How a new generation of activists brought Polish civil society back to life

Sparked by an anti-abortion law and aided by international solidarity networks, young activists have unleashed the largest cycle of mobilization in Poland since 1989.
The Red Rebel Brigade joins the demonstration in Żoliborz, close to the home of Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling PiS party, on Dec. 13, 2020. (Perko Photography/ Kathy Perko)

In Poland, the recent anti-abortion law protests unleashed a cycle of mobilization that peaked with participation levels not seen since 1989, when a wave of protests in former communist countries changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe. Two prominent elements stand out for analysis: the youthful makeup of the protesters, and their framing of the issue with tactics that built networks within the national arena and created solidarity beyond national borders.

The protests were triggered by the court review of the so-called abortion compromise, which introduced a near total ban on abortion. However, ascribing the cycle of mobilization to such a single event would be too simplistic and would also neglect the ongoing work carried on by activists on a daily basis. To explain it, we should then look at a combination of different elements, including the actors’ agency, available material and non-material resources, and the system’s political opportunity structure — not only at the national level, but also by focusing on transnational networks and opportunities.

Previous Coverage
  • Opposition to new anti-abortion law sparks Poland’s largest protests in decades
  • Starting in the 1990s, Poland faced a depoliticization of civil society. This trend of civil disengagement was common to post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, as civil participation was controlled and constrained by the authorities. Conversely, since 2015 mass protests have become increasingly frequent in Poland, showing a clear reversal of the trend. Indeed, 2015 is the year in which the arch-conservative Law Justice party, or PiS, seized the majority and introduced illiberal policies concerning the rule of law, abortion, LGBT rights, environment and the European Union. This provided no shortage of reasons to protest. As one activist on the ground told me, “In the past years, just a few people knew their rights when stopped by a policeman. Nowadays it has become common knowledge.”

    The recent election results, and the judicial review, further lowered the hope that change would be enacted through institutional channels. Women felt that their rights were at real risk of dispossession, and many people were tired of the government management of the COVID-19 pandemic. This could explain the resort to non-conventional methods and the high level of participation in protests though we are amid an ongoing global pandemic.

    A first attempt to tighten the abortion compromise occurred in 2016 and similarly sparked mass mobilizations. An analysis of the protests’ geographical distribution shows that 90 percent of them occurred in cities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. These are the same towns that voted PiS into power in the 2020 presidential elections, providing three-quarters of its total votes. While, on the surface, these numbers might indicate some sort of political shift in the countryside, they aren’t taking into account the age difference between the voters and the protesters. As in many places right now, Poland faces generational divides — ones that have become particularly evident in the last cycle of protests.

    The new generation’s involvement is one reason for the widespread use of slogans containing youth slang, such as “wypierdalać,” or “fuck off.” Although we largely take it for granted, they are equipped with information and communication technologies and are skilled in their use. Technologies by themselves are not sufficient to trigger a cycle of mobilization but — combined with the agency of the actors — they played a crucial role in reducing the costs of action and coordination, scaling-up transnational struggles, spreading solidarity cultures, sharing knowledge, resources and finally hope.

    Previous Coverage
  • How Poland’s women’s rights movement is maintaining momentum
  • In the Polish case, these technologies — associated with the geographical proximity and historical interaction with Belarus — provided a great source of inspiration. As a more seasoned Polish protester explained to me, “The white-dressed women taking the guns from the hands of police, carrying flowers, and protecting people with their bodies were an example, a pattern to follow.”

    Another example of these technologies’ potential is the worldwide spread of the Red Rebel Brigades. They are not only a costume or a mimetic performance, but also a tactic of action used to seize the emotional stage of the protest, able to de-escalate tensions through their slow and solemn movements, as well as a way to provide newsworthy photos for the media and to distract the police. They appeared for the first time in the United Kingdom during the 2019 Extinction Rebellion Spring uprising, subsequently becoming a global phenomenon, popping up in many corners of the world. Recently, the Red Rebels Brigades took to the streets in Poland, usually wearing a face mask with a red lightning bolt, the symbol of the feminist movement. They are the result of transnational ties and were able to bridge the Polish feminist and climate movement, at least in frame and symbols.

    In the first stage, the court’s decision was not published, and the protesters then appeared to have successfully halted the almost total abortion ban. However, they didn’t stop there: They sustained momentum even further and went beyond street protests and abortion rights. An example of this is what they called “the second stage of our common revolution” — a collection of participative policy proposals launched on Loomio which covered themes such as education, jobs, secular state, climate crisis and the rule of law.

    The Red Rebel Brigade in Warsaw on Dec. 9, 2020, during action partially organized by the Youth Strike for Climate. (Kathy Perko)

    Protests were entering into a descending phase, and the movement was focusing itself more on the grassroots level when — at the end of January — the authorities suddenly published the court’s review bringing it into effect. Since then, protests have started to increase and become more contentious. Moreover, the movement enlarged its international solidarity network, fraternizing with the Argentinian feminist movement, which recently won its historic struggle for legal, safe and free abortion. That was possible thanks to the adoption of a certain frame and tactic repertoire.

    The victory in Argentina showed the strength of the struggle and, at the same time, it spread hope and solidarity. The Polish movement then adopted part of the Argentinian symbolism as a way to celebrate its victory and bridge the struggles.

    The symbol of the Argentinan pro-abortion rights movement — el panuelo verde, or the green scarf — started to appear in the streets of Poland. Since 2003, it has been the prominent symbol of the Argentinian campaign to legalize abortion and became a ubiquitous and widespread clothing element worn by women also out of protests. The scarf was first used as a political message in the 1970s by the mothers and grandmothers who were fighting for their beloved “desaparecidos” — the children who were disappeared by the Argentine dictatorship.

    Green is also the color of the banner adopted by “Legal Abortion. Without Compromises,” the civic legislative initiative on which the Polish movement is now focusing, in collaboration with other civil society groups. They aim to collect 100,000 signatures in an attempt to overcome the judicial review passing a new law.

    The recent round of protests saw widespread mobilizations nationally — and occasionally internationally — in many European capitals, as well as in some cities of Central North America, East Asia and Oceania. Information and communication technologies enabled civil society to share knowledge and create solidarity networks among struggles and beyond national borders. The end of the struggle is still to come, although it is certain that the protests already left a permanent mark in Polish society, awakening a depoliticized civil society and bringing public opinion to their side.

    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.

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