© Amnesty International/Grzegorz Żukowski

Why we must support 14 women determined to fight hate in Poland

These women won’t accept increasing hate in Poland – and they’re not alone. Racism and hatred are spreading, not just in Poland but elsewhere in Europe, and measures to restrict free speech and protest gatherings are making it harder for voices challenging this to be heard. But during the annual Independence Day march in Warsaw in 2017, when many far-right protestors gathered calling for things like a ‘white Poland’, 14 women refused to let it go unchallenged. They headed to the Poniatowski bridge to peacefully confront this hatred.

© Amnesty International/Grzegorz Żukowski
What they encountered there was deeply disturbing. Hundreds of people brandishing racist and fascist symbols, messages saying things like ‘Europe will be white or deserted,’ and members of far-right groups and their sympathizers holding flares and throwing firecrackers. Undeterred by the aggression in the air, the women unfurled their own banner saying ‘Fascism stop’.

© Tomasz Stępień/OKO.press
Moments later, they came under attack. Several of the protestors were caught on camera kicking, hitting, spitting and verbally abusing the group of women. They were called “sluts”, “lefty scoundrels” and “whores”; they were pushed, jostled, grabbed by the neck and dragged onto the pavement, suffering injuries like bruises and cuts. One of the women lost consciousness after being picked up and dropped on the ground and needed medical help.

© Tomasz Stępień/OKO.press
Afterwards, despite footage documenting the violence, authorities decided to close the investigation into the attacks on the women. Adding insult to injury, they instead charged 13 of the women with obstructing a lawful assembly. The measures taken by the authorities are deeply worrying. Fines, prosecution and lack of protection by police are a direct threat to people’s right to protest and express differing views. Furthermore, this sends a message that racism and hatred will be tolerated while those peacefully challenging such dangerous views will be criminalised.

© Tomasz Stępień/OKO.press
The women appealed the decision of the Prosecutor not to investigate the attacks against them and on 13 February 2019, a judge ordered the investigation should be re-opened. This sends a positive message that violence won’t simply be tolerated or excused. However, the women are still fighting to have the fines against them for ‘disrupting a protest’ overturned. Such fines are an affront to freedom of assembly and expression in Poland. The women’s fight for justice continues.

© Amnesty International/Grzegorz Żukowski
We’ve been here before. But together we can make sure we never go there again. “I cannot believe that in Warsaw, a city that was raised to the ground during the Warsaw Uprising [in 1944] by fascists, there could be a time when fascists would march in the city centre and someone will be found guilty for trying to stop them.” Krzysztof Stępiński, lawyer representing the women.

© Tomasz Stępień/OKO.press
In the past two years since the Law and Justice party came to power, the government has made changes that have undermined the rule of law and human rights, including restrictions to freedom of expression and gatherings, as well as attempts to restrict women’s rights. Poland is becoming a place where the space for those who wish to express opposition to government policies and practices is increasingly shrinking. But these women won’t stand for it. And neither should any of us. Stand with them.

© Amnesty International/Grzegorz Żukowski