On May Day, the Prague police used excessive force to disperse a peaceful demonstration of anarchists. Some Czech politicians and journalists still find unconventional views disturbing. But at least a public debate seems to have taken place in this case.
Demonstrations of adherents to unconventional political beliefs took place in many countries of the world on 1 May 2000. In London, for instance, a demonstration of left wing activists degenerated into violent scenes during which a McDonald's restaurant was destroyed, shop windows were broken and monuments were defaced. Although a number of violent demonstrators were arrested, according to observers, the attitude of the police was relatively low key. Responding to criticisms that the police had not did not protect London monuments such as the Cenotaph, a police spokesmen explained that the police decided not to act because any attempt to protect the monument would have sparked off a violent riot – and lives and the well being of individuals was far more important than a memorial made of stone.
Czech police, on the other hand, did not seem to show this kind of restraint when reacting to a thoroughly peaceful demonstration of anarchists, held in Prague in a park on an island in the middle of the Vltava River, clearly a place where they could not disrupt the traffic.
The demonstration was banned by the local authorities in Prague because - according to its spokesperson - the organisers were a day late in asking for permission to hold it. Cynics would say that the reasons for banning the demonstration were political. "We are ready for this year's 1 May. We do not underestimate the situation and will attempt to ensure peace, law and order and normal traffic conditions under all circumstances," said a Prague police spokesperson.
In spite of the banning of the demonstration, some three hundred anarchists (Czech television called them "militant individuals who find their life's aim in attacking peaceful demonstrations of neo-Nazis" in its main evening broadcast on 1 May) gathered at the Střelecký ostrov in Prague on the afternoon of the 1 May. Some demonstrators tried to address the crowd, but the police arrested them. Some four to five hundred policemen were present and they arbitrarily, and often quite brutally, dragged some of the demonstrators from the crowd.
15 people were detained at Střelecký ostrov. In all more than 50 demonstrators were held. Two demonstrators were later charged with "assaulting a public official" and could be imprisoned for up to three years. However, according to some witnesses, at least one of these demonstrators was only defending himself from an assault by a police officer.
A neo-Nazi rally, which took place in the North Moravian city of Karviná at around the same time, took place peacefully without any police disruption.
Against the principles of democracy
On 1 May, in a discussion on Czech television, former Czech Trade and Industry Secretary Vladimír Dlouhý, formerly of the centre right wing party Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), accused "left wing radicals" who protest against globalisation, the International Monetary Fund [IMF]and the World Bank, of "going against the principles of democracy." Dlouhý, a former member of the Communist Party, and a very popular government minister during the first half of the 1990s, expressed the view which seems to be still current among many Czechs.
It is a view which is quite close to Leninist "democratic centralism": Once voting has taken place and it becomes clear what is a majority view, anyone who holds a different view must shut up and support the view of the majority. This can be documented by Czech readers' mail, sent to the internet daily Britské listy, many Czechs living in the Czech Republic still seriously think that this is how democracy works. On Czech television, Vladimír Dlouhý summed up this philosophy thus:
"In an absurd way, you are trying to ignore democratic decision-making in democratic countries because I do not think that the populations of many countries sympathise with what you are doing," said Dlouhý to the critics of the IMF and the World Bank. Fortunately, another participant of the debate, Václav Bělohradský, a university lecturer who has lived in the West for many years, pointed out in response to Dlouhý's statements that such democratic discussion is permissible, indeed, it can change the political system in a positive way. Dlouhý disagreed: one should stick to the conventional views of the establishment: "If you allow these kind of protests, you are playing with the fire of profound social disorder, with the fire of military conflict."
As one Britské listy commentator has pointed out, the Czech police may have overreacted against the peaceful demonstration of Prague anarchists because the Czech authorities are nervous that riots and demonstrations might break out in Prague during the meeting of the IMF and the World Bank which is to take place there in September 2000. Dlouhý seemed to be confirming this: "I hope that the Czech police will be equipped and trained at least as well as the American police in order to be able to control the situation in September," said Dlouhý. The Czech authorities do tend to assume a somewhat servile attitude towards the Western powers, and they are probably afraid that if there are uncontrollable demonstrations in Prague in September, this will "disgrace" the Czech Republic.
In the same television debate, Jan Křeček, a representative of the critics of globalisation, rejected the accusation that left wing demonstrators are "violent". "We simply do not plan any violent demonstrations," he stated.
The aggresive police action against the demonstrators in Prague on May Day was strongly criticised by the Czech government's Human Rights Officer, Petr Uhl, who was present at Střelecký ostrov and who said that the police action was inappropriately brutal. (Under the Communist regime, Uhl was a dissident activist. Among other things, he systematically disseminated information about Czechoslovak authorities' infringements of human rights and spent a number of years in prison for this activity.)
"I do not know why the police acted against the demonstrators. These people behaved absoutely peacefully and the police are maltreating them," said Uhl to Czech Radio and added: "They cannot defend themselves because if they try to do so, this provokes the police to even greater brutality."
Anna Šabatová, Petr Uhl's wife, a candidate for the post of the public protector of civic rights, the Ombudsman, a former dissident and a recent holder of the UN Human Rights Prize (of the five individuals, who received this prize world wide in 1998, Šabatová was the only person from Europe), said that the police had no reason to attack the demonstrators. Petr Horák from the Movement for Civic Solidarity and Tolerance also criticised the police action. Šabatová attacked the ban, imposed on the demonstration by the local Prague authorities. On Střelecký island, the demonstration could not disrupt traffic nor limit anyone's movements in any way. It was wrong for the police to arrest speakers at the demonstration because they were not saying anything illegal. One demonstrator was arrested after he spoke about the "historical roots of the May Day demonstrations," she pointed out.
Michal Žantovský, a former Czech Ambassador to the United States and now deputy head of the (miniscule) Civic Democratic Alliance also protested against the police action. He said that freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution and it can only be curtailed by law. Former social democratic government minister Jaroslav Bašta, who was until recently responsible for overseeing Czech secret services, criticised the fact that last year the police did not act against a demonstration of right wing skinheads which took place at Střelecký island – so why did they attack these anarchists this year?
However, many right of centre politicians regarded the police action against the anarchists as absolutely right and proper. This will probably be supported by a large section of the Czech public who usually suffer beacuse law and order is normally upheld rather ineffectively and will probably welcome a symbolic action which shows that the police exist and does do its job.
On 4 May, the Czech government Council for Human Rights, headed by Petr Uhl, formally requested an explanation from the Home Secretary Stanislav Gross as to why the police attacked the anarchist demonstrators and whether such action was appropriate. "The fact that the demonstration was not announced in time to the local authority is, according to the law, only a minor offence which can be punished by a fine. It cannot be used as a reason for banning the demonstration," said the Council.
Jan Čulík, 30 April 2000
The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.