On May Day, 1999, over two hundred skinheads gathered in Kampa Park to read from Mein Kampf and make speeches calling for the ethnic cleansing of Bohemia.
Arms raised and fascist flags blowing in the wind, every single one of them should have been arrested under Czech law. They were instead treated to a level of police protection the Pope could envy.
Bus loads of city police in riot gear - including dozens on horseback - looked on with silent approval as palms were flattened and Nazi rhetoric spewed. This small state army effectively blocked off both entrances to Most Legií, where anarchists had gathered to stop the illegal march. When the bridge was secured by Prague's finest, the skinheads assumed parade formation and proceeded west towards Národní divadlo.
Facing a wall of armed force backed by a Soviet-era water cannon, the anarchists clogged the intersection and refused to budge. It was a stand-off. The cops were clearly acting as the advance guard for the Nazi parade and looked eerily like some Panzer division preparing for the second stage of a low-tech blitzkrieg.
Cheered on by skins anxious to march, the cops soon began swinging clubs and pushing forward with horses and shields to open the parade route. Standing twenty yards away, I heard skulls crack. Explosives - M 80's, basically - were thrown, blows were exchanged by protesters and cops, and trash cans put through the windshields of cars. Despite the appearance of a two sided battle, it clearly began as a straight up police riot.
By the time the tear gas was released, most of the anarchists were on the run, and the skins, many with baseball bats in hand, applauded the police action and the space that had been cleared for them.
The battle between unarmed anarchists and the police continued all the way up Národní to TESCO, where glass and blood could be seen in equal parts on the ground: Car windows were smashed; a middle-aged woman who intervened as her son was being beaten wept and nursed her own wounds; a cop tended to his broken, bloodied nose; dozens of protesters were brutally herded into paddy wagons, where they were smacked in the back and head with bobby sticks in full view of the Saturday afternoon crowd. Richard Daley would have been proud.
Amid jeers of "fascist policia," the cops continued to cordon off space for the approaching mass of banner carrying skinheads. With the back of organized resistance to the march broken and heading to jail cells, opposition voices were limited to isolated catcalls and extended middle fingers.
Unopposed, if not triumphant, the parade continued down Spalena and then up Ječná with the full protection of Prague's civil servants cum SS robocops. It was a haunting spectacle.
But why was this allowed to happen? Why were the Nazi's allowed to march in the first place? Why weren't they arrested when they made the overt gestures of fascism, a banned ideology?
It is all too easy and all too true to say that cops are, generally speaking, racist. Culled from the lower classes and given guns, a uniform, and immunity, they are uniquely positioned, even encouraged, to give free reign to their worst instincts. Screening for racist tendencies in the Czech Rep is even more nonexistent than in America, and no doubt many cops have deep sympathy for the skinheads, if not a tidy philosophical kinship.
In their defense, the police claim not to have seen the "Seig Heils," but photos clearly show that they were watching the whole program preceding the march. They simply chose not to intervene, and instead to focus all of their law enforcement energies on the anarchists and their fellow-travellers, who came to make a stand for humanity in the face of budding monstrosity.
Anti-Nazi laws in this country must be given teeth and enforced so that this never happens again. The post-Soviet fear of seeming "totalitarian" has kept politicians from coming down on the activities of extremist right-wing political groups, and the results are unacceptable. This is not a question of free speech. Neo-Nazi parties are not just colorful equivalents of the Flat Earth Society. They kill people. Period.
And if the Czech government proves incapable of controlling these groups, then it must at least succeed in controlling the cops and enforcing the law. Never again should the state appear on the side of fascism, actively or passively. If this country aspires to lead Central Europe into a future that is cosmopolitan and enlightened, it must crush fascism, not protect it.