to the same degree that his countrymen have theirs.)
“In Sicily there has been, and is, a great mobilisation against the MUOS,” he says. “And there is substantial crossover between the anti-MUOS and anti-G7 movements.”
Southern Italy has also been hard-hit by the eurozone crisis, which many activists see as an inevitable result of the sort of globalisation preached by the summit’s participating governments. Sicily’s youth unemployment sits at a whopping 57.2%, the fifth highest of any region in the EU, and the second highest in Italy after Calabria. “We have thousands of migrants arriving from North Africa every day and hundreds of young people migrating to northern Italy or other parts of Europe at the same time,” Professor Piazza says. “After they get their degrees, most of my students want to go elsewhere. This is the migration crisis no one talks about.”
But he also points out—it should go without saying, but it’s easy to get caught up in these things—that most Sicilians are just trying to get on with it. The word “Genoa” still strikes fear in the hearts of many, not least Giardini Naxos’s mayor, Pancrazio Lo Turco, who went on the record this week to say that he wants nothing more than for the whole nightmare, which he’s essentially been lumped with, to be over. For his part, the mayor of Taormina, Eligio Giardina, has described himself as the “most hated man” in town as a result of his willingness to host the summit. He claims he’s pulled off “the impossible” and has tried to sell it as an investment in infrastructure, but his constituents don’t appear to buying it. (I’d tell you exactly what they think, but your correspondent failed to get accredited in time despite the sterling efforts of this website’s editor.)
“We have many activists, committees and mobilisations in Sicily,” Piazza said. “But the majority of the population here is resigned to the situation.”
At an anti-G7 event at Palermo’s Centro Sociale ExKarcere — replete with jugglers, local beer on tap, and at least three Che Guevara murals — Mattia, 28, says the decision to host the G7 in Sicily proves that there’s no mainstream Italian party willing to stand up to the “forces of globalisation” anymore.
He laments the failure of Italy’s left to capitalise on this opportunity, allowing populist parties such as Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement — the peninsula’s equivalent of France’s Front National and the UK’s flailing UKIP — to garner significant support instead.
“I don’t feel represented at all,” he said. “The Italian left isn’t organised like in they are in Greece or Spain.”
“But it doesn’t make sense for me to go to Giardini Naxos, either,” he said. “These people will make decisions for us anyway.”
“Even if a thousand of us say ‘no’.”