S26: In Prague for a velvet revolt of the anti-capitalist kind

McDonald's in military drag

When the anti-globalisation movement descended on Prague to protest against the IMF and World Bank on 26 September 2000, Mark Cantrell tagged along for the ride...

This article first appeared in Route newspaper

IT had not been a good day to be a McDonald's restaurant.

This one was draped in military camouflage netting, the kind used to hide tanks from the prying eyes of enemy aircraft, but here used to hide the establishment from the tender mercies of the more hands-on kind of anarcho-protestor.

We almost passed without noticing. Under the nets, the building blended into the night, but they hadn't done the job right. There was a glaring gap by the doors and the light pulled the eyes towards the 'McD' sign. A few cops stared warily from inside. They'd had a tough day. So had we.

Luckily for the police, we weren't that kind of protestor. Even if we were, the day had left us too tired to tear down a hated symbol of global capitalism.

NOT since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 had the streets of Prague witnessed such dramatic displays of People Power.

In those days, ordinary people joined the uprisings surging across Eastern Europe. They rose up to smash Soviet totalitarianism in a heroic bid for freedom, but for so many the victory was not quite what they expected.

"We hoped the end of Stalinism would mean not only the end of the Cold War, but the end of all wars, the end of poverty and exploitation," said Czech protestor Johana Ruzickova. "Everyone spoke about the victory of capitalism across the whole world and how this would make our lives better. Czech politicians told us that if we tightened our belts for ten years then everybody's standard of living would be as high as in Austria. But the situation is totally different. The standard of living is worse than before.

"People often say they were in the streets in 1989. They say they wanted the old regime to end, but they did not imagine the situation would end like this. Eastern Europe today is not what we fought for. But there is anger, there is resistance, there is hope."

Johana's sentiments found their echoes elsewhere, and they were manifested in the return of People Power. Thousands were gathered to walk in the footsteps of those earlier Velvet Revolutionaries. This time the Czech protestors did not chant alone, they were joined by the angry voices of Europe and beyond. It was a clash of two worlds, both with utterly incompatible visions of the future.

In the 'Blue Corner' was the 14,000 delegates from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They believe the answer to the world's ills lies in the unbridled pursuit of corporate profit. In the 'Red Corner' were the 20,000 or so anti-capitalist protestors who believe the only solution is a world built on the basis of human need.

For these anti-capitalists, the delegates had gathered to plot world domination on behalf of a handful of powerful trans-national corporations. They were sowing the seeds of a new totalitarian system that would subvert democracy and human rights under the guise of the 'free market'. In this world, corporations would dominate every aspect of our lives from cradle to grave. Humans would become branded, pre-packaged products, built to dutifully consume or be consumed.

Against this, the anti-capitalists were making a stand, just as others had stood against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle nearly a year before: one more battle in the world's Velvet Revolution.

Facing the protestors were 11,000 Czech riot police, backed by military helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and water cannon. Each man stood as a defender of world capitalism; a living irony because so many had once stood in defence of 'world socialism', struggling to protect a dying empire from its subject people.

"THIS is an illegal march," the cop shouted through his megaphone in English, Czech and German. "If you do not disperse you risk injury from the response we will be forced to take."

He stood on top of the armoured car, an inhuman silhouette against the bright sky. Beneath him, lines of riot police stood behind steel barricades. They gazed, impassive behind their visors, at the sea of chanting people.

"After the third warning they charge," a voice yelled from the crowd. It was the only notice any of the protestors took. They linked arms, raised their banners and flags and chanted even louder to drown the robotic voice.

"This is what democracy looks like!"

"The workers united can never be defeated!"

About 6,000 protestors were in this group. From all the world's socialist organisations, it seemed. Predominantly young, they waved red flags, the hammer and sickle, the clenched fist of revolution. Many wore kerchiefs around their faces, drenched in vinegar as a crude defense against tear gas.

This was just one 'frontline' in the actions taking place across the city. Thousands more - doubtless the anarchists and environmentalists - had laid siege to the city's Soviet-era Conference Centre, where the delegates were trapped. Still more had occupied the nearby hotels, and were themselves besieged by police.

All of this action was taking place beyond the Vltava River, and these protestors were trying to reinforce their comrades. After a boisterous march through the streets of Prague, their voices adding to the echoes of historic revolt, they found the police waiting for them at the bridge. More than 200 blocked the way, standing like menacing robots.

Neither side was quite strong enough to clear the way, nor was either side prepared to back down. Still, the protestors made an effort to break through. They linked arms, flourished their banners and strode towards the police lines. Those in front received a face full of tear gas, forcing them to break rank and flee in search of water to sluice their eyes. Faced with the gas, the crowd would pull back, reform and surge forward once more.

Excitement and tension filled the air like the pervasive scent of vinegar and gas. The police looked agitated, like hunting dogs eager to be released. Thousands were squeezed into this bottle neck at the bridge, and nobody knew if the police would charge. If they did, it would be a 'massacre' with so many bodies packed tight.

Above all this drama, the Conference Centre stood as a brooding silhouette. The objective was frustratingly out of reach, but despite the stalemate, the protestors did not take their position as a defeat. As long as they stood firm, they weakened police resistance elsewhere.

AWAY from the barricades, people milled around or sat on the grass to bask in the sun. A multitude of voices talked about world issues and politics, while live music, dolls and people in outlandish costumes gave the scene a carnival atmosphere. Calm and relaxed, it seemed a thousands miles from the tension and the tear gas.

Resting on the grass was student Rene Torrenson from York. He expressed a common sentiment: "[This] shows that people aren't prepared to just sit back and accept the policies of the World Bank and IMF," he said. "People do have the power to organise and to fight back."

AT the frontline, the protestors finally turned and marched away. They had shouted themselves hoarse and sweated under the hot sun for more than three hours to make their point.

So they failed to reach their objective, but they did not see themselves as defeated. They had played their part. They had stood up and been counted on the stage of world history.

"I've been on a lot of demonstrations and protests, but not like this," said Kevin Stannard. "I've never been in an action where I've had to push myself into confrontation with the police. They built a fortress to protect the IMF and the World Bank. We had the rest of Prague. It says that ordinary people can do something to make a difference."

Mark Harrison from Burnley put it more succinctly: "We owned Prague for the day!"

AS for the McDonald's, it made for a fitting symbol of everything these protestors opposed, with its melding of fast food retailing and military drapery.

Thomas Friedman, a US journalist close to the State Department, once commented: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without [aircraft and weapons manufacturer] McDonnell Douglas."

Inside the building, the not so hidden fist of the Czech state munched on its burgers. We left them to it, the echoes of dissent still echoing in our hearts and minds.

First published under the title 'Prague' in the December 2000 issue of Route Newspaper, a quarterly literary publication circulated in the North of England. "Put across the protestors' point of view and give us a sense of the atmosphere," the editor said, so I endeavoured to do just that.

Photographs copyright Mark Cantrell

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