1. The background
I watched TV yesterday. Listened to our Minister of Internal Affairs discussing the riots and the police and everything. And felt that I was in much more danger than when the stones were flying over my head in one of the Hot Zones.
According to the minister, when protests normally happen, only 5-10% of rioters are violent activists, whereas during the IMF Summit the ratio was 50-60%. This is – from everything I have seen on the streets- complete bullshit. Or perhaps I was in a different city than he was talking about. That possibly 100-200 people threw a piece of pavement, out of all the 10,000-15,000 protesters, would make an adequate guess, maybe. Which is still less than 2% of the total. Or perhaps I learned a different kind of arithmetic.
Of course, calculating ratios of various kinds of protesters is a bit difficult. Who can be counted as protesters? The ones that throw small, heavy things? The ones that are chanting? Or everyone present, including unmarked, freelance newsmen and curious residents?
The Ministry of Truth (sorry, of Internal Affairs) even stopped the train that brought some of the most violent factions here. They held it on the border for several days, until they let it in - on the evening of the 25th of September. The main riots occurred on the 26th of September, and then the violent factions left that same night on that same train. Why weren't they stopped?
There were confirmed reports of the actions of riot instructors from three months back. Rumours (as yet unconfirmed) are that at a handful of these persons were linked to the ETA. If I, a common citizen without any political standing, can get information like this, why hadn't They had it? Or, if They had it, why hadn't They reacted appropriately?
Or perhaps, the street fights were intended to happen?
History is repeating itself. In March of 1969, after Czechoslovakia beat the Soviet Union in hockey, people poured into the streets and filled Wenceslas Square (the traditional 'focal point' of Prague) and expressed their joy that they had defeated "the Enemy", at least on ice. As it happens, there was an office belonging to Aeroflot, the Soviet (now Russian) airline nearby. It was completely demolished when rage spilled over.
There was a heap of cobblestone paving stones conveniently located nearby. There were no pavement repairs in progress in the area. The heap hadn't been there a few days before.
Rumours are that the stones were delivered there by a vehicle operated by State Security, or by their order. Rumours are that the first of them were thrown into Aeroflot's glass panes by an undercover State Security employee.
The result was an overall tightening of police control over the people, drastic limitations of the right to assemble, and a couple more things necessary to "normalize" the situation after the Spring of 1968.
Now, it's the pre-dawn of the Millennium.
We have a heap of paving stones strategically placed in a zone where, later, a conflict occurred. There are reports (and reportedly even videotapes) of violent individuals either throwing stones or demolishing the glass windows of McDonalds, then departing through police cordons without being impeded or harassed in the slightest - it makes them seem to be police provocateurs more than anything else. We have a set of more-or-less localized street fights, the TV footage of which flew around the world, filling 'telescreens' wherever the mythic hydra of 'anti-globalization' is mentioned. We have public opinion largely biased against them, and there is reportedly some legislation being prepared in a hurry that could limit the right of the people to anonymity in gathering and demonstrating publicly, possibly more. The Public is applauding now. More than 50% of the public is now thinking that the police response was too 'soft', as well; there are even voices (and some of them belong to top-brass politicians) crying out that the police should have used firearms. Some of the Public applaud even this.
Thirty-one-and-a-half years ago, Aeroflot was the symbol of the culture that we were claimed to be a part of. Now it's McDonalds. Has anything other than this changed?
The overall situation looked much worse on television than in reality. I have a growing feeling that it was all calculated for the maximal media effect -- that streetfights *had* to happen, so that there would be juicy images for display on the TVs of the world. (As a welcome side-effect, these images consumed the screen time that would otherwise have had to show "less-attractive" shots of the peaceful dissenters, like the "Countersummit".) The Public (especially the majority that was fed by the attractive, carefully assembled footage) would be eager to give up another part of its rights, in order to be "protected from these things happening again". I would bet that no politician who now has his mouth full of Big Words was actually in the streets on September 26th - They were probably hiding like cowards in their warm offices or homes, behind doubled police guards.
There were over 12,000 policemen in the streets. If the riots were so bad, why were there only a little over 60 wounded? This is about 0.5%, and about the same number (or, according to other sources, twice as much) of the rioters who were wounded (amounting to a smaller or slightly larger percentage, 0.4% to 1.5%, depending on the numbers you accept.)
I don't know what this will lead to; the near future will show us. I do wonder how long it will take until They remove all our technical means to do anything more than nodding and thanking.
I don't know about you, my colleagues, but I am afraid.
Democracy [n.]: From Greek Demos (people) and Spanish Gracias (gratitude).
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Two dawdlers with cameras
I'm a dawdler, I have my photographs, and I don't care about more
15:45, Prague, Albertov
Close by the Church of Annunciation of the Saint Mother of God stands a compact file of fully-harnessed policemen. Instead of artillery and war elephants, they rely upon a water cannon and armoured vehicles. About ten to twenty masked demonstrators are showering them with ammunition from the stone age. Policemen only cover themselves with their plexiglas shields. Occasionally they shoot loudly-exploding tear gas grenades, and the anarchists retreat by a few meters.
A purplish-pink punk, equipped with a gasmask and trophy police shield is carefully sneaking along the wall of the restaurant called "Na Ruzku". Suddenly he jumps out from the wall. He covers himself with the shield, flings a couple of paving stones. Then he flees back to a safe distance. A single cameraman dared to follow him; his footage then makes it to prime time news. The other scouts prefer to use their telephoto lenses instead of risking their own necks.
There are at least two reporters for each stoneflinger, two to three nonfighting demonstrators, and four to five curious civilians - dawdlers. Foreign tourists with their expensive cameras were nowhere to be found; they were off enjoying the calmer vistas of Nusle Bridge, another 'hot zone'.
In the neighbourhood of the Church of Saint Pankrac, about 6.30pm, there are far fewer newsmen, so most of them miss the moment when the groups of activists spotted an attempt by a group of about fifteen Japanese delegates trying to cross through the cordon and vanish through enemy lines. Some grey cape notices them and his whistle cuts the air. More follow. A dense crowd condenses from the scattered groups. With loud whistling and chanting, the money-changers are repulsed, and driven back behind the cordon. Even here, signs that a photographic shoot-out had raged before; the empty film canisters sprinkled around like bullet casings over the remains of the banners are its silent witnesses.
The nightly news displays real havoc. Footage shows "demolition works", but only a few people act. Several cameras attentively watch each liquidator. Stones fly out from the crowd and the glass of the windows of a bank clink on Belehradska street. A being in a jacket is battering a glass pane. A TV cameraman looks over the shoulders of at least four zealous photographers, but only with difficulty. The glass shatters, the 'jacket' flees. Attention shifts to the girl systematically demolishing the next show-window. Three men with cameras, alternately taping the heroine and the glass, get into the view. We watch everything through the eye of the fourth camera. We can't count all the journalists. Photoflashes make the scene look rather like a press conference.
Young, naive idealists are missing in the scene. The newsmen won over the radicals with numerical superiority, 3 to 1.
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Yes-man or Stone-thrower?
The montages of demolition commandos wreaking havoc in the center of Prague fly around the world. Hundreds of millions of eyes feast on masked men turning McDonalds to ruins. Paving stones and tear gas fill the grateful audience with joy. A stick shatters, with the glassfront, the last remains of any sympathy the general public may have had with protesters of any kind.
Police intervention is professional and unprecedented. Black knights of law and order, clutching batons instead of swords, are protecting the defenceless civilians. Newsmen with expensive cameras are cruising the crowd, and a girl pounding a shop window with a hammer becomes a TV star.
In this chaos, the media attention seems to miss the fact that the really aggressive individuals number only in the couple-of-dozens. Properly edited close-ups from the focal-point of conflicts turn Prague into a battlefield in the eyes of the world audience. The cameras are destined to miss protests that aren't filled with the background sounds of stones making impact on shields and helmets.
IMF Moneychangers leave; protests end, and the information about perfect organization of street stormtroopers is seeping out, together with rumours of police provocateurs. There are more paving stones lying on the streets than pulled out of them, and Petr Ibl, on the evening news, admits that the police leaders knew that a car had driven around unchecked distributing these munitions, which were then used in anger. Was it really necessary to put the health of hundreds of young men in danger for acquiring more criminal evidence?
It seems everything went well. The police kept the banking magnates safe. Anarchists almost fought their way to the Congress Centre, and rioted in the evening. The financiers, themselves, are happy too; the schedule of the summit wasn't impaired as it was in Seattle, and the battle in front of the Palace was a nice thrill for many delegates.
Who was damaged in the end? Of course, it's the owners of a couple of restaurants and shops, or their insurance companies.
Much worse long-term consequences remain hidden. What if, in several months, the government make an unpopular decision and the affected ones go out into the streets? How will the general public view these protesters? Public opinion, well processed by the media, will throw them into the same bag with the "demolition workers of the Revolution" from that Tuesday night.
Dozens of front-line cops paid for this figurative massage of the collective mind with a sharper massage of glass and rocks. Protests in Prague hadn't even begun to reach the level of the Seattle battles. Was it really impossible to get enough protective gear for the police, or were they simply pawns, yielding to the king's interests? It's a miracle that no one of them fell dead on the checkerboard of political power, well hidden from the eyes of most of the ordinary mortals; the checkerboard whose every-other field is covered with spilled blood.
Anyone who dares to go out into the streets for any reason will now be looked upon with apprehension. A few provocateurs will be sufficient and the public will gladly invite the police's resolute action.
The Government gave "Check" to their eventual adversaries before the first move.