Has Freedom Lost Its Ground in Prague?

The anniversary of the Velvet Revolution is a Czech national holiday, November 17th, and I have always enjoyed walking around the city center on this day. There are lively protests and political parades but still mainly done in the joyful spirit of celebration with families, parents or grandparents walking along in a parade with children. There are street concerts and in the main squares, and there are uplifting or also angry speeches and counter-protests, but never with violence. If anything, there has been an increasing melancholy and frustration on this day, over the years due to disappointments with the democratic transition. There are also increasingly more surreal political parades with huge paper caricature-puppet figures of contemporary Czech politicians and grotesquely masked paraders.

A few years ago, the president was egged and booed off the stage by university students at the ground zero site of the Velvet Revolution, at the students’ medical faculty, and since then they have been blocked from visiting the site on this holiday. Also in a previous year, at student-led demonstrations on National Street, the president was given a red-card by many hundreds, possibly thousands (who held up huge red cards) as in soccer games, when the umpire tells a player to leave the game for a penalty.

This is all recalled now to underline that, in any case, the Czechs still do take seriously their “freedom” which was achieved peacefully due initially to the student protests commencing on Nov. 17th, 1989, and culminating weeks later after mass protests throughout the country till finally the police backed down and Communists throughout the government resigned their functions, so that the former dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel became President of the country, at that time known as Czechoslovakia.

And for just a nod to those so worried about “fake news” in our era, the Velvet Revolution may not have happened at all without it. The death of a student named “Martin Šmíd” at the hands of the police during these protests was broadcast by Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and the Voice of America, and with this it soon became news in all other countries around the world, raising the cause to international prominence. But Martin Šmíd did not even exist; it was a hoax perpetrated by protesters—a fake story.

Back to the present, on Czech television throughout the day and evening of the Velvet Revolution’s anniversary, the public TV station plays countless documentaries of the events in November, recalling the fearless student heroes of that era and the old video recordings of protesters clashing with police on the streets have now taken on a legendary status; but curiously they have also become cliché, and dangerously overplayed since in the last years the Czech government has taken a turn back to the ways of its previous police state. Some protesters have even become an obsessive concern of the Czech government or is this simply how all modern democracies are reacting to street protesters today?

Well at least in Prague, Czechs are no longer as free to protest, as they think.

Last year, on November 17th, I was on a tram that got detoured around 5 pm on my way to an annual high school students’ symposium across the river and up the hill by the Prague Castle. But then the tram got stuck in a traffic jam due to a political march coming from the direction of the Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty. This was nothing unusual for the day. So, I got off of the tram and headed in the same direction as the tram hoping to jump on it again at the next stop, after the parade moved on as it was intending.

But this political parade turned out to be more complicated than usual. On one side there was a relatively small group (many dozens) of nationalists—I did not even seem them at all, but they waived huge Czech flags with the seals of previous monarchies of Bohemia and Moravia. They call themselves Czech Patriots these days, and some of them are obviously skinheads so their arch-rivals call them all “Fascists.” Basically, I had walked into a political demonstration that had become a stand off; and just by chance, I was on the side of the counter-protesters, who were blocking the way of the march.

There was nothing disturbing about this, as there was no fighting going on, but possibly also since there was a wall of police separating the marchers from the counter-protesters. And the counter-protesters outnumbered the marchers easily by many hundreds. The counter-protesters chanted melodic anti-Nazi chimes every few minutes, and the only other intervention came from police announcements to clear the street. These were announcements in Czech and since Prague is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, it was likely that at least some people in the crowd did not understand a word that the police were announcing. We were actually stuck across the street from the Sheraton Hotel.

Eventually, the right-wing protesters had to be rerouted, basically forced to retreat. And the crowd cheered this. The crowd. The counter-protesters were not hard-core anarchists, not the type of protesters that smashed the windows of banks and McDonald’s in the center of Prague during the anti-globalization riots of 2001 due to an International Monetary Fund/World Bank Summit in the city. These protesters were not those types of “anti-capitalists” and even if they were, they were peaceful. This was actually a mellow group of Czech university and high school age students, normal students who felt the moral obligation to counter-protest against groups they consider to be anti-democratic.

There were also older people, as part of the demonstration, but they did not seem to be ring-leaders of the youth, per say. And there were several police infiltrators (middle-aged men) among the counter-protesters. This became clear to me, when the right-wing paraders were gone and the police with the help of the “secret police” created a new barricade, making it impossible for me and practically anyone else who was caught among the counter-protesters to move on, to either continue walking along the sidewalk toward the Rudolfinum or to walk back in the other direction, back toward Charles Bridge.

The Czech police these days are physically massive. And especially when you compare them to the puny-size Communist forces from video archives of the Velvet Revolution, when they were clubbing away or chasing and pushing at protesters on Wenceslas Square. At least the “Public Security” or “VP” and the demonstrators back then were the same size and both sides wore regular clothing. Nowadays, the Czech police are taller and buffer than normal, and they wear hard-plastic armor like “robo-cops,” or modern-day Storm-Troopers but all in Black. While naively, protesters today still just wear clothing.

Once the police quarantined the area, meaning there was no place to go, several large white vans moved in behind the police. I had seen these vans from afar, at the heart of the stand-off, and they had seemed to me like the Czech radio or TV broadcasting vehicles, since it looked like they had satellites on their roofs. It turned out that these vehicles had multiple mobile cameras on top, and they turned slowly to carefully scan the crowd recording every person present there. Now the cameras carefully monitored how everyone in the crowd was reacting to the quarantine. Who were we talking to now? What were we doing to show any worry or suspicion on our part? What did we have to hide after all?

I was not allowed to move out of the quarantined area until several hours afterwards, even though I tried to explain a couple of times to police guards that I was not there for the protests, and I had merely been trying to catch the tram at a tram stop that was less than one-minute walking distance from where I stood. It did not matter, because the orders were that no one could move out of the quarantined area. Many people complained about needing to use bathroom facilities. It did not matter, and no relief was provided. Tourists were also trapped in this zone, and no surprise since Prague is a tourist mecca.

Once I was finally able to get out of the area, I needed to show my legal documentation (ID) and this was photographed by the police with a special camera. I was also photographed with a video camera (as a kind of video mug shot). And this was done twice, on both ends of the quarantine zone, because I was a more complicated case, as a foreigner. The policemen who were ordered to do this were at least calm in my case. But for some reason, their boss was not letting me go after everything was provided, and apparently in order. Even the police guards started to become annoyed about how long everyone (mostly all foreigners at this point with a good number of Germans) were forced to wait it out in the makeshift holding pen (a cordoned off portion of a sidewalk in Prague), just across the street from the Sheraton, where The Rolling Stones stayed during their last visit, when Vaclav Havel was still in office.

I am not comfortable with the fact that I am now in their data archives as a “protester” because I was simply there by happenstance. On the other hand, I will continue to walk through the city on its anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, or when there are other protests as on the anniversary of the country’s founding in October or on May Day. If the point of keeping me in custody for hours was to make me just stay at home the next time around and watch the peaceful festivities on the television—then it didn’t work, or it hasn’t worked so far. Because after this experience last year, I am more inclined to go out and test the freedom that still exists (or not) to simply be on the streets amid a peaceful political protest—this is what matters most.

published: 17. 11. 2017