The Women Strike and the Youth Revolts: in conversation with a Polish pro-choice activist

The Women Strike and the Youth Revolts: in conversation with a Polish pro-choice activist
Protest against abortion restriction in Kraków, October 2020

Tom Lesniara talks to Aleksandra Sidoruk, a member of Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, to hear from the frontlines of the historic protests in Poland.

On 22nd of October, The Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a statutory provision which allowed women to access abortions in cases of foetal abnormality was unconstitutional. The Tribunal Judge Justyn Piskorski later justified the decision by saying:

Human life is of value in any phase of development, and as a value at the source of which are constitutional laws, it should be protected by the legislators.

Quoted from Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, October 22 2020

The controversial ruling caused outrage in the country: for many, abortion laws in Poland were already too strict before the verdict. Hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in what become the most significant public protest since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Despite the protests leading to a delay in implementing the ruling, there are already right-wing campaigns to pass a new bill that would prohibit abortion in cases of pregnancy due to rape or incest. 

Many 21st-century social developments and standards in Western Europe – such as increased LGBTQ+ rights, civil unions of straight and gay couples, the right to adopt, more liberal immigration policies, freedom of faith or abortion rights – are things Polish officials don’t even want to discuss. To make it worse, around half of the nearly 38-million people in the country don’t want them to either. The current governing party is Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) – a conservative, far-right party with close connections to the Catholic Church. With recently re-elected President Andrzej Duda receiving official support from PiS and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki being a member of PiS, the party has almost complete control over the Polish political landscape. Their biggest rival is Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) – a party that also identifies as conservative, yet leans slightly towards the centre of the political spectrum. There is a mention of legalising same-sex civil unions in their manifesto for example, but abortion law is not referenced at all in the document. Left wing parties currently have limited support. In the last election to the Sejm (the lower chamber of Parliament), Lewica (The Left), which is an alliance of a few liberal parties, only managed to get 12.56% of the popular vote.

I caught up with Aleksandra Sidoruk, an International Relations student from Łódź, an industrial city in the central area of the country. When she’s not attending classes in diplomacy or foreign policy, she’s an activist. Aleksandra works together with the Łódź Girls for Girls (pol. Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom), a feminist group. The foundation campaigns for the right to safe abortion and sex education in school, contraception, and LGBTQ+ rights. She attends marches on a regular basis, spreads awareness on safe protesting and is involved in her local division’s social media activity. Aleksandra is also planning on becoming a member of the Green Party. 

When we talk, I spot a red lightning bolt painted on Aleksandra’s cheek. Next to the slogan WYPIERDALAĆ ( written in all caps, in this context meaning “get the fuck out”), the red lightening bolt is the main symbol of the feminist movement.

Protesters dress as handmaids from The Handmaid's Tale
Photo by Aleksandra Sidoruk 2020

Aleksandra and I are both students; it’s a shame we have to meet in such challenging circumstances. I have never studied in my home country, but I don’t blame the older generation for Poland’s far right policies. A lot of young people, including Polish millennials and Gen-Z, share the views of their parents or grandparents. Another far-right political party Konfederacja (Confederation) consists mostly of young people and has a very strong social media presence. They’re responsible for aggressive counter-protests. 

“A lot of my friends actively support the cause,” Aleksandra tells me. “So do my parents and other family members. Because of the pandemic they are not attending protests. I am the only “crazy” one in the family to go out to the streets. When it comes to my classmates – because most of us have classes via Microsoft Teams – you can change your avatar to the lighting bolt in support of the cause but I’ve only seen a couple of people do that. I know there are people who react to things I post, saying they admire me and what I do, as well as those who have very far-right opinions.”

Protesting for the right to abortion in a country like Poland is hard enough as it is. Now, with the ongoing second wave of coronavirus, Girls for Girls are doing their best to keep everyone safe. “I’ve never been that kind of person, to worry about such things,” said Aleksandra when asked whether she’s scared of catching the coronavirus. “The only thing I have at the back of my mind is that I am still in close contact with my parents. I always think about that when I’m attending a protest. They understand why I am doing this.

“When I’m heading to a protest I’m (of course) thinking about the virus. Some people are trying to attend the protests while not wearing a facemask, but we don’t let them. We can’t let them put anyone at risk. Not wearing a mask, shouting, singing while being really close to each other… recently in  Łódź, we had 20,000 people protesting, you know.”

Aleksandra is right. The protests are attended by masses. In Warsaw, there have been about 100,000 protesters per day, on average. In other cities such as  Kraków,  Łódź,  Wrocław or Gdansk, the numbers can vary from 10,000 up to 80,000 people per day. The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, however, have proven that even large gatherings with tens of thousands of participants don’t have to contribute to an increase in COVID-19 cases if carried out safely. 

Protesters walk past lanterns at night
Photo by Aleksandra Sidoruk 2020

“There are doctors and health professionals who work endlessly, day and night, to fight the virus and keep us safe. At first, I was unsure about their reaction and how they would take it, since we are increasing the risk in a way. It’s really amazing, though, to see them clapping and waving their little posters from behind the hospital windows,” said Aleksandra, describing the health professionals’ support as crucial and personally very important to her.

Following recent events, Jarosław Kaczyński – the leader of the governing party PiS and a brother of former Polish President Lech  Kaczyński – addressed the nation directly in a video posted on the party’s official social media channels. Kaczyński expressed his disapproval of the protests and called them a direct attack on the Church. In the speech, he also referred to the Catholic Church as “the only moral system commonly known in Poland”, later saying that “the rejection of it is pure nihilism.” Since then, there have been several reports of Konfederacja supporters, who mostly are very young, trying to sabotage the protests in order to “protect the churches”.

“We get messages from people who added themselves to Facebook groups of potential attackers. They are really doing those things – pretending they’re supporting our protest and then attacking. Personally, I’ve not been a victim of an attack like this, but my friends have been in Warsaw. They said that some man just attacked a random woman with pepper spray, and I think he actually kicked someone as well.

“Here, in Łódź, we meet them when we’re walking by the church, that’s what they ‘protect’. They are not trying to attack us. The only exception I can recall was when one of our protesters had a rainbow flag with her and the counter-protester took it away from her and tried to push her, but there were some people that didn’t let that happen.” 

As for now, the protests are still going on. Recently, there have been reports of plain clothes anti-terrorism units using violence against peaceful protestors in Warsaw. To help the feminist movement in Poland, you can follow the national feminist foundation Dziewuchy Dziewuchom on social media, help spread awareness or make a donation on their official website.

Correction: The previous version of this article stated that President Andrzej Duda is currently a member of PiS. According to political convention, upon election the President resigns any party membership. Therefore, President Duda has not been a member of PiS since his election in 2015. President Duda received official support from PiS during his election and re-election campaigns in 2015 and 2020.

Tomasz Lesniara is a 2nd year Media and Communication student at City of Glasgow College. You can read more of his work, and about him, on his website.

You can follow Aleksandra Sidoruk on Instagram with the handle @olasidoruk.


WAR on racism in Australia: discussing Black Lives Matter with Aboriginal activist Boe Spearim

WAR on racism in Australia: discussing Black Lives Matter with Aboriginal activist Boe Spearim
Protesters sit on the road outside South Brisbane police station, holding ground until the Aboriginal flag is flown by the station. Photo by Lilly McKenzie, 06/07/2020

In our first piece for In Conversation, Lilly McKenzie takes us to the streets of Brisbane to offer a different perspective on Black Lives Matter.

Walking through the Brisbane Cental Business District (CBD), you hear the roar of the crowd before you see them, stragglers walking alongside you. Spilling out from King George Square is a group that’s over 30,000 strong – the biggest protest the city has seen in years. This one looks different in other ways too, with protesters in masks standing apart rather than crammed together, and scattered medic stalls handing out masks and hand sanitiser to anyone who hasn’t brought their own. 

These stalls were an important inclusion to organising group ‘Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance’, not accidentally known as ‘WAR’. WAR founder and Gomeroi, Kooma, Murawarri activist Bogaine ‘Boe’ Spearim felt it was important to hold the march on June 6th, during waning coronavirus restrictions, stating that “as Aboriginal people we’re very outraged about what happened to George Floyd…Over here in Longbeach jail [in December 2015] an Aboriginal young man by the name of David Dungay Jr’s last words were ‘I can’t breathe’ and you know he said that about eleven or twelve times.”

Boe continued to tell me that “Lots of Aboriginal people, earlier on in that week before we started the rally, we were upset and frustrated that mass media in Australia, but then also the public here in Australia, they weren’t sort of gravitating to what was happening here with Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people regarding Black deaths in custody or police brutality.”

Since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released in 1991, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody.

In 1991 the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report was released, investigating the reasons for the high numbers of Indigenous deaths during arrest, pursuit or while in custody. Since this report and its recommendations were released, there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody. You can view their stories in Walkley award-winning database ‘Deaths Inside’ by Indigenous journalist for the Guardian Lorena Allam.

“It was an urgent thing to sort of say hey, wait a minute, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we stand in solidarity with Black folks in the United States because we know what happens…Hold up for a minute, we don’t want you to not share what’s happening in the United States to George Floyd or other Black folks, but could you also share what’s happening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country as well?”

This isn’t the first time Australia’s Indigenous communities have stood with people of colour from around the world, and found solace in shared issues – in fact, it is in WAR’s very foundation, as Boe told me:

“In 2014 myself and two other young Aboriginal people went to Canada. We drove from the West Coast to the East Coast, stopping off at different Indigenous communities that were either land defenders, or that were blockading mining companies, or had tent cities set up in protest of mistreatment of Native folks – like police brutality but then also missing and murdered Indigenous women.

…we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples.

“That also informed me on a personal level as well as focusing my political understanding on Indigenous folks globally as to how we can support and also build on each other’s campaigns, see other narratives, and draw comparisons from our different experiences as Indigenous peoples. And that really was a really powerful shift and inspiration in starting Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance after that as well. The three mob that I went with plus my partner now, we were the (I guess you could say) founding members of WAR. So those things were very informative and very inspiring to me as well.”

The crowd in Brisbane marched through the city streets, stopping at intersections to dance, chant, and make speeches. Walking across the William Jolley Bridge to South Brisbane the crowd paused on the busway as Boe addressed the crowd, inspiring them to help stop Black and Indigenous deaths in custody:

“If we can empower people to film coppers, or if we can empower people to you know, if there’s more of them and less coppers, to intervene and save that person, even if it means getting physical, we may save a life.”

WAR organised protests across the country on June 6th 2020, their members working with local Indigenous groups in each area, like the Brisbane Blacks, and the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE), formed at Musgrave Park.

Yet for Boe this follows nearly a decade in activism work: “I got involved [with activism] through the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy in Musgrave Park when the embassy was set up in 2012, after the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy.

“The elders and the mob there said go back to your own area where you live, your city or your town, and start an Aboriginal tent embassy. So what happened was the founders of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy attended the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, they came back to start an embassy – one of those people was my older brother, and the first night it was set up he said come in for the night bro, have some mad yarns around the fire and stuff.

“And I’ve gone in and sure enough, sat around the fire and had some great conversations about issues that have always affected Aboriginal people, but I guess really resonated with me and with my generation – and so I was going to stay one night but I ended up staying three or four nights. That was my introduction to activism and my being politicised I guess in some way.”

The Brisbane Tent Embassy has been described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.

The Tent Embassy in Canberra was set up in 1972 opposite Parliament House, protesting the contemporary government’s approach to Indigenous land rights. Over time the embassy developed, fighting for sovereignty, and moved around Canberra before becoming permanent in its original location in 1992. The Brisbane Tent Embassy was formed in Musgrave Park, an area that has always been culturally significant to Indigenous people, and where the Musgrave Park Cultural centre was established in 1998, described by the Brisbane City Council described as a place for ceremonies and feasts, as well as ‘conflict resolution’.

The protest on June 6th was the beginning of an increase in actions to stop Black deaths in custody. On Wednesday the 17th of June a protest was held in King George Square in Brisbane city before marching to Parliament house – on the second day of parliament sitting – to pressure the state government to take action regarding Indigenous deaths in custody.

The crowd outside the Kangaroo Point hotel-come-detention-centre chant in solidarity with the 120 men inside who watch from their balconies.
The crowd outside the Kangaroo Point hotel-come-detention-centre chant in solidarity with the 120 men inside who watch from their balconies. Photo by Lilly McKenzie, 13/06/2020.

When the crowd got to parliament house, they turned, marching down to the entrance of the riverside expressway before holding ground. Uncle Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton, Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy (BASE) member, Indigenous activist and coordinator of the day’s march, addressed the wall of police officers. He called for the Police Minister to come down and talk to him about the officer who allegedly assaulted his daughter, Ruby Wharton, on Saturday the 13th of June.

Ruby, a young Black activist from the Gold Coast, is involved with coordinating Black Lives Matter protests and was taking part in a separate protest; the Kangaroo Point Blockade. This blockade is outside a hotel where asylum seekers are being kept, and they aim to stop the transfer and deportation of 120 men that have been in detention for seven years.

Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away…

On Saturday the 13th of June a peaceful rally was held, and hours later Brisbane City Council Member Jonathan ‘Jono’ Sri, Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward – who is one of the organisers of the blockade – was arrested while leaving the event. Protesters surrounded the paddy wagon, sitting on the road to prevent the police from driving away, many with their phones out filming the police, and Ruby was allegedly assaulted by a police officer for continuing to film. 

Uncle Coco named Jerry Moffat, the officer who allegedly assaulted Ruby, holding up a photo of him on his phone, and called on any of the police to take a report from him. The police began to move the crowd on, pulling gloves on before they did, and when Uncle Coco stood his ground, he was arrested. 

The march continued with Ruby at the helm, redirecting the crowd across the CBD before standing ground outside the Brisbane Watch House, calling for Uncle Coco’s release. Uncle Coco was released without charge that night, after lawyer Debbie Kilroy became involved.

Black Lives Matter protests have been continuing in Brisbane and around Australia – including outside local correctional facilities – fighting to make their voices heard. The Kangaroo Point Blockade is indefinitely ongoing.

Lilly McKenzie is a freelance journalist and a 2018 Mid-Year Walkley Award finalist. She is currently focused on covering minority issues, human rights, and politics in her home city of Brisbane, Australia.

Boe Spearim’s podcast, ‘Frontier War Stories‘, can be found here, and his latest article for ‘The Guardian’ can be found here.