At breaking point: The year Poland’s underground fought back

© Jeremi Pollak

Words by:

The last 12 months have seen Poland pushed to extremes.

In July, the incumbent president Andrzej Duda, candidate of the staunchly right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), narrowly won a second term. His was a campaign that revelled in homophobia, xenophobia and antisemitism, and rotated on a promise to protect families from what the party called “LGBT ideology”. That same summer, in a clash now dubbed the Polish Stonewall, 48 people – protesters and bystanders – were arrested at a demonstration in support of the non-binary activist Margot Szutowicz. As well as beatings, queer demonstrators said they had been threatened with rape or being, as one protestor recalled, “put into a cell with a skinhead”.

The Law and Justice party’s fiercely conservative agenda has been furthered in other ways, too. Despite having some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, Polish lawmakers have repeatedly sought to curb them further. First in April – when the country was already in the grips of a Covid-19-induced lockdown – then on 22 October, when the Constitutional Tribunal ruled terminations due to foetal defects unconstitutional, in what effectively amounts to a near-total ban on abortion. In response, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, triggering the largest demonstrations of the post-communist era. But protesters didn’t just march – they danced.

© Jeremi Pollak

“There were techno blockades, where crowds of people chanted to the rhythm of the music to tell the government to get the fuck out,” says Zamilska, a Polish musician mixing punk sensibilities with ASMR-inducing electro. She has spent the protests reaching out to her following on Instagram, urging them to support the movement. “Our state has become a religious state, and the political system has changed from democratic to dictatorship,” she tells me over email from her home in Warsaw.

Poland’s artistic underground has long been a safe space for activists seeking to express themselves away from the conservative-dominated cultural mainstream. Music as a form of resistance has deep roots in Poland, dating back to the communist era, when striking dock workers in Gdańsk sang pop songs during protests. More recently, it has been tightly linked to Pride marches, where coming together and dancing in the street is an act of defiance. Collectives such as the POMADA Queer Festival have organised parties as part of their annual event in Warsaw since 2010, carving out a rare space for acceptance, and subversion.

But as cultural conflict in Poland has become more intense, that scene has become even more important. Artist Mala Herba, a member of Oramics, the Polish collective that champions women, non-binary, and queer artists in the electronic music scene, says it’s about providing a place of belonging, particularly in the face of an administration who accuse those who oppose their laws of being “anti-Polish”.

© Jeremi Pollak

© TKrzysztof Buś

“They say that we’re not people, that we don’t belong to this nation, that we’re a threat. The government is supposed to represent everyone and now you’re being told that you don’t belong to the community,” they explained.

“Music gives you that sense of belonging. Just to come together with people I’ve never seen in my life and to be in this crowd and to shout ‘get the fuck out’ for a whole hour: it made me feel like I belonged somewhere. We provide a community for people told they don’t belong in a Polish community. They need this refuge.”

And as Law and Justice has doubled down on its nationalist rhetoric, activists too have responded by becoming more vocal. At the start of 2020, graffiti, protesting outside churches and even swearing were all seen as controversial or off-limits for demonstrators. By the end of summer, the mood had changed. When Poland’s Constitutional Court made its ruling to restrict abortion in October, women’s rights activists unfurled a sign on the street outside of the courthouse, which simply read: “get the fuck out”.

© TKrzysztof Buś

“In the middle of August, we started to see a lot more civil disobedience,” says DJ and producer Avtomat, aka Kajetan Łukomski. He was one of the 48 arrested on 7 August, when police in Warsaw clashed with demonstrators protesting the arrest of the 27-year-old co-founder of the Stop Bzdurom collective, Margot Szutowicz. “My cell mates were threatened with being beaten; two guys were beaten up in a police car, there was no accountability,” remembers Łukomski. As a long-term activist, he says that the change in 2020 has been palpable. The arrests in August kicked off a wave of country-wide protests known as the Polish Stonewall, but it hasn’t stopped there. “Now the whole Women’s Strike is a lot more radical,” he says, referring to the demonstrations sparked by the government’s abortion ruling. “The means are more radical. People just stopped being afraid.”

© Jeremi Pollak

What’s more, after five years under a Law and Justice government, Gen-Zers are joining the barricades for the very first time. “It’s our first time seeing this young movement of Zoomers who are just done,” says Oramics member and DJ, Monster. “They just don’t give a fuck.” In this new maelstrom of activism, the music scene has shifted too. More and more artists are finding their political voice and leading the charge against Law and Justice’s anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-women policies. Even apolitical artists are now embracing techno’s long history of fighting oppression and providing a space for minorities.

“Before, there were some festivals that wouldn’t book Polish DJs who were too vocal about politics,” says Monster. “That’s all changed, even over the last two weeks. There’s a shift in mentality. Suddenly, people are saying that if you don’t know the roots of techno [in fighting oppression], it’s not your scene.”

Zamilska agrees. “People are slowly remembering the genesis of techno music and how it’s associated with fighting for minority rights. Some people are reluctant, because we’ve been repressing this topic for years, but now great, committed groups, DJs and producers are trying to educate people. They are all young people who are fed up with dictatorship.”

Even away from the techno blockades, the same DIY ethos that fuelled the Polish underground can now be seen on the streets in a new wave of art-activism. Protesters are taking scraps of cardboard out into towns and cities to spread their own slogans on their own terms. Visual symbols of the protests – wire coat hangers, lightning bolts, umbrellas – are all the more powerful because they are available to everyone. Elsewhere, rainbow flags have been left in Warsaw’s Old Town in brief, powerful performances.

“It’s about reclaiming public space,” says Monster. “It’s reclaiming our national symbols, which for so many years have just been claimed by the government and the right. It’s trying to get that back into our symbolism as well.”

© Anna Mielcarek & TKrzysztof Buś

It’s also no coincidence that these makeshift actions are also perfect Instagram material. Ongoing pressure from the Polish government on culture institutions means that there has not always been a mainstream platform for political artworks in Poland. Yet ironically, pushing art-activism into new formats – largely social media and the digital realm – has allowed them to reach a new and hungry audience. Ultimately, Poland’s younger generations are not being shaped by Law and Justice policies as much as they are by a vibrant, diverse digital world, a place with which their own realities seem increasingly out of step. That, in turn, feeds out onto the streets.

“I see the slogans from Instagram that keep appearing in an analogue form,” says multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and curator Karol Radziszewski. He also edits DIK Fagazine, the only art zine from central and Eastern Europe to focus on homosexuality and masculinity with its mix of queer archival research and contemporary art. “The youngest generation wants to express themselves. It’s the first time I see a protest with everyone holding something. People are trying to be funny and personal; it’s almost like meme culture. We want young people to get involved in DIY culture, but it’s not coming back in Xerox zines [like in the 90s and 00s.] People are getting together instead to make posters.”

© TKrzysztof Buś

Some protesters choose to leave their signs by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. “It’s like a temporary open-air show around the museum,” says Radziszewski. “There’s so much visual creativity in that. It’s enormous, this whole mass of the work. The best thing I can do as an artist is film the crowd with my phone, because it’s all a constant performance; it’s a temporary art.”

As 2020 draws to a close, the stakes in Poland remain unclear. Law and Justice’s new abortion restrictions have been put on hold following the furious public backlash, but few believe they will not return. In the meantime, protests which initially began as a women’s strike have also tapped into a more general opposition anger.

“The youngest generation wants to express themselves. It’s the first time I see a protest with everyone holding something” – Karol Radziszewski

“The new law has not been stopped or withdrawn. They’ve put it on hold because they don’t really know what to do,” says Zamilska. “But for us, there is no space for compromise. Things have gone too far and I know the strike will not go away until the government resigns.”

In the meantime, artists hope to keep momentum on the ground and keep fighting for a more inclusive Poland in clubs and online. “We live in a dictatorial state where the government media has, for years, built huge divisions and polarisation between people,” says Zamilska. “People are trained like in George Orwell’s novels; they are told who to fear and hate. As musicians, we must remember to do everything we can to remind people of the roots and stories of club life – that they promote tolerance and equality.”

© Jeremi Pollak

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