The Promise of Prague

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


Down in the valley, beneath the bridge, the blue group has amassed and the confrontation is fiercer. Water and smoke can be seen from the bridge. Delegates have wandered onto the balcony of the Congress Centre with their Instamatics. Vysehrad, a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Vltava River, home to Czech cubist architecture and the burial place of composer Antonín Dvorák, has become a combat zone. Several hundred anarchists pry apart the medieval cobblestone sidewalks with crowbars and fingers. Cristophe Devriendt, a Belgian volunteer with Wereldwinkels, a fair-trade organization, looks up at a McDonald's billboard and says, "When you say 'capitalism,' you say 'America.' " He watches his fellow protesters hurl the palm-size square stones at Czech police blocking the streets leading up a long hill to the Congress Centre.

Injuries are mounting; ambulances wail. Seattle's Infernal Noise Brigade drowns the sound of concussion grenades with their drums. Anarchists have lobbed homemade gasoline bombs, setting a police officer on fire. Ric Jensson, a student from Copenhagen, remarks with dismay, "We are here to make war on the IMF and the World Bank, not the police." But there is nothing revolutionary here. Nothing that makes a statement about poverty or the World Bank or the IMF. A man is being burned alive. Water cannons douse the fire and the crowd, and round after round of tear gas is fired. Anarchists and cops alike stagger from the fumes.

As the anarchists disperse, they erect fire hurdles—burning wicker chairs, cardboard boxes, tree branches, and recycling bins—to stop the line of police from advancing. The smoke is billowing with the black belches of plastic. Potted plants are upended. Car windows smashed. A resident looks down from his apartment as the smoke lurches toward a 3-D Aquafresh advertisement, three toothbrushes jutting out of the wall. The neighborhood is wrecked. Cobblestones litter tram tracks, preventing service; billboards lie stomped on the sidewalks; and spray-painted messages mar the old buildings: fukk the police, smash the IMF, no justice, no peace, punks for freedom, and in homage to the East Village, perhaps, a Missing Foundation symbol.

IMF and World Bank officials are shuttled out of the Congress Centre on a metro closed to the public. Some delegates are sent to the Industrial Palace, where as of midnight no dinner has been served. There are about 100 injured, including 63 police and two delegates. More than 800 protesters are detained in prison. There will be reports of torture inside the prisons—sexual harassment, a broken spine. These eruptions will nudge the meetings to an early close.

The majority of the thousands of nonviolent protesters distance themselves from these riots. Chelsea Mosen, a spokesperson for INPEG, says "We were hoping for a nonviolent protest on the basic issues of the IMF and World Bank, but instead now the focus has shifted to the streets."

Prague could never have been Seattle, not without the element of surprise, not without the tremendous force of labor to ratchet up the numbers. But the attention to the negative impact of globalization continues to escalate. This time it appears that alternatives have been offered and debated on both sides: more grants rather than loans, faster debt relief, greater access to the markets of rich nations for poor ones. Perhaps it was Bono who captured the essence of what has been happening in the streets of Seattle, Washington, and now Prague: "This is the largest movement around a single idea since the 1980s' anti-apartheid movement."

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