Prague: Colorful, Confrontational Protests

Prague -- In a day of protests that were more colorful than violent, 9,000 demonstrators surrounded Prague's Congress Center where the World Bank and IMF are holding their annual meeting. A standoff with police lasted more than three hours before protesters decided to declare victory, retreat and regroup.

However, small bands of protesters clashed with police, throwing rocks and setting dumpsters on fire. Police responded with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons. The Czech news agency reported that 54 police and several dozen protesters were injured. A spokesperson for INPEG, the umbrella coalition that organized the demonstration, said the group objected to the violence, which it felt would draw attention away from the issues of the World Bank and IMF.

By nightfall, violent clashes between police and the so-called anarchist "Black Block" continued. Protesters trashed a McDonalds in Wenceslas Square, a tourist area and site of the "Velvet Revolution" that brought President Vacalv Havel to power 11 years ago. The Independent Media Center reported that police used tear gas and arrested 500 people in downtown Prague. The Czech Republic has mobilized a formidable force of 11,000 police to control the demonstrators.

Earlier in the day, thousands of peaceful demonstrators wound through the streets of Prague. A small marching band entertained the crowd with Spanish Civil War and Italian protest songs. A man, naked except for a fanny pack, a dollar bill taped to his privates and anti-IMF slogans painted across his body, strutted through the crowd. Two elderly Czech women stood on a curb holding balloons bearing "Liquidate the Bank" slogans, smiling as the crowd passed by. There were almost no police visible along the march route.

The protesters came from throughout Europe. A Greek telecommunications union marched alongside Italian Communists and Greens. A Danish religious based group rubbed shoulders with Spaniards decorated in balloons and face paint. A rowdy contingent from the Italian group "Ya Basta" led chants. There were large numbers of German, Dutch and French protesters, and a delegation of about 50 made the trip from Poland. Demonstrators said they were motivated by a sense of indignation at Bank polices that they say deepen the gap between rich and poor worldwide.

"It's hard not to be ashamed or angry at what's going on," explained Ingrid Steinitz, 60, of Denmark. "People are not able to make a living or see their children grow up in the Third World because of [the World Bank/IMF's] structural adjustment programs."

"The World Bank and IMF are just the tip of the iceberg," said Ritchie (who chose not to give his last name) from Liverpool. "It's the multinationals and governments supporting the Bank that are the problem," he added.

Noticeably absent from the protest was any strong Czech presence. Since the Velvet Revolution there have been few street demonstrations in the Czech Republic. "They came out into the streets to protest [during the Velvet Revolution] and then they went home and sat back in front of their televisions," one young Czech activist said.

Standoff on the Bridge

The parade split into three marches, each headed to a strategic intersection in an effort to encircle the Congress Center, similar to the November demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle, and those against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne earlier this month. The goal was to prevent delegates from leaving the conference center.

A group of about 3,000 marchers reached the North entrance to the Nuselsky Bridge leading to the Congress Center. They were met by more than 100 police in riot gear, four armored cars and two water cannons. Organizers, shouting over a loud speaker, reminded protesters, in five languages, that they were there to put their bodies on the line, not provoke police. The plan was to try to push through the police lines in a carefully measured confrontation.

About 60 protesters, well protected in improvised gear made out of painters' jumpsuits padded with foam rubber and cardboard, formed the front lines. One woman even wrapped a doormat around her waist for protection, while others wore motorcycle helmets or hard hats. These demonstrators positioned themselves immediately in front of the riot gear-clad police.

They tried four times to push through police lines. Police responded with batons, while protesters used inner tubes to shield themselves from then blows. Some demonstrators also wielded sticks. There were no apparent injuries. At one point a protester threw a plastic bottle at police and was scolded by other demonstrators. Protesters systematically dismantled the police barricades, cheered on by the crowd every time they removed a section of the metal barrier. However, they were unable to push back the police lines and inch their way onto the bridge. Police, meanwhile, were unable to push the protesters back with their shields and batons.

The standoff lasted more than three hours. There were tense moments, when police appeared poised to break up the crowd with force. The protesters, sensing there might not be anything to be gained by drawing out the confrontation, decided to declare victory for having stood their ground. They then retreated to a park about a mile away to regroup.

The situation on the other side of the bridge, where another group of thousands of protesters were massed, was more volatile. While most demonstrators adhered to their peaceful strategy, a small group entered into violent confrontation with police. They reportedly heaved paving stones and Molotov cocktails at police who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Later this evening, protesters gathered in front of Prague's Opera House forcing delegates to cancel a planned reception. Others headed off to another bridge where they faced off with police. Police helicopters patrolled the city, late into the night.

Unlike Seattle, where mainstream press coverage acknowledged that vandalism was caused by a handful of protesters, the Prague demonstrations, despite their primarily peaceful character, may be remembered more for the street battles between police and a small minority of renegades.

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