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Protest in Prague | The Nation

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Protest in Prague

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Call it the Prague Fall: a season not only to test the democratic progress of Central Europe's most favored post-Communist nation but to find out whether a nonhierarchical, nonviolent movement of fair traders, environmentalists, debt-relief activists, socialist workers and revolutionaries can--by applying public pressure to the world's most powerful economic institutions--force real change. Prague proved, if nothing else, that the issues of corporate reform and increased social services have worldwide appeal. Red-sashed Catalonian Marxists marched alongside white-clad Italian Zapatista sympathizers. Nervous Czech environmentalists rubbed shoulders with black-hooded German anarchists. Activists from Greece and Turkey--yes, Greece and Turkey, together--commanded the front line of a march blockaded by police and kept it calm. This was not the globalization of multinationals, but in the words of Scott Codey, a US activist, "globalization of human rights, workers' rights and economic justice."

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As Day One of the Initiative Against Economic Globalization in Prague began, all was quiet and orderly. Leaders of nonprofit organizations held thinly attended public discussions. Fourteen thousand dark-suited bankers and politicians yawned through World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meetings with titles like "Building the Bottom Line Through Corporate Citizenship" in a Stalin-era convention hall. Meanwhile, the police looked on benevolently--I saw one Czech lieutenant blithely pop a ball into the air with the inscription Liquidate the IMF.

By late morning, however, activists had begun a three-pronged assault on the heavily guarded Congress Center. One group of mostly anarchists and communists managed to snake its way through police barricades and get within yards of the bankers' meeting hall. It remains unclear how the violence escalated so quickly, but fifty Czech police were injured in a bombardment of sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails. By nightfall, after activists had smashed the windows of a McDonald's on Wenceslas Square, cops were again beaten back, this time by protesters wielding the policemen's own batons. The day ended in a cloud of tear gas, with thousands of World Bank delegates being shuttled in buses, searching for the four-star hotels not besieged by young radicals.

By Day Two, to no one's surprise, the Czech police had abandoned their restraint. I saw officers round up protesters for no apparent reason and cart them off to jail, where things got decidedly worse. Many of the 859 arrested were denied food, water and phone calls. And in numerous cases, they were severely beaten. "The jails here are a place of no control, a place of complete darkness," said Marek Vesely, an observer with Citizens Legal Watch, a Czech nonprofit. "A lot of people who didn't have anything to do with the violence got arrested." In addition to investigating a range of human rights violations, Citizens Legal Watch is trying to determine whether police provocateurs urged on the crowds and whether--as was widely rumored--some activists were turned away at the Czech border based on information provided by the FBI.

But amid the apparent chaos, there were signs of accomplishments. For one, pressure from the streets, building ever since Seattle, finally forced two traditionally secretive institutions to let some critics in the door. Representatives of Transparency International, which is calling for public access to World Bank and IMF documents, along with 350 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, were admitted to meetings in Prague (five years ago, only two NGOs were allowed in). World Bank president James Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Köhler even met with NGO leaders in a public meeting presided over by Czech President Vaclav Havel.

Still, the substance of the new dialogue left much to be desired. "Understand that we are not a world government," Wolfensohn told NGO leaders. "Very often people blame us for the politics in a country when they should really blame themselves." Such defensiveness makes it hard to take seriously the World Bank and IMF claim that they want "to make globalization work for the benefit of all." As Liane Schalatek of the Heinrich Böll Foundation said, "NGOs have pointed out for more than three decades that growth is not just economic growth. We have heard the rhetoric." (Wolfensohn did manage to win over rock star Bono of U2, who left Prague calling him "the Elvis of economics.")

The Italian Zapatistas and Catalonian Marxists have now returned home. Czechs have reoccupied their city. And the jails are mostly empty (as of this writing, only twenty protesters remain in custody). But the Prague Fall is not over. The movement is globalized; critics have been admitted into the tent. And perhaps most important, politicians, central bankers and multinational chiefs are beginning to understand that corporate globalization faces truly global antipathy.

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