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S26 Actions in Prague
The indigenous Zapatistas of Chiapas, heroes of resistance to many anti-globalization critics, have described the current movement as being made up of “one no, many yeses.” Among those saying “no” at the most recent, 55th annual joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) in Prague, were the thousands of demonstrators from all over the world that endured long waits and multiple passport checks, before being permitted into the Czech Republic to participate in the Global Day of Action on September 26 (S26).
Ya Basta! a group of 1,000 Italian anarchists, hired a whole train to Prague. After being detained at the border for over 24 hours, the caravan proceeded, much to the delight of those that witnessed them in the main march the following day when they appeared in white non-toxic suits filled with foam padding, “shields” of inflated inner tubes, and a net of helium balloons, which they let loose on police barricades.
As the standoff between marchers and the police drew on, they dispatched the Ya Basta Air Force comprised of hundreds of paper airplanes. At least one member gave the cops a taste of their own medicine when provoked, by returning fire with his own canister of pepper spray.
Meanwhile, the situation at the border had become a common means of deterring protesters, as four among the Ya Basta group had been labeled “persona non gratis,” a euphemism for persons thought to be “leaders,” “organizers,” or otherwise active in the cause to end the economic and social injustices perpetrated by IMF and WB policies around the world. Passports were stamped, restricting entry during the main days of protest, and in some cases, indefinitely.
Others faced this charge as well, including American activists present during the N30 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, and those in Washington, DC last April against the IMF/WB. Three Dutch cooks with the vegetarian cooking collective, Rampenplan, were kept away due to a technicality involving the stickers on their vehicle's license plate. Fortunately, actions taken by INPEG's (Initiative Against Economic Globalization) legal team resulted in the cooks eventually being let into the country, after which they consistently provided tasty meals for all.
Reports from lawyers and others working in defense of civil liberties charge international law enforcement agencies with mounting a war against the rights of citizens to express dissent in even the most non-violent, pacifist ways. Naomi Klein, author and critic of economic globalization, states that “legal, grassroots activism has become the new ‘terrorism' in the post-Cold War world.”
Referring to the role that police and the military, as well as intelligence agencies such as the FBI and Interpol have played in the targeting and repression of protest, she goes on to say that “They need a new enemy, and the activists are it.”
I traveled to Prague in a caravan of 100 activists from London. We had our own hold-ups at the border, but that was the least of our worries. By the end of three full days of non-violent, civil disobedience, blockades of the Congress Center (newly renovated for the occasion to the tune of 70 million dollars), of the hotels where delegates stayed, and other actions, at least 892 activists were arrested, many without being charged, and in almost every case, without actually committing any infraction of the law.
Headlines in the next day's English language newspaper, the Prague Post, made reference to “The Art of Resistance” and “New Indy Media Rages Against the Machine,” pointing to the role that media activists were playing in telling what the corporate media were either ignoring or too often, distorting. A picture of solidarity and commitment to the cause could be teased out, despite the smoke and spin.
But what one noticed were the photos. Images that really did look like battle scenes and articles with titles like “The Firestorm” and “A Clockwork Orange: Mob mentality takes heavy toll on Prague.”
Yes, windows had been smashed at McDonalds, KFC, Mercedes Benz, and banks throughout the city, all targets considered strategic, in that these are the institutions that illustrate, with prolific uniformity, the role that multinational corporations and international financial institutions play in the positioning of corporate values against human values.
Tear gas and pepper spray drifted through neighborhoods and, in a few instances, dumpsters and an abandoned car were burned. The water cannons, mounted on military tanks meant to keep protesters from getting too close to the meetings where 11,000 street and riot police stood guard, were used to put out flames on the flaming uniform of a police officer who was struck by a molotov cocktail. Small groups of frustrated protesters, some of whom have been suspected of being agent provocateurs working for police, threw cobblestones, to which the police responded with concussion grenades and night sticks, which some demonstrators reappropriated along with plastic shields, for their own defense.
Despite this, according to Guardian journalist Katherine Viner, “Even the wildest commentators estimate the number of violent activists as 1-2% of the 15,000 protesters. Almost all of the hundreds of NGOs, trade unions and affinity groups were peaceful.” Among those were samba bands, Seattle's Infernal Noise Ultra Brigade, a pink cardboard tank, clowns, dancers, and puppets, though most banners and imagery had been left at home because in several cases activists were denied border crossings due to possession of such materials.
While a concerted effort is being made on many levels to suppress the growing movement here in the west, anti-IMF/WB protests have been ongoing in the global south for more than a decade. In places like Bolivia, Indonesia, Brazil, and the Philippines, Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), austerity measures, and devalued currencies have provided constant fodder for resistance, and when lives and livelihoods are at stake, no amount of police or military seem to have been able to contain the power of the people to organize, stand up, and Represent.
Critics of the protests are befuddled and perhaps also nervous. The diversity of interests and those involved is perceived as disparate, and anarchic, even clueless. What they don't seem to see is that this is a significant political movement, unlike any the world has ever seen. The effort on the part of organizers to keep things decentralized is a conscious attempt to overcome traditional power structures and hierarchies, perceived as creating a climate where cooperation and mutual respect is sacrificed for personal or profit gain.
While legal groups continue to work on behalf of jailed and injured protesters and those that “disappeared” during those days at the end of September, Prague is taking stock. While initially thrilled to be the first formerly Eastern Block country to host the IMF/WB meetings, their hopes that this would be their chance to showcase Prague and the Czech Republic to potential investors have been tempered by what that brings with it.
Due to pressure from protesters, the IMF/WB were forced to end their meetings a day early, delegates did not have free movement to explore and enjoy the city, the State Opera House was blockaded preventing a night's entertainment, and then there was the expense of all those police, stand-by soldiers, weapons, and high tech uniforms.
Was it worth it? A Czech member of the environmental group Rainbow Keepers said, “We want to make sure that after Prague, no city in the world will ever want to host this meeting again.” Meanwhile, possibly the most encouraging statement came from a Lebanese delegate to the meetings, who said, “80 percent of the delegates inside the conference are very happy with the protests. They have put pressure on the 20 percent of people who make decisions and have forced them to take poverty into account.” Z
Holly Spaulding is a poet, creative writing teacher, and independent journalist living in Cedar, Michigan.