S26 Actions in Prague


Holly Spaulding

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.