The Streets of Prague:
Hounding the IMF and World Bank
Revolutionary Worker #1073, October 8, 2000
In the last week of September, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held their annual meeting in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic in central Europe. And once again, the pirates of international capitalism could not gather without sharing the global spotlight with defiant resisters. Once again, the cold-hearted bankers and government ministers could not even meet without first mobilizing thousands of police to secure the streets.
The IMF and World Bank are controlled by the United States and other major imperialist powers. These key institutions of imperialist capital play a big role in reshaping the economies of Third World countries--to make it more profitable to exploit their resources and people. They have put many countries in a tight, suffocating vise of debt. And through their structural adjustment programs, the IMF and World Bank reshape government policies, wage structures, and social programs of poor countries. They dictate policies that force Third World countries to cut government services, produce export crops instead of food to feed the people, and open the door wider to ownership by foreign corporations. World Bank "development projects" have caused environmental devastation and displacement of people in many areas of the world.
The IMF and World Bank are agents of imperialism's global ripoff, responsible for forcing the world's poor into even more desperate conditions. This has made them into hated targets of anger and protest throughout the world.
The previous IMF/World Bank meeting--last April in Washington, D.C.--was confronted by tens of thousands of protesters. The authorities carried out a massive police mobilization and arrested hundreds of people. But the youth found colorful and defiant ways to expose the crimes of the IMF and World Bank in the capital of the U.S. empire.
This time, the bankers and officials gathered in the middle of Europe. The Prague meeting in part was supposed to showcase capitalism in the Czech Republic. In 1989, the so-called "Velvet Revolution" toppled the old regime in Czechoslovakia (which later split into the richer Czech Republic and the poorer Slovenia). This was part of the collapse of the revisionist--or phony "communist"--regimes of the Soviet bloc and the change from state-monopoly form of capitalism to more "old style" bourgeois rule and "free market" capitalism.
But instead of featuring the "new" capitalism in the Czech Republic, the Prague meeting became a magnet for youth from all over Europe and elsewhere who wanted to manifest their opposition to the IMF, World Bank and imperialist globalization. The IMF/World Bank managed to meet behind barricaded doors and lines of riot cops. But the New York Times summed up that the "protesters had stolen the show." One activist from Spain said, "Now I think they must know they are not welcome in any city in the world."
The Czech government cranked up their machinery of repression into high gear for the anti-IMF/World Bank protests. The streets of Prague were packed with 11,000 cops. Residents were told to stock up on food and stay inside their homes. Many businesses were boarded up. The U.S. embassy told U.S. citizens to stay away from the city.
The Czech authorities tried hard to prevent protesters from even getting to Prague by beefing up border controls--with help from other police agencies in Europe and the U.S. Many people trying to get into the Czech Republic were detained at the borders, often for hours at a time, while the police searched their vehicles and checked their passports against a master list of radical activists provided by the FBI and Canadian and European security agencies.
On Sunday, September 24, there was a 24-hour standoff on the Czech-Austrian border when hundreds of Italian activists travelling by train decided to block the tracks. They demanded the release of three people from their group who had been labeled "persona non grata"--apparently because their names appeared on the master list.
A Czech legal observer commented, "I am not surprised by this. According to our laws, the police do not have to explain why you are being detained or what it means that you are a persona non grata.... It now looks like if you attend a demonstration anywhere in the world, your name will be entered on a list and your photograph will be taken."
The Czech border guards had help from their counterparts across the borders. The Associated Press reported on September 21: "The German Interior Ministry said anyone found with materials indicating they are planning violence or to disrupt law and order would be turned back. Last night, a caravan of 70 anti-globalization bicyclists on a 450 kilometer journey from Hanover to Prague was stopped along the border."
The bourgeois media declared that the number of protesters in Prague was "lower than expected." But it's not known how many people were turned back at the Czech borders. And the outrageous "preventative" measures by the Czech police and their friends could not stop the determined actions of thousands of protesters.
Confrontations in the Streets
Different kinds of protests, organized by various groups and organizations, took place during the Prague meeting of the IMF/World Bank. But the most focused and intense actions took place on Tuesday, September 26.
In the morning hours of Tuesday, people gathered at Namesti Miru, the public square near downtown Prague. CounterPunch magazine described the scene: "The square was packed with a great variety of groups from a great variety of places, speaking an equally great number of languages.... The atmosphere was genuinely festive, though not without reminders from the podium of the serious reasons people were gathering."
There were people from Italy, Germany, England, Spain, Poland, Denmark, other countries around Europe, and from the Czech Republic itself. Some came from the United States--including veterans of the Battle of Seattle last December--and other parts of the world. One news report described a student from Norway, wearing a green hat decorated with dollar signs, as a "walking, talking caricature of globalization's fat cats." He went around saying, "I have children for lunch, and I kill people in many countries of the world."
Most of the protesters who gathered at the square were young--one report said the average age seemed to be about 21. But there were also others, including a contingent of telecommunications workers from Greece. A 60-year-old from Denmark told reporters, "It's hard not to be ashamed or angry at what's going on. People are not able to make a living or see their children grow up in the Third World because of the structural adjustment programs."
The IMF/World Bank delegates were meeting at the Congress Center--located on a hill overlooking a valley. The main road access to the Center is the Nuselsky Bridge. The government had refused to grant the protesters a march permit. The police put up signs near the Congress Center--in German and English--saying the demonstrations were unauthorized, so people should leave. But this was hardly going to faze the protesters.
Shortly before noon, the marchers moved out of Namesti Miru--with three groups going on three different routes toward the Congress Center. The three contingents were dubbed the "yellow," "blue," and "pink" marches.
The police concentrated their forces on the Nuselsky Bridge. According to a report by the Independent Media Center in Prague, "The yellow march took the main route to the big bridge leading to the conference complex. Led by Italian and Spanish groups linked to the Ya Basta! Movement--dressed in white foam-padded overalls and carrying heavy shielding--they approached lines of heavily armed riot police occupying the bridge. For more than two hours, groups were pushing against police lines, but the narrow bridge, which was covered entirely with armored police vehicles, proved to be too difficult a location to break through to the conference center. In the afternoon, an assembly held by Ya Basta decided to leave the bridge and to join the other marches."
According to another account of the bridge confrontation, the protesters "tried four times to push through the police lines. Police responded with batons, while protesters used inner tubes to shield themselves from the blows. Some demonstrators also wielded sticks. Protesters systematically dismantled the police barricades."
The Independent Media Center reported on the other two marches: "The blue march moved down the valley separating the city from the center and met heavy police resistance. Stones and other objects were thrown at police while the latter unleashed a combination of concussion grenades and tear gas. A number of protesters managed to climb up a hill and get close to the conference complex, while down the street massive confrontations between demonstrators and police were continuing until the late afternoon.
"The pink group...managed to get around the conference complex to approach from the other side. Changing locations and directions quickly and spontaneously, a large group of protesters took the police by surprise several times and finally got close to the center. Some protesters managed to occupy parts of the complex before the police responded with heavy charges, using concussion grenades, tear gas and seriously physical violence. However, peaceful blockages remained around the center until the early evening, locking the delegates in for several hours."
The New York Times reported: "The skirmishes [at the Nuselsky Bridge] spread to the valley below the meeting hall, where demonstrators burned barricades of wood and tires to keep the police back, then smashed windows and destroyed a car. An American flag was burned while protesters yelled, 'No new world order.'" The skies over Prague filled with smoke from the burning barricades.
The police brought out water cannons to attack the demonstrators. Some protesters fought back with molotov cocktails and pieces of the cobblestone streets. There were reports of dozens of injuries--among the protesters as well as the police.
The IMF/World Bank delegates had been brought into the Congress Center very early in the morning to avoid the protests. In the afternoon, the police opened a subway station near the conference site especially for the delegates. The delegates were brought to the end of the line and then bussed to their hotels. A BBC reporter traveling with them commented, "As we sped through the deserted streets, it was clear that the protesters had proved once again that, despite their small numbers, they had been able to make an impact on the world stage."
Later in the evening, protesters gathered at the Opera House and forced the cancellation of a planned reception. People then headed out to Wenceslas Square, in the business and tourist section of the city. Several banks and a McDonald's restaurant quickly became targets. According to one news report, "Demonstrators shouted slogans denouncing the U.S.-backed fast-food chain as a symbol of corporate greed and U.S. imperialism."
Over 800 people were detained by the police during the Prague protests--many during the confrontations on Tuesday, others while they were just walking on the streets. The arrested protesters reported that there was much brutality by the police in the streets and in the jails. Women were especially targeted for harassment and abuse in the jails. The Independent Media Center said, "We have reports of people having limbs broken and teeth knocked out. One woman has a broken spine. There is clear evidence of torture by the police."
Predictably, the bourgeois media attacked the protesters for "violence." And there were some forces among the protest movement that also condemned people for fighting back against the police and "destroying property." But as one protester--a young woman who was part of the Battle of Seattle--said, "Today, people trashed some sidewalks and broke some windows. The IMF destroys entire countries."
A Worldwide Battle for Justice
As protesters battled the forces of the old order in the streets of Prague, there were solidarity actions around the world--in dozens of cities in the United States, as well as in India, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, and many other places.
The IMF/World Bank summit in Prague had been scheduled to wrap up on Thursday. But on Wednesday, officials unexpectedly announced that they had finished ahead of schedule and were closing the meeting early. "It had nothing to do with the protests," an IMF spokesman claimed. Many of the protesters had a different summation. One activist said, "It's a victory for us--we wanted to shut them down, and we made it. We're going to keep going after them and make things difficult for them."
The bankers and ministers were clearly on the defensive from the beginning. Czech President Vaclav Havel met with some protest organizers to promote the "benefits" of capitalism. According to the New York Times, "Everyone [inside the IMF/World Bank meeting] seemed to cite the statistic that three billion people around the world live on $2 or less a day." Even the World Bank President James Wolfensohn had to comment that "something is wrong when the richest 20 percent of the global population receives more than 80 percent of the global income."
Wolfensohn and others of his class have their "solution" to the problems of the gross inequalities and injustices around the world: more imperialist globalization, with some lip service to "paying attention to the poor."
The resisters in Prague rejected that perverse logic of the exploiters and oppressors. A youth from Liverpool, England, said, "The World Bank and IMF are just the tip of the iceberg. It's the multinationals and the governments supporting the Bank that are the problem."
As the protesters were marching toward Nuselsky Bridge, a 28-year-old postman from Finland said, "I think we will try to go through [the police line] because we think the meeting there is illegitimate. That's where the real criminals are." Another marcher declared, "This is a battle for equal justice worldwide."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)