[the pics are mainly from www.undercurrents.org]
Earlier this month I went to the Czech Republic for two weeks. Unfortunately I could tell you very little about the place now, except that it's lovely, and deserves more attention than I gave it With ten friends - amidst a whole bunch of British folk - I was part of shutting down the World Bank and I.M.F. Annual General Meeting a day early, and what with all of that, we only managed to fit in visiting Prague Castle on our very last afternoon.
What do you need to shut down the World Bank? Well, between the ten of us, we had: loads of bilingual leaflets (which we very much hoped said what they were meant to), a gas mask and first aid kit each, one press accreditation pass for attending the official meetings, lots of silver-sequinned items of clothing, one laptop computer (for uploading to www.prague.indymedia.org), far too many mobile phones, a large collection of pirate radio broadcast equipment, one thousand hot pink stickers that said "Lide ne Zisk!" (Czech for "people not profit"), one thousand red, green, black, and pink balloons that also said - in Czech and English - "create the world you want to live in", and a very large helium canister. And - as the days passed - increasing amounts of chocolate and small scraps of paper with important things written on them.
We managed to get up disturbingly early every day (despite incredibly cheap beer the night before), muttering about whose snoring kept who awake, and have some kind of over-breakfast meeting to sort out responsibilities. There was never enough time, really. Endless meetings occurred at the convergence centre - a ginormous warehouse that had more room for banner-painting than ever before dreamed of - as more and more people speaking half a dozen different languages attempted to reach consensus regarding a blockading plan.
In the gaps, our Earth First! cluster debated its way through the options of how to participate autonomously within the plan. We had our own office/contact point sorted. We had a stack of cyclists. We had the gorgeous Tactical Frivolity dancers. We had samba instruments, and we (almost, give us a few more practices) knew how to use them. We had some people willing to be part of prisoner support, and some ready to take on co-ordinating communications. We had little idea of what would happen, how it would happen, what exactly we wanted to happen, and why we were blockading the delegates in rather than out of the conference (the stated plan) but we were trying to figure all this out as fast and as democratically as possible...
Our group wanted to do various things other than the blockade, but for some of our ideas, time and opportunity vanished. The Radio Prague project went ahead (another incarnation of Newbury's famed Tree-FM!) but due to vast numbers of police on the streets, and a tendency to accidentally end up responsibly facilitating meetings for whole days on end, for us non-radio folk, our best individual contributions we felt were our balloons. They were very cool, and a means of communicating the life & colour we wanted to represent, as opposed to the death & greyness of the World Bank. We couldn't talk Czech (although German worked a bit sometimes) but we could exchange smiles with people as we handed out our balloons, or tied them to random lamp-posts round town. "Lide ne Zisk" seemed to be something pretty much everyone thought made sense.
On the day of the blockade, balloon inflating began at 7am; the green, red and black ones handed out in huge bunches to whoever came past the infoshop (resource, info & media centre set up by the Prague folk on the high street!) on their way. For our last hour, we inflated pink only - specially for our pink and silver British block - and then off we went...
A lot of the day I can't even get clear in my head now. Large portions of it were like a British Reclaim the Streets. Other portions of it - the bits with the water-canon and percussion bombs, and the police kicking people, and people throwing cobblestones at them - made me wonder what it must be like being a disident in a dictatorship, and think about how easy we have it most of the time. Some parts were heart-breaking - seeing someone with a stomach wound from a percussion bomb - hearing that some poor Czech person's apartment windows had got smashed by someone (drunk?) on our march. Some parts were inspiring - like watching our samba band keep playing as a line of riot police with truncheons ran towards them, like other police backing off when a spangly-tighted, butterfly-winged, stunningly-cleavaged Tactical Frivolity dancer marched towards them.
So the meetings shut down early. And the head of the World Bank had to go home by public transport, that being his only option. (This was apparently shocking enough to be reported on CNN!) And the southern delegates on the inside said they'd been listened to like never before. And it got dark, and quite a few banks and McDonalds got smashed in town, something I feel cheerful about, and lots of the soundbites on the telly were about "violence" and not the issues - as I have learned is fairly inevitable, no matter what happens. And people doing prisoner support didn't go to bed for days, and what with abuse and no food and no water and no information, I expect the prisoners didn't get much sleep either. And the rest of us tried to avoid police snatch squads on the street.
And our own debates began, and continue. Was it a success? Yes and no. But really yes - because even the "no" bits we will hopefully learn from to apply to whatever else we get up to. The one about what constitutes violence/nonviolence is continual within the social change community, and so it should be. Inevitably, journalists look for exciting images to sell their papers, rather than the "less exciting" politics behind those images - such as the "violence" of the World Bank. So, we create our own media, we keep trying to talk to the few journalists who care about the issues, we attempt to have honest discussions amongst ourselves as to the validity and value of what we are doing and how we are doing it.
I'm glad I went. It was all very exciting, and I think it was important to keep up the momentum of visible resistance to such meetings as these, that has grown over the past few years. Now we are back to organic gardens, community groups, worker's co-ops, and schools workshops. Because the world doesn't get changed just in one day.
Penny of Earth First!