Prague 26 September

Protesters in Prague, September 2000 (photo: Jaroslav Kučera)
FRFI 157 October / November 2000

They called themselves the people's army, the 1,500-strong Ya Basta contingent who arrived in the Namesti Miru on the morning of September 26 (S26), and they were certainly dressed for a fight. 

The Italians stood like military astronauts, their white hygiene suits bulging with the body protectors and foam cushions they wore underneath. In the Prague sunshine they sweated solemnly under hard hats, their gas masks hanging at the ready. No police batons or CS gas were going to stop Ya Basta's march to the conference centre where the IMF and the World Band delegates were meeting. They moved forward in formation, carrying huge home-made shields of tyres tied together to push back police lines. The press were ecstatic. 

This was the yellow march, one of three marches to leave the main square and take different routes to the conference centre, stretching police resources and confusing the state's defence. 

The yellow march arrived at the bridge that separated protesters from the capitalist conspirators in the conference centre. Czech police had rolled out armoured cars, tanks, barricades and rows of police to prevent the protestors from passing. 

For three hours the people's army fought to push back the barricades while the police held their ground. The press fought their own ground battle, clinging onto their perches next to the confrontation, despite batons and CS gas flying by and resisting efforts by both police and protesters to remove them. 

From a hundred metres back, a voice harangued protesters over a megaphone to move around Ya Basta and push forward against the police barricades on the left. The order came from an SWP cadre who was hidden in a van at the back of the crowd. 

Frustrated Turkish communists rushed forward to open up the new front, taunting the police with revolutionary songs and hitting out with sticks. They fought determinedly, without body protectors, shields or gas masks, armed with red banners adorned with the hammer and sickle. 

The Turks were shoved aside by the British left surging forward on the order for a final attack from the SWP women barking orders from behind. Police lashed out, pushing them back, dazed and confused. And back they stayed until Ms SWP congratulated the march on a job not done, calling everybody away for a `short press conference and to listen to some speeches'. Meanwhile in the distance sirens wailed and rounds of gas canisters were repeatedly fired into the demonstrators on the blue march across the bridge. 

Around 200 protesters refused to be drawn away by the SWP and instead they ran down the side of the bridge to join other protesters gathering below the conference centre. 

Street battles began, as police drove a motorcycle and water cannon van into the crowd. The bike was knocked over and the water cannon was bombarded with stones, and both fled the area. Protesters turned bins over in the road to prevent more police vehicles driving into the crowd. 

Meanwhile masked protesters popped into the local grocery store to buy water and sandwiches from the friendly shop keepers. Apparently, not all Prague residents had closed up or fled the city believing the press hype about dangerous anarchists. 

Across the railway tracks and up the steep slope, protestors reached the bottom of the conference centre, their entrance blocked by only a dozen police. American pacifists were courting them, telling them what a peaceful demonstration this was and begging them to be understanding. They clearly presumed that Czech police spoke English. 

The pacifists turned vicious only when another protester threw an egg at the police, telling him that they were in charge and everyone had to be peaceful. One angry woman responded that these police were protecting the delegates whose policies were responsible for the death of 30,000 children everyday. `This is phoney' she said, pointing at his Shut Down the IMF and World Bank placard. `You don't mean it, but we do!' 

Delegates peered curiously over the railings above from a safe distance, not yet scared by the commotion. Riot police started to pour out and form lines all around us, while a pacifist ironically welcomed them to this `peaceful demonstration'. 

As if to teach the pacifist a lesson the riot police charged into the crowd, setting on it with batons and pushing people back, into bushes, down a near-vertical concrete wall, picking people out for a beating and handcuffing them for arrest. Even the press were attacked. One camera woman was winded with a baton and crumpled up on the ground: she was thrown out of the way. 

Protesters scrambled down the dangerous slope to escape the beatings. Police followed them down, charging again, sending the crowd fleeing in panic. Suddenly, the sound of samba floated past the police, as the British samba band paraded round the corner, momentarily stopping the police assault. 

The 300-400 British demonstrators had decided to split away from the American-dominated INPEG organisation of the day. Keeping apart from the three yellow, blue and red & black marches, British activists and anarchists had organised their own pink and silver contingent. 

Taking an independent route, the nucleus of the pink and silver march was the samba band. Alongside 30-odd musicians the role of the other 300 protesters was to protect the band from the police. Armed with gas masks and body protecters themselves, the British brigade had in fact been among the most successful section of the demonstration in reaching the conference centre, and most of the way had been trouble free. 

Thousands of delegates stared down in confusion and growing alarm, missiles starting to fly up towards them. The beats from the samba band energised the crowd which had grown to 500. It was exciting to see the delegates, to know that the demonstration had reached them and now, with their drumming and their pink dancing costums, the protesters were really disturbing the conference. 

Rounds of gas canisters and stun grenades were fired into the crowd from up high, sending it scattering. Police stormed down to ground level, formed lines and began to charge, firing gas and wielding batons. Burdened with heavy drums, the samba band set off on a short jog, resuming their music as soon as the police were a few paces behind. 

This chase continued until the protesters had been pushed down the road from the conference centre so the delicate delegates inside could be secretly whisked away via an internal metro station. 

A stand-off developed with the police blocking the road up to the conference centre and the crowd gathered round. A dozen police motorbikes roared through the crowd at high speed, sending people to the floor. Street railings were ripped up and placed in front of the police lines to block the road and stop any more vehicles tearing into the crowd. It also meant the coaches full of delegates waiting in the road behind would not be able to drive away from the centre. 

More scattered groups from the day's demonstrations joined the gathering, including anarchists, who set to work pulling up cobble stones to hurl at police. The police made an occasional charge at groups of protesters, many of them just standing by the side. 

Plainclothes police dressed as protesters with bandannas grabbed individuals from the crowd. One samba player was dragged along the floor by police till the crowd angrily chased them away and the police were forced to retreat without him. 

Dusk fell and a real street battle ensued. Police fought off the barrage of missiles and the demonstrators held their ground. 

As bizarrely as before, another samba band paraded past in the Prague night, taking the crowd of rioters and bystanders with it towards the main city square. With no police in sight and growing in size the 1,000 strong crowd paraded through the broad empty streets of Prague. 

Over 300 people remained outside the opera, having closed it down for the evening to prevent the delegates enjoying their planned evening entertainment. They joined the spontaneous demo that piled into the main square. 

A McDonald's on the corner was smashed while a thousand people looked on and cheered. All the other shops were left untouched, except for a KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) on the other side of the square. The symbolism of global capitalism is extending itself to other multinational fast-food outlets it seems. 

By now the crowd had won the streets but lost its focus and people began to disperse. It was clear that little battles would go on into the night, but tomorrow Prague would be back in the control of the state. And they would be using all their means of repression to make it clear that the anti-globalisation victory was for one day only.