Fwd (GLW): Prague 2000: Diary of the people's movement

Alan Bradley alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Oct 29 07:08:42 MST 2000

The following article appears in the current issue of Green Left Weekly

Prague 2000: Diary of the people's movement

Part two of a three-part eyewitness report on the protests against the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting in Prague in September
by Russian socialist BORIS KAGARLITSKY. Part one was published in the
previous issue of Green Left Weekly. 

September 24

I attend a seminar on problems of globalisation, conducted by the
Initiative Against Economic Globalisation (IAEG), which unites the more
radical protesters in Prague. The hall is full of a polyglot crowd. Only
the Russians are missing; no “suspicious elements” have been granted visas.

The average age in the auditorium is about 25. People laugh, applaud and
use the microphone to make wordy declarations. The chairperson grows
nervous. “Let's have fewer declarations and more discussion. We have to
show the gentlemen from the establishment an example of real democracy!”

A small group of young women from Latvia sit in a corner on the floor. They
chew gum and enthusiastically applaud the speeches on the tyranny of
transnational corporations.

Various people from the United States arrive late; they are coming directly
from the airport. They exchange remarks: who was allowed in, who was taken
from the plane.

The FBI gave the Czech authorities “blacklists” of US citizens who it
recommended should not be allowed into Prague. The word nevyezdnye — people
denied the right to travel abroad in Soviet times — flashes through my

A report arrives that a further 1000 or so people have been held up at the
border by the Czech authorities. Walden Bello interrupts his speech.
English journalist Alex Callinicos backs him up: “Eleven years ago in
Prague, the people came out onto the streets demanding freedom of movement,
and at that time President Havel was on our side. Now his police are
illegally closing the border!”

It is announced that a spontaneous demonstration against the police's
illegal actions is under way at the interior ministry. But the protesters
are few, 200 at most. The chairperson appeals to everyone who has nothing
else to do to join the picket line. People from the back rows get up and
head for the exit.

On the border, total confusion reigns. Some people are being held up, while
whole columns of others are getting through without the slightest
hindrance. The border guards are searching each car thoroughly, rummaging
in suitcases and leafing through printed material.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations are continuing. Today, about 2000 people form
a living chain in support of Jubilee 2000, a movement demanding the writing
off of the debts of the Third World and the former Communist countries. A
similar number gather for a meeting of the Humanist Alliance.

The main events, however, are expected on September 26, when a protest
march will take place. Reports come through that the march has been
partially banned. Some districts of the city are closed to the

Lawyers for the protesters argue that the ban is illegal, but this is no
longer the main thing. The general mood has taken a definite shape; we know
we will go there anyway, and that no-one will stop us.

Bello is like Lenin in October. Since the demonstrations in Seattle, he has
been transformed from an academic into a real leader. Now he is on the
platform. “Everything is decided on the streets! All available resources
must be mobilised. We need living strength, you understand, everything
depends on living strength! We need bodies!”

“Living strength” continues to arrive. Everywhere there are groups of young
people, speaking in every imaginable language from Hungarian to Basque. The
language of international communication is, of course, the same as among
the bankers: English.

Alongside the Lidensky Bridge is the Convergence Centre, the organisational
headquarters for the march and where placards and effigies are made. Here,
as well, instruction sessions are held, maps of Prague are distributed and
suggestions are made as to where people might find places to stay. People
are told how to give first aid to the wounded and what to do if they are
affected by tear gas.

When the work ends, an improvised concert begins. Along with the activists,
rock groups are arriving, and street theatre troupes from throughout
Europe. Elsewhere, at a “Festival of Resistance”, about a dozen groups from
the Czech Republic, Holland, Britain and Italy are playing.

Dusk has already fallen and people are still coming. Some are carrying

A group of young Germans seated on the grass next to the tram stop is
discussing something. Several hundred Swedes discuss how to act in the case
of a clash with police or if arrested, and where to phone in Stockholm,
since one in three of them has a mobile telephone. One woman is returning
to Sweden; on September 26 she will spend the whole day at home by the

The tension is growing. The feeling is like before a battle. Everyone is
waiting for reinforcements.

News reaches the “Standart” and the Convergence Centre: 300 Austrians will
arrive tomorrow. It is unclear where the Hungarians are; they are expected
any minute. The Slovaks have already arrived, but fewer of them than were
expected. The Spaniards and Greeks are due to come on special trains.

The advance guard of the Italian contingent appears on the Charles Bridge.
More than 1000 of them have come. Four people were not admitted; the rest
sat at the border for several hours, demanding that their comrades be
admitted, before deciding to carry on to Prague. Now the most active of
them, 100 or so, are sitting directly on the Charles Bridge singing
Bandiera Rossa and partisan songs from the second world war.

September 25

I drink my morning coffee on Wenceslas Square. Unfortunately, I am not
allowed to finish it. My mobile phone sounds. It is Lee Sastar, a US
radical journalist, who has been detained in the airport.

He has refused to fly back and is now sitting in the border control zone,
interned for the second day. In one hour he will hold a media conference.

I make my way to the airport. A small group of activists has already
gathered, with placards reading “Freedom for Lee Sastar!” and “Defend
journalists' rights!”.

A huge American named Ahmet speaks with Lee by telephone, and repeats his
statements for those assembled. The journalists record everything.

There are representatives of Czech publications, Associated Press and Greek
television, and some Britons I do not know. Instead of asking questions,
Mark Steele of the London Independent joins the demonstrators. He and
Callinicos call for the formation of a Defence Committee for the Rights of

In the Standart, meanwhile, the seminars and discussions are continuing.
The World Bank and the IMF are also holding their meetings. The two sides,
of course, are behaving quite differently.

The officials of the World Bank are still trying to justify themselves,
meeting with representatives of the non-government organisations, promising
to investigate matters and to put them in order.

The IMF ignores the protests. US treasury chief Larry Sommers has already
warned the heads of the World Bank that he will not permit any serious
concessions to the developing countries or to critics of the system.

By evening, around 8000 activists from various countries are in Prague.
Most of the Czechs appear at the last moment.

The police are preparing to meet the demonstrators on the bridge that leads
to Visegrad, where the Conference Centre is located. In the neighbourhoods
nearby, residents are being asked to remove their cars from the streets.

The ambulances and hospitals are preparing to receive casualties. The
schools have already been shut for a week.

In all, 11,000 police and riot troops have been mobilised. Around 12-15,000
demonstrators are expected.

In the Convergence Centre, a battle plan is worked out. When the
demonstrators approach the bridge, they will split into three columns. One
will go onto the bridge, the two others will try to outflank the police on
the sides. The column going onto the bridge is not supposed to get into a
fight with the police; its job is only to stand and chant slogans.

This decision does not suit the Italians. “We're going to force our way
across the bridge”, they declare. “We're not here to pay compliments to the
police”. The Italians were not in Seattle and want to show what they are
capable of.

A few French people from the older generation explain how in Paris in 1968
they built barricades. There is just one question: in those days,
demonstrators had cobblestones to use for these purposes, but what are you
supposed to do with asphalt?

The leaders of the groups are given maps of the city with the traffic
routes marked on them. On the reverse side, a brief plan of action is
printed in several languages. The proposal is that, irrespective of the
outcome of the fight at Visegrad, in the evening the protesters will
blockade the opera, where the bankers and bureaucrats will be assembling.
First the protesters will try to stop them getting into the hall, and if
they do get in, then not to let them out again until morning.

Other groups will go to the expensive hotels where the delegates have
installed themselves, and will keep up a barrage of noise the whole night.
Around a dozen rock groups and bands will take part in the action.
Sleepless nights are nothing new for the protesters.

There is to be a meeting at 9am. At 11am the march on Visegrad will begin.

September 26

It is 8am. At the entrance to the metro there are police patrols. Over the
radio comes the announcement that Visegrad metro station is closed.

At 9am we are in Peace Square. About 10,000 people are speaking all the
languages of Europe at once. Turks, Greeks, Kurds, Spaniards and Basques
are standing next to one another.

A huge balloon, symbolising the IMF, rolls over the crowd, and everyone can
push it. Among the crowd are comic effigies and revolutionary placards.

>From time to time, new columns arrive, often accompanied by small bands or
musical groups. Here there are Scandinavians, and behind them, Britons and
Spaniards. In the back rows are a dozen Dutch people in white coats painted
with pictures of a huge tomato, the symbol of the Socialist Party.

Trade union activists from northern Europe carry their banners looking like
the icons carried in old-time church processions. The Italian column, with
its banners unfurled, surges onto the square. Heading it is a minibus, and
behind it are members of the “Ya Basta” movement, which has already
distinguished itself by breaking up several international gatherings.

The Italians are all wearing helmets and carrying shields. They are dressed
in white coats of the type worn by chemical clean-up squads. Some are
wearing home-made body armour of fibreglass or cardboard. And, of course,
there are protective masks, in some cases even real gas-masks. The people
on the square applaud them.

At 11am the action gets under way. On the plan, the three columns are
marked in different colours: blue, yellow and pink.

The strangest of the columns is the pink one. Here there are very few
political placards, and party banners or ideological symbols are totally

Many participants are dressed in pink, and have painted their faces pink.
In place of banners, there are pink balloons. In the middle of the column
is a pink cardboard tank, with flowers sticking out of its make-believe
guns. On police recommendation, the shops and cafes along the column's
route are closed.

The yellow column, which has the menacing-looking Italians at its head,
includes around 300 Hungarians, French, Americans and Turks. From time to
time, someone encounters a friend and rushes to embrace them. We swap
stories with Hungarian friends, and hear the latest news from New York.

Here there are more journalists than anyone else. They are following the
Italians, hoping to photograph clashes with the police.

I prefer the yellow column because it is obviously safer: no-one will
attack us until the approach to the bridge, but in the two other columns it
is still not clear what might happen.

At the final turning before the bridge the column stops. From a loudspeaker
on the Italian minibus, there are orders and instructions, in Italian, then
in English, Spanish, Czech and French; the main thing is not to do anything
without coordinating it with the organisers.

Drums begin beating. A group of people in blue protective jackets appears,
wearing armbands with the red cross. Many demonstrators don gas masks.
Someone communicates with the other columns over a mobile phone, trying to
work out what is happening with them. We approach the bridge.

The bridge has been blockaded by the police. Behind metal barriers stands a
front rank, all in body armour, with shields and clubs. The most modern
equipment has been made ready especially for this encounter, to the order
of US specialists. The feeling arises that we are faced with several dozen
Darth Vaders.

Behind the first rank of police are armoured personnel carriers! The bridge
is totally blocked, but not even armoured vehicles are enough it seems:
behind the APCs, along the whole length of the bridge, police cars, trucks
and minibuses are parked bumper to bumper. There is no possibility of
getting through here, but neither are the police going to attack.

On the bridge, the police feel confident, but who knows what might happen
if they have to fight the fearsome Italians on the streets? Both sides push
and shove one another a little with their shields, but do not shift from
their positions.

An order to disperse immediately is read out to the demonstrators in Czech
and English, but no-one moves. The police try shooting off a little tear
gas, but this makes not the slightest impression.

>From behind the Italians, young Czechs taunt the police, reminding them
that not even the Communists used APCs against unarmed demonstrators.
Instructions come from the minibus: everyone who does not have a gas mask
is to go to the rear of the column, but not leave the vicinity. If there is
a clash, it is important for the front ranks to have a rear guard.

The stand-off continues. The journalists are getting bored.

Behind the column, the demonstrators have set up a field kitchen, where
they give a bowl of soup and an apple to all who want them. Everyone can
decide for themselves whether to pay or not.

By 2.20pm the demonstrators are bored and the police in their armour are
getting hot in the sun. Meanwhile, a real battle is under way further

It seems that someone from the blue column started throwing rocks at the
police. Other people speak of a truck being driven at full speed into a
crowd of demonstrators. They also speak of police provocateurs (the next
day I am to see four of them, still dressed like anarchists, return to the
building that houses the police headquarters).

One way or another, a real battle has broken out. Shots can be heard
occasionally, through the screeching of sirens and the clattering of

>From time to time, ambulances drive past. There are wounded on both sides.
The police are using tear gas and occasionally firing their weapons simply
to frighten people.

The demonstrators are building barricades, have burned several cars and are
throwing stones. The Poles and Germans throw themselves into the fight with
particular fury. A number of anarchists prepare Molotov cocktails.

The police drive the “blues” out of one street, but they immediately
regroup and appear on another. The yellow column does not move.

The pink column has managed to reach the Congress Centre along a side
street and has blocked the exits, but there are not enough people and
reinforcements are urgently needed.

It has been discovered that the police barriers are not so difficult to
break through: we go down under the bridge by footpaths, cross a street and
there we are, at the Conference Centre! The police observe with amazement
how our detachment has appeared behind their barricades.

Part three will be published in the next issue of Green Left Weekly.

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