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Five days that shook the IMF
by Arthur Neslen, International Editor, Red Pepper
Friday, September 22:
"First the bosses, then the cops, then the journos then the Trots," shouts Stevo, a young anarcho John Cusack look-alike, smiling impishly. I'm on the coach from London to shut down the International Monetary Fund in Prague on September 26 (S26) with 50 Reclaim the Streets activists and fellow travellers. The coach has been booked in the name of a dance company. It's going to be a long journey.
At the Mayday and June 18 (J18) riots, RTS tore up central London, but today Stevo confides that he's feeling "homesick and petrified of my affinity group." The coach is split into about three such groups. One has only two members but they elected a military council yesterday anyway. Paranoia is the order of today.
The Czech head of police says he has a list of Mayday rioters he won't let in, and half the coach think they're on it. Oscar, my affinity group leader, has given out instructions including: 1) don't bring drugs, they're cheaper in Prague; 2) dress normally, no "A in the O" T-shirts; 3) don't spook out the driver by talking about how good J18 was.
Within about five minutes, all three have been broken. At the Channel tunnel border crossing, we're boarded by customs officers who dust the coach for explosives. "What about our drugs!" shouts an alarmed passenger. "You can keep those - we're just after bombs," the officer drones. Our dance company ruse is not off to a good start.
Saturday, September 23:
Oscar has been planning that we'll get into Prague by 10 am, in good time to confront Czech neo-Nazis who are staging their own S26 demo. After that, we're supposed to move on to a trade union march against globalization, but it's been a long, cold, cramped night, and nerves are frayed.
A decision is taken to dispose of all "subversive literature" on the bus, including our S26 Czech-English phrase sheet. It had three sections, including Orientation ("Where's the nearest McDonald's?"), Unfriendly Contact ("Don't hit me, I've got seven children"), and Exclamatory ("Death to capitalism, you fascist pig!").
Even so, at noon we're stopped at the wasp-infested Teplicka crossing with several S26 coaches from all over Europe. The night before, Czech president Vaclav Havel told customs officers to let the protestors through, but maybe they don't watch the news.
There are helicopters overhead, and I think it would be a good idea to try to talk to a towering German soldier with someone from RTS who has a camcorder. But it's not a good idea. He gets aggressive and screams that if we don't get back on the coach we'll be arrested and our equipment will be seized.
Back on the coach. It's 4 pm and our passports have been stamped by the Czech guards, but we're still here. One group leader thinks we should stage a demo. Stevo wants to burn the German flag and hoist a Jolly Roger. When I try to write this down, he becomes suspicious. "Look! The journo is taking notes to swap for freedom at the border!" he exclaims. I cower.
One affinity group is discussing the politics of Return Of The Jedi, another the bourgeois nature of playing cards ("Why do they have pictures of kings and queens? Why not workers and peasants?") Kim, a Seattle veteran and student at Toronto's York University, tells me, "I'm not too bothered about this. I've seen worse." Where? I ask. "Bosnia." Stevo is banging on the window, shouting, "We've come to fuck up the European city of culture. Come and get us, coppers." I don't think we're ever going to get through.
But at 6.30 pm, the German soldiers suddenly decide to inspect our bags and check our passports, and in a matter of minutes we're all in with no explanations. At 8 pm, we finally reach Prague, bleary-eyed and disoriented, the day's demos long over. Stumbling toward my hotel, I hardly notice that Prague is a ghost town.
Sunday, September 24:
It turns out that a municipal government leaflet was distributed in Prague last week giving residents 10 recommendations for S26: 1) leave town; 2) rock- and Molotov-cocktail-proof your windows; 3) "distance yourself from the demonstration" (an old Communist-era injunction), and 7) "don't exchange opinions with those participating in the actions." Prague is a city of tourists, cops, delegates and protestors, all unable to mingle.
At the information centre, activists are buzzing and rumours are flying. Demos are spontaneously erupting as it emerges that hundreds of protestors are being turned back from border crossing points across the country. Seventeen Italians on the "Ya basta train" were denied entry this morning, and the other thousand passengers seized the train driver's cabin for an impromptu sit-in.
So at 4 p.m., around 1,500 people gather in Letna to protest. The decontamination suits and globe footballs come out, but the photographers just swarm around the German anarchists in their balaclavas. A "Death, death, death to the IMF" chant bounces off the baroque boulevards.
Jake, a Canadian from Trent University in Peterborough, is worried about his contact lenses if the police use tear gas. "The anti-globalization message is getting a bit stale," he tells me. But Rob, a longshoreman from San Francisco, thinks "the energy is much better here than in Seattle, and the counterculture is more friendly to normal people."
Famous last words. Our protest ends in a faceless shopping mall with loudspeakers blaring obscure German punk anthems and the marchers running for cover. Later, we discover that all but four of the Italians have been let in.
Back at the convergence centre, my affinity group has spent the day drinking, preparing their gas masks and making a banner that says, "The revolution will not be Bolshevized." Everyone believes there will be trouble on Tuesday. No one thinks we will shut down the IMF.
Monday, September 25:
That's not what the Initiative Against Economic Globalization (Inpeg) says. Inpeg, which is coordinating the S26 protest, maintains that 20,000 people will peacefully shut down the IMF/World Bank conference tomorrow, despite the police refusal of a permit to march. At their press conference, Inpeg announces that demonstrators will surround the conference.
"We will not let them leave until they meet our demands and disband the IMF and World Bank," a spokesperson declares optimistically. She wants questions about globalization to be put to a speaker from Tanzania, but the journos are more interested in violence and numbers. Someone asks about international seed patents and the cameramen switch off their lights and leave.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, the convergence centre is fast becoming a village. About 2,000 activists are hanging out in an enormous warehouse cum aircraft hangar draped in banners. A troupe of pink samba drummers parade outside in the warm autumn sunshine, followed by a posse of techno-pagan line dancers.
On what passes for street corners, stand-up politicos are haranguing anyone who'll listen and the finishing touches are being put to the inevitable giant puppets. The warehouse itself is filled with banners.
Some are psychotherapeutic ("Humans! We all have needs"), others hallucenogenic ("the dragons, green ants, striped possums and huge trees wish you well"). Some are just mysterious ("I find woodchips to be disgruntling.")
Journalists aren't allowed to take photos but many have made their way to the Strahov Stadium camp site anyway. A dumb move, as most protesters are avoiding it, fearing a police containment operation tomorrow. I can't hang around as Oscar said we were going to picket the IMF delegates at the Opera tonight but when I get there it's deserted. Go figaro.
Oscar's mobile phone has gone down, just like it did on June 18 so I head back to the convergence centre. But the mood there has turned dramatically. Half the centre has raced off to confront a suspected fascist incursion at the information centre and my affinity group has gone into a huddle in the main warehouse over which demonstration to join tomorrow.
Three colour-coded routes are slated to close off the key exit points for the IMF delegates. A pink route will be led by left groups and trades-unions, a blue route by the "Black Block" hardcore anarchists and a yellow route by Ya Basta, who are an unknown quantity. Our group is edgy and undecided.
Incredibly, a no-drinking policy is approved, which almost everyone keeps to. The consensus vote finally goes for Ya Basta on the basis that they're sexier and have spent the last day making riot shields. One group member sums up the reasoning thus: "Throwing empty beer cans at riot cops never worked in the past and it certainly won't work tomorrow."
But he doesn't smile when he says it. Every time I ask someone how many of the group they expect to be on the coach home, they furrow their brows and go shtum. In the end, I scour the hall for a leitmotif, but the best I can come up with is a dog carrying a banner in its teeth that says, "Drop your bloody profits, you are surrounded by billions of people."
In Namesti Miro, the dog carrying the banner is surrounded by billions of photographers. I'm surrounded by about 10,000 protesters, countless dismembered legs sticking out of the grass and a pink tank. "I'm here to appeal on behalf of all the people who canít be here today because they're deeeeaaaadddd," a speaker screams. "In Sao paolo, 1,000 people were murdered last year. Aaaaaaaagh."
Others are more considered. James, a relocated Torontonian, says he's come "to see if all the negative comments about the anti-globalization movement are true." They're not. "These are just people trying to make the world a better place in their own way," he says. Campbell, a Trot Scot with wild nasal hair, has more mercentary motives: "I was thinking of going to Majorca this year but I thought this would be more fun," he chuckles. "Heh heh heh."
Finding the protest dog's owner seems a good idea but a speaker on stage is railing, "You, the mainstream media are tools of corporate power. You are to fear our eyes. You, the co-opted media are now our target!" Everyone cheers. I give up on the dog and decide to find my affinity group instead. But they're nowhere to be found. Nowhere near Ya Basta, anyway.
Ya Basta are unmistakeable in their padded white decontamination suits with miners lamps, gas masks, foam vests, foam shoulder pads and riot shields made out of cardboard or plastic bin lids strapped to their arms.
They look like game show contestants about to fight the Czech cops with massive cotton wool ear buds. But they're well-organised and led by happy Italian pop music. It's the most joyful bloc and they have a beautiful manifesto leaflet and so I stick with the Bastas.
After a halting start, we get blocked at the Nusle bridge by legions of Czech riot robocops and about four tanks. The cops are holding a sign that reads, 'Citizens, your meeting is unlawful. We will dissolve it if you do not back off peacefully."
About 11,000 police are reported to be on duty today with 5,000 soldiers in reserve but despite this, 10 lines of Ya Basta shock troops take turns charging police lines with their arms linked, fighting hand to foam, throwing rubber tires.
They've organized themselves well, with a 100-yard-space to retreat into but the International Socialists want to stage a mass charge on police lines and a scene developes. "I came here to smash the IMF and that's exactly what I'm going to do," shouts one infuriated IS member.
Then he picks up a stick and practically starts fighting someone from Ya Basta who disagrees with his battle strategy. This is not what democracy looks like.
I'm talking to a Bulgarian who says he's called Ivan and he thinks it's sad that everyone here is so cold to one another but he won't shut up being inane, and distracting, and I hear a journalist saying to another journalist, "Let's just go the hospital and wait," and one of the IS British leaders is telling a Ya Basta leader that she's a great chief but the Ya Basta guy is saying, "No! No chiefs..." And I look for my wallet to buy some mineral water and suddenly, it's not there.
Now, I'm in the Independent Media Centre and people say there's a war going on in downtown Prague. The subway system has been closed, major casualties are being taken on either side, God only knows what's happened to my affinity group and I can't help thinking of the words of a Jewish tour guide during a visit to the Old Synagogue in a quieter moment on Sunday. "Your demonstration has had a good beginning," she said, "I hope it has a good end."
I remember this because the Old Synagogue is where Rabbi Lev in the famous legend gave his soul to the Golem that was supposed to defend the Jews of Prague but the spirit ended up trashing the city instead.
On the main banner in the convergence centre, there's a small graffito. It simply says: "This is not the end."
(first published in 'Now' Sept 28-Oct 4th issue)
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