It is not the first time that November 11th – Poland’s Independence Day to commemorate the restoration of its sovereign state in 1918 after 123 years of occupation by the German, Austrian-Hungry and Russian empires – had been hijacked by far-right groups wreaking havoc in the streets. Throughout the day, hooligans violently clashed with riot police, injuring 38 officers, leaving one officer in need of surgery after suffering a skull fracture from a rock thrown at his face.
Organisers assured the Police that celebrations would take the form of a car and motorcycle parade to comply with covid-19 safety requirements. But instead, they were faced by large crowds setting off smoke flares, high on adrenaline and pyrotechnic fumes.
Some threw stones at the police, damaged property, attacked shop windows, and even set fire to one apartment by throwing flares at a balcony displaying the pride and the Women’s Strike flags. Shouts – “burn b****” – could be heard in the crowd, while red and white smoke clouds covered Warsaw’s skyline.
While some would have wanted to peacefully celebrate the national holiday, many people feel excluded as thuggery, and extreme nationalist rhetoric has tainted the date.
It is hard to see the patriotic value in vandalism of the capital and an atmosphere of public intimidation. Nor is it in the spirit to portray fellow female and LGBT+ nationals as somehow threats to sovereignty who, if anything, are the source of the sovereign state’s legitimacy.
Spearing the impossible task of decoding the reasoning inside the psyche of an individual far-right hooligan beyond fragile masculinity and economic hardship, we may wish to question the government’s role in enabling such behavior.
The PiS government quickly attempted to rid itself of all responsibility for the anti-social behavior taking place on last Wednesday, blaming just about everyone from the opposition to secret agents.
However, it is glaringly apparent the government’s politics of scapegoating the other – be it immigrants, sexual minorities, European Union, non-Christians or women – has cleared the way for such public displays of intimidation and exclusion.
The state-run TVP, far-removed from upholding any basic journalistic standards, has served as a powerful propaganda machine, relentlessly spreading misinformation, divisive and alienating rhetoric about supposed threats to Poland’s sovereignty and way of life.
When in late October women took to the streets to peacefully protest the barbaric anti-abortion ruling by PiS’s politicized judicial organ. TVP’s commentary included headlines like; “leftist extremism ruining Poland ”, “leftist fascism attacks Polish values” or “leftist hooligans attack churches”, and blamed the protests for the government’s failures in covid-19 management.
The “Independence March” received considerably more favourable commentary from TVP, with headlines such as: “the great patriot march”, “Independence March” or “hooligan provocations against the Independence March”, blatantly attempting to distance the event from the violent clashes police had faced, instead blaming the police or non-existent opposition provocators.
Women’s protests were not only safe and peaceful, but also a proportional response to a government curbing citizen’s fundamental rights in the middle of a pandemic, without input and consultation from women’s rights and health experts.
The same cannot be said about the illegal “Independence March” attended in the main by far-right, white, males who have comparatively little reason for grievance.
Organisers made speeches on the national duty to protect the traditional family structure, as if it were under threat in any meaningful way.
Nonetheless, it may be reasonable to suspect that at least some who felt strongly about taking part in Wednesday’s events, could have gotten that impression from continued exposure to TVP’s headlines. Repeatedly reading headlines like, “LGBT ideology is ruining the family”, “attack on Polish values” or “attack on Poland”.
The PiS government has long engaged in a rhetoric of fear-mongering to mobilize electoral support, without consideration for the long-term adverse societal effects, a glimpse of which far-right hooligans displayed on Wednesday.
Perhaps the most chilling act of enabling had been committed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the PiS party and Chief of the Security Committee (a position created especially for him).
Who, in his response to the women’s peaceful protests, took to Facebook to call on his supporters to mobilize and protect against what he called “nihilism”; against the “very bad portions of our society” who “want to destroy Poland”; and to “protect Poland and protect the Nation”.
His address was interpreted by many as reckless endangerment, encouraging violence in the streets.
The PiS government denies any responsibility for the violent and unsafe proceedings of Wednesday’s “Independence March”, and it is mostly free to do so. To prove responsibility of speech as a cause of violence in the court of law is notoriously tricky to do. Particularly in a country without an independent judiciary.
However, the government’s responsibility in its most reductionist form is to ensure the safety of the community from which the state’s legitimacy derives. In failing to address and condemn the anti-social behavior of far-right hooligans, the PiS government is failing on the basic principle of the social contract, concomitantly comprising its legitimacy.
While in the short-run PiS may see it as beneficial to turn a blind eye to appease the far-right, in the long-run it has sowed the seeds of its own destruction. PiS has planted doubts over its claim to legitimacy in the minds of those they need the most to exercise it – the Police.
Thoughts and Observations on Polish Media Freedom