Two images will stay with me forever after Thursday's night protest against the de facto ban on abortions in Poland. First - the sight of tired people shaking in the cold, windy night, sitting on the cobblestones in front of the Constitutional Tribunal, covered with a banner that said "Get the fuck out of here". Second - policemen forcibly dragging people out of the cordon one by one, methodically, until 3 am.
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It was meant to be a short, rather symbolic protest. Marta Lempart, the face of the Women's Strike, announced already on Wednesday evening that the next day we would meet from 7 to 9 p.m. and that it would be a "warm-up act" before the huge protest planned for Friday when people from all over Poland would come to Warsaw.

The purpose was simple - to show symbolic opposition to the inhumane abortion law passed by the pseudo-Constitutional Tribunal filled with Law and Justice loyalists who de facto abolished the (already very restrictive) right to abortion in Poland.

The police forces were limited at first. Single officers stood in front of the Tribunal. When the tumult started and protesters threw red paint on the pavement, the police did not react.  The situation got heated for a moment when a group of protesters broke through the fence and started running towards the Tribunal building. The policemen stopped them. Only later, after an hour or two, it would turn out that among these people was Klementyna Suchanow, another of the Women's Strike leaders.

The easiest thing to say at this point would be to condemn this move as unnecessary and perhaps ill-considered. It became an easy breeding ground for the pro-government media and right-wing commentators who immediately drew parallels between the approach of the protesters and the recent attack on the Capitol. "Mercifully" and in an effort to showcase their praiseworthy "objectivism", they noted that the scale of the 'attack' in Warsaw was obviously smaller.

Let me put it this way - I can imagine this protest without Suchanow and others entering the square in front of the Tribunal. But it would be a grave misrepresentation to argue that it was their actions that caused such a reaction of the police.

Escalation was a feature, not a glitch

The persistence and determination of the police in the hours that followed indicate clearly that the police planned for this in advance. This time, the officers did not bludgeon the protesters or use tear gas against them. What they had in mind was a different kind of humiliation. For hours, on that freezing night, they sealed the protesters off in a tight cordon and issued an ultimatum: we will let you go if you identify yourself and face punishment for your actions. It was a cruel bargain.

Protesters and experts have long argued that police have no right to demand identification from anyone without a clear reason. Participation in a peaceful protest or a spontaneous gathering does not constitute one. That is why protesters do not give in to blackmail.

On Thursday, the police must have known from the beginning what they wanted to achieve. Their actions were not calculated to secure the protest or to de-escalate it. Quite the opposite, the purpose of their action was precisely to escalate the conflict and to inflict suffering on people. After all, the police saw and knew that the people trapped in the cordon were freezing, hungry and needed to use the lavatories. A group of protesters sat on the pavement in front of the Tribunal and tried to make themselves warm by covering themselves with a banner that said "Get the fuck out of here" (Wypierdalać in Polish). The incessant police announcements over the bullhorn demanding that those gathered identify themselves was just additional torture. It was obvious that people would not yield and would not suddenly start showing their documents. Also because according to the law they had no obligation to carry their IDs on them.

A dark night for the Polish police

This image will stay with me forever after that night. The sight of exhausted protesters, shaking in the cold, windy night, sitting on the pavement, covered with that banner.

Around 2 am, the policemen began to forcibly remove the protesters. Pulling them out of the group and carrying them outside the cordon. Those being carried out resisted, shaking their legs. The police intervention ended at 3 a.m. in the morning. It was a display of calculated brutality by uniformed forces in which we should have trust, forces we are meant to respect. That's why after that night another image will stay with me: policemen forcibly dragging people out of the cordon, one by one, methodically.

These two images add up to form a single picture - one symbolising a very dark night for the Polish police.

***

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    It is indeed distressing to see the police maltreating demonstrators throughout Poland as well as in Russia and Belarus. The civil disturbances in so many major countries, such as India and even the US, in addition to Central and Eastern Europe, suggest that the national populists worldwide have either finally hit a barrier of opposition, or are raising the intensity of their suppression of the opposition. Who is actually winning is not clear, even though so many of us reading these pages want to see the national populists overthrown. That's part of the problem... wishful thinking may be clouding our perception of political reality. It is perhaps most obvious in the US, where the extreme right Qanon populists are as divorced from reason as the Critical Theory extreme left, while the electoral distribution, Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression implacably outweigh the huge popular majority of the Democrats nationwide.

    While opinion polls in Poland suggest that 70% of people support the All-National Womens' Strike, whether they all support abortion on demand is highly unlikely. Most likely, they support a return to the previous quite restrictive "compromise", which allowed abortion only in the cases of foetal abnormalities, criminal conception and danger to the health and life of the mother.

    In the end, the key is the definition of when life begins. The Constitution says nothing about that, only that life is to be protected. The Church and perhaps previous case law claim that life starts at the moment of conception, hence the Church's opposition not only to abortiion but also to in vitro conception, which leads to the discarding of many embryos. It also implies that the logical interpretation of the Constitution should go beyond the recent Constitutional Tribunal "verdict" and to also outlaw abortion in the case of illegal acts (rape, incest) and a threat to the health of the mother. This position is held by a sizable number of Sejm members. On the other hand, the Left claims that life begins at birth, but this surely is a minority view.

    Kaczyński has ensured that this nasty cultural war will distract the public from protesting the Government's failures in handling the Covid-19 epidemic, and the blatant actions PiS is taking to take over the private independent media while following the Putinist playbook.
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