On January 21, 2017 from 12pm to 2pm, a crowd gathered around a podium in Prague’s Wenceslaus Square for the Prague Solidarity Rally with the Women’s March on Washington. Flanked by Czech police standing as silent and statuesque as the monument of St. Wenceslas behind the podium, at least 600 people, according to the Facebook event page, listened and cheered as a plethora of impassioned speakers and translators spoke-side-by-side in English and Czech, and Czech and English. Despite the inauguration of United States President Donald J. Trump the day before, the rally didn’t go as one might have expected, especially in Prague, the protest capitol of the world.
Czechs, also known as Bohemians and Moravians in English, have an almost religious reverence for protests. They hold such a significant place in Czech national memory, commemorating them has become the biggest, most visible event of the year, most notably on the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day November 17th, a national holiday commemorating student demonstrations that took place in 1939 against the Nazi invasion and in 1989 against unsafe campus facilities. The latter triggered the downfall of the Czechoslovak communist regime after students’ parents and others became enraged at the brutal treatment of students by the police.
Another stunning example this year was the mass gathering in Wenceslas Square to commemorate the 1969 self-immolation of Jan Palach. Jan Palach was a student at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University who set himself ablaze in Wenceslas Square to protest the demoralization he witnessed after the 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion. He died of his injuries days later, having asked that no one follow in his footsteps, and has since become a national symbol of societal awareness. This coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, days before the inauguration of President Trump.
In the spirit of awareness, speaker after speaker did not ascend the podium and admonish President Trump or United States’ voters and non-voters. They spoke about the need for people and nations to support each other: Project Syndicate Managing Editor and Journalist Jonathan Stein’s asserted that “you have to fight to defend [democracy], always, and that’s where we are now.” The fear and hope expressed revolved around defending and extending liberty to myriad groups, such as women, journalists, LGBTQAI*, and the Roma, as well as working together to extend humanity’s time on Earth with an appearance from Greenpeace Czech Republic.
This last concept helped birth the Prague Solidarity Rally. Dr. Bonita Rhoads is a former assistant professor of Anglophone Literature at Masaryk University and has lectured both there and at Charles University in the Czech Republic who also founded and now runs Insight Cities, a company specializing in in-depth guided walking tours across Europe and North America led by academics, researchers, and specialty connoisseurs. While reading a children’s book on climate change to her young daughter, the concept of bettering humanity’s time on Earth stuck in her head. The concern President Trump will prioritize his connections over humanity’s last years on Earth spurred her on to action.
This was not an event planned months in advance. With only two weeks and two days after the holiday break, Dr. Rhoads said, “It’s like I opened my mouth and the world stood up around me.” She was extremely impressed at the ease of the process in the 24-year-old country. An American expat, she immediately called her Canadian expat friend Ewan McLaren, intendant and director of the Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre. Within three days, they received the permit from the city. Rhoads found the legal guidelines for behavior reasonable, too: in the words of the law itself, a “lawful and just” manner of conduct. She turned to David Murphy, Executive Director of Greenpeace Czech Republic, to help organize the action, American artist Elizabeth Russell, American casting director Nancy Bishop who runs Nancy Bishop Casting, Czech writers Olga Pekova and Johanna Meja for collaboration with the Czech community and the composition of a manifesto, and musicians, like founder of One Billion Rising Prague Gail Whitmore.
To help the crowd adhere to lawful and just manner of conduct, people affiliated with the event in neon orange vests moved throughout the crowd. Rhoads explained that this was not only to make event organizers more accessible to anyone with questions, but to hold themselves responsible for the event and keep them instantly identifiable to police. Czech and English speakers were on hand to suit the needs of the crowd. They led the charge in cleanup promptly at 2pm.
A message within the rally itself was that this movement would not go away. Dr. Rhoads said this rally had birthed Platforma Láska vítězí – Love Prevails, something different from the fizzled Occupy Movement in that this is a network of support. When a group rallies or takes political action, other groups will be notified quickly and attend each other’s events, adding bodies and voices.
The true display of sisterhood and the epitome of solidarity came near the end of the rally. In the country stereotyped as the most atheistic in Europe, Václav Němec, chairman for the Czech civic organization for the restoration of democracy, Vraťte nám stát, got on stage. Czechs, with a standing tradition of religious rebellion of over 1000 years, have said, “St. Wenceslas, pray for us” in times of dire need. Němec said, “St. Wenceslas, pray for the United States.” The people of the United States, a superpower that had played a key role in establishing a free country for Czechs almost a century ago, still has an ally four generations later.
Czech Dissident-President Václav Havel once said, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” On January 21, 2017 in Prague, it did.
For more information on the Prague Solidarity Rally, you can “Czech out” its website at http://www.womensmarchonprague.com in English and Czech with links to all of its social media pages.
For more information on Platforma Láska vítězí – Love Prevails, you can Czech out its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/platformalaskavitezi