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Mass protests against abortion ban and the awakening of Polish civil society

Elżbieta Korolczuk | 12 June 2017

On Monday, 3 October 2016, over 100,000 women took to the streets in 146 Polish cities and villages. The protests – now known as Black Monday – were a reaction against a total ban on abortion submitted to the Polish parliament. However, in light of Poland’s recent political developments, the Black Monday protests were about much more than that. They were a manifestation of the growing anger and frustration felt by Polish people, who took to the streets to reclaim their democratic rights and freedoms.  

Heading towards Castle Square to join the main demonstration, I was expecting just another rally of a couple of thousand people: such demonstrations had been organized in the spring and early autumn, after the proposal to ban abortion was announced. However, history proved me wrong. The closer I got to the square, the thicker the crowd grew and, long before I reached my destination, all I saw around me were women clad in black, their umbrellas the only splash of colour on the streets, many carrying handmade banners with phrases such as ‘Fighting Polish woman!’, ‘The government is not a pregnancy – it can be easily removed’,  or ‘Keep your rosaries out of my ovaries!’. When I finally managed to get to the terrace at the top of a nearby tower, the view was simply breath taking: tens of thousands of protesters had already gathered and more people were coming from every direction, like a black sea swarming Castle Square. The sound was like a football stadium on game night: the powerful roar of angry crowds like the rolling of thunder, energy vibrating in the air. Was this a revolutionary moment? It certainly felt like one.

From online protests to mass mobilization 

No one expected that the proposed total ban on abortion would be met with such forceful resistance. However, the dismissive statements of the ruling party’s representatives and their open contempt toward protesting women fuelled contention, which spread like wildfire. New online networks were formed in April 2016 and, in cooperation, with existing organizations and informal groups, as well as some oppositional political parties, participants moved from online protests to offline mass mobilization in a matter of days. Crowds took to the streets in cities throughout the country, starting with small-scale protests ranging from a few hundred to several thousand participants. Demonstrations continued to grow, reaching their peak on 3 October. Facing mass mobilization and wide social support for the so-called Black Protests, the ruling populist and socially-conservative Law and Justice party finally gave in on 6 October 2016 and rejected the anti-abortion bill. The Polish women won, thanks to their determination, skilful use of online and offline mobilizing tools, and effective use of popular symbols, as well as the close cooperation between various organizations, grass-roots networks and parties (Korolczuk, 2017; Majewska, 2016).

Polish ‘squares of resistance’ and the future of civil society

But Black Monday was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was one of a series of mobilizations that Poland has witnessed over the last year. These recent waves of grass-roots mobilizations are a clear sign that Polish civil society – which is routinely viewed by scholars and commentators as weak, fragmented, bureaucratized or still ‘in the making’ – has finally awakened and that the Polish people are able and willing to engage in political activism. Mass demonstrations, rallies and petitions, often initiated and coordinated by individuals or grass-roots networks, became widespread in Poland in late 2015, following the parliamentary elections won by the Law and Justice party. 

In contrast to demonstrations in Spain and Greece, or the 2017 Romanian anti-corruption protests, the Polish ‘squares of resistance’ emerged not due to the global economic crisis, but rather due to attempts by the Law and Justice party to dismantle the basic tenets of liberal democracy, such as the separation of judicial and executive powers, independent media and women’s rights. As David Ost aptly put it, the Law and Justice party “has pursued an uncompromising revolution from above that abandons the institutions of liberal democracy and any ethos of compromise in favor of an unchallenged monopoly of power” (Ost, 2016). Since November 2015, large-scale reforms were introduced by the government at an amazing speed. The new government paralyzed the Constitutional Court, restricted human rights and freedoms, and took total control of public media. At the same time regular communication channels between citizens and authorities, such as public consultations, were shut down. What followed was the normalization and growing popularity of street protests: these squares of resistance remained one of few venues where citizens could still express their opinion.

From small one-issue protests to general mass protests

In the heightened political climate and with the growing polarization of Polish society, many people with no prior activist experience joined the resistance, both as participants and leaders. This development largely accounts for the massive turnout for the demonstrations against the abortion ban on 3 October: these protests are riding the wave of the overall mobilization of  Poland’s civil society. The networks that initially formed to oppose the abortion ban – including the All-Polish Women’s Strike – have broadened their scope and are now also addressing other issues, including freedom of assembly, LGBTQ rights, and education reform. Additionally, research has found that among those attending the Black Monday Protests were many of Poland’s young generation, who are generally regarded as sceptical about democracy and liberal values, and most receptive to populism and radicalism (Kucharczyk & Łada, 2017). According to the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS), 48% of respondents who were 25 years old or younger said that they took part in the protests, and 70% of 25–34 year olds said that they support the mobilization (CBOS, 2016). Such high levels of youth participation, combined with the fact that the protest networks are broadening their scope, gives rise to hope about the future of Polish civil society. Despite this recent energy, however, the question remains: to what extent can the mass protests bring about complex, long-term, tangible political change, especially when faced with a non-responsive state and operating in the context of a global crisis of liberal democracy?

Lessons for civil society research  

Finally, there is an important lesson to be learnt from the Black Monday Protests in Poland by scholars, commentators and practitioners; a lesson concerning the ways in which we conceptualize civil society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and beyond. First of all, the successful mobilization of Polish women indicates the need to pay more attention to informal or semi-organized grass-roots types of civic engagement that do not necessarily formalize into non-governmental organizations and that emerge spontaneously, mobilizing the masses in ways that traditional NGOs are generally not able to. Secondly, we should be attentive to the normative assumptions that inform the ideal of ‘civil society’, which often result in the exclusion of actors that employ ‘uncivil’, rebellious and radical tactics to achieve their goals. In the past, many groups employing tactics seen as ‘radical’ – such as tenants refusing to leave the building they were evicted from or labour unionists burning tyres in front of ministries – have been qualified as not ‘civil’ enough to be included in the mainstream definition of civil society (Jacobsson & Korolczuk, 2017). Similarly, many participants in the Black Monday Protests were also accused (mostly by the right-wing media) of being aggressive and ‘militant’. However, in the heightened political climate in Poland today, awareness is growing that political struggle is not always won by ‘civil’ means. Hence, our definition of civil society should be broadened in line with the political reality we find ourselves in. Finally, we should acknowledge the emergence of new, openly-politicized civil society groups and networks that denounce their predecessors’ commitment to being ‘apolitical’ and tendency to accept the role of auxiliary infrastructure legitimizing the existing system. Many of the women who took part in the recent demonstrations or led the protests stressed that their goal was to directly influence the political system, while at the same time declaring their mistrust of NGOs, which they perceive as being not able or willing to effectively put pressure on those in power. As the world around us changes, so do the character, functions and forms of civil society: we all need to acknowledge these transformations to be able to face what lies ahead.

References:

CBOS (2016) ‘Polacy o prawach kobiet, ‘czarnych protestach’ i prawie aborcyjnym’ [Polish people on women’s rights, ‘Black Protests’ and abortion law], http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2016/K_165_16.PDF

Jacobsson, K & Korolczuk, E (eds.) (2017) Civil society revisited: lessons from Poland. New York: Berghahn Books.

Korolczuk, E (2017) ‘Explaining mass protests against abortion ban in Poland: the power of connective action’, Zoon Politicon (forthcoming)

Kucharczyk, J & Łada, A (2017) Akceptacja, reforma czy rozstanie? Młodzież z 6 państwa członkowskich UE wobec integracji Europejskiej. Warsaw: The Institute for Public Affairs.

Majewska, E (2016) ‘Słaby opór i siła bezsilnych. #CzarnyProtest w Polsce 2016’ [Weak resistance and power of the powerless. #BlackProtest in Poland 2016], Praktyka Teoretyczna, 10 November 2016,  http://www.praktykateoretyczna.pl/tag/czarny-protest/

Ost, D (2016) ‘Regime change in Poland, carried out from within’, The Nation, 8 January 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/regime-change-in-poland-carried-out-from-within