The Promise of Prague

Bankers, Bono, and Bomb Throwers Battle It Out on the Streets of the Czech Republic

Federico explains that 865 members of the Italian and Spanish group Ya Basta! ("enough already") were detained on the railways near the Austrian border for 17 hours. After negotiations with officials, four members were expelled and sent to Austria. According to Federico, who wore a red Zapatista shirt and denim jacket, the four had been in Prague in August to plan protests and had been stopped by police, and their passport numbers registered. Armed police stopped the Ya Basta! train twice after it was permitted to cross the border.

"When we first arrived the city looked prepared for a civil war," says Stefan Bienfeld from Germany, a spokesperson for INPEG (the Czech acronym for Initiative Against Economic Globalization), which helped organize the disparate groups arriving to Prague. "Then you get used to it. We know the police are here watching our every move."

Looking around the stadium, the intimidation appears to have succeeded, although Bienfeld insists that thousands will be arriving during the night. There are only the 800 or so purple, yellow, red tents of Ya Basta! pitched, a few trumpet players. There are no lines for the porto-johnnys. Promised thousands of hungry folk, food vendors were enraged as their pastries went stale, their beer flat. One man whose rotisserie chickens spun for hours—until the meat started falling off—hadn't anticipated that many of those who did come would be vegetarians. By week's end the vendors contemplated suing camp organizers to recoup their losses.

That same afternoon, at the congress Centre, security is tight. At James Wolfensohn's invite, U2's Bono is speaking on behalf of Jubilee 2000's campaign for debt relief and access is restricted as if Bono is Havel himself—while finance potentates like Robert Rubin of Citigroup take their seats unnoticed. Clearly Wolfensohn sees his new friend the rock star as his best chance to improve the World Bank's image. Before dashing off, he opens the proceedings with an attempt at a joke: "Bono called me and said he didn't think much of me or what I was doing and I started to worry about my reputation with my children."

Wearing thick black wrap-around glasses, black shirt, and black pants, Bono says, "There are people upset with me as well for hanging out with Jim Wolfensohn." Making it clear that he considers himself "a spoiled rock star" and not an economist, Bono explains that he became involved in this cause after taking part in Live Aid, during which that "awful song, 'We Are the World' " was sung, and he helped raise $200 million for famine relief. "We felt great, and then we found out that this was what the continent of Africa pays weekly in debt," he says. "That makes you angry. Today, 19,000 children will die while we're meeting here today. If this happened in New York or London or Prague it would be called genocide. But because it's in Tanzania or Mozambique it's not. This is an obscenity."

S26. Tuesday morning. The occasion activists have planned for all year. The reason for all the press conferences, border crossings, Web pages, e-mail exchanges. On this day the official meetings open, and poverty reduction and the AIDS crisis are high on the agenda. Activists intend to stage a dozen separate rallies, then converge around the Congress Centre and lock the delegates inside.

At 8 a.m. the city is eerily quiet. No one knows how many demonstrators have arrived during the night, how close they will get to the meetings, or what protest plans smaller groups may have. At Stavovske divadlo, a neoclassical opera house where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and Milos Forman filmed Amadeus concert scenes, a motley crew of 60 French activists gather. They hope to rouse French businessmen at their hotels with their trumpet tooting and accordion wake-up calls. Actions like this happen throughout the city, in a most decentralized fashion, something more like a roving swarm than an organized march.

Meanwhile, across town, Ya Basta! turn a corner and come upon thousands and thousands who've heard of their plight at the border. They arrive at Namesti Miru ("Peace Square") triumphant from having just occupied a McDonald's on Wenceslas Square. Techno music blares from their van. They wear sheer white overalls to "symbolize all the people that the IMF and World Bank don't see," says Mario. "We are ghosts. We are not actually here. We are just a manifestation to them."

The square fills with some 12,000 people. As the march to the Congress Centre begins, activists divide loosely into three groups: yellow (committed to nonviolence), blue (prepared for violence), pink (could go either way). Ya Basta! lead the yellows to the Nuselsky bridge, a half-mile cement structure that crosses the Vltava river and leads to the Congress Centre where delegates are meeting. The police are there to meet them, wearing high-tech riot gear.

Ya Basta! is prepared for combat, having raided their kitchens and garages: plastic collanders tied to their heads, foamcore bound around their shoulders and shins with duct tape, plastic garbage can tops for shields. Looking both comical and fierce, Ya Basta! pass inner tubes from their rear guard to their front lines, which use them to repel the blows of police batons. Occasionally, a baton bounces off the tube into the air. When it is snatched by a Ya Basta!, exuberant cheers: "Assassininos!" A battalion of Ya Basta! bearing water pistols squirt the police. When tear gas is fired in return, indignation and jeers. "We are undesirable but we are here," says Federico slipping out from the melee. "We are here to represent all the displaced people, all the refugees, all the poor without homes." A naked man with a dollar bill impaled on his privates raises a victory sign.

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