A stream of cars moves through a main road in the centre of Kraków, one of Poland’s largest cities. Darkened car windows are lit up only by a strike of red lightning visible from protestor’s placards. This red lightning strike, created by graphic designer Ola Jasionowska, is a key symbol of the ongoing protests opposing the country’s tightening abortion laws.
It has been just over a month of consistent protests since a ruling by the constitutional court on October 22nd determined a near ban on abortions. The decision would put forward that those performing or assisting abortions for fetal abnormalities would be criminalised. This would make Poland’s abortion laws some of the strictest in the world. Poland’s ruling party, PiS (Law and Justice) tried to pass a bill to tighten abortion laws in 2016, however mass protest stalled the decision. Currently, protest and collective action has led to government talks that may shift gears in the discussion.
Perhaps a key reason why action by activists has been so successful is because of the creative and collective nature of the actions. Activist Aleksandra Sidoruk discusses how placards are being collected to contribute to exhibitions in galleries and cultural centres in Kraków and Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Aleksandra emphasises that these signal new and exciting ways of engaging in protest. Also, in 2016 a poster initiative named Pogotowie Graficzne (Graphic Emergency) was set up in response to the abortion laws put forward. These visual manifestations of the pro-abortion movement help to immortalise principles of solidarity and community.
The theme of abortion is at the centre of the protests, as Aleksandra stresses, it is ‘still the glue that sticks us all together’. Yet, this epicentral issue has expanded out to bring together different groups oppressed by PiS. Activists Maja Kunstman and Marlena Lipiarz, both members of the LGBTQ+ community, have been protesting since the onset of the constitutional court decision. They tell me that PiS has been insidiously curtailing the rights of people who identify as LGBTQ+, in part through limiting sex education and condemning non-heternormative families on state controlled television. Yet, Marlena emphasises the power inherent in collective suffering; when I ask her what the protests mean to her, she responds that “we know what discrimination is”. Experiencing discrimination makes it all the more necessary to stand up for others.
With this in mind, protestors are fighting back in full force. To match the constant noise of on-screen propaganda- that the Polish public are particularly subjected to in the indoor isolation of the pandemic- music pounds from protests. Throughout October in both Krakow and Warsaw, techno music radiated from protest sites, blasting the rhythmic pulse of collective imaginaries. Star Wars Imperial March is played in people’s homes each day at 7pm. This is notably a far cry from England’s ‘Clap for the NHS’. Where well-intentioned rainbows and thank-you banners are splayed across our streets, this performative positivity walks in the shadow of the political anger put to use in Polish homes and streets on a daily basis. As Maja stresses, ‘This is the War’. Below, a placard highlights this sentiment with a tram reprogrammed to read, ‘The Tram of Freedom’.
Whilst the government tries to curb freedom of communication through criminalising online sharing, this is not hindering the collective power of online protest. Maja and Marlena have set up a Tik Tok for video compilations of the protests. In this way protest takes on a digital body, it moves beyond lived boundaries and into the liminal spaces between government propaganda and criminalisation. Aleksandra demonstrates how pro-abortion charities also help the movement move beyond physical boundaries and borders: Aborcyjny Dream Team (Abortion Dream Team) and Aborcja Bez Granic (Abortion Without Borders) help provide Polish women with abortion aid and resources abroad. To move beyond physical and digital boundaries is to make activist movements transcendent, to enact future imaginaries.
So, why do we get creative in times of crisis? As Rebecca Solnit argues in her book about histories of collective action, Hope in the Dark, ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown’. In this unknowable space, movement and change can be enacted out of seemingly nothing. As the Polish government places restrictions on people’s freedom, forms of creative work across digital, physical, and even lyrical spaces expand collective action outwards, and therefore dreams of better futures become cemented realities.