(An on-the-scene report I wrote for the IMC (Independent Media Center) as a freelance journalist, covering the IMF/World Bank protest in Prague Sept. 2000)
One thing was clear; the spirit of Seattle continued in the streets of Prague. A variety of concerned individuals, all ages, ranging from diverse organizations such as the Jubilee 2000 and Friends of the earth to various worker groups from Italy, Greece, Germany, and Britain attended different demonstrations against the destructive policies of the IMF and World Bank.
Media coverage was extensive. Vaclav Havel held a “tea party” conference for the leading NGO members, as well as a variety of other activist groups and IMF/World bank officials, designed so all sides could get together to express their views. Nothing was accomplished of course. However, the meeting did set the tone for the upcoming conference meetings in which both the IMF and world bank presidents remained on the defensive, taking a conciliatory stance, admitting past failed policies and a need to focus their energy in the future toward internal reforms and a greater emphasis on the amount of debt relief for the burdened undeveloped countries. PR lip service, certainly, but at least the pressure is on the bankers to do something constructive.
The days leading up to the Sept. 26 mass demonstration, I felt the demonstration’s umbrella organization, INPEG, seemed very disorganized. Upon reflection, with the apparent success of the Prague demonstrations, perhaps this was a strategic ploy to falsely lure the bankers and the police into a state of overconfidence. Difficult to tell. Facilities for some of the educational forums as well as the pragmatic sessions for puppet and signmaking were logistically widespread compared to the well-centralized organization of Seattle’s Direct Action Network. IMC’s headquarters was understandably inconspicuously marked (a paper sign on a nondescript brown door) with the police station located just across the street. As I approached the door, I smiled, waved at the obvious police surveillance cameras, before someone answered the door and led me into a large courtyard. Upstairs was a makeshift assortment of laptops, bulletin boards, cell phone numbers, and a do-it-yourself press badge kit. The three people in the room suddenly left, leaving me briefly in charge. I wonder if ABC/CBS/NBC started out this way?
Over time, the presence of two police officers on every neighborhood street corner without any justification or provocation became less concerning and more humorous, ludicrously so, to the locals with each passing day leading up to the big demonstration.
By Sunday, the 24th, momentum for “the cause” started to materialize, with two separate but very visible, and well media covered, demonstrations organized by the Jubilee 2000 church representatives, and various European worker groups. The procession passed through the high profile old town section of Prague, finishing at the statue of Jan Hus, an appropriate authority defiant iconic figure. The atmosphere was very festive and peaceful. The somber issues were addressed. The local Czech citizenry took noticeable interest in what the demonstrators had to say, as well as realizing that the demonstrators were not the “monsters” the local authorities had falsely described. The dozen police guarding a McDonalds near Wenleslas Square struck a very foolish and telling pose for the powers that be; protect and serve….the multinational corporate interest.
For reasons still unclear to me, the main participants of the Jubilee 2000 protest march had left for home by the day of the larger Sept. 26 demonstration. Socialist worker groups were the predominant representation during the procession. While waiting for key leaders from Italy’s Ya Basta organization to eventually be allowed access into the Czech Republic, the INPEG leadership appeared again disorganized. However, once Ya Basta arrived, the procession quickly formed and began their festive march from Namesti Miru square to the enormous bridge that led across the dry river bed to the convention center that housed the IMF/World Bank delegates.
A stalemate was reached when the procession was stopped by a walled fortification of Czech police and tanks situated on the bridge.
However…with most of the attention and police energy being diverted to the bridge stalemate, several color-designated groups scurried below and around through other neighborhoods, approaching the police from below and on the bridge’s other side, catching the police off guard with direct confrontation and coming uncomfortably close to the convention center’s front door. This scene appeared reminiscent of an event from medieval days, with the peasants rising up against the evil king’s fortified castle and his henchmen army. Some things never change.
These few tenacious, aggressive activists kept conditions very uncomfortable for the delegates, and with the bridge blocked so that they couldn’t easily drive back into town to their hotels, the city officials decided to close down the metro line to the public, creating a special private line for the delegates to escape and return.
Protesters continued their peaceful vigilance that evening by surrounding the opera house, where the delegates were scheduled to attend. The opera was canceled. The eprks of working for the all-powerful banking institution were not looking so perky now.
Thus, I believe the combination of largely peaceful dissenting voices, continual bad publicity for the bankers, and several uncomfortable aggressive action stances created a psychologically fragile environment within the ranks of the delegates, condemning the meetings to their quick adjournment and ultimate failure.
One benefit the activists had on their side was the fact that the Czech government and their police forces had to be on their best behavior, at least in the daylight and under media scrutiny, because this was the first time that Prague has been in the international spotlight in the new era of post communism, and, the Czech Republic is trying to become a member of the European Union. Of course, our totalitarian police forces in Seattle, wash. D.C., Philadelphia, and Los Angeles have no such restrictions.
However, under the cover of darkness and no media coverage, the police reprisals came down and down hard they came on the poor folks caught in the rounding up. To be honest, knowing that this would be the probable reaction by the police who were humiliated in the daylight hours just hours earlier, it would have been far more prudent for these people to have simply dispersed by nightfall. Regretfully, this was not the case, and many would become victims to police torture.
As for myself, through conversations and subtle interviews, I was able to gain some revealing insights into the personal profile of the staff that makes up the faces to these faceless global banking institutions:
(1) A young black gentleman was explaining how he had just had a recent rift with his girlfriend who worked as a low ranked but well paid computer programmer for the World Bank. Even as her boyfriend, his expenses including airfare were paid for, courtesy of the generous expense accounts given to World Bank members and their staff.
The rift developed from their conversation earlier that day. He sympathized with the concerns voiced by the protesters such as the destructive World Bank practices and policies while she adamantly defended her company’s role.
He was currently without a bed and her company for that night.
(2) A middle-aged woman who was a secretary for a high-ranking banking official had expressed concerns to her boss earlier about the institution’s lending policies only to be lectured on the merits of keeping her opinion to herself. Her peers were to scared to voice dissent, fearful of losing their lucrative jobs. Her boss still believed women shouldn’t be in the workplace. She knew she was too valuable a secretary for him to fire her.
(3) The chief World Bank administrator for all of Africa was quick to espouse the superficial rhetoric of how the World Bank has helped the people of Africa. However, when asked if he had actually ever visited the impoverished African villages he said he was too important, too busy to ever meet these people; a very revealing sentiment I thought.
This beautiful grassroots movement, with its varied international voices, is still extremely united in its common cause of addressing the true evils in this world and its true perpetrators and beneficiaries, the multinational corporations and their world institutions. The solutions are quite varied among the participants as to how to resolve the world’s problems and the strategies in which to implement them.
There really wasn’t any established leading spokesperson for the movement but that seems to be one of the attributes of this truly democratic world movement. Every individual is a leader, every voice is valued and heard. The next step is determining the next course of action; whether it’s solidifying causes and groups, determining to have key spokespersons, determining whether to pursue purely peaceful protest and civil disobedience or all of the above.
With a unified heart, we should be able to find a solution.
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