in Prague: POLICE PRACTICE
a report in two parts by Gwendolyn Albert and Vincent Farnsworth
Part One (Gwen)
The April 16 anti-IMF demonstration in Prague, planned to coincide with the IMF meeting and demonstrations happening at the same time in Washington DC, can be interpreted as a dress rehearsal for the IMF's Prague meeting six months hence, when as many as 200,000 demonstrators from all over the world are expected to attend. Despite the threat of arrest and deportation which raises the stakes for foreign nationals such as myself, a wave of international support for the September events is already beginning.
On the morning of A16, BBC radio announced that the anti-IMF demonstrations in DC had been all but pre-empted the day before by a raid on "the warehouse" where everything was being organized, with 600 arrests. The report emphasized police preparedness in the wake of NovemberĖs "Battle in Seattle," where violence and vandalism had been "caused" [sic] by demonstrators. The broadcast throughout the morning included the views of some of the IMF delegates, who claimed that they were doing their best for the poor of the world. The poor of the world were not consulted for their opinion.
It was a beautiful day with a cloudless blue sky and hot sun above the city, and as I made my way to the Old Town Square it was unsettling to imagine that in a few hours there would be a massive presence of riot police under those beautiful skies. I stopped by the outdoor market on Uhelny trh (Coalmarket square) to say hello to the Ukrainian artists whose artworks are once more for sale on that little plaza after a protracted battle with city authorities. Igor Tchaj, already a veteran of many Prague demonstrations, showed me his current favorite canvas, a six-by-four foot collaboration by four different artists, full of squiggles, color and life. He would be joining us later.
I also stopped in a cafŧ to scan the Czech press, where the opinion offensive was already underway. Finding a day-old Mlada Fronta Dnes, (the leading Czech news daily owned by a German corporation), I saw the events of April 16 in Prague had been preemptively editorialized as the actions of "anarchists who take life too seriously," while an article by an American expert from MIT (unfortunately not Noam Chomsky) accused the protesters in DC of being unable to avail themselves of "democratic methods" to get their point across. Apparently the right to assemble is no longer a democratic method in the US. As for Prague, if the media were bothering to do this kind of advance sneering, then I knew there would be plenty of cops attending the demonstration that day (even if no one else did). The editorials were advance license for them to take life very seriously indeed.
Many tourists were gathered on the Old Town Square for the Easter market, a collection of strange little wooden huts suspiciously like those used for the Christmas market and purveying much the same trinkets, though the ribboned willow-switches for the traditional Easter woman-whipping fertility rite were out in force. The putative organizers of the dayĖs events, mostly young guys wearing T-shirts proclaiming solidarity with striking Czech miners to the north, briefly attempted setting up their table and leaflets between a pony ride and a merry-go-round before retreating to the safety of a lawn to the side of, if not on, the Old Town Square. The contrast between the amplified marching band performing onstage beneath the yellow letters "Czech Easter," and the scruffy crowd (with their equally scruffy plainclothes police minders) was quite marked, although it must also be said that such absurd juxtapositions are a part of daily life here.
The demonstration started at three, a stationary gathering of about 300 people listening to speeches through a bullhorn in Czech, accompanied by the usual milling around and leafleting by the different organizations who were there. A significantly new addition to the crowd was a contingent of people with signs in Dutch, German and English, members of various squats abroad who had come for the dayĖs fun. The crowd was twentyish, pierced, dreadlocked, half men, half women, half hippies, half punks, although here and there some retirees could be seen, shabbily dressed and of uncertain motivation. The organizer types (all young men) were more cleancut and nondescriptly dressed, in contrast to the international anarchist contingent, who were much more extravagantly decorated, lively and carefree, banging on drums and tambourines, waving masks and shouting the universal, if unfortunately childish "hey hey, ho ho, the IMF has got to go."
The English-language chanting was soon in competition with the Czech speeches, and for a moment it seemed as if the demonstration was an amoeba splitting into two parts and drifting away from itself. An altercation between a clearly alcoholic older Czech man and a young clean-cut activist in an orange button-down shirt, apparently an organizer with his table full of leaflets, caught the attention of the surrounding journalists. The older man kept insisting that he had lived through the bombings of WWII, although the point he was making was unclear, and the younger man kept saying that it was the older generation who had fucked everything up. A city cop, marked by his beer gut as well as by his uniform, eventually stepped forward and asked them to calm down. By then the gathering had turned into a march winding its way past the ponies, port-a-potties and tents on the square marked ÎThis tent is for the consumption of Bamberg beer and sausage only.Ė
As long as the gathering stayed put we were observed primarily by Prague city police, the mild-mannered sort who often patrol in male-female couples and are hardly menacing (despite their pistols); but experience has taught me that while skinhead demonstrations are usually escorted by the police here, left-wing demonstrations are crushed by them. As we moved into Celetna street I saw that the painter Tchaj had joined us, now carrying his huge painting on his head as his contribution to the overall effect. Later in the demonstration, when police began demanding ID of demonstrators, he held up his sketch book and shouted "these are my papers." Since I know TchajĖs documents have actually expired, I can only assume he is either terribly brave, or a real masochist. Today he was also lucky.
As the procession moved up Na Prikope street towards Wenceslas Square, the moment I had feared arrived. The real police showed up. They do not have beer guts. None of them are women. They dress all in black with riot shields, helmets, and a variety of weapons at their disposal. Their method of arrival was designed to impress and intimidate not only the demonstrators but also the passersby as they slowly rolled up a normally pedestrian-only walkway in a long line of vans, each vehicle carrying 9 heavily armed cops. They did not take the middle of the avenue, but stayed as close to the right-hand side of the street as possible; the effect was to force everyone on the street up against the walls of the buildings single-file į and they just kept coming and coming. I lost track of the number of vans after 40 (meaning at least 360 riot police alone, not to mention city police and plainclothes cops). I also lost my nerve, as it seemed completely possible that the cops would open their doors, pin us all against the walls and load us into their vans without regard for who was who. After the last van was gone a column of police on foot appeared, then officers on horseback.
As I hesitated to move forward, the woman next to me started to talk. She was fiftyish, with eye makeup approaching Tammy Faye Bakker proportions, so my prejudices were pleasantly destroyed when her comments of "this is terrible" turned out to be aimed against the police. "ThereĖs two cops for every demonstrator here," she said, shaking her head. "Ten years ago we thought we had seen the end of this kind of police action. Nothing has changed."
Part Two (Vincent)
I continued to follow the crowd as it tried to reach the traditional and celebratory endpoint for Prague demonstrations, the statue of Czech king St. Vaclav at the top of the long Wenceslas Square. All along tons of plainclothes cops, with their hardboiled faces identical to mafiosi, dogged the crowd while talking into mobile phones. One young woman, who said she had come to watch the police tactics, said "ItĖs funny now, but later it could get really dangerous." Though it had been only 45 minutes since we left the Old Town Square, a bit past the halfway point up Wenceslas Square the demonstration leader, a Czech youth, announced that the event was over. This was a timely announcement since the procession had reached the blockade of riot police and was surrounded on three sides, with returning the way they had come the only option. Some demonstrators started to disperse, the crowd and onlookers gradually going back to the midpoint of the square where the tram tracks and metro entrances are.
This is where the scene started to get ugly, ridiculous, and a bit eerie, as the situation was now concentrated into the small area in front of a metro entrance, and the tension was at its highest. The demonstration leader with the bullhorn once again announced that the protest was finished and asked that everyone leave to avoid being provoked by the police, repeating it in basic English. The riot cops, for no reason I could see, were blocking access to the metro. It occurred to me they might be preventing the demonstrators from taking the metro one stop to the top of the square. Whatever the reason, it was strange for the heavily armed riot police to be blocking entrance to a chief means of the dispersal they were there to enforce. It got especially silly when, from behind the cops blocking the entrance, a banner and some dreadlocks suddenly appeared -- demonstrators had gained access to the station from some other entrance. The crowd cheered.
As one beer-toting demonstrator loudly protested being asked to show his ID by one of the mellow male-female pairs of city cops, the plainclothes cops started swiftly arresting targeted people, right in the middle of the densely packed crowd. Many of the young Czech men arrested seemed either to go limp or get tackled as they were arrested, and raised no cry at all, presenting the eerie sight of a youth lying on the ground being handcuffed, manhandled and quickly disappeared from the scene without making a sound. Another very young man simply held up his wrists when a plainclothes cop confronted him, but ended up getting roughly escorted away anyway.
The crowd started to lose its definition, spreading back up the square. The undercover cops, helped by the riot police, seemed to be making key arrests. They often would ask to see someoneĖs ID and, freed of the dense crowd earlier, put them into a police car to quickly drive away. People loitered about, including a group of five skinheads watching a larger group of anarcho-punks. The TV news people, accompanied the whole time by two huge-shouldered bodyguards who could have doubled as undercover cops, filmed their wrap-up with a picturesque background of a line of police vans leaving the square. After the TV crew left, away from any other commotion, the clean-cut orange-shirted vocal demonstrator was violently arrested by two riot police, who pinned him against a kiosk and punched him in the kidneys from behind before quickly removing him from the scene in a police car as someone yelled "This is police brutality." Dozens of various kinds of police were nearby as this happened.
After this all the riot police were gone, leaving only a couple dozen city cops to stand along the square and watch the few straggling protesters sit around with their folded-up banners.
On Monday the news coverage of most Czech papers featured scenes from the more violent confrontations in Washington, along with ominous warnings about the September meeting of the IMF here in Prague. After all its editorializing, Mlada Fronta Dnes carried nothing about the Prague demonstration on its front page, preferring to treat the demo on page two and focus on the fact that the organizers had been refused a permit; they ran a photo of a demonstrator being hauled away by plainclothes police. In their "city" section they characterized the demo has having "more than a hundred" participants (more than three hundred was closer to the truth.) The independent daily Pravo gave the most coverage with front-page treatment of the demonstrations in both cities and a clear photo of two Czech riot police in body armor, as well as numbers of those arrested in Prague: 30, or roughly ten percent. Neither paper described the number of riot police, which by MFDĖs statistics would have outnumbered the demonstrators by three to one alone, not including plainclothes cops and city police. And it is clear that this was conceived of as a rehearsal for September: Minister of the Interior Stanislav Gross was on TV at the same time the demonstration was taking place, assuring viewers that "the police will be thorough enough and if the law is broken I think they will be tough enough." The overall goal of the police action was apparently to prove to the IMF that the Czech Republic is "a democracy with enough tools to maintain order and a decent life for those who follow the rules."
But not all are so sanguine. Ivan Langer, vice president of the right-wing ODS party, was quoted as saying about the September meeting: "The only risk is that the police wonĖt have the kind of political support they are used to." This intriguing statement was not explained further, but even if the Czech police donĖt enjoy the support of the public, they do enjoy the support of the United States: the FBI is heading this way to open up offices in Prague and Budapest and teach everyone here a thing or two before the IMF comes to town.
it is very difficult not to be intimidated heavily armed and body-armored riot police, as good an example as any of violence incarnate. This accounts for the overwhelming presence of the young among demonstrators everywhere, those who perhaps havenĖt yet grasped the principles of mortality or, it seems, exhaustion -- stenciled graffiti has recently appeared calling for another anti-IMF rally May 7th. Police or no police, the WTO, IMF and World Bank will no longer be able to meet in opulent silence after the events of Seattle and now DC. They wonĖt be able to change shape, name and colors so easily between now and September either, so we can count on September's anti-IMF demonstration in Prague being proportionally charged. The meeting will try to meet, the police will try to police, and the rulers will try to rule. But itĖs not going to be as easy as they think.
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