Taking back the streets of Prague; Ulice Lidem

global street partyIn June of 1999, 6,000 people packed into downtown Prague for the city’s second annual Street Party.

Entire intersections were closed off with people playing drums, dancing, knocking a hackey sack around or just sitting down in the streets. Public spaces opened up usually reserved for commerce and traffic.

The day was marred by night-time clashes between police and celebrants turned protestors, as well as by skinheads hunting down people on their way home. Part social criticism, part straight-up fun and part political activism, the Ulice Lidem is a unique fixture in post-communist Czech Republic.

Then on June 16th 2001, the third Street Party took place on the heels of smaller versions in Brno and Bratislava. Thinknovation talked to the organizers about the meaning of the event and what to expect.

THINKNOVATION: So what’s the history of the Street Party in Prague?

“The first party was May, 1999. It was part of the Global Day of Action against the World Trade Organization.”

THINKNOVATION: It was the cultural side of the protest.

“Yeah. Then afterward the different groups that were part of the protest decided to start having regular street parties. And the next one was organized by anarchist collectives, Earth First, other ecology groups, some squats.”

THINKNOVATION: Were there conflicts between these groups?

“The problem with the last street party wasn’t with fights between the organizers, but that it was mainly a negative protest against globalization. It wasn’t a positive event.

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THINKNOVATION: How would you describe the positive goals of the Street Party?

“We want to involve people in activism year round, every day, not only the street party. The party is a way to let people understand the city’s space in a different way, and we hope that it will lead people into the issues we are concerned with, like the takeover of Prague by private cars, and the domination of commercial values generally. ”

THINKNOVATION: Did the 2001 event have connections with similar events elsewhere in Europe?

“The party was coinciding with protests at an EU minister’s meeting in Sweden, so the street party was also a solidarity action with that. But we wanted to encourage everyone to come, not just those who usually attend demonstrations, not just the same 100 people. We wanted to involve all kinds in the day’s art, creative fun, culture and politics.”

THINKNOVATION: What was the line-up?

“We had a samba band that played and people also brought their own instruments. With DJ’s people can only dance passively and we wanted people to participate, be active. When we learned that three of the techno sound systems that were supposed to come weren’t coming because they were afraid their equipment would be damaged. A lot of people fear the police and what could happen.”

THINKNOVATION: Are you afraid?

“There has never been violence during the Street Party, but after the Global Day of Action and the one in June 1999, there were clashes with police as people were leaving. After the IMF meetings in September 2000, it was a possiblity the police might have come looking for a fight.

We aimed to make things non-violent, because we are also protesting against the new law that would create so many bureaucratic obstacles to legal demonstrations that it would be almost impossible to have any.

Under the new law it wouldn’t be enough to announce a gathering, but you’d need permission, and organizers would be responsible for all damages. The law is meant to discourage people from organizing public events.”

THINKNOVATION: It can be hard to keep events like this focused on a serious message.

“Yeah, we printed a lot of flyers and hand out leaflets. We also have a web page for people to get information. We have video showings where we try and explain the ideas and values behind the Street Party.”

THINKNOVATION: Do these values have a future in this country?

“Maybe a few people are influenced by them, but I’m a realist. It’s a slow process, one Street Party won’t change the world. It’s one step in a very slow process.”

THINKNOVATION: What would you say to some tourist who’s in Prague for a week reading this magazine. Why should they come and support the Street Party?

“Anyone who has ever had a problem crossing the street in this or any city should come. Protest the conquest of the center by cars.

We think the streets belong to people, and so do a lot of others, but they never think they can do anything about it. At the Street Party we try to make people see the connection between automobilism and the system that supports and profits from it. You can’t separate the two.”

THINKNOVATION: Are any of the groups opposing the new City Plan, like SOS, involved in the Street Party?

“We are too radical for them. They do good work, but are essentailly reformist. They are currently protesting a new highway through a nature preserve, but aren’t questioning the misplaced power to order such a road in the first place. You just can’t isolate the results of the power structure from the structure itself.”

THINKNOVATION: Did the media talk to you about this event?

“No, all the major dailies and the TV stations are very close to state power. Pravo came down the hardest on May Day activities and they are supposedly on the left. So there really isn’t much difference along the political spectrum in the Czech media when it comes to the Street Party.

They will focus on the far-right (which will also protest the EU) and the left and say “see, they are identical.” And if there is violence they will show only that. It’s always the same.”

THINKNOVATION: What about street theater this year?

“It depends on who comes. The Street Party will be a success because of the people, not the organizers.”