milan -- giant metallic sliding
doors open into the Leoncavallo social centre in Milan. A temporary autonomous zone that used to be industrial property but now is part holiday resort, part conference centre, part leisure complex, it's a monument to squat culture on an epic scale.
It's also the venue for the first European conference of Peoples Global Action (PGA), the umbrella network of anti-capitalist activists that has changed the world a little since its inception in Geneva three years ago.
Seattle, Washington, Prague, Sydney, Nice, the activists' almanac of raucous protests against global financial institutions were all organized under the PGA's aegis. Quebec is their next stop.
But the movement is at one of its perennial crossroads. Activists mutter about burnout, and campaigners whisper that they're getting stuck on a jet-set anti-summit trip. Leoncavallo is a forum for the movement to talk to itself. In several languages, at once, simultaneously translated.
While February's Porto Alegre conference in Brazil focused on policy issues and involved many NGOs, Leoncavallo is strictly an activists' affair. It's been organized by Ya Basta (Enough), the Italian originators of the White Overall movement that is spreading like wildfire in activist circles.
Many trace Ya Basta's roots to the mid-1990s, when the Zapatista uprising began, but it was actually born out of a small Marxist-autonomist current of the 1970s that was heavily influenced by the ideas of Michel Foucault.
While other Italian leftists and anarchists of the time were turning to terrorism and historic compromises, the nascent Ya Basta was swotting up on esoteric-sounding theories of "biopower." (Foucault argued that the modern state is increasingly separating people from their bodies in order to sell back a stunted and commodified shell.)
In a political time dominated by life-and-death arguments about social class, organization and responses to state repression, the idea didn't catch on. But 25 years later, at the S26 demonstration in Prague, it came of age.
The sight of hundreds of disciplined "White Overalls" marching with arms linked, riot shields and water pistols at the ready, fighting the Czech cops to a standstill, inspired thousands abroad. At home in Italy, though, the grumblings were already beginning.
Today, some 300 activists from every European country are in Leoncavallo for the first evening of the conference, but while there are delegates from Canada, the U.S., Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Israel and India, few Italians are hanging out.
The mood on the stony patio outside the conference complex is a mix of the euphoric and cautious. Miyuki, a Canadian climate change activist, joyfully embraces old friends and new as the U.S. Ya Basta delegation arrive. "Hi, I'm from British Columbia. Do you know where that is?" she enthuses. "I'm from Seattle, honey," one replies.
Moose, an activist from the New York City Ya Basta collective, loves the squatter-chic atmosphere here. He got active after being inspired by Ya Basta's Prague contingent and researching their philosophy. His organization claims up to 100 members, and he's planning for the protest in Quebec.
"We've been working with indigenous peoples and are going to cross the border at Akwesasne without passports," Moose tells me.
Won't the police try to stop you, I ask? "Oh, yeah," he nods. "We're planning accordingly."
Critics in some citizen-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) argue that confrontations with cops and property destruction isolate activists from wider support, but Moose is unimpressed.
"Whatever the NGOs want to say they can say, but property doesn't breathe, it doesn't feel, it doesn't hurt. There is a problem with city-hopping leaving each city in a mess, but the actions also inspire people and show them what the cops do to protestors. Capitalism is the biggest purveyor of violence on the planet."
Later that night, delegates are still arriving in dribs, drabs and torrents. The sleeping quarters upstairs in the centre are basic. A snore orchestra of 250 tired activists lie strewn around the floor like casualties at the Battle of the Somme. In keeping with the Leoncavallo ethos, there are no security guards downstairs. Trust is the modus operandi.
But it doesn't extend to everyone. The next day, after the getting-to-know-you opening session, half the day is spent arguing about whether British Trotskyist groups Workers Power and the Socialist Workers Party should be allowed to participate.
Many British anarchists, most vocally a Reclaim the Streets subcommittee, see them as hierarchical, authoritarian sects that swamp movements for recruitment purposes. A Workers Power delegate protests, "If a subgroup from one group decides who can and who can't participate, then who are the real authoritarians? This is a witch hunt!" Non-British delegates look perplexed.
The session smells like score-settling, and ultimately a fudge is agreed whereby the SWP can only talk about organizing the Genoa demonstration in July and Workers Power can only speak "when we feel it's constructive to do so."
Leoncavallo is a conference at which many different conferences are unavoidable.
When the delegates open up and look outward, the results can be inspiring. A Colombian representative from Processo de Comunidades Negras finishes a rousing speech with the words, "We cannot be if others are not!" They can also be wilful. A delegate from Liverpool reads the conference the words to a song he's written about murdering the bourgeoisie: "Tickle the rich because everyone deserves to die laughing. We will drown you in Lake Geneva with melted cheese and chocolate. The cuckoo clock strikes midnight."
A system of hand signals used in Prague is "consensed," and political currents ranging from Germany's Resistance of Crazy Rebels to the Karnataka State Farmers Association eddy and overlap in a colourful culture clash.
There's a hemp bar (and bars of hemp), a cinema, restaurants and outdoor cafes where most of the real business is conducted in knotted activist clutches during the breaks.
I want to talk to Luca Cassarini, the de facto leader of Ya Basta, but he's not an easy man to engage. As he briefly leaves a huddle, I decide on a cheerful gambit. "Hello," I say, "are you Luca Cassarini?"
"No," he replies, and walks off.
Back on the conference floor, the talk has turned to process, and delegates have turned off. Long periods of boredom are punctuated by moments of acute confusion as delegates try to decide what they want to talk about and in which order. "If this is what the revolution looks like, I'm going to become a stockbroker," cracks a British delegate from the Wombles (White Overall Movement Building Effective Struggle).
The Greeks are set upon a debate on the Balkans. An old-left delegate declaims that "we've never had a chance like this since 1968!"
Luca says we have to develop a "bubble of meaning to challenge the production of thought," and the British delegates scratch their heads.
Genoa is a hot potato. The July 20 anti-G8 demonstration will be crucial for European activists, not least because an incoming right-wing Italian administration is expected to ban it. Ya Basta is mobilizing for a "general citizenship strike," but no one knows exactly what this means.
Outside the room, activists mutter about meeting whatever force the police use against them on July 20 with an equal measure. At a Naples demonstration the week before this conference, police fired rubber bullets at 25,000 anti-globalization demonstrators armed mainly with a giant inflatable GM corn-on-the-cob.
The wider question of whether this is an anti-summit movement or something more rears its head only indirectly. Tomsk, a British Womble, tells me, "People are becoming better street fighters. I don't want to be arrogant, but now if we want to shut down a conference like the G8, we can do it. We could also do something more beneficial."
Many here publicly argue that local activism and movement-building are being neglected in favour of one-off spectaculars, which poorer activists can't get to anyway. And in private, after a year and a half of global protesting, some anti-capitalists are beginning to complain of burnout.
Miyuki is now a climate change activist, but six months ago she was the fairy who led the "blue line" demonstration in Prague. "I put so much time and money and energy into creating an infrastructure at the convergence centre in Prague, and then I spent a long time afterwards trying to work out what had actually happened. It was too much. It's effective but also extremely hard, and it never works out the way you expect it to."
As night falls, Leoncavallo opens its doors to the Italian rave scene, with British drum 'n' bass artist Goldie topping the bill and thousands of young Italians joining the party, blending into the pop-art graffiti on the walls. The entrance fee is token, and Leoncavallo is suddenly a cutting-edge music festival.
When the delegates reassemble the next afternoon, it's announced that one female delegate was sexually attacked as she tried to sleep upstairs during the revelry. Other women were sexually harassed.
Ya Basta are apologetic, but an activist takes the microphone to bitterly complain. "The organizers should have protected us from people who had nothing to do with the conference." He's booed, and the PGA's European summit quickly moves on.
The first item on the agenda is representation rights at the September Cochabamba PGA assembly in Bolivia. Tensions between activists from the South -- particularly Latin America -- and those from Europe and North America have sometimes been evident, and a 70-30 South-North balance has been agreed between the two hemispheres.
A Bolivian delegate tells the conference, "We don't need any more humanitarian tourism. Indians are not an exotic product waiting for your solutions. People should collect money to support our struggles."
A Spanish activist counters that "North-South relations are a complex issue, but some Latin Americans have a tendency to equate us all with the United States. We need to develop new forms of solidarity. If we go with guilt, we're fucked."
Somehow, a few hours before it's scheduled to end, the conference becomes a place of frantic and constructive debate. As the delegates go into workshop mode, I finally manage to catch Luca, who is effusive about Ya Basta and the spread of White Overall movements from Finland to Chicago.
"The White Overall movement began in 1994, when the mayor of Milan tried to destroy the Leoncavallo centre," he tells me. "In two years he destroyed it twice, and after the second destruction he said, "They are now ghosts. They don't exist.' So we organized a mass demonstration to squat Leoncavallo again, to show that we were still alive. By dressing in white, we used the fact that people are scared of ghosts."
Ya Basta forged links with the Zapatistas, taking their name from Subcomandante Marcos's rallying call that began the Chiapas uprising. "The Zapatistas said that "to be visible we had to cover our faces.' We said, "To be visible we had to cover our bodies with white overalls.' It makes evident something that is hidden."
One thing evident at the conference is that Luca has a following not unlike Marcos's in some quarters. He's thoughtful, charismatic and a gentle speaker, and he seems to see parallels himself.
But the question of political leadership in Italy has been a difficult one. Disputes between political social centres have been acrimonious. The most poisonous accusations are flung around, occasionally accompanied by fists. In Genoa, one squat bears the graffiti slogan "No heroin, no police, no white overalls."
"We are a big group, so it's natural that a feeling of envy starts," he tells me. "But we should not seek the enemy within the movement. We should find ways to respect our differences."
Around the conference, some murmurings about post-modernism have accompanied Luca's way-out-sounding ideas about a "bubble of meaning" and the "general citizenship strike," but he feels they are germane.
"The general citizenship strike is an attempt to update the idea of the general strike. It doesn't just involve workers -- it's about migrants, pensioners, the unemployed, all the "invisibles' whose lives have been atomized. The citizen is part of a group -- the city. And as we are all citizens of the world, we should all have the same rights. We are all human beings."
Outside, some delegates have arranged themselves into colourful circles to discuss issues like "no borders" caravans and autonomous trade unions. Others are beginning to leave in the same dribs, drabs and torrents in which they arrived.
On the way out, Italian activists from the Tactical Media Crew complain to me about the conference's organization. "There were very few Italians here," one says. "I personally don't like Ya Basta at all, but this was an important forum where you could discuss ideas." And sometimes it was.
The Dutch groups Eurodisnie and Global Resistance are due to pick up the convenor's baton from Ya Basta at the Cochabamba conference, but whether the movement goes further than the next globalization summit is still an open question.