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Prague - I descend a concrete staircase into a dense fog of cigarette and marijuana smoke. A 50/50 mix of Fernet Stock and cola, running its course through my body, makes me feel top heavy and disoriented. Strobe lights pulsing to no particular rhythm scramble my brain to the tune of some of the trippiest music I've ever heard. Dub DJs sample and distort instrumental tracks, weaving a musical tapestry that's part prayer blanket and part mind-bending, magic-eye landscape.
The walls are haphazardly smeared in graffiti tags and posters and hand drawn art, as if a subversive counter-culture grenade had been tossed into the room, hurling its psychedelic shrapnel in every direction.
Europeans with Rastafarian dreadlocks sway back and forth in the back room, trapped within an intoxicated delirium as their friends rush over to the bar for $1 beers and $10 t-shirts. In the well lit front, gray-haired gentlemen talk up girls who'd be considered underage in the states; wasted 20-somethings stare glassy-eyed at the ceiling while their still sober friends roll joints.
Those who've consumed one beer too many are greeted by the hospitality of cramped bathrooms where pools of fermenting piss and shit sit in toilets that don't flush, with toilet paper spools that seem perpetually empty.
This debauched carnival is all contained within a quaint little building known to the locals as the squat Milada, an abandoned house used by anarchists, autonomists, and anyone else looking for a place to go crazy or simply crash.
The relatively small abode, sandwiched between and overshadowed by two towering college dormitories, carries the old-fashioned, rustic appeal of the Bates Motel. No one would ever guess what goes on inside this concrete cottage were it not for the subversive slogans, chastising capitalism and government, scrawled on its facade. And all just a 15- minute bus ride into Prague 8.
"So these people…they're anarchists?" I had asked Veronika*, a local student and my guide for the night, as she led me down the unlit path to the squat.
Jan, an old high school friend of hers, picking up on my unease replied, "yeah, but not everyone who shows up is, some people just come for the music."
"How often do they do this kind of thing?" I wondered.
No legal owner around
Veronika paused to catch her breath after vaulting over a chest-high concrete barricade. "A few times a month, they're trying to raise money so they can stay. But the police are trying to shut it down."
Though the house itself has no legal owner and has been occupied by anarchy-friendly squatters since May 1998, the property on which it sits has some value to the city.
The Czech government has tried to evict the occupants, often relying on police intimidation to shut the entire operation down. The latest police raid took place in November 2008, under the pretense of a criminal search that quickly escalated into a hostile confrontation. Riot police mobilized and arrested several squatters, leading 150 people to protest the police crackdown a few days later. This was the second confrontation with police during that month and the fourth since that October.
The government's interest in shutting these squatters down is not an arbitrary one; since the so-called Velvet Revolution, anarchists, mostly students in their 20s, have led high-profile protests against mainstream political and socio-economic interests.
Liberal capitalism = the evil No. 1
In 1992, there was a movement among anarchists to vote the Communist Party into power, citing it as the lesser of two evils— the other evil being liberal capitalism.
In September 2000, 12,000 anarchists assembled to protest the IMF and World Bank meeting in Prague. Chaos ensued. Confrontations with riot police escalated from mere stone throwing to assaults with fireworks and Molotov cocktails as the demonstrators attempted to storm the conference venue. Innocent bystanders and business owners were attacked as the raging mob unleashed millions of dollars of damage on the city.
My unease was unwarranted. When we'd finally arrived, it didn't feel as if I were in the midst of ideologues that night. They had the dreadlocks and the slogans, but otherwise they were relaxed in the pub-like atmosphere of the front room. Pardons were exchanged as I navigated between bodies, nodding politely and even sharing the odd smile. Some wore tattered jeans and dirty shirts, some had tattoos and piercings jutting out from every spare inch of flesh, and yet others seemed modest and reserved, sporting sweaters that they, or their mothers, had picked off the shelves of whatever GAP facsimile the free market had shoved into this city.
Veronika claims to be a "conservative anarchist," whatever the hell that means. I imagine between studying full time at a local university and playing basketball, there must not be much time left in the day for setting cops on fire.
Looking around, I decide it's a good time to check out the main event. Jan slides past me as I gravitate towards the back, where the music is loud, making your mind feel like a lava lamp. "You want a beer?" he asks as I get one foot through the doorway..
"No, I'm alright…hey, Jan, man," I think for a second. "Are you an anarchist too?"
He smirks as he pats me on the back, snaking through the crowd on his way to the bar. With any popular trend there are always those that believe, those that want to rebel for its own sake, and those that are just in it for the drugs. Deep within that overwhelming fog of cheap beer and strong weed, these groups are practically indistinguishable.
Two hours after we've arrived, I find myself in the back room, sitting in a chair far behind the six foot speakers and the swaying bodies— each to their own rhythm, most likely f§$%ed out of their minds, if not by booze or drugs then by the music.
A slim man sits next to me, his blonde dreads tucked neatly into a wide-weaved bonnet; he spills some beer on my lap as he attempts to reconfigure himself into an optimal joint-rolling position.
"S-sorry, man!" he stammers, "It was an acci—"
I look down at my lap before slowly arching my gaze on to him (or where I approximate him to be). "Maaaaaan… don't worry about it."
Veronika taps my shoulder, cupping her hands to her mouth and leaning into my ear, "are you sick or just stoned?"
"Neither…" I stare through her. "…Both?"
I'm sure that's a popular sentiment tonight. Everyone looks like they're high on something and sick of something else. Hell, this may not be my revolution, but when that clumsy, stoned anarchist offers me a beer, I figure I can dance to it.
*name changed to protect privacy
This story was originally published by the Prague Wanderer, a web-zine run by New York University students in Prague, Czech Republic.
Gene Levin is currently a third-year student at New York University studying history. He is from Syosset, New York.