Prague Embassy cable, American Woman's Account of November 17 Demonstration and the Death of a Czech Student
The experience of November 17 is difficult to recapture in all its intensity and chaos. But this testimony from an American eyewitness evokes the atmosphere. Although the story comes second-hand through this November 20 U.S. embassy cable, we can still sense the trauma of that night in the description of fleeing demonstrators forced through a police "gauntlet". November 17 was the first encounter with police repression for many participants. Unused to such tactics, the assault was so stunning that they readily believed fatalities had occurred. The rumored death of student Martin Smid in particular took on a life of its own. Even after the government proved the rumor false, popular outrage continued. However, the bizarre story of the undead student left many questions unanswered and would later give rise to one of the Velvet Revolution's conspiracy theories, that the crowds were manipulated by elites trying to stage a coup. Still, this document suggests that knowing what "really" happened on November 17 isn't essential for understanding why it was historically important. Regardless of the intentions behind the police violence, the impact it had on participants was real, and that experience played a decisive role in mobilizing the public against the state.
Prague Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, "American Woman's Account of November 17 Demonstration and the Death of a Czech Student," 20 November 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).
... SUBJECT: AMERICAN WOMAN'S ACCOUNT OF NOVEMBER 17 DEMONSTRATION AND THE DEATH OF A CZECH STUDENT...
3. [BLANK] SHE DESCRIBED HOW ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 17 THE POLICE SURROUNDED THE DEMONSTRATORS, REFUSING TO ALLOW ANY TO LEAVE. AND THEN BEGAN TO BEAT THOSE TRAPPED METHODICALLY WITH NIGHTSTICKS. SHE [BLANK] ONLY PROTECTED BY A GROUP OF STUDENTS WHO FORMED A TIGHT KNOT AROUND HER TO SHIELD [BLANK] POLICE BLOWS. WHEN A POLICEMAN REALIZED THERE WAS A CHILD IN THE GROUP, HE SCOLDED [BLANK] BUT ALLOWED HER TO LEAVE WITHOUT RUNNING A GAUNTLET THE POLICE HAD SET UP TO BEAT DEMONSTRATORS AS THEY EXITED FROM THE SCENE.
4. [BLANK] FIRST INFORMED US OVER THE WEEKEND OF HER EXPERIENCES. SHE REPORTED THAT ONE YOUNG STUDENT HAD DIED IN HOSPITAL FROM HIS INJURIES AFTER THE DEMONSTRATION. SHE DID NOT HAVE A NAME AT THAT TIME, HER SOURCE WAS A FRIEND WHO HAD SPENT THE NIGHT AT THE SAME HOSPITAL WAITING FOR WORD ABOUT A GIRL WHO HAD SUSTAINED SERIOUS KIDNEY INJURIES. IT WAS THIS GIRL WHO HAD GIVEN WORD TO A DISSIDENT SPOKESMAN [BLANK] THAT HER BOYFRIEND, A STUDENT AT CHARLES UNIVERSITY’S MATHEMATICS FACULTY NAMED MARTIN SMID HAD DIED.
5. [BLANK] TO THE EMBASSY ON MONDAY. NOVEMBER 20. CONFUSED BY OFFICIAL GOC REPORTS THAT SMID WAS ALIVE, TWO STUDENTS BY THAT NAME HAD, IN FACT, BEEN TRACKED DOWN BY THE POLICE AND APPEARED ON TELEVISION HERE SUNDAY EVENING. ONE OF THESE ADMITTED TO HAVING BEEN AT THE NOVEMBER 17 DEMONSTRATION; THOUGH HE APPEARED TO BE DRUGGED AND TO HAVE' SUSTAINED. FROM WHAT COULD BE SEEN FROM THE FUZZY BLACK AND WHITE TELEVISION PRINT. SOME INJURIES. HE WAS EVIDENTLY ALIVE
6. [BLANK] EMBOFFS HAD CONFIRMED FOR THEMSELVES THAT THE MOTHER OF THE SECOND MARTIN SMID WAS NOW CLAIMING HE WAS NOT DEAD. [BLANK] WHAT EMBASSY OFFICERS HAD ALSO LEARNED THAT THE DISSIDENT SPOKESMAN, PETR UHL, WHO WAS THE SOURCE FOR WESTERN MEDIA REPORTS WAS REPORTEDLY BACKING AWAY FROM THE STORY. BUT UHL, THE GIRL WHO CLAIMED HER BOYFRIEND HAD DIED, [BLANK], AND DAVID DUSEK. CZECH STUDENT WORKING WITH CNN NEWS AND WHO HAD REPORTEDLY INTERVIEWED THE GIRL, ARE ALL NOW UNDER DETENTION AS PART OF AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE NEWS STORY (SEPTEL)