From the Streets of Prague
September 26, 2000 / One World / New Internationalist
One of the first live blogging reports direct from the streets of the alterglobalisation protests against the World Bank and the IMF, for One World and New Internationalist.
by Katharine Ainger
Arrival – Banks and borders
Thursday 21 September 2000
The annual meeting for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is being held in Prague this year. At last year’s meeting, fifty people showed up to protest outside. This year there will be twenty thousand – and counting.
Prague has never held an international meeting of this kind. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Czech Republic to showcase its free market reforms and make a case for entry into the European Union. On the front cover of the glossy World Finance magazine welcoming delegates to Prague is a medieval painting that, according to the editorial, depicts ‘Justice, wisdom, and compassion ruling over the happy, orderly, and prosperous city.’
As the Zapatistas would say, ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’
The authorities hadn’t reckoned with the emergence of a growing international movement against corporate globalisation, a movement that is determined to protest third world debt and the power of global capital, a movement that has sworn to disrupt the meetings. Referring to the delegates, INPEG, an umbrella group organising the direct action says, ‘These people have no legitimacy, and no right to assemble.’
The talk on the street is of turning Prague into ‘another Seattle’.
I think of my own experience in Seattle last year during the World Trade Organisation meetings. Sitting on a bus going into town, I overheard two old women from the local neighbourhood talking. ‘And you know, that WTO, it aint accountable to nobody. It’s all rich folks. And those French people angry cos the WTO says they gotta have hormones and all that junk in their beef, hell, I don’t blame ’em for protesting.’ The other replied, ‘Uhuh. My daughter’s in a union and she’s gonna join in the demonstrations.’
Seattle was a magical moment when arcane issues of international economics were knocked rudely from the exclusive domain of elite experts and business lobbies, and dragged rudely into the streets to be examined and rejected by the people whose everyday lives were affected by them.
Seattle changed everything.
A World Bank official apologising for the tight security in Prague refers to the new realities of the ‘post-Seattle era’ where every international meeting to plot the course of the global economy – from Washington to Melbourne to Prague – is met by thousands of the uninvited protesting in the streets.
As I arrive at airport immigration armed with official accreditation I enter the fast stream of meeting participants – almost all identically dressed men in trench coats, dark suits, and impossibly shiny shoes – and we are ushered through our own exclusive passport control. A large sign welcomes us on behalf of accountancy giant Deloitte and Touche. I feel decidedly out of place in my scruffy trainers, and try and hide the battered copy of Catherine Caufield’s The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations that keeps falling out of my bag. I think wistfully of how fun it would have been to enter the country dressed in pink and silver along with the carnivalesque women’s biking group ‘Clitoral Mass’ instead…
But word is, it hasn’t been easy crossing the land borders. Members of Ya Basta! An Italian activist ‘autonomous’ group (whose exploits in their home country include storming and successfully closing down a refugee detention centre) have been held on the German-Czech border now for 3 days with a 30 day ban on entering the country.
They have been joined by a growing group of people denied entry, 198 at the last count. One is a woman from the US, a street medic arrested during the Seattle protests against the WTO last year. She, like many others, is on a list of undesirables collated by police intelligence in several different countries.
I’ve just received a message from them which reads:
‘Day by day, the border area is filling with men and women from different parts of the world, arriving in trickles and streams on their way to Prague, to flood the IMF and the WB… first seventy bicycles arrive, followed by a tractor, a wooden cart painted with graffiti and hung with banners…and this is not all! From the two military trucks following the caravan come not soldiers, but music, which, together with another ten or so trucks, will provide the sound track for the action in Prague. This is the caravan of the German cyclists.
A fire is lit and the singing and the stories begin, as we discuss how we shall all proceed together tomorrow, in our action of protest and civil disobedience. Maybe it’s the fire, or because they chose to stop and camp here with us, or the trucks, or the fact that we’re living in tents – but we feel less lonely today and more like nomads.
Like nomads, we do not accept these borders and wish to continue moving freely through the world.’
From the Zinnewald camp: Paolo, Luca, Eva, Davide, Roberto, Kay and 150 women and men headed for Prague.
banner in the “Convergence Center”
The first place I head to in the city is the hub of protest activity, the newly set up Convergence centre (pictured at top of page). This is a vast old ship-building yard converted into a meeting place, wryly dubbed ‘the Kremlin’. Hundreds of activists from all over Europe, and many from the US too, are gathered in a large circle organising a ‘spokescouncil’ to determine the course of action over the next few days. Progress is slow and frustrating, translations are clumsy, organising methods totally diverse, and the task huge, but something real is being built here. In the next few days the space will be used to make giant puppets, and conduct workshops on everything from samba percussion, to basic first aid, to training in non-violent tactics. It’s a place to plan, meet, argue, eat, and party. Someone has climbed into the rafters to hang a banner that says, ‘Global Ecology, not Global Economy’. Rampenplan, a Dutch cooking collective, have already got to work and set up giant tubs of pasta and sauce to feed the five thousand, while people from different countries greet each other with cries of recognition from other actions in other places and other times.
By the time a group of us new arrivals emerge out into the night time drizzle to find a bed for the night, the entrance is full of police. We exchange slightly embarrassed good evenings with them as we leave.
Eleven thousand policeman and five thousand soldiers are on guard throughout the city for the duration. My guidebook doesn’t comfort me: ‘Police in Prague are not considered as serious crimefighters, or protectors of the public, and are just barely considered keepers of law and order. Their past as pawns for the regime has prevented them from gaining much respect.’
The big September 26 showdown. It could be disaster. It could be genius. I’m wet, exhausted, hungry, and I can’t tell.
Friday 22 September 2000
I’m in the World Bank / IMF meeting Press Centre, surrounded by rows and rows and rows of journalists. I’m worlds away from the convergence centre I visited yesterday. I hear occasional references to ‘the rowdies’ – the protesters – butthe general atmosphere is that of a bunch of financial journalists in a bubble.
If I had any doubts that we are in the middle of an Information War – over differing versions of globalization – the latest issue of The Economist dispels them. In a déjà vu rerun of their coverage of Seattle, they have put a picture of a poor child from the South on the cover with the headline, ‘The case for globalisation’. They chide the ‘petty aggravation of street protesters wearing silly costumes’, whom they dismiss as ‘mere rabble of exuberant irrationalists’ and claim, slightly hysterically, that economic globalization is the ‘best of many possible futures for the world economy’.
The most glaring osmission in most media reports is the failure to report the huge mobilizations against World Bank and IMF policies in the South. In April, Bolivia had a near revolution over World Bank imposed water privatisation. It was mentioned just once in the mainstream Western press – in a Washington Post style section piece on the lifestyle of the US’ ‘new youth protest culture’ – so don’t be surprised if you hear nothing of the 150 planned solidarity protests throughout India this week.
The local media, too, have provided a barrage of propaganda over recent weeks, and many inhabitants of Prague are genuinely afraid. Schools have been closed for the week, and large numbers of residents have simply left town.
It’s hard not to feel, what with the 10 000 World Bank and IMF officials, the 8 000 journalists, and the 20 000 protesters, like an unwelcome, colonising force. Forty years of Soviet rule left the Czech Republic with little by the way of civil society, and the scare stories have further discouraged local participation in the debates.
I talked to a Prague resident who told me, ‘The mood created by the media has been to expect big fights, destroyed cars, and so on. Ten years ago the media fed us state propaganda. Now they feed us sensation. But it amounts to the same result. The media have really scared the people.’
Police have been giving out leaflets with guidelines to ensure local people’s safety. These include not talking to protesters or anyone they suspect of being a protester, not taking leaflets, and not accepting food from them.
Meanwhile, back at the direct action Convergence centre, an argument is brewing about whether to let the media onto the site. Some feel that talking to the media is the best chance of communicating their message, whilst others know from bitter experience just how much you can trust a journalist…
The Prague Indymedia centre [http://www.prague.indymedia.org ] has been set up by activists to ‘counter the corporate media’. Posted on the door is a cartoon that says ‘Please do not feed the journalists’. It shows a hippy-dippy childlike figure explaining her non-violent principles to a smooth journo with a crocodile smile, and the resulting headline, ‘Evil Scum Anarchists Plot End of World’.
An Indymedia office and website was put together during the protests in Seattle, and featured text, audio, and video reports live from the action. Since then Indymedia groups have been springing up all around the world. Unfortunately almost all of these, bar the centres in the Congo and Mexico, are in the North. However, they do offer a much-needed alternative view on the protests.
These ‘information guerillas’ also have other tricks up their sleeves. In the US during the April 16 mobilizations against the World Bank and IMF, activists created a spoof front page of the Washington Lost, which they pasted over Washington Post newspaper distribution boxes. A copy has been stuck up on the wall in the Indymedia office. The headline reads ‘Besieged IMF Plans Meaningless Cosmetic Changes: Ad Campaign, Jingle Unveiled’. The story is a spoof interview featuring an IMF official admitting, ‘Clearly, we need to make changes. Sneaky, deceptive changes that will allow us to continue our hideously cruel policies without further interference.’ Other headlines include, ‘In Moving Ceremony, New US Consumers Are Sworn In’, and ‘INSIDE: Fat America Starves Africa to Keep Humanity’s Total Body Weight Unchanged’.
Activists in London will be handing out a spoof Financial Crimes during the week. Although, to be fair, it was the Financial Times that observed, ‘Globalisation has a lot to answer for: Chicken McNuggets, the World Trade Organization, the rising cost of teargas…’
Saturday 23 September 2000
In a tiny, old fashioned art house cinema in the suburbs of Prague a ‘Counter Summit’ is being held.
Waiting outside are two burly Americans from the International Longshore Union. They tell me they’ve come from Seattle ‘to join the growing movement against globalization, and to bring a message of solidarity to our Czech brothers and sisters’.
For Robert Irbinger, the spirit of solidarity is the only thing that will give ordinary workers enough leverage in the global economy to win their rights. He describes how, during the Liverpool dockers strike, the Seattle-based dockers from the International Longshore Union refused to unload the cargo of a boat coming from the UK. It went on to Japan, where it was also refused, and eventually docked in Taiwan.
Jeff Engels, his friend, is a tugboat worker from Seattle who tells me how his union shut down all the ports on the US West Coast during the WTO protests last November. He says, ‘As stevedores and dockers we understand what global trade is, we are the point of entry and exit for goods. And we know that if we’re going to improve the conditions of workers at home, we have to improve the conditions of workers everywhere. Or companies will just leave and go to where the labour is cheaper.’
I ask him what message he brings to the IMF and World Bank. ‘Our Union has a tradition of coming out in solidarity with workers everywhere. We want to add our voice to the movement calling for the cancellation of debt owed to the IMF and World Bank, and for the elimination of these institutions of exploitation.’
Later, from the podium he delivers a message of solidarity from his union leader:
‘The World Bank and International Monetary Fund work together to take control of nations’ economies for the profit of international financial interests. They make massive loans to countries for questionable, high risk and often environmentally disastrous projects, and then as a condition of repayment impose severe austerity on populations.
These austerity programmes call for increase in low wage exports from these countries and the money made from them is used to pay the debt to international banks and investors. The austerity measures also include slashing public spending, jacking up interest rates to exorbitant levels, deregulating markets, devaluing currencies, and reducing labour protections.
The impact on workers and their families is devastating. Workers face massive layoffs and wage cuts while prices of the basics such as food, transport, energy and housing skyrocket.’
A woman representing the United Metalworkers Union from Turkey also echoes Jeff’s message and the call for international solidarity. Over the last three years in Turkey the IMF has guided rapid economic reforms, including privatisation and flexible working conditions, that she says have created massive job insecurity and unemployment in the country. She says this is why the protest in Prague has the support of Turkish workers.
With Czech workers themselves, it’s a little more complicated. Bohumir Dufek, the leader of the Union of Czech Agricultural Workers, tells us that the average salary of a Czech agricultural worker is 6000 karona per month (about US $155) and that they, like small farmers everywhere, are really suffering. He says ‘At least one third of people here are against the IMF and World Bank, and think they should work according to the needs of the poorest, not the richest. And we find it incredible that states that can’t provide food for their own starving populations are giving money to the IMF.’ But, he says, many workers here are too frightened about losing their jobs to come and protest about globalization themselves.
According to Dufek, ‘Our workers can’t be put at risk.’ And he says the Coal Workers Union’s attitude to the protests is symptomatic of the general feeling among Czech workers: ‘We all support you, but you do the protesting for us.’
This infuriates the young Czech convenor of the talks, who says that from the Health Care Workers Union to the Machinery Workers of Brno, rank and file union members have been asking their leaders to join the mobilizations. Dufek replies with a defeatist air, ‘The older generation suffered from forty years of totalitarian rule. We are grateful for the younger generation that has more energy and inspiration.’
It is the indomitable Jeff who recovers our spirits when he declares, ‘I’ve spent the last twenty years reading up about stuff in coffee shops, working on my ideas about change, thinking about if it would come, and what it would look like if it did. And now, finally, I can feel something is really happening. I am filled with great hope. Something is in the air. Something is changing. I really think we have a chance.’
Monday 25 September 2000
At 4pm today three activists walked along the high bridge leading to the convention centre where the World Bank / IMF meetings are being held, climbed over the railings, attached themselves with ropes, and hung a huge banner showing a ‘No World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund’ sign and the words ‘END CORPORATE RULE’. It was a long, tense moment as they adjusted the ropes and wrestled with the banner in their precarious position. Cheers and whistles rang round the valley as the banner finally unfurled in the wind.
The bridge is known as ‘suicide bridge’. A local woman watching told me that the anxious policemen trying to prevent the stunt were more used to collecting dead bodies at the foot of the bridge than arresting people hanging off the top of it.
About twenty Bank and Fund staff and delegates came out along with the press to watch the spectacle as the activists hung off the huge structure.
Most refused to comment on the matter. One said to a colleague, ‘Well, it’s not exactly the 20 000 protesters we were promised.’ When someone pointed out that the big protests were planned for tomorrow, he looked put out, but said only, ‘Oh good!’
I talked to Ted, one of the climbers, on his mobile phone as he hung from the bridge. Sounding out of breath and exhilarated he said, ‘My message to the World Bank, and the IMF, and the WTO too, is that the institutions that are the cause of global problems, cannot also be the remedy for them. They must be disbanded.’ He and the others were later detained by police.
A general sense of the protesters’ ignorance prevails in the convention centre. I overheard one woman saying, ‘End corporate rule, huh. I wonder what corporation they thought worked here?’
But it was she, rather than the banner hangers, who was seriously missing the point.
And in fact, she might be interested to learn that 45% of World Bank loans to developing countries per year (some US $11 billion) go directly to foreign, mainly wealthy countries’ companies through something called ‘International Competitive Bidding’ for contracts. According to researcher Sue Hawley, ‘A host of specialized lobbying firms have grown up to help companies win these deals, many started by former World Bank staff and representatives.’
Under the leadership of current World Bank President James Wolfensohn, the institution’s cosy relationships with transnational corporations have flourished. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation finances and advises corporate ventures, from a Coke factory in Azerbaijan, to an Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Petronas oil pipeline in Chad and Cameroon. The Banks seems particularly keen on the oil and gas industries, a policy which it has made clear in these meetings is not going to change much any time soon.
see more pics of the bridge action here!
Come to think of it, there does indeed seem to be a certain corporate aura haunting Prague this week. Maybe it’s the Audi posters advertising sponsorship of the meeting, or the lines of policemen protecting Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. According to the internal Bank/Fund newspaper Emerging Markets, one ‘respectable international bank’ shipped a package of toilet paper – via DHL mind you – to their temporary Prague quarters. I guess they thought going to a meeting in a former communist state would involve unendurable hardships like shiny toilet paper and unfashionable table linen. To ensure that the bank’s top managers find everything to their satisfaction, they have also ordered brand new furniture for their temporary offices, and instructed restaurants where the managers might like to dine to buy brand new tablecloths.
In short, they have done everything in their power to ensure a comfortable corporate stay in the city. Despite these efforts, one of the strategies of the protesters tomorrow will involve the judicious use of cacophony to disrupt the meetings, and plans include making noise all night outside the five star hotels where the meeting attendees are staying. Unless these bank managers are really into the bright samba rhythms that plastic bottles and makeshift drums can make, they may not relax much tomorrow night. Perhaps the availability of soft toilet paper will afford them some comfort.
S26 – More World, Less Bank
Tuesday 26 September 2000
Today was ‘S26’ – the big day of action against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
People gathering at Namesti Miru
The ubiquitous pictures of rioters throwing bricks through the windows of McDonalds are already being endlessly looped on CNN, approximately 500 people are in the jails (many being tied up and beaten, according to latest reports), and the ‘violence of the hoodlums’ has been roundly condemned from all quarters. According to Mark Weisbrot, who works for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in the US, a leading network TV station called him and asked him if there was much violence in Prague. ‘If so, we’ll cover it. If not, we’ll lead with the Olympics.’
Start of the March at Namesti Miru
But on the TV screens, in the meeting rooms and expensive receptions, the voices of those who were on the streets to unravel the lie – that globalization can and will deliver ‘benefits of unlimited growth’ to the entire world’s population, on a planet where unimaginable inequity is growing daily, and whose natural resources are being strained beyond its limits – have not been heard.
As Herman Daly, dissenting academic and a former Senior Economist at the World Bank, says of the World Bank – IMF – WTO trio, ‘Whose interests are they serving? The interests of the ‘global economy’ we are told. But what concrete reality lies behind that abstraction? Who benefits? Overwhelmingly, it is transnational capital – not labour, not small business, not peasant farmers, nor the environment. Already some 52 of the 100 largest economic organizations are corporations, and 48 are nation states.’
As officials blanket condemn the protests, they would do well to remember the words of former dissident, Vaclav Havel: ‘You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal of sense responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
The Plan of Action
The plan was for fifteen to twenty thousand of us to meet at the central square of Namesti Muri (Peace Square), march together, and then, in three groups, to peel off to surround the Congress Centre – former bastion of Prague’s Communist rulers. The aim was to disrupt the meeting as much as possible and besiege the centre to prevent the participants >from leaving. Amazingly, it worked. The meeting spokespeople are putting on a brave face and insisting it was ‘business as usual’, but investors meeting in the city have complained, ‘We cannot go to our scheduled meetings with clients, investors. In essence, we cannot do anything.’ Many in the meetings were unable to leave in the afternoon, and the opera put on in the evening was cancelled.
Each group – divided into pink, blue, and yellow colour codes – had its own route, and its own character. The huge diversity of cultures and approaches involved resulted in some incredible, surreal scenes – some wonderful, some terrifying. The blue group was formed largely of a mix of Greek, Slovak and Polish anarchists and others led by a marching band, one pink group was made up of socialist and union members, and the yellow group was primarily made up of the thousand strong members of Ya Basta!, the Italian group. The latter looked incredible en masse – like direct action Michelin men, dressed in white suits, and with bizarre paraphernalia tied around their waists – from rolled up doormats to inflatable rubber tyres. The yellow and blue groups had far more confrontations with the police as they were blockading the main entrances, whilst the pink group very successfully made itself into a nuisance round the back of the centre.
The blue group took a route through the city, where street battles with police occurred fairly early on. Meanwhile, Ya Basta! blocked Nuskelsky Bridge directly across from the Congress Centre (see yesterday’s report for a picture of the bridge), holding it for most of the day. They carried sacks of coloured balloons with them on which were written ‘Liquidate IMF’. As police faced them across the bridge Ya Basta! threw the balloons and attempted to charge under them – the balloons rose up, and then dropped over the sides. The air was filled with tear gas and hordes of these balloons floating onto the streets below in the afternoon sun.
Wandering through the clouds of tear gas was a naked man with dollar bills rolled up and stuck in his ears and mouth (and possibly elsewhere too).
Globalization of Resistance
My day had started in a park near the centre of town in the early morning, where I met up with a subset of the ‘pink’ group of protesters. (We were the ‘pink and silver’ faction.) People were collecting shakers to use as maracas, putting pink flowers in each others’ hair, rubbing silver body paint into their faces, anticipation rising. Someone arrived dressed as a pig. Another came with clusters of pink balloons filled with helium, and a cheer went up as ten women in pink and silver carnival costumes came through the park towards us, twirling and dancing.
This was all part of a brilliant strategy on the part of the pink-and-silver group: that of ‘tactical frivolity’. Time and time again throughout the day the carnival dancers pranced in front of riot police lines, defusing conflicts, and tickling them with pink feather dusters.
Not only were most of our group dressed in exuberant, ridiculous pink, but in our midst was the samba percussion band. Surrounded by people with shakers, they played us up the hill and down again as we wound our way to the Congress Centre in the sunshine, dancing all the way. During the day their constant playing kept the atmosphere energized and joyful.
We reached to within 200m of the Centre until we were faced with lines of riot police blocking the roads. I could see the rows of army trucks behind them. We moved to the next road along, where defences were fewer, and as we danced forward to the sound of the band, the police grew more and more edgy. They wheeled out a water cannon and sprayed us. We fled back down the streets holding hands. As we moved forward again for a second stand-off they again set the water cannon on us, which promptly ran out of water. A few people at the front started chucking things at the riot police.
That was when they began to throw percussion grenades into the crowd. These explode in clusters at high velocity with a huge bang. Everyone panicked. I was trapped against a wall trying to avoid these and one exploded right by me, a piece of it hitting my thigh. To my immense satisfaction, an old woman leaned out of a window from an apartment block overlooking the street to throw a bucket of water over the police.
During all this, one of the carnival dancers had pranced her way along the rooftops and actually managed to enter the Congress Centre, where she mingled freely among the guests.
Over the afternoon we moved along several roads, periodically blocking exit points and getting dispersed again, until finally we rounded a corner and realised we had clear access up to the Centre. By the time we arrived more had actually climbed up the walls and got inside the compound. (See pics).
A huge audience of officials, security, and press gathered on the upper balcony to watch, as riot police finally reached us and beat us to push us away (the genius samba band playing all the while). The crowd began to shout, ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ Riot police with dogs were pushing protesters back in three directions and making arrests, and I was stuck in the middle – unfortunately just where they’d left a canister of tear gas spewing fumes. As I tried to get away, a riot cop chased me, roaring obscenities and being liberal with his truncheon. I escaped, and a man came to help me – he thought I was weeping, and I didn’t know the Czech for ‘I’m fine, it’s just the tear gas.’ (Unluckily I didn’t have the Czech-English activist phrase book with me – the one that also contained the phrases, ‘Our resistance is as transnational as capital’, ‘We will never surrender’, ‘We are surrounded’, and ‘We surrender’).
Those inside the meeting centre were prevented from leaving until 7pm, when they were led to the next door metro, which had been closed specially, and taken to the end of the line where the delegates were ferried away by bus. There were more surreal scenes as some were stuck in a bus in the centre of town and surrounded by activists who let down the tyres.
Later in the evening the pink samba and blue marching bands joined up and drummed their way to the opera house, where Ya Basta!, having been moved off the bridge, were blockading the building to prevent the evening’s performance for delegates. The official opera was cancelled – but the carnival was amazing. I wouldn’t have been anywhere else for the world.
Wednesday 27 September 2000
The inevitable backlash
by police is escalating. Non-violent protests outside the jails and the Ministry of the Interior are met with arbitrary arrest. Police raided the convergence centre this morning. Anyone who looks like a protester is stopped in the streets, searched, and in most cases held without charge.
Stories are filtering through from the jails. Women have been strip searched and harrassed by male officers. Prisoners are being denied the food, water, sleep, and legal help they are entitled to under Czech law. Two Norwegians reporting the loss of a mobile phone at a police station caught a glimpse of a row of prople handcuffed to a wall being severely beaten.
I talked to one man who saw a black friend being ‘hog-tied’ and pushed down the stairs. Another black woman was also pushed down the stairs. Other disturbing reports are coming in about the use of torture in the cells. Only ten years ago this was a police state, and the force did not change when the government did.
Meanwhile, the IMF and World Bank – amidst announcements of new commitments to the poor, and hastily devised new NGO consultation strategies – have decided to end the meeting a day early. It’s clear that this is a success for the demonstraters.
A delegate from Tanzania said that – just as in the World Trade Organization meetings last year – the public anger shown yesterday strengthens the hand of developing countries, who are up against rich nations’ interests in the multilateral institutions.
The Congress Centre was fairly empty all day, and many of the set speeches were read out in haste to half empty halls. A journalist friend of mine described it as the house of the undead.
While I was working in the press room of the Centre, a man dressed in black and without press ID stepped out from behind a door and took a photo of me, then disappeared as rapidly as he had come. The whole place felt disturbing. I wanted to leave, and decided to head for the party the protesters were holding in the Old Town Square to celebrate the closure of the meeting. Wandering into a small, plush office in the Congress Centre, I asked how I could get down there. There was a big language barrier, but they finally said, ‘Car?’ and wrote my name down. Two minutes later a black BMW pulled up at the front door. Three minutes later, I realised this was intended for me.
The old town square was filled with people and the jubilant sound of the marching band as performers juggled fire. I was definitely the only one there to have arrived sheepishly in a BMW.
The IMF and World Bank meetings said nothing of real importance, and decided nothing of much worth. Their hollow promises about debt relief, and the meaningless commitment to ‘manage the risks and opportunities’ of globalization were shown in stark contrast to the passion of the protests.
The headline of Financial News today asked, ‘Where do we go from Prague?’
Good question. If it is further along the road to a society where all the priorities are decided by the marketplace, more and more people will join protests like these to declare ‘The world is not for sale’.
This was an extraordinary, sometimes disturbing, but powerful sequel to Seattle.
Something new and strange is in the air.