Richard Stallman's personal site.

For current political commentary, see the daily political notes.

RMS's Bio | The GNU Project


I walked along the main drag, bordering the beach, as the demo came past, it filled a wide dual carriageway, and after about an hour showed no sign of ending. It was a ginourmous demo all right. Me and some Aussies and English joined in and walked up to where the road was blocked by riot cops, vans and armoured cars. Soon teargas canisters were dropping around us, windows started to be smashed, rocks and, I was told, molotov cocktails, began to fly. We dropped back and retreated into town followed by clouds of gas.


Five of us were sleeping in a room upstairs in an old school building undergoing refurbishment. The building wasn't a headquarters as some of the press reported, just a place to sleep. There were about a hundred people staying there on Saturday night. Most out-of-towners were camping at other sites.

A bit after midnight there was three of us in the room, the two Aussies were across the road at the IndyMedia centre. We had just got into our sleeping bags when we heard shouts and running feet outside, looking out we saw about sixty police in riot gear heading for the building gates. By the time we were dressed they had entered the building and shouts, thumps and screaming was echoing up the stairs.

The door to our room had been accidentally locked the previous day, and we couldn't get it open, and so we had to access the room via scaffolding on the front of the building. We hid under a table and waited while thuds and screams continued. This was probably the worst moment in the whole experience. Soon they were banging on the door, and, after a few minutes, broke it open.

Eight or ten cops ran in and began batoning us as we lay on the floor. I tried to protect myself with a chair, but quickly decided I was in for a beating and might as well get it over with. I dropped the chair and curled into a ball with my hands over the back of my neck. I was hit on the arms and legs, and three times on the head, making little fireworks go off in my brain, just like in the comics. They stopped after I started screaming - half from pain and half as a conscious decision that I should give them some satisfaction.

The beating wasn't as bad as I expected. One of my friends was hit much worse, with a sprained wrist, and bleeding from a head wound. I got off with bruises and a small cut on my head. My left hand and arm was very swollen and isn't quite back to normal after two weeks, but there was no fracture.

We were then frog-marched downstairs into the main room which contained about fifty people, some semi-conscious, many bleeding. We were told to kneel by the wall, later allowed to sit. Beside me was a young Swiss woman who had been batoned in her sleeping bag and was covered in blood and in shock. A Dutch woman on the other side of me had a suspected broken arm. Others were much worse. I tried to keep talking to the Swiss to keep the shock down.

After ten minutes or so ambulance crews arrived and began the triage process. They seemed quite stunned and a bit out of their depth, they had to find old cardboard boxes for splints, and didn't do much for most people other than hand out gauze and antiseptic liquid. After a while things got more organised. About sixty people, including my friends, were taken to hospital. I was hauled off into a police van ringed by lines of cops and driven to the outskirts of Genoa, to a place I later found out was the Bolzaneto Holding Centre.

I was searched, cuffed about the head and punched in the kidneys while being marched through a crowd of cops around the door of the building, then put into a bare concrete cell with about twenty others. We were made to stand against the wall in a spread-eagled position for a couple of hours, which quickly gets very uncomfortable. On the positive side this kept my arm elevated which helped the swelling go down.

We were held at Bolzaneto for about 36 hours. During this time we had little food - water, two biscuits and half a ham sandwich - no blankets and only the clothes we were wearing when the raid started. Anyone wanting to go to the toilet was marched around doubled up with their head forced down by a hand on the back of the neck. There were usually several cops in the cell watching us and sometimes arguing with those who spoke Italian. All requests to phone lawyers or anyone else was denied. We were never told what, if anything, we were charged with, or what would happen to us. The cops didn't seem to know themselves. Lots of rumours went around. We didn't know if anyone outside knew where we where, and later I found that for most of the time we were there, lawyers from the Genoa Social Forum had been looking for us unsuccessfully. Even Genoa's chief judge hadn't been able to find us!

To make things worse, the police changed shifts a couple of times bringing not only different cops, but whole different police forces who had even less idea what was happening. All this was rather intimidating. I kept fairly quiet, figuring there wasn't much to do other than wait things out. The people there included a few Italians, but mostly it was foreigners - Germans, Poles, Spanish, French and others. I was treated as a bit of a novelty as a Kiwi, which I think gave me an easier ride than some. The Germans seemed to be considered the main troublemakers.

At some time in the early hours of Monday we were divided up again, searched, and had our possessions taken (they'd put them in an envelope and handed them back to us, but this time we didn't get them back, this was the last I saw of my passport, belt and wallet). Then it was back to the spread-eagled-against-the-wall routine for a while, then we were handcuffed in pairs and loaded into a prison bus and driven to Pavia prison.


Arriving at Pavia prison we were handed sheets and plastic plates and shown to our rooms. We each had a room of our own for a couple of days with a view of the soccer field. This was a great improvement over police custody, mattresses, regular meals and a chance to shower. Food was about bad New Zealand student flat standard, but tolerable

Spent the first day washing the blood out of my clothes and reading a few pages of an old Italian paper I found in the cupboard, made a chess set out of tinfoil and papier mache and played a game against myself. Dozed a lot, watched soccer and tried to think happy thoughts. Every now and then anxiety set in and had to be fought down. Otherwise it was just boring. I quickly lost track of time. On the second day I figured that the cell was about three metres long, so walking up and down 666 times gave me a two kilometre walk.

I was eventually moved to another cell, without the view, and generally of a lower standard, but it contained an Irish guy, arrested in the street for carrying a pocket knife and accused of stabbing a cop. Understandably, he was very anxious. We made another chess set and played lots of games, took turns walking up and down and chatted about this and that. We had given up asking for phone calls by this time, but in the course of things, one of the staff, who spoke English, came around with forms for alerting our embassies and contacted lawyers for us. He explained that at the end of the five-day period which we could be legally held for questioning, we would be taken in front of a magistrate and possibly released.

Our fifth day in custody dawned and nothing much happened, the helpful guy gave us clean shirts provided by some charity and we waited all day for something to happen. Finally, towards evening I was taken to an office, introduced to a lawyer from the Genoa Social Forum and briefly questioned by the magistrate [Sam was given a paper detailing the charges in Italian, essentially accusing him along with 92 others of being in a building where weapons were stored.] She didn't really dig much, after telling the story of my arrest, she asked me to wait five minutes, then along with a few others, including one of my friends from the room where everything began, and we were all told we were free to go [the charges were dropped].

This turned out to mean we were back in police custody. At this point I found out my wallet and passport had never made it to the prison. We were taken outside, the British Consul chatted to the English, then we were driven to a police station in Pavia. There was a demo outside by supporters, and a bunch of people from the Genoa Social Forum inside who gave us lots of fruit, biscuits and pizza. I phoned my mother and my Irish cellmate's girlfriend, then it was back to hanging around while the lawyers argued about whether we could be deported or not. At least there was company and we caught up with all the people we'd briefly met in custody. Eventually we were given orders banning us from Italy for five years, the Germans were driven to the border and the rest of us were packed off into a bus and driven to Milan airport. There we were dumped at the door and left. The British consul was there to oil the wheels, and a friend bought me a ticket back to Heathrow. The very helpful consul assured the airline I wouldn't have any trouble getting into the UK, which was a blatant lie, and, after nearly missing the plane while a slow old cop photocopied our documents, we were off.

We were expecting a deluge of journalists on arrival, I spent the flight writing up a statement for the Brits and attempting the in-flight breakfast, which made me nostalgic for the prison food. At Heathrow, I split off from the group and avoided the cohorts of photographers. I got to the immigration desk and announced that I had no passport or ID. By some lucky fluke I was attended by the only helpful immigration official to ever work at Heathrow. She ran around trying to confirm my visa details and even fetched me a cup of tea when I pretended to be about to have a nervous breakdown. By this time all the stress was catching up with me and I wasn't having to pretend too hard.

A special branch cop - possibly the smartest police officer I've ever met - questioned me closely about my political involvement and lifestyle. He homed in on all sorts of things I'd rather not have talked about, picking up that I was squatting and so forth. Caught between a rock and a hard place, possible deportation back to Italy in mind, I avoided any bullshit that I could be caught out on and tried to play the happy-go-lucky Kiwi joker. It seemed to work and he ended up shaking my hand and appearing friendly, though you never really know. After a long wait, they couldn't find my visa details on the system, I got them to fax the gardening agency I worked for and get copies of the visa. This worked and they let me in.

- Sam Buchanan (from London)

Return to Richard Stallman's home page.

Please send comments on these web pages to

Copyright (C) 2000 Richard Stallman

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.