When physical violence is nothing but an expression of discontent

On November 11, 2017, a group of women activists tried to block the alt-right Independence March in Warsaw. Although they were physically and verbally attacked by the marchers, the prosecutor has closed their case.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
When physical violence is nothing but an expression of discontent - NewsMavens
Women protesters, YouTube

Why this story matters:

Over the years, the Independence March has become a display of xenophobia and racism, and the 2017 edition was no exception. Some of the 60,000 marchers carried flags with the phalange (a 1930's nationalist symbol), while others chanted: “Refugees, f...k off”, “Death to the enemies of the homeland”, “Europe will be white or empty” and the timeless “Poland for Poles”.

To protest these claims, 14 women activists resorted to an act of civic disobedience. They sat on the ground on the route of the march, holding a “Stop fascism” sign and chanting “Women against fascism”, and refused to move. In turn, they were kicked, pushed, spat on and verbally abused by the marchers.

When 14 women attempt to stop a manifestation of 60,000 people, it is not just an act of bravery. It’s an act of desperation.

The current government has repeatedly failed to properly address the rise of nationalism, racism and antisemitism in Poland. In fact, it only worsened the situation by endorsing a senseless Holocaust Bill, which whipped up these sentiments and solidified the -- to a large degree accurate -- image of Poles as an antisemitic nation.

So it is hardly a surprise that the women chose to be proactive. It is also, sadly, no surprise that they were attacked.

The most disturbing aspect of this story is perhaps the reaction of the authorities. On September 10, 2018, after a 9-month-long investigation, the prosecutor’s office closed the case on the grounds that the marchers meant no harm by physically assaulting the women. They only wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the fact that the activists were in their way.

This case shows point-blank why a democratic nation needs an independent justice system.

It also shows why, for the past two years, hundreds of thousands of Poles have demonstrated in defense of the Constitutional Court, the regional courts and the Supreme Court. It shows why it is so harmful that, as of 2016, Poland's Minister of Justice has also served as the General Prosecutor.

This case was closed because the ruling party has no interest in defending activists who openly oppose them. It is that simple and that scary.

Details from the story:

  • Since 2011, the Independence March has taken place each year on November 11. On this date in 1918, Poland regained independence after 123 years of foreign rule.
  • The march was initiated by nationalist political groups Młodzież Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth) and Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny (National-Radical Camp). Their goals and values go against Article 13 of the Polish Constitution, which forbids organizations from referring to nazist, fascist or communist idelogy.
  • Last year’s march was one of the biggest gatherings of the alt-right in the world, according to “The Independent”. The motto of the march was “We want God”. Among the prominent guests was Roberto Fiore, leader of the nationalist party Forza Nuova from Italy and self-identified neo-fascist.
  • The march was condemned by the European Parliament. Poland’s president Andrzej Duda also spoke out about the fact that some of the slogans that were used on the march “should never be uttered by honest people”. He stressed out, however, that only a small fraction of the marchers behaved in this way.
  • Among the 14 women that attempted to block the march were: Ewa Błaszczyk, Lucyna Łukian, Krystyna Zdziechowska, Beata Geppert, Maria Bąk-Ziółkowska, Zofia Marcinek, Izabela Możdrzeń, Monika Niedźwiecka, Agnieszka Wierzbicka, Katarzyna Szumniak, Katarzyna Kwiatkowska, Agnieszka Markowska, Kinga Kamińska, Elżbieta Podleśna. They came from all walks of life and represented different age groups but were all involved in various civic initiatives, such as Obywatele RP (Citizens of the Republic), Strajk Kobiet (Women’s strike which co-organized the Black Protests) and Food Not Bombs.
  • The activists chose the narrowest place on the route of the march -- the Poniatowski bridge -- and sat down on the ground, chanting: “Women against fascism”, “Away with fascism” and “Nationalism should be cured”.
  • Marchers called them “traitors”, “whores”, “communists”. Someone shouted: “Gas chambers should be refurbished especially for people like you”.
  • The medical documentation of this case lists bruises on faces, legs, buttocks and backs, as well as injuries caused by heavy boots. One of the women lost consciousness as a consequence of an attack, but soon regained it.  
  • According to the prosecutor Magdalena Kołodziej, the case was closed because the goal of those that kicked, pushed and verbally abused was not to beat the activists up but to show dissatisfaction. "The location of the injuries shows that the punches were not aimed at the bodies’ most delicate parts," it reads.
  • Poland’s ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, announced that he will take on this case.
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