Article from Black Flag #220 (2001)
Responding to the call from INPEG (the Initiative Against Economic Globalisation) for affinity groups to go to Prague for the S26 protests against the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) and the World Bank's 55th annual meeting, a small group of us travelled from London. Picking up a cheap flight meant we were spared a lengthy coach ride. The Czech authorities apparently expected everyone to travel by land — coaches and trains spent many hours at the border — so we had no problems. Indeed one of our number who travelled in a suit for the purpose of easy entry to hotels etc. was welcomed as a potential delegate! We had rented a flat to share and the objective was to live and work collectively together, make some trouble and have fun.
Our first port of call was the INPEG info shop, shared with Indymedia. Unfortunately, the "welcoming message" consisted of a warning that INPEG would not support violence against property, animals or people. This could of course be explained by the need to formally distance itself from violence given the difficult circumstances in which INPEG was. The extent of the police operation also became apparent. There were uniformed cops on every street, yet the level of harassment was relatively low — the cops seemed wary of anyone in a group, so only those walking alone were challenged to produce ID etc.
Saturday and Sunday
The following day saw the first demonstration, a counter-demonstration to the fascists. We turned up at Peace Square to find about 1,000 people masked up — a foretaste of the red and black block. The demo was, like all the protests taking place in Prague, banned, so we were keen to find out what this actually meant in practice. The banning turned out to be a mere formality, so despite the large police presence no attempt was made to stop the march. After many speeches and much posturing for photographers, the march moved off in the warm sunshine to wind its way round central Prague. The fascists were marching on the other side of the river, so there seemed little chance of confronting them, until part of our march split off and ran to the station where a group of boneheads were waiting for a train. Needless to say they got a good kicking and, despite later rumours, nothing was heard of them for the rest of the week.
The Sunday papers' images of the demo focused entirely on the Leninists, who had been there in very small numbers. Delighting in photos of those decked out in hammer and sickles the message to locals was clear — these people who have come to Prague want to turn the clock back. This followed months of propaganda, including government pamphlets, warning locals of the danger and advising them to leave the capital. Schools and offices were closed to facilitate the exodus.
Throughout the weekend a counter-summit was being held, which I found difficult to engage with. The sessions were lengthy, overly academic and as there were three different venues it was difficult to drop in and out, a necessity given the need to do other things. The main venue for organising was the Convergence Centre, a former shipbuilding yard, at which a nightly spokes-council meeting was held. The basic idea was a good one. Each affinity group nominated a spokesperson, who joined a circle with the other spokespersons. The rest of the affinity group sat behind their spokesperson (like spokes of a wheel) allowing discussions to take place within the affinity group as well as the spokes-council. In practice things were more difficult. By the Saturday evening, the spokes-council meeting already consisted of about 300 affinity groups, some of which were too large to sit behind their spokesperson. The acoustics in the Convergence Centre were appalling and there was no PA system. The need to conduct meetings in four languages made proceedings very drawn out and predictably enough few decisions were actually made.
Much more useful were the informal discussions, the chance to meet activists from all over the world, and the practical facilities for banner making etc. Good vegan food (not an easy thing to find in Prague) was provided by the Dutch group Rampenplan every day. Noticeable by their absence from the Convergence Centre were Czech people. Clearly they did not need this space in the same way as those of us from abroad and were wary of police surveillance. This was unfortunate, as it meant we were only able to get any local perspective on events from contacts we had in a local anarchist group and from people we met in bars.
The Masses Gather
Each day saw more and more people arriving in Prague and more stories of people stuck at the border, leading to pickets of embassies and the Interior Ministry. Prague was a constant hive of activity and it was impossible to attend everything. Sunday saw what was billed as a parade with puppets to round off the arts and resistance festival. We went expecting a fluffy event, to find the same masked up protesters at the front of the march, followed by various Leninists!
INPEG'S plan for the 26th was, rather than trying to prevent delegates from getting into the conference as in Seattle, to blockade them in until they disbanded the IMF and World Bank! The protest would start at 11am and follow three routes, designated blue, yellow and pink, blocking all the roads in and out of the conference. We pondered the political significance of the three colours, but it appears that these were the only colour highlighter pens to hand! lf the delegates got out then the plan was to blockade the opera house and banqueting centre — the delegates' evening entertainment. These plans were made prior to most of us arriving. There was supposed to be a meeting of the red and black block, at which we hoped an alternative plan might emerge, but this meeting never occurred. Most of the responsibility for this must fall on the Czech anarchists, the main group of which had denounced INPEG as being too liberal but failed to offer any alternatives, and their international grouping, who had circulated a leaflet calling the meeting. The failure of the main Czech anarchist group to engage in the S26 process was a major weakness.
Monday saw us making preparations for the 26th. As well as buying energy food and drink (the local equivalent of Redbull is called Semtex — a must for all rioters), other necessities (spray paint, gas masks etc}, we took a recur of the conference centre. Located away from the city centre, across a valley and perched high on a hill, this was a formidable obstacle. There were three access routes — a direct approach across a bridge via the dual carriageway (nicknamed suicide bridge); the metro line; and down the valley, across a canal and a railway line and up small steep roads the other side. Later we made a flag to try and make it harder to get separated from each other. This consisted of a circled A and a red star — representative of the group's make up, bringing some of our simmering differences to the fore.
During the day the affinity groups were asked to sign up to one of the routes. It emerged that Ya Basta! were going to take the yellow route across suicide bridge, the red and black block the blue route, down one side of the valley, and UK Earth First! and the Leninists the pink route clown the opposite side of the valley. We opted for the red and black block, partly because we had most in common with them, but also because this was the one block not based around any national grouping. In the evening a final spokes-council of each colour stream was held. This broke up in disarray due to the rumour, which inevitably turned out to be false, that the fascists had attacked the info centre. People rushed off to defend it, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was 20 minutes away by metro and the likelihood that the state was playing games. The Convergence Centre descended into a general atmosphere of paranoia which will be familiar to anyone involved in organising mass illegal actions. We headed to our flat to finalise our own plans.
When we arrived, thousands of people were already gathering in Peace Square in the sunshine. Balloons, banners and flags flew in the breeze, many people were in costume and imaginative props were much in evidence. The international character of the event was immediately apparent, with seemingly endless slogans and leaflets in numerous languages. The media presence was huge and both Ya Basta and Earth Firstl (with the samba band) played up to this with set piece entrances to the square.
Over in one corner the red and black (blue) block assembled. Well over a thousand figures dressed all in black and masked up is at once a heartening and intimidating sight. After an age of sweltering in the sun we moved off as a single march, before splitting into the three colour blocks. Our blue stream was led by a giant globe, which contained a person and was pushed by others. As we marched through the town many people leant out of windows to admire the spectacle. In between spray painting slogans on walls, we tried to second-guess where the cops would try to stop us. The obvious point was the railway line, which ran along an embankment and had infrequent tunnels under it, but strangely we were allowed to pass under it. As we proceeded up the road leading to the conference centre we came across the cops blockade. The head of the march, including the giant world, continued straight at the police lines and then all hell broke loose.
The cops began by firing tear gas into the crowd. Those up for it responded with cobble stones, molotovs and other missiles, whilst those who weren't moved into the park on one side. At first it seemed the police were going to lose it. Their lines were split, shields and helmets were grabbed and held triumphantly for the crowd and the cops seemed unable to deal with the molotovs. Then they used the water cannon, which turned out to be the weapon that saved them, and stun grenades. For us the tear gas was difficult to cope with at first, even with gas masks, The Greek and Spanish comrades were seemingly oblivious, fighting without any masks at all. The difficulties of fighting up-hill against two water cannons cannot be overstated, but this did not stop people trying for the next hour and a half. The cops used all their weapons and eventually we were forced back down the hill to where the flats were. This was a working class area and elderly locals passed bottles of water out of windows to those needing to wash their eyes. One bloke was even passing rocks, presumably from his garden!
The fight continued and barricades were built. At one point a group of pacifists removed a barricade and decided to sit down in front of a line of police in an adjacent street, but moved when the barricade was rebuilt behind them. Word came that, on the other side of the valley the pink group had got to the conference centre and needed us to continue to draw the police's fire. Despite the odd idiots the atmosphere was comradely, with people co-operating — building barricades out of street furniture, filling bins with rocks from the railway, tending to the injured. One area in which INPEG excelled them-selves was providing first aid equipment —anyone needing help always had a choice of half-a-dozen people! Respect was also shown for the nature of the area so local shops and blocks of flats were left alone. Eventually the cops decided to baton charge. This was the type of policing we were used to and it was interesting that comrades from other countries were not. Eventually we were forced to scramble across the railway line, on which a goods train had been left to block our way. On the other line a train was coming and, coupled with the hail of badly aimed missiles from the other side, things got a bit hairy for a moment. Once safely on the other side we regrouped and new barricades were built. Fighting continued but the cops were slowing advancing and we were defending pointless positions. More cops were lining up behind us, leaving only two escape routes. One led through a park into town, the other across the river which meant getting stuck there. Unfortunately few people seemed to have checked out the area and they were forced towards the river. We made our escape into town.
The Leninist Rally
As we wandered up the hill we came across the surreal sight of the Socialist Workers Party leading Workers' Power and other Leninist groups round town to the chant of “one solution, revolution", Never mind that, we had just spent three hours fighting the cops. After a while they stopped for the inevitable rally and, whilst they speechified, we took a breather.
Later on it turned out that having signed up for the pink block, the Leninists actually went with the yellow block. This had two results. Firstly the pink block was smaller than the others. The cops naturally concentrated their firepower on the blue and yellow blocks, because of their composition. Whilst Earth First! succeeded in getting up to the conference centre this was at the price of injuries and arrests and was nearly jeopardised by the lack of a pink march. The SWP meanwhile attempted to push forward on the bridge, despite the requests of Ya Basta! who were at the front for a disciplined assault, and then tried to get to the front to get on the telly! They had to be physically repelled by others.
The march moved off to the opera hall and we tried to get information on what was happening elsewhere. Yet another rally was held on the steps of the opera, at which Julie Waterson (SWP apparatchik) and others of her ilk told their followers what a success it had all been. At this point one person using a loud hailer was trying to get people to go to the bridge, where there was still a stand-off. Not surprisingly the Trotskyists ignored this call. Another group from the UK had made a great banner with the slogan "The revolution will not be Bolshevised". Together we held it on the platform behind the speakers. Initial laughter was joined by boos as the dimmer section of the crowd caught on and, having made our point, we headed towards the bridge only to be met by the samba band corning the other way. It seemed that the delegates had been got out by metro and were at the banquet.
A Banquet for us All!
About 250 of us set out on the three mile walk to the banqueting centre, along a dual carriageway blocking both sides. Our small group made common purpose with some libertarians from France and together we marched arm in arm. Unfortunately during the journey many people dropped out, especially once the samba band had, and by the time we arrived we were only about too strong. The cops weren't to know this and mistook us for the advance guard? The banqueting centre had a large court yard and this was entirely filled with riot cops. A little while later three busloads of delegates came out, to be met be a hail of stones. As it was by now 10pm we decided to head off and call it a day. When we got to the nearest metro station we found that the three busloads of delegates had been dumped there and, as the metro had been shut down, they were desperately trying to find a bus or tram home. Our arrival caused a bit of a stir, despite the protection of cops, and for some reason when we got on a bus none of them would get on.
Later on we found out that in addition to the opera being cancelled, the banquet was brought to an end by our arrival? Meanwhile in town the protesters had been joined by local youth and together they hit the usual targets, McDonalds etc.
The Morning After the Night Before
Later that night and during the following day the cops engaged in a mass round up of anyone they thought may have been involved. Bars were raided, leading in one instance to a stand off between the CNT and the police. People were grabbed off the street. In total about 800 people were arrested, about half of whom were foreigners. Large members of people were assaulted in custody — beatings, strip searches, medication refused, broken limbs.
After a few days most of the foreigners were deported but some, including one UK activist, remain in prison. For our Czech comrades things are much harder. Many face trumped up charges but will be held on remand in prison for a long time before even getting to challenge the evidence. Lawyers need to be hired and funds are urgently required.
The conference the next day was poorly attended, as apparently delegates were too afraid to leave their hotels. The final day was cancelled, although the organisers were keen to stress to all who would listen that it had nothing to do with the protests (obviously not). INPEG, who had published a daily paper throughout the protests, issued the following statement and carried it on the front page:
“In its public announcements INPEG has stated that it does not endorse any form of violence against people, animals or property. Violence is not part of INPEG’s political activities. For these reasons, it is impossible to accept the pointless and brutal excesses of groups who acted independently of INPEG during S26. A radical, consistent critique of IMF and WB policy as a long term goal, and current attempts to distract [sic] the two institutions' 55th annual meeting as a short term goal, are aims which are vastly different from mindless destruction of property in Prague. Last night's violent activities are fruitless expressions of powerlessness and political immaturity. Civil disobedience and nonviolence require real individualism and people who have the courage to be in the right place at the right time and who are not afraid to publicly express their opinions."
In the ensuing post-Prague debates some activists have sought to justify this statement on the grounds of the oppression of the movement in the Czech Republic. Leaving aside for a moment the question of violence as a legitimate and necessary tactic — and anyone who thinks that without violence we would have achieved our aims in Prague are kidding themselves — what is most telling is the lack of condemnation of police violence. No mention of the water cannons, armoured trucks, tear gas, stun grenades and baton charges which we faced. Quite how this helps those inside or in defending the movement generally is a mystery to me. Fortunately the prison support itself has been unconditional.
Within the two years since J18, the anti-capitalist movement has shown its ability to mobilise large numbers of people across the globe. The institutions, such as the IMF, World Bank. G7 etc which set the international conditions for capitalist expansion are unable to meet unless guarded by thousands of riot police. Prague must therefore been seen as a success in continuing this process. Whilst it did not lead to the IMF and World Bank being disbanded, the bureaucrats and bankers were forced to abandon their conference and are once again on the defensive having to justify the very existence of capitalism.
On another level Prague was a wonderful example of solidarity and comradeship, one that I am proud to have been a part of. Activists from all over Europe and indeed the world worked together and struggled together, despite our differing political histories, traditions and perspectives and the language barriers. There were numerous examples of this co-operation from the planning of the event, the attempts to make the spokes-council meetings work, the building of barricades and sharing of missiles, tending to the injured and the support for those arrested, I believe that many of us learned important lessons from each other. An action such as this demonstrates our collective potential and gives us a rare glimpse of what a real human community could be like.
At the same time the anti-capitalist movement is paradoxical, for it is a protest movement not protesting against a thing, as protest movements have in the past, but against the particular form of social relations which is capitalism. We live in a world where we can only relate to each other via the mediation of the commodity form, the key commodity being our labour power. Whilst days such as these can partially overcome the alienation of class society for an all too brief moment, the supersession of capitalism requires a social movement, which is able to connect to peoples' (particularly workers') daily struggles. Whether our protest movement can become such a social movement remains an open question.