Before the International Monetary Fund and World Bank began their Prague meetings this week, much speculation focused on whether anti-globalization protests would end up wreaking violence in the Czech capital. Who, in fact, are the protesters and what do they plan to do? RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky caught up with some of them today at a camp they've set up outside Prague.
Prague, 19 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A woman with natty hair, tattered and dirty jeans, and a tie-dyed t-shirt steps up on a tree stump and clears her throat before addressing the crowd of about 40:
"Non-violent direct action training, which will be taking place right here in front of the barn, in 10 minutes. And stilt-walking will meet here in a half an hour."
From stilt-walking, and even tree-climbing, to first-aid training -- these are the skills that anti-globalization activists say they'll bring to their protests during the meetings this and next week in the Czech capital Prague of the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and the World Bank. They've been "training" for the meetings near Prague at an abandoned farm -- donated by a Czech sympathizer -- for about a week now.
The camp is a mix of many men and women in their 20s from the United States, the Czech Republic, Spain, France, and other places in-between. Many have been activists for years. Some have what they call "real jobs" doing social work. Last Saturday (Sept 16) they opened their camp in the Czech village of Dolni Slivno to reporters in hopes of defusing fears they're bent on violence.
Chelsea Mozen, a spokeswoman for INPEG, the Czech acronym for Initiative Against Economic Globalization -- the main group organizing protests in Prague -- says fears and reports of violence are "ridiculous." She told our correspondent about the main tool the protesters hope will get their message across.
"A counter summit, a three-day counter summit, with people that are affected by the policies of the IMF and the World Bank, and economic globalization. Academics, experts, and activists and organizers talking about the issues for three days before the protests. An arts festival where they'll be lots of fun things going on that express our message in a much more different way than out in the streets shouting. And actually, our protests are not geared to this idea of people out somberly -- you know, saying we want a better world -- but more of a fun, creative atmosphere."
Although they say they are planning peaceful protests, the activists also say they have to be prepared for anything -- specifically, they say, potential police violence -- and that explains their medical training. Loic Pielmann, a 22-year-old Frenchman, explains why, for example, the protesters are learning about pepper spray and tear gas. Pielmann says the point is to avoid panic among his comrades.
"So if I know the effect of tear gas or pepper [spray], when I will feel them, I won't be surprised by them. It's [training] just to avoid a scare."
Jan Thomas, a 40-year-old activist from Holland who's been active in the Dutch squatter movement, stands off by the barn -- which resembles an abandoned aviation hangar-- talking with some of his colleagues who are cooking meals. Besides providing the camp with meals, the group provided the first bit of controversy last week when Czech border guards temporarily stopped four of them from entering the country. Thomas told RFE/RL why the Czech border guards stopped him and his friends.
"For no reason, we didn't have a sticker on the car that said it was a Dutch car, an NL sticker -- it took them about two days to figure out we had the sticker, finally. And then we had to go in and then they checked all the stuff inside and said, 'Well you've got to pay some duties for the coffee, etcetera, but we don't have the correct forms -- you have to drive to the other border crossing and get the correct forms there.' And we got there and they never had the forms, we didn't have to pay anything and we could get in."
Over by some tree stumps serving as benches, Megan Mullen from Olympia, Washington nails together two slats of woods she says will be stilts, to be used in street theater. Mullen participated in the protest movement against the World Trade Organization, or WTO, in Seattle last year, which she says was "incredible." She says the atmosphere in the camp is good, but that with such an international mix, the language barrier is more than a nuisance.
"The language thing is huge. And people are trying their best, you know, in translating. Meetings take three times as long because they're translated in Spanish, and Czech, and they're also people here who speak Hebrew and there's always different translations going on, it's pretty intense."
Alice Dvorska, a 21-year-old Czech, is one of INPEG's leading spokespeople. She says the experience Americans bring to the camp, and their creative approach to protesting, is proving invaluable to people like her from the Czech Republic.
"We're learning a lot, especially the creative approaches. A Czech demonstration used to be where you'd go with a few banners and that was it. They [the protesters in the camp] try to add to that street theater, puppets and music -- these are things that never took root here. These are things we can learn from. Another contribution is the workshops on first aid, because they have more experience, for example with tear gas attacks."
Barrett is 22-years-old and, like many of the Americans, he's from the U.S.'s Pacific Northwest--in his case, Portland, Oregon. He says the difference between the Prague protests and the anti-WTO protests in Seattle is the international scope of the demonstrators in the Czech capital. Barrett says that even with all the languages and nationalities, there is an unbreakable camaraderie in the camp.
"Woke up this morning, everybody work up, it was like strangers everywhere. Everybody's smiling, everybody's happy. This one guy, I think he was some Slavic guy, found actual farm implements, he found a sickle, he found a hammer and put them together and started singing the "Internationale" in German. It was just classic -- everybody started cracking up right before breakfast. Everybody's friends even though we never met [before]."
All in all, Dolni Slivno seems more like a summer camp than a prelude to what some fear will be mayhem in the Czech capital in the coming days.