In the fall of 2006, I spent a semester in Prague studying in a program called Art and Social Change. It was a terrifying time to be a progressive American, and an especially strange time to be abroad. I was a twenty-year-old American studying social movements in a country that had been occupied for most of its existence. It felt strange to talk to Czechs about my feelings of helplessness in politics when they had lived under an oppressive communist regime from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
But the Czechs I met were extremely eager to talk about power, powerlessness, and resistance. They were some of the most interesting conversations I had ever had– and now, five years later, they are coming back to me with renewed power. America has a social movement of its own, unlike any since I’ve been alive, in Occupy Wall Street. The Occupiers’ targets are both specific (Goldman Sachs) and abstract (global economic injustice). In America, there’s no singular, all-powerful regime to resist, which is perhaps why resistance feels so difficult.
So I think about Central Europe– the former Czechoslovakia, East Berlin, Budapest, Poland. Those who witnessed the revolutions of ’89 lived to see the fall of the Soviet Union and the puppet regimes in their own countries. Those regimes destroyed books, censored artists, imprisoned political dissidents. But they also lived to see the subsequent installation of global capitalism, which, in a very grand sense, is what Occupy fights to resist.
It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding grandiose, so I’d like to be specific and talk about one of my friends in Prague, a man called Father Punk. What he told me five years ago feels more important today than I ever could have imagined at the time.
Father Punk was known as the first punk in Czechoslovakia. My host mother, Adela, had shown me a picture of him at age 16 in a book about the artistic and political movements of the 80s. Since the Velvet Revolution, he’d been a protester, a squatter, and an organizer.
His real name is Petr. I first met him when I came home one night and found him in my living room. Adela had gone to Slovakia and told Petr he could stay at our place. He made tea. We talked for hours.
“When I was 15,” he told me, “I became a punk. When I was 16, they started following me. There were maybe 200 punks in the whole country, and I was one of 50 or so in Prague. We all knew each other. But the authorities knew us too.”
There was a time when Petr got picked up by the police every single day. “It was a routine we had, you know?” he smiled. “They would take me into the police station, just for show. I had a mohawk. They didn’t like that.”
Every day, he said, he would dye his mohawk, because every day at the station, the police would dunk his head in the sink and wash out the dye.
“And every day, after they had rinsed my hair out, I would stand up to take my head out of the sink. I would fling my head back as fast as I could, so that my wet hair would fly up and the water would spray the ceiling.” He grinned. “When you looked up, the ceiling was covered in colorful stripes from my hair dye.”
I asked him how things were different after the revolution. He said that many of the administrators in the government were ex-communist secret police. “Same people, same problems. Minds and people don’t change so easily.”
He was still followed after ’89, sometimes by the same men who had trailed him in the 80s. “I had a conversation with a police chief at a protest in the 90s. He asked me, ‘How am I supposed to change the minds of hundreds of idiot policemen?’ It is not so easy to change, for us Czechs.”
I asked him why. “We have been dominated for so long. Long before communism. We’ve always been controlled by a bigger empire. As a Czech, as a condition of life, you accept that you are oppressed. You are suffering. This, being the condition of your life, leads you to a passive acceptance of power and corruption.”
I was thinking about America.
Petr said that in the 90s, after the revolution but before capitalism became strong, activism flourished. “Because of communism, there were so many public buildings. There were squatters everywhere.”
I asked him what they were doing.
“Living together and organizing,” he told me. “Creating art collectives and community spaces. When the first McDonalds came to Prague, hundreds of us sat in it for hours and refused to leave. It lasted a long time. But as capitalism became stronger, the government could make deals with the squatters. So the squatters took the deals and started paying rent. They became very nice, very regular people.” He smiled and shook his head. “Now, there are no more squatters.” He looked at me. “It is not so different in America. You have democratic elections, but it is not democracy. Not with Bush.”
“You must be careful. It’s good that you see. You must be very careful in America.”
* * *
Another night, a few weeks later, Petr was over again and Adela was home. Petr said he still spent a lot of time thinking about the revolution, and how he still wasn’t sure whether it was good or bad.
Adela punched his arm. “Stop,” she said. “I can tell you. Where would you be now, if it was still communist?”
Petr laughed. “I’d be in jail.”
“I would too,” Adela said.
They both laughed. “We’d in jail together. Probably fucking!” They laughed and laughed. “It would be great!”
* * *
Spending time in a country that was once a police state makes you very careful to not use the phrase “police state” lightly. In America, we don’t get arrested for dying our hair. But this fall, we’ve seen that you might get arrested for standing on the Brooklyn Bridge or sitting in a public park. In the less than three months since Occupy began, there have been nearly 5,000 arrests. Police have pepper sprayed elderly women and pregnant teenagers in Seattle and students sitting cross-legged in the grass in California. They have sent not one but two Iraq war veterans to the hospital on a single night in Oakland. They have destroyed the books of the People’s Library in New York City. These actions are symbolic. They are meant to intimidate, just like the communist police tried, and failed, to intimidate Petr.
But, like Petr, the Occupiers are not stopping. The fight against Wall Street and the fight against police brutality have become inextricably linked. To borrow a phrase from Vaclav Havel, the first Czech president after the Velvet Revolution, the movement is now about the power of the powerless. Critics of OWS ask, like a broken record, “What are the goals?” Cynics laugh at the idea that people in parks could ever change the way things are.
To me, OWS’s power has little to do with the idea that people in parks can change the financial system. It has to do with the fact that there are people in parks, by the thousands, every single day, all over the country. In the streets, in jails, in conversations on subway platforms and at awkward family dinners. The power is in the discovery, in the strength of individuals using their bodies to occupy public spaces.
I think of Petr sitting in the first McDonalds in Prague. In many ways, our resistance has more in common with Petr in the 90s than Petr in the 80s. But as Occupiers continue to be arrested by the thousands for no other purpose than symbolic intimidation, I can’t help but think of a Czech police station with a colorful ceiling, and a 16-year-old boy who continued to dye his hair no matter how many times they took him in.