What happened in Poland? Why did the mayor of Gdańsk get stabbed?

Poland has two explanations for the tragic death of Paweł Adamowicz. And some are saying that his assassination could be a black swan event that shakes Poland awake from its angry charge towards civil unrest.

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
What happened in Poland? Why did the mayor of Gdańsk get stabbed? - NewsMavens
Paweł Adamowicz was president of Gdańsk for 20 years (Wojciech Strozyk/ East news)

The story of a stabbing

Paweł Adamowicz was a Solidarity activist and had been mayor of the city of Gdańsk for 20 years.  This January he flew back early from vacation to speak on the stage of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity -- a concert that happens in every major city in Poland on the same night of every year to raise money for hospitals.

During Adamowicz’s speech, a man wearing a “media” badge climbed on stage with a large knife. He stabbed the president in the throat, the heart and the stomach, grabbed the microphone and told the audience that he had been wrongfully imprisoned and tortured by PO -- the Civic Platform currently in the opposition to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. He was immediately arrested and taken to the hospital after having a seizure.

Paweł Adamowicz died from his wounds the next day, on January 14. The people of Poland were shocked.

That same day Jerzy Owsiak, the activist who had built and run the Great Orchestra Christmas Charity events, announced his resignation. Owsiak is a figure dearly beloved by the public but just as strongly reviled by opponents, including many PiS politicians, who accuse him of corruption. No proof has ever been found of these allegations. Meanwhile, year after year, Owsiak delivers record breaking amounts of money to hospitals to pay for medical equipment for children and the elderly. Over the course of its 27 year history, the Great Orchestra has collected over one billion Polish złoty.

Public reaction was very emotional. When these announcements were made on January 14, people expressed their sorrow on social media. Many employers sent their workers home to be with loved ones. That evening, thousands marched in silence in every major Polish city to commemorate the deceased mayor. Among them were an unprecedented number of young people. Many of the marchers wore red heart stickers given to those who donate to the Great Orchestra.

Two sides of the story

Today, many people ask what this assassination means and how it could have happened. The country is divided into two narratives about this.

One narrative focuses on the unmitigated rise of hate speech in public discourse. This has been a slow process that has taken place over the last ten years. Though this escalation is clear, law enforcement has grown increasingly passive. Today hate speech is almost never penalized. If a documented instance of hate speech even makes it into court, it is most often annulled. Hate speech has also crept into public debate. PiS politicians and the state-run media have normalized insulting and dehumanizing rhetoric about opponents.

Significantly, a nationalist group called the All Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) issues “political death certificates" to opponents. One such “certificate” announced the political demise of Paweł Adamowicz. Five days before his assassination, the accusation that this was an example of hate speech was thrown out of court.

Many commentators are pointing out that the number of reported hate crimes has also risen in recent years. Police statistics confirm: there were 374 confirmed hate crimes in 2016, up from 47 in 2006.

The other narrative is that the attacker was a mentally unstable individual whose success at killing Adamowicz should be blamed on the lax security of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity.

Indeed, 27-year-old Stefan W. was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while incarcerated for a bank robbery. He was released from prison just a few weeks before attacking Adamowicz.  It is also true that Polish security standards for public appearances and mass events are far less rigorous then in many western countries.

Could this be an opening?

There is hope that this shocking story will help stop Poland’s increasingly aggressive public debate before more violence breaks out. Some say Adamowicz’s death could turn out to be a black swan event that shakes Poland awake from its angry charge towards civil unrest. The next days and weeks will be telling.

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