“Peace not PiS.” Warsaw city center on Friday October, 30. (WNV/Craig Brown)

Opposition to new anti-abortion law sparks Poland’s largest protests in decades

Poland's anti-abortion law protesters are finding ways to limit the risks of coronavirus and police violence with nonviolent action.
“Peace not PiS.” Warsaw city center on Friday October, 30. (WNV/Craig Brown)

The greater risks of civil disobedience during coronavirus should not be underestimated. Not just the risk of illness — there would appear to be an increasing willingness of some governments to use public health legislation to quash demonstrations and brutally suppress dissent. In various countries this year, confronting injustice has been seen as outweighing the risk.

Events in Poland since Oct. 22 have forced a significant number of people into taking that risk. Last Thursday, the Constitutional Tribunal, controlled by the ruling PiS party, declared abortion will be impermissible on the basis of severe and irreversible fetal defects. This severely limits abortions to when a mother’s life is endangered, or instances of rape and incest. So, on Thursday afternoon, protests began.

Before providing my account of the anti-abortion law protests in Warsaw, a small diversion into Plac. Bankowy, on Saturday, Oct. 24. As four lots of around a dozen police vans sped down Aleja Solidarności in turn, a man looking like a protest steward breathlessly warned, “Don’t go down there. The police they are beating everyone. It’s brutal.”

About five minutes before I arrived, an element of the anti-lockdown demonstration had clashed with police, who used pepper spray, stun grenades and truncheons against them. The police, with a tremendous presence, now had the group surrounded, with other demonstrators dazed and perplexed, dispersed across the square.

Police surround an element of the anti-lockdown demonstration on Plac. Bankowy (WNV/Craig Brown)

This seemed important context for the anti-abortion law protests for two reasons. One is that, as deluded and dangerous as “plandemic” conspiracy-driven protests are, there was a component of the Saturday protesters, called the Entrepreneurs’ Strike, who were there because of the gut-churning anxiety, the devastating implications of another lockdown for already precarious livelihoods.

It may be no coincidence that the anti-abortion law protests have seen solidarity from unusual quarters; farmers protesting alongside and in parallel in Warsaw, supportive statements from a miners’ union and taxi drivers chanting against the PiS. While it is likely that the Women’s Strike demands will remain focused on women’s rights — with robust affinity with upholding the rights of LGBTQ+ communities and other minorities — there is an embedded discontent with the ruling PiS party among the anti-abortion law protests this week, which may find broader resonance.

The second reason for Saturday’s events being important context is to do with the nature of the policing. Indeed, on Oct. 22 afternoon when the protests against the court ruling began, demonstrators were pepper sprayed by the police outside the residence of Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński.

However, on Monday night when demonstrators blocked roads and bridges in Warsaw, I couldn’t help but be struck by the marked difference in policing to what I saw on Saturday. Down Krakowskie Przedmieście, outside the Presidential Palace, there was a sparse police line, as demonstrators stood with signs and posters and some remonstrated with police.

Outside the Presidential Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście (WNV/Craig Brown)

The Holy Cross Church stands near the turn to Nowy Świat, and here there was the same limited presence. Across the steps stood ordinary people, ‘defenders’ of the church. At the junction with Świętokrzyska, where demonstrators had blocked the road, there was not a policeman in sight.

Socially distanced policing perhaps? There was clearly the potential for a violent police response as on Saturday, with riot gear, pepper spray and tear gas again being visible. The police may also have been prepared out of sight. In the past year, Polish police presence at all demonstrations seems overbearing, tending to involve alarmingly long lines of lurking and idling police vans in the back streets. More than that, they are highly visible. From the Rosary March in early October 2019 to the LGBTQ+ demonstrations in March 2020, they amounted to almost a guard of honor in the first instance, and some token defense escort in the latter.

So the more troubling question for me is whether, on that Monday, the standoff policing was more of a goad, both to anti-abortion protesters and the ultranationalist, ultra-Catholic groups “defending” churches. Some protesters had entered churches to protest and disrupt mass, and others confronted members of the latter who had been called out by members of the PiS and Poland’s government themselves. Beige cargo-trousered, black bomber-jacketed groups patrolled between the Holy Cross Church and Kościół Akademicki św. Anny, which overlooks the main tourist thoroughfare to Warsaw’s Old Town.

Alternatively, the demonstrators may have had the police spread thinly. The road blockades and demonstrations were dispersed and mobile, until they converged in the area of St. Alexander’s Church later in the evening, with police more forceful in ending protests around midnight.

Blockade of the junction between Nowy Świat and Świętokrzyska (WNV/Craig Brown)

It should also be noted that the security forces willingness to violently suppress the demonstrations at the demand of the PiS is potentially not something they are willing to do, nor do they want to see their monopoly on “legitimate” violence transferred to right-wing militias. Pressure is likely being exerted on the police by a liberal mayoral administration in Warsaw.

Moreover, the anti-abortion law protesters have overwhelmingly not risen to the goad of “easy” violence confronting right-wing groups. Wednesday saw a women’s strike, involving a refusal to work, a form of nonviolent action that invites far broader participation. While reducing the risk of coronavirus, such a strike carries a further risk, because simply being employed at this time is good fortune. This was followed by demonstrations across the country, with the police reporting 430,000 participants in 410 different protests.

While it has been suggested that military police and riot police have been deployed due to clashes between protesters and far-right activists, this completely overlooks the PiS’ desire to present a nation and values under threat from “angry women.” Jarosław Kaczyński’s ‘Kotwica’ lapel badge during his address to the nation on Thursday is part of such a presentation — being the emblem of Poland’s resistance struggles for much of World War II, this further complicates the nationalistic symbolism of of an incredibly tragic-heroic aspect of Poland’s history.

On Friday Oct. 30, in anticipation of massive demonstrations, the military police and riot police surrounded Warsaw’s parliament and churches. At the latter, there was a third row of church “defenders” of assorted far-right hues.

Holy Cross Church on Friday, Oct. 30. (WNV/Craig Brown)

But during one of Poland’s largest demonstrations since the collapse of Communism, the organizers and participants showed astute nonviolence. There were three massive marches that either completely bypassed major churches or passed by swiftly, even the smaller groups spilling into Warsaw’s downtown streets.

Such impressive disperse discipline, almost entirely bypassing and ignoring those institutions that the PiS said were threatened, surely leaves them embarrassed and exposed. This was only accentuated by the military redcaps making the churches stand out like sore thumbs, bruised blue behind the riot shields and flashing lights, with absurd yellow banded nationalists blustered across the facades.

Outside Holy Cross Church (WNV/Craig Brown)

Concerning that astute nonviolence, on Friday the demonstrators were swarming in all the streets of downtown Warsaw and kilometers away, heading in numerous directions. Any estimate of the main marches, suggested to be at least 100,000 people, must surely add many thousands more.

One of the main marches walked down Marszałkowska, arriving at the junction with Świętokrzyska to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of.” Here, the Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science still dominates the rapidly ascending skyscrapers. An exhilarated roar went up as the arriving crowd saw the palace emblazoned with a massive red thunderbolt — the symbol of the Women’s Strike movement. This was a sure sign of solidarity from Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafał Trzaskowski: “We are with you!

Protesters arrive in Centrum down Marszałkowska (WNV/Craig Brown)

The composition of the demonstrations on Friday really exemplified the well-acknowledged strength of nonviolent action, that they are inclusive. There were a great many teenagers and people in their early 20s, young women — and an inspiring presence of so many young men — but also parents and toddlers, and pregnant women.

That stand-offish police presence was again in presence, and probably contributed to far-right groups’ attacks on the fringes of the demonstrations. I saw these groups coming together in the streets around Old Town, an hour before the demonstrations began, assembling in the darkness, and brave enough to assault crowds including young children.

The night ended with huge numbers continuing the long walk to Żoliborz, making their way in dispersed and larger groups. This was to hold a street party near Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński’s residence, where the demonstrators had been assaulted by the police a week ago. Here, the protesters were confronted with a further huge police presence, or ‘Fortress Żoliborz’.

‘F**k PiS’. The coathanger has become a symbol of the demonstrations, as a horrifying tool of backstreet abortions that some women have historically been forced to seek when abortion is illegal. (WNV/Craig Brown)

In the United States, the targeting of individual politicians’ houses with music and demonstrations has been criticized for blurring the public and personal, in a threatening and intrusive manner. In Poland, the pro-PiS media has made much of the “vulgar” slogans and actions of some protesters.

But what is this compared with the savage violation of a woman’s choice, and the sickening symbol of the implications of its removal; the coat hanger.

The prospect of eight years in prison for organizing demonstrations will hardly prove a deterrent, particularly with the irony of prominent PiS members calling far-right groups to arms in the streets. Now, rather than a week of anti-abortion law events, further blockades, strikes and protests are planned for November, with the added element of rising outrage at the government.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.