25 June 2008

In which our hero learns a harsh lesson

People often ask me "Why are you so Grumpy, Unkie Dave? Why do you complain about workers' rights, globalisation, food prices, poverty, the tyranny of the two party electoral system in the US, weak journalism and poorly manufactured and over-hyped Apple products? Why can't you just be a happy consumer? Where is your lapel pin? Why do you hate freedom so much?".

So I thought that I would take some time to tell the tale of how Unkie Dave got a conscience, and it begins, as with most things of any importance, with a woman.

It was the Autumn of 2000, September to be exact, I was living in Dublin, working as a Sales Manager for a Telecoms company. I was twenty-seven, had a disposable income in my pocket, a good set of friends and a social life that revolved around Friday night drinks after work and a Saturday recovering with a hangover. The best thing in my life, however, was the Very Understanding Girlfriend. We had been living together for a year or so in a tiny apartment (as all first apartments are), but we were happy, and life seemed good.

I had been vaguely aware of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November of '99, but in a disassociated way, more interested in the concept of pre-millennial tensions giving rise to student and workers' riots, like something out of an 80's sci-fi film (Delta City, here we come). I was definitely unaware of the WTO, the IMF or the World Bank. Luckily for me The Very Understanding Girlfriend was aware enough for the both of us, and so when she announced that she would be travelling to Prague to be part of a rally against the IMF and World Bank meetings taking place there on September 26th, I unexpectedly decided to tag along.

I had no real idea what to expect. I had been to Prague before and thought it would be good to see the city again, but there was also some small part of me that was worried about The Very Understanding Girlfriend being surround by all those crazy hippies and anarchists, and thought I should do the manly thing and go along to protect her. The irony of this will become evident later.

On the plane over we met a few more Irish folks, ranging from militant activists from various social action movements, to Drop The Debt campaigners from Oxfam that looked like a group of typical mothers and grandmothers, and this was reflective of the protesters as a whole. We ended up getting accommodation with two guys we met on the plane, a magazine editor and a photo-journalist. From the editor I learned about the global context in which the protests were happening, and it was from the photo-journalist that I first heard the word "Zapatista", as he had spent the last few months on the road in Chiapas. Together with conversations with The Very Understanding Girlfriend in the days leading up to the trip, my eyes were opened to the social injustices that lay behind the governance of the world.

The protest itself was incredible, 15-20,000 people from all over Europe converged on the city. In a time before widespread use of mobile phones, information was at a premium, and life centred around the Convergence centre and the IndyMedia office. The Convergence Centre was a huge disused warehouse where groups gathered to organise the protest, and was my first introduction to collective and consensual decision making. There were no leaders, just groups and facilitators. Decisions were taken by use of various hand gestures imported from the Zapatistas and other groups in the global South, but no group's decision was binding on any other group. It was organised anarchy in action. Three different marches were planned in this way, each with a slightly different route and a different composition, thus allowing those who didn't want to participate in confrontational direct action (like us) to choose a route and group that suited them.

The IndyMedia centre was an outpost of independent journalism, located in the city centre. It was a drop-in office where people would come and give eye-witness reports, upload film and video footage to the website, and generally try and counteract the mainstream media's biased reporting of the protest. It was through this that we heard the struggle of some groups like Ya Basta! from Italy to even get to the protest, halted at the border on a train for two days until the ensuing media attention forced the Czech border police to let the train through. Word spread through the grapevine, with conversations in the bars and cafes in the days before starting with, "Did you hear Ya Basta! got through! They commandeered a whole train! The Italian unions pushed the train through, the workers and students are united!". The excitement in the city in the days before the protest was electric, something unique was about to happen.

The city itself was braced for something from the end of days. The local and international media had whipped the population into a frenzy, fearful that we had descended upon their city to loot the shops and burn it to the ground. Many had fled the city in advance of the 26th, and most shops were boarded up, leaving the city centre feeling like a deserted film set. Police had been drafted in from all across the Czech republic, and they too were scared. There was a shortage of proper equipment, and many had to take out private insurance as their own police coverage wasn't adequate. They too believed the media's stories that we were there to harm them, and this fear dictated every interaction they had with the protesters, from random searches in the street of anyone that looked foreign before the protest, to the detention, beatings and sexual degradation of protesters during and after the protest itself.

On the 26th itself, loaded up with masks soaked in vinegar to protect ourselves from tear-gas, and a firm determination to stay at the back and as far away from any conflict as possible, we set off in a carnival-like atmosphere, with chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, IMF has got to go" and "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" towards the Conference Centre where the IMF meeting was happening, shoulder to shoulder with people of every age, background and nationality, all marching to be involved, in total solidarity. The Centre itself was high on a ridge above a valley, reachable only by a long road and metro bridge. It was on this bridge that the march was halted, blocked by hundreds of riot police, tanks and water cannon, that covered every square foot of the bridge.

Ya Basta!, armed in their own white riot gear, moved to the front of the crowd and hurled themselves against the police and barriers. Once, twice, three times they threw themselves in the blinding glare of the mid-day sun, but the police held firm. This stand-off continued as they jousted, police batons crashing down against their homemade shields, trying to use their force of numbers to push the police cordon back until at the last the heat of the day took its toll and Ya Basta! pulled back. The crowd started to dissipate at that point, breaking up into smaller groups and heading off to join the other two marches, as in the distance shots could be heard (they later turned out to be firecrackers thrown by the police to disperse the crowd).

The atmosphere on the bridge lightened as the crowd got smaller, with time for photo-ops of happy protesters standing defiantly in front of row upon row of masked riot police. Despite the unacceptable injuries to both police and protesters, the march was a success, and the IMF meeting was cancelled as many of the delegates were afraid to continue on in the face of the crowds nearby. Our day was done, we had made our protest peacefully, and we returned to the city centre to meet up with other groups and swap tales.

We heard stories of Black Block anarchists lobbing petrol bombs and policeman being seriously injured, of police agitators hidden in the crowd throwing stones and bricks, of women being arrested, strip searched and subjected to sexual humiliation and abuse in Czech jails, of the Pink Fairies getting into the Centre and the meeting being closed down, and finally of one lone protester sneaking onto a metro at the Centre and finding themselves seated opposite James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, as he was whisked away from the conference, capturing him on video in this most inglorious of moments.

We awoke the next day feeling invincible, carried along on a wave of triumph, and upon hearing a rumour that a number of Irish delegates were staying at a particular hotel, we decided to go along and join a protest there, bringing the global to a more local level. Herein lay our first mistake of the week.

We arrived early to find no more than a few dozen fellow activists standing in a line outside the hotel. A few uniformed policemen stood between this group and the hotel, but no real confrontation seemed to be happening. At this point we moved to the front of the group, breaking our number one rule of never being at the front of anything, linking arms and forming a single line on the road. This was where we made our second mistake.

A single officer walked right up to us and said in broken English, "You are not allowed to be here, you have five minutes to leave. Do you understand?" As a group we shouted back, "this is a peaceful protest, we will not be moved". This was to be our third, and final mistake.

As we held firm, from around the back of the hotel came a number of busses, all packed with riot police. They streamed out and onto the street, running to form up in lines just meters away from where we stood. "Leave now", came the order, followed seconds later by their charge, and leave we did. I don't think I have ever run as fast in my life, following after The Very Understanding Girlfriend down the street with no other thought in my mind but to get away as fast as possible. I didn't see the riot police behind me, but I knew that they were there, I could hear their boots on the pavement getting closer and closer, nearer and nearer until finally I felt the leaden weight of a baton clip against the back of my knee, tripping me up and sending me crashing to the ground.

Instantly I was surrounded by four or five cops with batons out, all beating seven shades of living daylight out of me. I lay on my back with my arms up shielding my face, feeling blow after blow rain down on my forearms, elbows and legs, crying out in pain. At that moment I knew I was going to die, never more certain of anything in my life; with a single moment of pure clarity I knew that was it.

And then from out of nowhere there appeared the most amazing sight ever witnessed by man. Standing above me, shielding me with her body, was The Very Understanding Girlfriend, screaming in the faces of the cops and at the top of her lungs, "Don't you hurt my boyfriend!". Like a kitten that puffs itself up, fur standing on end, hissing to scare off its attacker, she stood her ground, screaming at the police as she lifted me off the ground, grabbing my hand and pulling me away down the road before they could do anything but stand in bemusement, too startled to follow us as we ran hand-in-hand away and down into the metro, onto the waiting train and away to safety.

Never have I felt so scared as on that ground, and yet never have I felt as safe and secure as hand-in-hand we ran onto the train. The Very Understanding Girlfriend had saved my life, and after Prague nothing wold ever be the same for me.

It really did feel like the start of something amazing, like Paris in '68, when change could actually happen, but better, even better than Seattle. Why better than Seattle? Seattle was the first major alter-globalistaion protest to gain widespread attention, bringing together environmental groups, unions, students and other groups into a grand coalition, but at its heart it was a national movement, focused on the plight of Americans in this New World Order. Prague was different, it was truly international, with groups and individuals from all across Europe and beyond, with no common language and nothing to bind them except a single belief that a better world was possible. It was the dawn of the 21st century and the future looked brighter than ever.

And then on 21st July 2001, a 23-year old Italian activist called Carlo Giuliani was shot dead by police during the protests at the G8 meeting in Genoa. 100,000 people were there that day to see the dream of a new society die in the streets, struck down by a bullet fired by a 20-year old conscript in the Carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary police force.

Children killing children to protect the rich and privileged.

That is why I believe what I believe.

INPEG - the local collective that facilitated PRAHA 2000
Ya Basta! account of the protest
An good account by a member of the Infernal Noise Brigade


At 8:51 am, Blogger Kate said...

well Unkie Dave - you do know your extraordinary tale has just put you on about four "no-fly" lists don't you? *grin*

I read this yesterday and then I dreamt about it last night... very strange. Only there were double decker buses involved in my dream as well. Note to self: must stop visiting bbc.co.uk/news before bed. My sub-conscious has not need to know what Boris Johnson (bring back the routemaster bus campaign) is up to at that hour.

A wonderful (and very well written) insight into a period of your life I know next to nothing about. Fair Play!

At 12:16 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...


Judging from the look most immigration folks give me when they look at my passport, I don't think this post can do any more harm than has already been done.

At 1:12 pm, Blogger arjedre said...

You know, I don't think I've ever heard all the details of this experience.

Thanks for sharing


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