As I entered the door to the police station, I saw in the corridor, beyond the three steps of the entrance on the right hand side, one person kneeling (he was nearer the door) and another person curled up lying on the floor. The police were beating them with truncheons, others were standing and looking on. People on the floor were moaning and crying, the policemen were shouting, there was a lot of noise. When I turned to the left beyond the corner, the iron bars leading to the staircase were open and before them a young man was kneeling on the floor, with his back to me. He had long brown hair, and he looked "alternative." I suppose he was a foreigner, because the police did not treat any of the Czechs as roughly as this. One policeman was holding his head from the back and another was holding his sleeve or his shoulder. The policemen twice threw the young man's head against the iron bars. Blood and saliva started running from the mouth of the young detainee. It sounded as though they had knocked out his teeth.
—From a testimony by a 20-year-old Josef Kudlík, held at the Ocelářská Street police station in Prague
The 55th annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which took place in Prague last week to the accompaniment of anti-globalisation demonstrations, was on many counts a shocking experience for the Czech population. It has enhanced nationalistic moods in Czech society and strengthened the feeling of xenophobia towards the outside world.
The Czech population did not really know what the meeting was all about, it did not understand the protesters, their "eccentric" attire and ways of behaviour, and it was seriously shocked by isolated acts of vandalism, perpetrated on the main day of the protests, Tuesday 26 September, by small, hardcore groups of activists.
The demonstrations generally took place from Saturday 23 September. With the exception of Tuesday 26 October, when the main meeting of the IMF and the World Bank was scheduled to take place, the demonstrations were peaceful. Even on Tuesday 26 October most demonstrations were peaceful, although in certain areas of the city, groups of hardline activists attacked the police with paving stones, clubs and Molotov coctails.
In certain areas of the city, (rather flimsy) barricades were made by activists in an attempt to block traffic, and bonfires were made of billboards that had been pulled down. Some automatic cash machines were smashed as "symbols of capitalism," and, as our observers report, not many more than ten shop windows were broken in the city centre. The premises of McDonald's on Wenceslas Square were more seriously vandalised. According to estimates, there were probably about 200 hardliners amongst the peaceful demonstrators.
Štěpán Kotrba and Luboš Wišniewski from Agentura Tendence made a meticulous photographic record of the events of the whole week (and have generously allowed CER to republish some of their photos, seen in our photo gallery). A closer inspection of these pictures reveals that the "street violence" captured on them seems slightly unreal. Some observers have confirmed that, unlike some real cataclysmic events that befell Prague during the last century (such as, for instance, the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion), these incidents of street violence had a rather artificial quality.
There were demonstrators protesting or even throwing paving stones in one street while in another, adjoining street, a grandmother went for a walk with a child in a pram. Some fifty Czech policemen were hurt during the disturbances, but it is very difficult to ascertain to what extent this was due to the ferociousness of the attackers and to what extent this was due to a certain amount of incompetence on the part of Czech police: several reports mention that police units had invariably moved groups of demonstrators to face cordons of unequipped or only lightly equipped policemen.
Although the level of violence was relatively low, Czech society, especially the Czech media, was absolutely horrified and overreacted. The Czech media, which had utterly failed to explain what the World Bank and the IMF and the anti-globalisation demostrators were about in the weeks and months preceding the summit, warning of the dangers of vandals, terrorists and anarchists, instead went into a nationalistic tailspin.
"A war broke out in the streets of Prague" thundered Mladá fronta Dnes on 27 September 2000:
Paving stones, Molotov cocktails and burning barricades on one side. Water cannon, tear gas, truncheons and armoured personnel carriers on the other. Dozens of wounded casualties. Destroyed property. A collapse of the Prague public transport system. The catastrophic scenario of demonstrations against the IMF and the World Bank summit was played out exactly as it had been predicted. Demonstrators, predominantly foreigners, destroyed police vehicles and crash barriers. They broke branches off trees and made barricades from billboards which they set on fire. "They used stones, they damaged seven ambulances and a passenger train," said a police spokesperson. The most dramatic battles took place in the Nusle Valley at the foot of the Congress Centre, where the summit was taking place. Later, thousands of anarchists began to destroy Wenceslas Square in the city centre.
Miroslav Macek, MD, a deputy chairman of Václav Klaus's right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party (ODS), said that the police should respond to vandalism in Prague by using live ammunition against the demonstrators. "It is always necessary to remove a tumour in time," said Macek on his Internet pages. Macek suggested that a Voluntary National Guard should be formed by Czech citizens. (His suggestion was uncomfortably reminiscent of the Communist "People's Militia" para-miliatry organisation, run by the Communist Party in the days of the Soviet Empire.)
According to Macek, the National Guard would then give the "wild animals in the streets" of Prague a "proper lesson about what the majority of the Czech population thinks of them." Two politicians from another right-wing party, the Freedom Union, later criticised Macek's statement as inflammatory, but the political leadership of Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party did call on the police to take much tougher action against the demonstrators, using all available means.
"The police should have acted against the demonstrators earlier and more agressively," said Václav Klaus, the Chairperson of the Czech Parliament, on Czech Television on Wednesday 27 September. "I am unhappy when people talk about anti-globalisation demonstrators; these are simply criminal elements who use any excuse in order to destroy—now that have chosen this excuse."
Pavel Mertlík, the current Social Democratic Finance Minister, fully embraced the concept of collective guilt on Prima TV, at lunchtime on Sunday 1 October, when he said that Inpeg, the Initiative against Economic Globalisation was "fully responsible for all the violence committed in Prague over the past few days."
A good example of how the Czech media have been writing about the demonstrators can be found in an article by Jita Splitková, published in Czech in Neviditelný pes, which Irena Válová, the Chairperson of the Syndicate of Czech Journalists has recently characterised as a "prestigious online periodical":
INPEG Is Lying!
28 September 2000
INPEG (Initiative against Economic Globalisation, ie a Prague umbrella organisation, coordinating the protests) is a terrorist military organisation whose memebrs are spoilt brats from rich families, and it should be outlawed. I do not care whether they repeatedly make statements saying that they are peace-loving and have nothing in common with those evil anarchists and extremists.
If these kind and peaceful demonstrators condemn so much what happened in Prague yesterday and say that it was only several rowdy individuals who were to blame for this, why did they not hand them over to the police? Why did they support them? There is a logical answer. The demonstrators had everything coordinated. Everybody did their bit. Some people demonstrated peacefully, others violently. It was a part of a single overall scheme.
Some foreign newspapers which are not particularly affectionate towards the Czech Republic (for instance Britské listy [the author's paper, ed]) say that the police used agents provocateurs. My dear friends, these animals who arrived in Prague did not need any provoking. They were equipped with hammers, picks and gas masks! There is no doubt that the police had its own people among this crowd: all terrorist and extremist organisations must be monitored. That is the task of the police.
Who financed it all? Who finances INPEG? Where did all the money come for all their military instruments, their mobile telephones, their Internet backup? Where are their servers?
According to witnesses there were even Basks from Spain here: how many murderers from ETA were here? Allegedly, there were IRA people here, Communist comrades from Turkey and Greece. All these were allies of INPEG: it is right that INPEG should be judged by what allies and friends it has had.
99 per cent of the messages from the Czech people to INPEG yesterday were very unfriendly towards them. What else should we tell the animals who came for a fight and whose aim was to destroy everything? What else can one say to those pampered kids from rich families who have invented a new sport: demonstrating against anything, throwing paving stones and Molotov cocktails? Obviously, these are disturbed and cowardly persons (most of them hide their faces and immediately after their acts, they disappear from the Czech Republic). What should we tell those "peaceful" demonstrators who would undoubtedly also destroy things if they were not afraid and if they had not been given the role of the "angels" to play in public?
FUCK OFF! And what about doing some work, you brats?
And what about our message to the police?
THINK CLEARLY, DISTINGUISH WHO IS WHO AND BEAT UP ONLY AGGRESSIVE BASTARDS AND NOT DECENT PEOPLE!
And what message should we tell the bankers?
Well, I do not understand, since they are based in Washington, why they do not have their sessions at home and why they must be feted abroad! But of couse, it is so nice to travel! ...
Two points in particular are worthy of note in the above quotation from the "prestigious online periodical."
- The notion that anyone who publishes independent critical analyses of events in the Czech Republic and does not follow the crowd is "hostile to the Czech nation." This is a clear throwback to pre-1989 Communist mentality: the Czech broadcasts of Western radio stations were also characterised as "hostile to the Czech nation" by official Communist propaganda, you will recall. Vladimír Železný, who took away Nova Television from its American investors and is now the subject of international arbtration, characterises the moves of the US investors against him also as "hostility directed against the Czech nation."
- The idea that it is proper for aggressive demonstrators to be roughed up by the police may sound very disturbing to an outside observer, but it seems to be held by many people in the Czech Republic. The notion that anyone who commits a criminal offence should be tried by the courts and should not have his teeth knocked out in the corridors of a police station, seems to be rather alien to many Czechs. BBC Television in its reporting from Prague ran a shot of a Czech policeman brutally kicking a demonstrator, who was lying helpless on the ground. No Czech TV station broadcast this shot.
Tomáš Pecina wrote in Britské listy on October 2000:
The first reaction of the Czech media was absolute amazement: such things were happening in Prague which the local journalists had known until then only from television footage and from photographs.
The local journalists immediately started exaggerating the damage and the violence. Although the demonstrators broke only ten shop windws, and the overall damage is estimated at about half a million dollars, Czech news reports of the demonstrations looked as though the capital of the Czech Republic had been turned into ruins, and the damage was billions.
The frightened local population was then offered the "legend of the battle of Vyšehrad" [at the foot of the Congress Centre where the IMF meeting took place, ed]. Nova TV and the tabloids became openly xenophobic and began creating a heroic image of the police, celebrating their action against the hostile (ie foreign) radicals. Everyone (collectively) who arrived in Prague for the demonstrations was to blame for the violence.
Czech public service TV's report on a young American woman who jumped out of the window of a police station while in detention and broke her spine was presented from such an angle that her desperate act was presented as yet further proof of the wickedness of the demonstrators.
The anti-anarchist hysteria reached its culmination on Wednesday and Thursday. Czech TV stations broadcast populist and impermissibly generalising statements by leading politicians (Václav Klaus: "They are simply criminal elements!") and denied the other side the right to defend their views. When evidence appeared that the police had used agents provocateurs, the media called it an insolent and shocking fabrication.
Almost nothing that had been written and broadcast about the demonstrators was true. The anarchists did not behave agressively towards journalists; they were, in fact, very friendly towards them. They were not "primitive animals" (Miroslav Macek), they were not "drunks" (Prime Minister Miloš Zeman). They were people convinced of their truth and ready to fight fot it.
"We do not understand the notion of total commitment"
It is no exaggeration to say that Czechs have been thoroughly shocked by the events of the last week, which remain absolutely incomprehensible to them.
The problem is not only that many Czechs despise young people whom they regard as "affluent left-wing weirdos" and that the Biedermeier Czech society abhors violence which it had not ever, even on such low levels, experienced before. The citizens of Prague were deeply shocked especially by what they saw as the "grim determination" of the demonstrators to back up their belifs by violent acts and disregard for human life (ie the well-being of the police).
The problem is, however, much deeper, and it is symptomatic of the whole of the Czech existence.
The Czech psyche is deeply scarred as a result of decades of subjugation in the Soviet Empire. Direct action is incomprehensible to most Czechs, who are highly pragmatic and individualistic, and cannot understand that someone could hold certain political views so strongly that he or she might be willing defend them unto death.
Life and survival is, for most Czechs, the ultimate value. There are very few Czechs who would be willing to sacrifice their life for an idea. (There may be a parallel in this to the attitude of the English who, as Jeremy Paxman says in his recent work The English, find it also very difficult to risk their lives for an idea.)
The Czech historical experience tells Czech citizens that it is always possible to survive under any regime, and, if you make appropriate compromises, you can live quite comfortably under any circumstances. The notion that you might believe in something so strongly that you would endanger your own life and the lives of others for it is incomprehensible to most Czechs.
In 1977, less than 300 people signed the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and over the next twelve years, before the fall of Communism, the number of Charter 77 signatories never rose above 2000 in a country of 15 million inhabitants. Similarly, the protest of Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in January 1969 in protest of the Russian occupation and the strengthening political clampdown, disturbed the Czechs. They pay homage to Palach to be sure, but they are disturbed about it.
In spite of the existence of figures like Jan Hus (an early, 14th century religious reformer who was burned at the stake by the Church for his beliefs) and Jan Palach, the ultimate stand when somebody defends an idea to the death, or at the expense of human life, is regarded in the Czech Republic as inhuman, alien, even "Asiatic."
This attitude clearly clashed with the attitude of the demonstrators. Without wishing to condone their violence, the demonstrators were professional enough to realise that in today's world you will not get into the media if you do not resort to (at least token) violence.
But the "ruthless" action of the demonstrators put the Czechs on the spot. It showed them that they themselves were mostly incapable of standing up "to the death" for an idea. In order to crowd out the realisation of this weakness from their minds, they had to succumb to a hysterical fit about foreign vandals and marauders.
What is much more worrying is that this fit of hysteria turned, in the hands of the Czech police, into brutality, perpetrated often on arbitrarily arrested demonstrators (none of the people, roughed up in Czech police stations had been proven guilty of a criminal offence by the courts).
Two totally different dimensions
As Tomáš Pecina wrote in Britské listy, last Friday:
The Czechs, at least the more naive among them, now have their own story, about the Czech police, the white knights, and about the agressive, disturbed and (imagine!) left-wing Western youth. There is no doubt that, when politicians realise that this new mood exists, they will grasp the opportunity and will use the experience of the burning barricades as cleverly as eighteen months ago they had used the experience of NATO's bombing of Serbia.
It can be expected that freedom of assembly will not be completely abolished (the European Union might have something to say about this), but its procedural definition will be changed, and maybe the police will be given additional powers to dissolve public gatherings without the need to give reasons for it.
Two different stories have gone through Prague: one was global, it characteised today's world and its harshness more precisely than we might like to admit (in today's world, dominated by the media, an original idea is not sufficient to assert itself without violence); the other was local, it was a little like a fairground story, it was about heroes and about violent intruders. It is, I think, a great pity that these two stories bypassed each other without mutual contact.
The Czech police: brutality and agents provocateurs
Considering that the Czech police had not experienced demonstrations like this ever before, it could be said that their work over the days of the demonstrations was not an absolute failure. After all, the police did manage to prevent the demonstrators reaching the Conference Centre, although the demonstrators did get very close to the Centre, and the delegates were practically besieged within it.
However, it has to be said that often the work of the police was badly directed and quite chaotic. Mistakes were made.
The main problem was that large numbers of policemen had been brought to Prague from Czech country towns, and these "rustic" policemen were absolutely unprepared, psychologically and otherwise, for what they saw. They often reacted by hurling verbal abuse at quite innocent bystanders. Very disturbing reports are gradually emerging about what was going on at detention centres and police stations and what the police did to the detainees.
As Britské listy exclusively revealed on Tuesday 26 September at 11 pm, it transpired that the Czech police were systematically using agents provocateurs, young men dressed as anarchists who invaded the crowds of demonstrators and pulled individuals out of them to arrest them. These agents provocateurs also took an active part in street violence.
Two years ago, the Czech Helsinki Committee condemned the use of such agents provocateurs by the Czech police, pointing out that the police were using them as a pretext for attacks on peaceful demonstrators.
Britské listy's revelation was condemned by Nova Television in its main evening news on Wednesday night when it said that the information that the police used agents provocateurs "was invented by the anarchists themselves."
In the meantime, Britské listy's information was confirmed by evidence from many other observers who testified to the Občanské právní hlidky (Civic Legal Observers) set up to monitor the events of the past week from an independent point of view. To date, only the daily Lidové noviny has actually published some of this information in printed form.
Beatings at the police stations
What is even more worrying is that the xenophobic hysteria of the past few days manifested itself in police brutality against the detained demonstrators. Worrying, but sadly not suprprising.
Over the past ten years, the Czech police have been seriously struggling with their Communist past. Many of their members during the Communist era left and were replaced by individuals who often openly sympathise with the extreme right wing, the racists and the skinheads.
During Friday and Saturday of last week, the team of lawyers from the Občanské právní hlídky worked round the clock without sleep, taking testimonies from released detainees who had been roughed up by the police. The problem is that many of the foreign demonstrators are so afraid that they did not even bother reporting their maltreatment. They left the Czech Republic at the first opportunity.
Many other demonstrators were given only 24 hours to leave the Czech Republic after they had been released, so there has been very little time to gather together their often shocking testimonies. There are moves afoot in the Czech media and amongst the Czech politicians to discredit the Občanské právní hlídky as a hotbed of anarchists. As it is, their work is not being properly heard: everything is being drowned out by shrill xenophobic hysteria.
Be it as it may, on Sunday afternoon the Občanské právní hlídky Centre gave a press conference where one of its witnesses, Josef Kudlík (20) testified. His testimony is available in full in Czech in Britské listy, where, in additioon to the passage above, Kudlík says that he was not a demonstrator, but went into the streets of Prague to have a look, out of curiosity. Although only a passer-by, he was violently attacked by the police and then arrested.
As he was being transported by bus with other detainees to a police station, all the detainees were forced to kneel and were being beaten with truncheons and kicked. None of the detainees resisted the police, not even verbally. On reaching the police station, Kudlík was thrown on the ground by a policeman, and as a result, he suffered a broken tooth, and various other injuries.
When lying on the ground, he was kicked and hit by a policemen. Other detainees were being beaten and roughed up. After being taken to a police station, Kudlík was forced to kneel on the floor, his legs apart, with his hands above his head. If he put his knees together, the police kicked them apart again.
The police continually abused the detainees verbally "You bastards, you are destroying Prague!" "You anarchist cunts!" "You fucked-up lefties!"
When he was being interrogated, the abuse continued: "You fucked-up swine, you live here, and yet you are destroying it here!" "You animals, if we could, we would just shoot you dead!" "You fucked-up Communist!"
The level of verbal and physical abuse was clearly intense.
When Kudlík mentioned the presence of the Civil Legal Observers in the city centre of Prague, a policewoman remarked: "Those swine..."
Josef Kudlík added that he could not understand the behaviour of the police which he has always viewed as a positive force. He still believes that the behaviour he experienced was just exceptions and does not want to criticise the police as a whole.
His overall impression of the demonstrations was very negative and formed on the basis of what Kudlík saw on television. As a result, he fully sympathised with the police.
After the experience of his detention he realised that "the work of the police was marred by many negative characteristics." He realised that the police were capable of things he had until then only seen on television. Kudlík concluded: "I think that under normal circumstances they do not behave the way they behaved towards us, not even towards murderers."
Jan Čulík, 1 October 2000
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