One of the most request slogans and hashtag of the protest is #tojestwojna or ‘this is war’. Apart from car protests, what is noteworthy is the large variety of repertoires of protests adopted for the current cycle. For instance, ‘remote blockades’, mainly through electronic means (mostly spamming, texting, calling mobile phone numbers, and reporting sites on Facebook) were organized. These target MPs and officials, but also anti-choice and far-right activists. One of the key figures of the anti-choice movement, Kaja Godek, on the first day of the protests received around 1500 text messages and 1200 calls. Also her home (where her foundation was officially registered) became a place for protests. “Window protests” of those being on quarantine or those fearing Covid-19 infection during protests in the crowd also became popular, with the most widespread sign of lightning becoming the most popular.
One of the previously used repertoire and narrative is the one of the Women’s Strike, used already in 2016 (Kubisa and Rakowska 2018). As the organizers of the All-Polish Women’s Strike said, on Wednesday, October 28th, the protest organizers are planning on holding a strike, similar to those that took place on 2016 in response to a previous effort to restrict the abortion law. “We’re not going to work. We are supported by more and more business owners who have not received proper aid from the state…The state has absolutely no effective plan to help companies, which is why businesses support us,” Marta Lempart, one of the leaders of the protests, told Gazeta Wyborcza.
As part of the strikes, techno street parties were organized on October 28th in Poznań, Gdańsk, Kraków, and Warsaw, also a relative novelty in the Polish context, at least in politicized context, but throughout the country other events were staged such as walks on the beach, bicycle protests, or a Halloween protest under the slogan ‘trick or free choice’.
What was also new was the targeting of the protests. Besides the usual events in public places and in front of public offices (in this case the Constitutional Court and the Prime Minister’s offices), protests were staged in front of the Ordo Iuris organization, seen as one of the key actors of the contested changes and in front of private residences of Kaja Godek (the face of the anti-choice movement) or the heavily guarded home of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice. There, on October 31st a theatre play of classic play of ‘Dziady’ was staged in windows of private apartments. This had a double symbolic meaning. Firstly, in 1968 when ‘Dziady’ were taken down from the stage of the National Theatre, countrywide protests broke out, becoming a Polish symbol of 1968 and became an important milestone in the development of the pro-democratic opposition. The second meaning is a reference to the name itself, as it resembles the newly founded category of ‘dziadersi’ – people of the ‘old’ generation rejected by the protesting crowds as a source of moral position and wisdom of how to achieve political changes.
Emerging new alliances
The other novelty of the current cycle of protests is the broad range of supporters of the strike. As Anna Grzymała-Busse (2020) wrote:
The majority are young women — but this time support comes from a far broader cross-section of Polish society, including rowdy soccer fans, union locals, tram and bus drivers, and hundreds of taxi drivers who blocked the streets of Warsaw so the protests could pass. Large cities and smaller towns, including PiS electoral strongholds, joined in.
What is different in 2020 is the support from political parties and its meaning. In 2016 Poland was a country with no left-wing party in the parliament, however in the 2019 election the left party received 12,56% of the votes, introducing to the parliament numerous new faces, including former activists. This group (together with some young female MPs from the liberal Koalicja Obywatelska) provided not only political support (rather symbolic in the context of the majority of the ruling Law and Justice Party in the lower chamber of the parliament) but also assistance on the site of protests, in particular interventions at police stations and providing negotiations in conflictual situations on the spot.
At times the support to the protests came from unexpected sides. Few weeks earlier the ruling Law and Justice Party introduced a novel of the regulations on animal welfare and protection that included – among others – a ban on the fur industry and religious slaughtering of animals. These new regulations and in particular the short, 12 month vacatio legis sparked protests among farmers. As a popular English-language blog Notes From Poland wrote: “While the protests have been organized and led by women’s rights groups such as Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), support has also come from some unexpected places. In Nowy Dwór Gdański, a town of 10,000 inhabitants in northern Poland, local farmers joined the protests by driving their tractors slowly at the head of the march, reports Wirtualna Polska. Signs mounted on the fronts of the vehicles said “We want choice, not PiS-terror” (referring to the name of the ruling PiS party) as well as “Wypierdalać” (Fuck Off), which has become a slogan of the protests” (Wilczek 2020).
Moreover, a major coal miners’ union, Sierpień ’80, issued a statement in support of the protesters. The union’s leader, Bogusław Ziętek, said the organization considered “breaching the compromise that has been in Poland for several years” to be “unacceptable”. Ziętek warned that the government assuming “the role of a super-arbiter of human consciences” suggests that it is “heading in the direction of a totalitarian state”. While the abortion ruling was issued by the Constitutional Court, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is widely seen as being behind it” (Wilczek 2020).
The radicalisation of the discourse
The fait accompli method that took place on October 22nd changed the dynamics and radicalization of the protests. For the first time women were not faced with the possibility of change in the law but witnessed a change in itself, making them feel powerless and furious (as some of the organizers have told us). Unsurprisingly, the youngest participants turned out to be the most radicalized and older activists and organizers of the protests told us that they began mitigating the most radical ones due to fears of repressions from the police. Here it is worth mentioning that the Polish police in recent years has shown unequal treatment of street protests, often keeping a blind eye to actions of the far right and pacifying other protests. This was visible during the summer of 2020 when police clashed with pro-LGBTQ protesters, in particular in Warsaw, detaining 48 people, including some passers-by.
What has been pointed to, is the new and more radical language used. Firstly,
there are numerous slogans repeated during the protests, exhibited on banners and used in internet communications: ‘revolution is a woman’ and even more widespread ‘this is war!’. Secondly, the most commonly chanted slogans are ‘wypierdalać’ (‘Get the fuck out!’) and ‘Jebać PiS’ (‘fuck Law and Justice’), sometimes written down as ***** ***, following the name of a new social movement so far active mostly online.
For the first time the 8 stars (hence the movement’s name Eight Star Movement) was used during the presidential campaign during Summer of 2020. During the current cycle of protests, this is the most commonly chanted slogan, creating a stir among the political class and some of the commentators (from the conservative and liberal side, leftist MPs sometimes appear on TV with placards with ***** *** written on them. Over the days several artists recorded protest songs using the theme, with one of them by Cypis got 1,8 million views on YouTube in the first 48 hours and became the unofficial anthem of the street parties of October 2020.
Finally, there is a growing popularity of groups usually labelled as radicals – antifascists and anarchists. The self-help anti-repression group Anarchist Black Cross is ‘officially’ a partner of the women’s protests, Do It Yourself guidebooks on how to behave during demonstration, how to interact with the police, in particular information on detainees’ rights and alike are widespread and before they were the domain of the radical groups. The radical groups also use their know-how on staging happenings and disruptive actions, often pushing for more radical repertoire, as in the case of Poznań on October 24th, when the 10,000 people strong demonstration moved from one of the main squares towards the Ostrów Tumski island, where the Cathedral and bishops’ palace are located. An attempt to occupy the latter was undertaken but due to the position of some of the organizers was stopped from taking place. Earlier that day, an abandoned hospital in the city center of Poznań was squatted by a group of activists and symbolically transformed into an abortion clinic.
Framing the protests
What helped in addressing the young people was the framing of the protests as defense of basic freedom and human rights. This coincides with the shift in the narrative of pro-choice organizations, but can also be observed in the framing used nowadays by Amnesty International, that also began calling access to safe and legal abortion (without specifying nuances on cases to which it could be applied to) as a human right. This, in conjunction with a topic of the cycle that affects at least half of the population of the country, allowed for a broader audience to mobilize for the event. The protests against the Constitutional Court verdict overlapped also with other protests in Poland: the growing discontent of business owners affected by anti-pandemic regulations (in particular with restaurant and bar owners, who had to shut down their businesses for at least two weeks starting from October 23rd, this was announced by the government on October 22nd), gym owners, and farmers. On top of that, the ratings of the government are in decline as more and more people become disillusioned with the response to the developing COVID-19 pandemic and worsening economic situation. The latest poll on October 26th showed a dramatic, approximately 15% drop in support for Law and Justice Party (PiS) to a level unseen since 2016.
The role of anti-clericalism
What has struck the majority of the observers and is a novelty is the anti-clerical element of the protests. Demonstrations staged in the first days of the cycle usually began in front of the Law and Justice Party office, but soon moved towards places connected with the Catholic Church: bishop’s residences, cathedrals etc.
As Grzymała-Busse (2020) put it “[F]or the first time ever, the protests have shifted to the churches, a symbolically telling move in a Catholic-majority country where the Catholic Church has wielded enormous moral authority for decades. On Sunday, clergy faced protesters at masses, dressed as handmaids — a reference to author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of female repression.
Other protesters sat quietly in church aisles, holding signs saying ‘let us pray for the right to abortion’.
Young protesters surrounded priests outside churches, and loudly denounced the clergy in small towns, traditionally the bastion of conservative Catholicism in Poland. Protesters began confronting bishops and archbishops in front of their often-palatial residences” (Grzymała-Busse 2020). Police reports of 22 acts ‘of disrupting a religious service’ and 79 incidents of vandalism related to churches (in nearly all cases, spray-painting the facades of the churches).
This shift had several consequences, from the shock of the liberal commentators, to the shifting of the discourse by the Law and Justice towards a religious and civilizational struggle. In his speech published on Law and Justice Facebook profile on 27th of October, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński called his party supporters to ‘defend churches countrywide’. Unsurprisingly, during the next night of protests there were incidents of attacks from right wing groups. But despite the political use of the religious frame, this is probably the most surprising aspect of the current protests. Over the years the Catholic Church had a very strong position – within the society and in politics (after the 2015 elections even bigger), almost every public event had to be accompanied by a priest or bishop and majority of kids frequented religious education taught in schools twice a week (in many case also in kindergartens). Until now voices critical of the church and its position were labelled as ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’. Now, the edge of the protests turned against the church and clergy is the best evidence of the growing laicization of the country: “The share of believers and practitioners was the lowest in the history of research in 2019, and the share of believers and non-practitioners and non-believers and non-practitioners was the highest”. – reported by CBOS. And these changes make it into the public discourse and become political.
For many years abortion was a controversial topic and performing abortion was a social taboo. This is also reflected in the numbers, as there are around 1000 legal abortions per year, according to Ewa Majewska (2020) “Unofficially, according to one of the country’s main feminist organizations, the Federation for Women and Family Planning, some hundred thousand abortions are made in Poland annually”. As she continues “Every newspaper in Poland advertises abortion — albeit under the name of “inducing menstruation” or “regulating the menstrual cycle.” Many doctors who refuse to carry out terminations in public hospitals, agree to perform abortions in private clinics. It is all a question of money — and connections” (Majewska 2020).
Since the break of the protests over reproductive rights connected to changes in the abortion law, it seems that it is no longer a discursive taboo. Firstly, there are few initiatives supporting legal access to abortion in any forms (‘morning-after pill’ or helping Polish women with organizing the procedure abroad, usually in Germany, Slovakia, and Holland). These initiatives – Legalna Aborcja, Aborcyjny Dream Team – are more and more publicly advertised online or on the streets via stickers and introducing a hotline, whose number is painted on walls, sidewalks and sometimes church facades. Also there are numerous public statements (online, also by celebrities – also a novelty for this type of protest campaigns -or during the protests) of women who had to undergo the abortion procedure and how in many cases it saved their lives.
This text is based on research conducted within a project Feminist activism in small towns/Feministischer Aktivismus in Kleinstadten funded by the Polish-German Science Foundation Deutsch-Polnische Wissenschaftsstiftung.
Grzymała-Busse, Anna (2020) ‘Poland is a Catholic country. So why are mass protests targeting churches?’ in The Washington Post, October 28th 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/28/poland-is-catholic-country-so-why-are-mass-protests-targeting-churches/?fbclid=IwAR1qle0O2ZjyO8mFxTAbsuFB0gLfLfvfEqXYpAFjYJrv1xk0Qf9Iauxfzfc
Majewska, Ewa (2020) ‘Poland Is in Revolt Against Its New Abortion Ban’ in Jacobin Magazine, October 27th 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/10/poland-abortion-law-protest-general-strike-womens-rights?fbclid=IwAR0TlpBqwQazD8wbhDvAHwqOptNgyGc_YI_KikIG9sIy_JQPX0lPg_M6Mgw
Wilczek, Maria (2020) ‘Farmers, taxi drivers and miners show support for abortion protests in Poland’ in Notes From Poland, October 26th 2020 https://notesfrompoland.com/2020/10/26/farmers-taxi-drivers-and-miners-show-support-for-abortion-protests-in-poland/?fbclid=IwAR00Fd5EOx19-N-TeOQfYb02gYvbNQJZFdT9FChcfcJhBn7KD-W4DXtkRCQ