20th Anniversary: The day the IMF riots rocked the city
September 2000 saw dignitaries, protesters descend on Prague
Posted: January 6, 2011
Police in riot gear spanned the streets of downtown Prague during the September 2000 IMF meeting, rounding up protesters to contain - and arrest -them if need be. Politicians had been wary of being perceived as exerting too much force, as anything resembling a crackdown would bring comparisons to Soviet oppression.
In 1999, anti-globalization protests led to violent chaos in the streets of Seattle during that year's World Trade Organization conference. Those calamitous riots loomed large over Prague in September 2000 as the city prepared to host the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Delegates from more than 100 countries, including central bank governors, finance ministers and leaders of influential financial companies, all were to convene in Prague Sept. 26-28. The Prague Post partnered with the daily Mladá fronta Dnes and, for the first time in its history, published daily instead of weekly in order to cover events as they unfolded.
Most everyone's attention was not on the meetings themselves, but on protests predicted to take place outside the Congress Center in Prague 4. A fervent anti-globalization sentiment, which had taken hold as a reaction to the increasingly integrated worldwide economy, had spawned massive protests at similar trade meetings in Davos, Switzerland, Melbourne - and, most notably, Seattle.
The belief among protesters was that the world's lending organizations were too focused on aiding multinational corporations in maximizing profits while spending too little time addressing pressing issues in Third World nations, like poverty, health care and workers' rights.
Debating globalization, however, was not the chief concern of Czech political leaders, who knew that controlling protests during the meetings would be a Herculean task. This was especially true of the ambitious 30-year-old Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, who had taken office just that April and was tasked with maintaining order.
Determined to help Prague avoid Seattle's fate, Gross was acutely aware that a brutal crackdown on protests would damage both his career and the image of his country, which just 11 years earlier had been freed from the shackles of Soviet oppression, largely through massive street protests during the Velvet Revolution. Violent crackdowns would raise the specter of the Soviet Army, which put an end to Prague Spring in 1968.
Gross mustered more than 11,000 police officers to maintain control over the city and help handle traffic as delegates and protesters descended upon the city. The Education Ministry closed more than 1,000 schools, keeping almost 200,000 students home in anticipation of clogged streets and protests.
The government's measures to maintain order, it turned out, did not prove too cautious. Peaceful protests that began Sept. 26 quickly deteriorated into violence as an estimated 5,000 rioters vandalized businesses and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, buildings and cars.
Police in riot gear marched shoulder to shoulder, spanning entire streets, encapsulating protesters and pushing them to areas where police could consolidate and arrest them if need be. At one point, several of The Prague Post's reporters got swept up in the crackdown, and it looked as though they were going to be arrested. I told them all to meet at a corner on Štěpánská where The Prague Post's offices were and where police had set up a perimeter. I ran down and pleaded with police to let them pass, which, after several minutes of convincing, they thankfully agreed to do.
Many of the violent protesters wearing scarves, hoods, homemade armor and gas masks fought back, attacking police with sticks, Molotov cocktails and cobblestones pried from the streets. Police countered with tear gas, concussion grenades and water cannons.
By midnight, police had taken firm control of the city, and the riots and protests were largely over. More than 600 people were injured, at least 100 of them police, but no one died. Stores with international brands that served as symbols of globalization, such as KFC and McDonald's, had been heavily damaged. Dozens of cars were smashed, and some churches had been vandalized.
In the end, the public generally gave Gross and the Czech police good marks for finding the right balance between maintaining control and using force. Gross seemed to have passed his first real test as a public official, and went on to become prime minister in 2004.
- The author is technology and science editor for Msnbc.com and a former managing editor of The Prague Post.
Michael Wann can be reached at
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