Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Den boje studentů za svobodu a demokracii, 1989 (Students' Fight for Freedom and Democracy, 1989)

Today marks a very important day in history, for on November 17, 1989, a Friday, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague.  That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19th to late December.  By November 20th, the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had risen from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated 500,000.  

Twenty-one years ago today, it started off as a peaceful officially-sanctioned march in Prague to commemorate Czech student Jan Opletal, who died at the hands of the country's Nazi occupiers 50 years ago in 1939.  Students, however, soon started to chant slogans against the communist regime.

Jan Opletal (Jan. 1, 1915 - Nov. 11, 1939)

Home of Jan Opletal

It is said that about 15,000 students had joined the demonstration.  They walked to the grave of Jan Opletal and - after the official end - continued from the Czech National Cemetery at Vyšehrad to Wenceslas Square calling for democratic reforms.  They never made it there, however.  At about 7:30 pm, when they were halfway through their march at Národní Street, the students were stopped by a cordon of police.  The students offered flowers to the police while singing songs and shouting "we have bare hands", but the police suddenly began to beat the young demonstrators with night sticks.  

Prior to this, the police managed to block all escape routes.  Nearly 200 people were injured.  One student was reportedly beaten to death.  Although this was later proved false, it served well for mass student support amongst the general public.

There is a memorial to November 17th at Wenceslas Square, and each year people place flowers and candles there to remember this day's events.  The President of the Czech Republic always lays flowers there as well.  

Memorial to Jan Opletal

Along Národní třída, inside the arcade near No. 16, is a bronze plaque with a cluster of hands making the peace sign and the date "17.11.1989" in memory of students clubbed in the street by police on that date.

Student Memorial on Národní třída