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The Bitter Taste of Evian – A Diary of the G-8 Summit

The G-8 Summit took place on 1-3 June 2003 in Evian, France, overlooking Lake Geneva. Too small for the large delegations and translation teams, Chirac persuaded Switzerland to lend him its hotels, highways and police forces on the other side of the lake. With Evian a no-go militarised zone even to a comedy terrorist, attention focused on three key locations outside: nearby Annemasse in France, and the coastal towns of Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland. Tens of thousands of protesters travelled from across Europe and the world to denounce the "Gang of 8", declare the meeting illegitimate and shut it down. Stuart Hodkinson was one of them. The following extracts are taken from his G-8 diary.

July 1, 2003
11 min read

Friday 30 May

Early evening. Police and army patrol Geneva airport. In the boarded-up streets, small multinational pockets of activists spread word about campsites, meetings and police positions. Today has been the “no borders” protest: actions demand free movement and free communication and highlight the growing restrictions on migration and intellectual property. This morning, hundreds of people occupied a train from Annemasse to Geneva and got across the border for free before joining thousands more in afternoon protests outside the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). An evening critical mass bike ride blocks traffic. For the second consecutive night, small-scale riots meet indiscriminate tear gas. Newspapers are already leading on the “violence”, with the “black bloc” and local youths – “les casseurs” (the breakers) – blamed.

Saturday 31 May

It’s midday and Geneva is strangely quiet. My homemade protest guide leads us to “Maison des Associations” – a huge building host to workshops and conferences, groups and stalls, alternative radio, some great kebabs, and, of course, the irrepressible Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Direct action to block the opening of the summit is planned for tomorrow, but details are sketchy. Bridge blockades are planned for 5am to stop delegates reaching Evian by road or boat, with similar actions planned in Annemasse and Lausanne. Mass demonstrations will then leave Annemasse and Geneva at 10am and converge at the border.

Five hundred people pack into an anti-war meeting addressed by rebel Labour MP George Galloway. There’s too much triumphalism and hot air, while the reception for Galloway borders on hysteria. One speaker, however, does stand out: Amir Abdul Rekaby, an exiled Iraqi left writer associated with the Iraqi National Alliance, calls for an Iraqi popular assembly, independent of the US administration, and asks the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements to help build it. An emotional standing ovation is marred by the behaviour of Galloway who refuses to stand or even clap. How strange.

Turned off by Geneva, we head down the coast to Lausanne where more people are urgently needed for tomorrow’s blockades. Like Geneva and Annemasse, Lausanne has two activist campsites: a legal site at “la bourdonette”, negotiated between the anti-repression teams and the Swiss authorities, and an “illegal” squatted site called “Oulala – C’Village”. We head to la bourdonette, following advice that it will be “safer” vis-à-vis the police. All the activist “blocs” are in Lausanne: from the non-violent direct action “pink and silvers”, “aqua”, and “chocolate” to the more confrontational “anthracit” and “black” blocs. Most activists are aged between 15-30. In the fading light, hundreds bring their bowls of pasta to a general meeting in five different languages to discuss tomorrow’s blockades. Information is scarce, partly due to police infiltration fears. All we know is to set

our alarms for 5.30am. That night, hundreds of fires are lit around the shores of the lake in opposition to the G-8. More serious disturbances filter through from Geneva. For now, all is peaceful here.

Sunday 1 June – G-8 Summit Opens

“Pink and silver wake-up call, it’s 5.30am Pink and silver WAKE UP, IT’S 5.30AM!!!”

The camp stirs in the half-light. Thoughts of a lie-in are shattered by German punk-rock “music” screeching out of neighbouring tents. After a bite of bread, wheely-bins stuffed full of wood, metal and stone are shifted to the march assembly line. The black bloc takes up the rear, masked in goggles, hats and bandannas; the pink and silvers are at the front. Everyone else mills around in between, dancing to the Sheffield Trolly’d Soundsystem. With the Samba band belatedly in place by 7am, we’re on the move. The black bloc soon vanishes. Units of riot police loom ahead then retreat. Some are guarding the entrance to Philip Morris. We spray their riot shields with peace signs. Locals wave at us but then property protection is the order of the day.

Scouts on bikes bring back intelligence on police positions. Behind us, thick black smoke rises into the brightening sky: the black bloc has placed burning barricades across major roads. By 8.15am, we’ve sealed off Hotel Royal with metal barriers. Riot police speed in with a snowplough and shouts of “gas!” force us to mask up with our bandannas and swimming goggles. Mock delegates with suitcases try and get through police lines. It’s starting to kick off. Worried about being trapped and the time (it’s nearly 9am) we move on.

The police are preparing to block the bottom of the road, which leads directly to the main junction we want to block. Six of us peel off down a private residential road and somehow manage to get behind police lines onto the target junction. We watch helplessly as hundreds of police force the marchers back. Suddenly, three blacked-out Mercedes speed past and turn left. A ferry full of delegates chugs across the lake to Evian. Loud explosions of teargas then ring out, and six protesters come running towards us. Feeling guilty, we decide not to waste our chance. As more delegations storm by, we jump out in front of “Saudi Arabia” only to jump back as they speed up and career dangerously towards us. Incensed, we find some moveable bollards, lay them across the road and then scarper, right under the police’s noses. As we look back, at least one delegate car is forced to turn around and find another route.

Trudging back through town, the trail of damage tells us a fierce battle has taken place. We arrive at our “safe” campsite just before midday to find it in a state of siege, surrounded by hundreds of riot police. Empty arrest vans are reversing into position. Friends recount how the police attacked the march, fired teargas without warning twenty times in two hours, threw “concussion grenades” straight at people, baton-charged medics trying to treat the injured and herded everyone back to the “legal campsite”, blocking access to Oulala. Everyone is praising the black bloc who came back to fight off the police; no one is now in any doubt that the legal site is a set-up, designed for a police raid.

Eight hundred unhappy campers cram together for an emergency meeting in the full glare of the sun. The police are now poised to attack and we are trapped but the solidarity is incredible. Whatever happens, we agree to stick and lock our arms together in peaceful resistance. On cue, the police approach, apparently armed. Screams of panic go up. To widespread derision, they demand to speak to “our leaders” to which comes the roar: “We don’t have any leaders!” A new demand: we have three minutes to start presenting our identity papers, or they will use force. This is apparently illegal, and hundreds don’t have any papers on them anyway. We answer no. Spontaneous songs break out. Losing patience, the police move in and place fingers in ears, pull heads and prise arms apart with sticks. Fifteen to twenty people are hauled away into vans every 20 minutes, met by bottle-throwing and the defiant chant: ‘the whole world is watching!’ This goes on for the next two hours until a banned march arrives from the town centre and the police drive off.

It came too late for me and I’m on my way with a dozen others to an unknown destination for an identity check. The journey proves hilarious because the police get lost. One cop tells us an activist has killed himself this morning by falling off a bridge. It later emerges that the activist is British activist Martin Shaw; he’s alive but seriously injured after the police cut the rope he was dangling from during a bridge blockade and he fell 60 feet. Two activists start to lose sensation in their arms because the cuffs are on too tight; the more they struggle, the tighter they get.

Our “prison” seems to be a school or civic building, with four newly-built cages in the basement that are more like kennels. After our passports are taken, we are bundled into a 3×3 metre space with twenty-five others. The air is damp with nothing but a cold stone floor to sit on. Women have a cage to themselves, and there are a number of minors, breaking Swiss law. The quiet calm soon turns to anger as time passes and hunger, tiredness and thirst kick-in. Soon, 150 people are screaming for water and it quickly arrives. We free ourselves from our cuffs using hairpins and become more militant: some start trying to smash out of the cages; others bang empty water bottles against the metal to a deafening crescendo. As we are allowed to the toilet, one by one, someone tries to break out and a huge struggle ensues. Having lost control, the police are anxious to get rid of us.

After four hours of being held without charge, we are released and loaded onto free buses with legal observers. As the buses arrive back at la bourdonette campsite after 7pm, people greet us, cheering and crying, and looking for friends. My friend is missing, probably held in one of three vans still waiting to process prisoners in an underground car park. Hours pass until the campsite is virtually deserted. My friend finally turns up at midnight. We laugh at the madness of it all.

Whilst this was happening to us, in Geneva, British freelance photographer and Indymedia volunteer, Guy Smallman, underwent a two-hour operation to reconstruct his calf muscle after a police stun grenade blew a hole in his leg the size of a fist. In the evening, the police, posing as black bloc, raided the Indymedia Centre as people were having dinner, beating up those inside and making several arrests. And they said they didn’t want another Genoa. Yeah, right.

Monday 2 June

A morning depression hangs over the Oulala campsite where we are now staying. Patrol boats are buzzing across the water and helicopters circle overhead. Rumours spread that the police are coming to the campsite at midday to clear us out but no one is taking it seriously. That evening, around 50 of us take part in a peaceful blockade of the ferry port road we had briefly blocked yesterday morning. Five coaches are forced back behind the police checkpoint as we hold a “picnic for peace” and play strip volleyball. Some complain it is ineffective, but for most it helps raise the spirits, make new friends and recharge the batteries for the final day of the summit. At the same time, a pink and silver raft is launched across the lake bound for Evian, only to be eventually chased back by two police boats. Back at the campsite, some of our bags left at the legal camp have been searched by the police and stuff taken.

Tuesday 3 June

Hundreds have gathered in Lausanne centre for a “surprise” action at lunchtime. No one seems to know what the plan is but a lot of the media are here. They have been increasingly critical of the police who are strangely absent. Journalists tell us that the minister in charge of policing is being pressured to resign and a political crisis is brewing in Switzerland. Encouraged, we march to a central road bridge where, to cheers and tears, ropes are quickly stretched over the bridge, followed by two climbers who disappear down the sides. The action is to show solidarity with Martin Shaw, the injured climber cut from the rope by the police, and highlight police repression. A grand finale sees the flags of the G-8 burned in rejection of nationalism and borders. An attempt to march to the prison and demand the release of activists still locked up is blocked by riot police. Worried about arrests, local students help us hide in their school.

After a beautiful afternoon swim and some emotional goodbyes, a group of us bunk the train back to Geneva where we spend our last night visiting the graffiti and artwork now decorating the still boarded-up corporate brands. Some stores have been completely emptied, with ‘thanks’ scrawled nearby. We pay a solidarity visit to the Indymedia centre that was raided on the opening day of the summit where activists tell us the police are in for a nasty surprise: the entire raid was captured on a series of secret cameras and will be diffused on the internet in the coming weeks. This helps dispel the bitter taste of Evian. In two years time, the G-8 will roll into Britain and we’ll be there to welcome it.

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