The Black Protests (Czarny Protest) in Poland - over the implementation of a strict ban on abortion - mobilised groups from across the country in one of the largest, decentralised demonstrations in recent history.
The first protest took place in Wroclaw in Western Poland on 26 September, 2016. Around 3000 people showed up on the streets to oppose a total abortion ban.
This was in response to a new bill prepared by the right-wing Ordo Iuris organisation, which was pushing for approval in the Polish parliament. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and it is a common knowledge that enforcing women’s rights to legal abortions – even if the fetus is permanently damaged or the pregnancy is the result of rape – is very challenging in the Polish Republic.
The situation took a turn for the for worse when the far-right Law and Justice party decided to vote “yes” for a total abortion ban.
Regardless of the substantial controversy, the bill seemed ready to pass since PiS had the majority. As the situation was deteriorating, Marta Lempart, a 37-years-old protest veteran decided to take to the streets.
She couldn’t have imagined that less than two weeks later, on 3 October, her Polish Women’s Strike organisation would gather more than 200,000 people on the streets of more than 200 cities worldwide. Of these, 150 were Polish cities with a population of less than 50,000 citizens.
Such protests had been recently unseen in Poland, and very quickly gained international support and recognition.
Women from around the world organised protests supporting Polish women who had stood up for their right to legal abortion.
A Facebook page and human language bring people together
It started with a questionnaire posted on a Facebook event. Lempart, one of the organisers of the nationwide women’s strike, was trying to learn where in Poland citizens were interested in joining protests against the abortion ban.
“People were leaving names of the cities they were located in, to be able to organise better”. At one point I learnt that people from smaller places would show up in the group, there would be two or three of them, they’d connect via our Facebook group and meet in real life to join a protest in a bigger city,” she recalls.
This was the moment when Lempart and her friends, Natalia Pacewicz and Paulina Maciejewska, realized that protests could actually be organised across the whole of Poland, not only in the big cities.
Very quickly they started a separate Facebook group where they contacted people from smaller cities, who had answered the questionnaire in order to encourage them not only to participate in protests but also to arrange them in their own local communities.
“And so, they wanted to move from being participants to becoming organisers instead,”, Lempart said laughing.
Fear becomes shared not individual
When it comes to the participants, Lempart thinks that paradoxically, organising a protest in a big city is easier for citizens who want to partake because you join a mass of people and can feel more secure which is not the case in a smaller town or municipality.
This didn’t mean, however, that people from smaller localities in Poland weren’t interested in women’s rights to legal abortion. On the contrary, Lempart and her group provided these novice activists with visuals and information about the list of cities and initiatives which were going to be held in one place on Facebook, so that people could see that the whole country was mobilising.
“It helped with encouraging women to protest. Some girls were thinking that “even if there are only five of us, there are more spots like this in Poland”. They saw a list of the cities or towns in Poland where people were in exactly the same situation. So, it was encouraging for them to participate even if numbers were low.”
“Fear and shyness were shared, not individual, feelings” Lempart concluded.
In addition to the visuals and community contacts, Lempart also provided a 12-point manual on how to prepare and organise a demonstration. She used her rich experience from the previous months, when she was arranging anti–government demonstrations for the Committee for Democracy (KOD) in Wroclaw.
The manual was part of package every organiser was provided with.
“I put straightforward and simple information on how to register a demonstration, what to take with you, how to talk with the police, and a couple of words about the legalities,” she recalls.
This, however, did not ease communication between national coordinators like Lempart and her colleagues. On the contrary, it was the time when they’d be spending days and nights online providing additional support and advice.
“Very soon we learnt that, surprisingly, in many cities in Poland in XXI century, there was no section within the municipality or administrative unit one could register a protest. In some places, there were no forms to fill in and submit as there had never been a protest or other gathering registered in the place before,” Lempart points out.
This way, and slightly accidentally, the form standardised by Lempart in Wroclaw is now being used across Poland.
Local heroes want to defend women rights
Lempart says that her organisation is attractive to regular people because they are inclusive, they speak a human language, and they don’t coordinate organizers, only support them.
“All our activists have regular jobs. We almost have no people…with specialist humanistic education, we do have a lot of teachers though.”
“Instead there are lots of people who work in the service sector and offices.” Like, for example, Eliza Brzozowska–Płońska from Węgorzewo, a pony farmer who lives on the border with Kaliningrad.
Eliza decided to protest in a very original way because in Poland there is a law forbidding a driver to drive too slowly – except if you use a tractor. So, Eliza and her husband went to a protest against the abortion ban by tractor. They blocked Wegorzewo for a couple of hours!
In another example, Brzozowska–Płońska and her friends organised a protest against paedophilia in the Polish church. They lay down on the church stairs and people were force to avoid them.
“There are other activists such as Stanisława Kuzio–Podrocka from Zgorzelec (a notorious hub for neo–fascists). There this tiny woman with considerable visual impairment, stood up against a group of fascists. She showed no fear, despite her weakness and fragility and the fact everybody knows her in Zgorzelec. She works as a credit officer in a local Castorama shop,” Lempart reports.
Speaking a human language
According to Lempart, women in Poland, especially from the provinces often feel too shy to stand up for their rights. In her opinion, the success to bring them to the streets lies in respect, support and using regular day-to-day language.
“I’ve been told by many women that till now they’ve been watching TV and feeling stupid because of the complicated language used by the presenters in describing the problems of Polish women,” Lempart recalls. She says that the protests have changed this feeling of awkwardness and improved their self-confidence.
“Now many of them know that’s it’s not their problem with understanding the reality, but…with not being able to articulate obvious things in a tangible way,” Lempart concluded, providing some examples.
“When the government decided that the day-after pill could only be bought with a prescription from a doctor, it meant that it was no longer available for most women in Poland. So, in effect, this doesn’t exist.”
There was a similar linguistic issue with words describing domestic violence; in rural areas it is very uncommon for women to speak out, even when their lives could be in danger.
That’s why Lempart and her team were using “normal” language to communicate while allowing local organisers the freedom to do what they think was suitable for their community.
Homo Sovieticus vs the modern world
According to Lempart, Poland still has a problem with its “Homo Sovieticus” mentality where people are used to the model where there is a boss as a central figure; however, her team didn’t want to continue this method, and that change definitely brought desired results.
“Our goal was common – to block the abortion ban, wear black, offer visuals and rules of organising meetings, all the rest was up to them. 100 per cent of the responsibility means 100 per cent of the power,” she says.
Lempart thinks that this is one of the main problems of post-soviet systems, where people have 100% responsibility and little power. In her opinion, this is one of the main reasons why Poland has a very low degree of party affiliation.
“Why would people join a party if they gain no power?”.
There were also problems with naming their activities. Some women disliked being called “feminists”. Lempart was outraged by the fact that discussions over naming someone a “feminist” became more important than the act of the protests themselves.
Lempart says however, that the problem was resolved very quickly.
“Better educated women were attacking those who didn’t feel comfortable with the title of ‘feminist’. We were very quick to solve this problem by suggesting people leave the group if they were attacking others.’
Within a week, we had zero incidents of this kind,” she says proudly.
There is a final area of caution when considering protests – the capital city versus the rest of the country.
“In Poland, currently we have a class war between Warsaw and the rest of the [country]. Warsaw thinks there’s no life outside of the capital, maybe with the exception of big cities like Wroclaw, Gdansk and Krakow.
“The rest is perceived as a big black hole where the media can make up reports about former farm collectives and village life. It’s horrible. This situation is a result of the class war in the media, and the lack of representation of provinces in the major media. People from Warsaw don’t know what Poland truly is like.”