Poland

An illustrated guide to the symbols of Polish protests

Umbrellas, candles, a white eagle with a rainbow. Read our guide to the most powerful symbols that arose from protests on Polish streets in the past few years

Poland, the poster child of peaceful 1989/1990 transitions in Eastern Europe, has again appeared in the headlines around the world. This time, however, it wasn’t because of the surprisingly smooth transition from authoritarianism to democracy, but because of the rapid pace of authoritarian deterioration of the fragile liberal democracy, as evidenced by the government’s annexation of the independent judiciary, recurrent attacks on women’s rights, or homophobic outbursts.

Polish civil society, although not as vibrant as at the end of the 1980s, has engaged in numerous protests in the past few years. Here is a short guide to some of the symbols associated with the most recent social mobilizations in Poland.

Women’s strike logo

This symbol was displayed by the band Pearl Jam during their concert in Kraków on July 3rd, 2018, garnering fresh attention for the movement to protect women’s rights in Poland. If you follow the EU politics, you might have also seen it at the desk of Tania González Peñas, Spanish EMP from Podemos. She put up a poster with the logo and hashtags #StopTheBan and #SolidarityWithPolishWomen during the debate with the Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki about the independence of the judiciary in Poland. In her speech, González Peñas also referred to the recurring attempts to further restrict access to abortion. Right now, abortion in Poland is allowed only under three cases: if the pregnancy is a result of the penal deed if it poses threat to the woman’s health or life, or if the fetus is damaged. The most recent draft law submitted by a fundamentalist Catholic group Ordo Iuris (with the blessing of authorities of the Catholic Church) proposed to eliminate the last condition.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański

The logo itself was designed by Ola Jasionowska for the nationwide Black Protest in October 2016  against a law proposal that banned abortion entirely. The design has become the basis of the logo for the International Women’s Strike. It has also been adopted in other countries, often acquiring different context-specific elements. For example, in Paraguay, the logo depicts a woman with a braid and in the United States, it depicts a black woman.

Women’s strike logo. Photo by Jakub Szafrański

Umbrellas

The protests in October 2016 gave rise to another symbol – umbrellas. It happened quite by accident: as it usually occurs in the fall, the weather that day was bad so people wanted to protect themselves from the rain. Only after the fact, when the bird’s-eye view photos from one of the protests started circulating online, it became clear that umbrellas were a defining feature of that mobilization.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański

Umbrellas have been used repeatedly during other protests for reproductive rights in Poland, despite improved weather conditions. They were also used during  #NiUnaMenos protests in Buenos Aires on October, 19th in 2016. It is difficult to say to what extent the reference to the Polish Black Protest was intentional, because it rained that day in the capital city of Argentina, too. Nonetheless, it made a lasting impression.

Umbrellas resurfaced yet again in a different context: on rainy May 26th, 2018 protesters gathered to express their solidarity with people with disabilities occupying the building of the Polish parliament. The umbrellas became a symbol of the alliance of feminist groups and those fighting for the rights of disabled people in Poland.

Candles

Usually linked to commemorations like All Saints Day, in the past two years, candles have also become a symbol of nationwide protests. First at the “Chain of Light” rally that took place in the evening of July 16th, 2017 in front of the Polish Supreme Court, when the parliament was proceeding with the vote to effectively undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Chain of Light Protest in 2017. Photo by Jakub Szafrański

Most recently, candles have been brought to the same place on July 3rd, 2018. Protesters were showing their solidarity with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Małgorzata Gersdorf. The Law and Justice government and President Andrzej Duda tried to oust her from her position using a statute that explicitly violates the constitutionally defined tenure of the Chief Justice. The status of her position remains unclear at the time of this article’s publication.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański

“KONSTYTUCJA” poster

The poster “Konstytucja” was created in 2016 by Luka Rayski, a designer and illustrator, at the request of the Democracy Illustrated (Demokracja Ilustrowana) art project. Participants were asked what modern patriotism meant to them. Rayski came up with a design that is very simple but very powerful and saturated with symbolism. In Polish, “Konstytucja” is “Constitution”. The emboldened “TY” means “you” and “JA” means “me”; white and red are the colors of the Polish national flag.

Konstytucja posters at a protest. Photo by Jakub Szafrański

The poster became a symbol of struggle in defense of constitutionalism, rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary in July a year later, during the protests at the Presidential Palace and the Senate. At this time, the parliament was proceeding with three statutes effectively undermining the independence of the judiciary. At first, the posters were brought by a few random people, only later Rayski and his friends decided to print more of them (by now at least several thousand). Fun fact: the original submitted to Demokracja Ilustrowana had a black background but since the group expected to print the poster using an office printer, they changed it to gray to lower the costs.

Recently, at the request of the LGBTQ association Stonewall Group, Rayski substituted the gray background with a multicolored rainbow background.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański

In 2018 the poster received the Józef Morszczak Award at the 26th International Poster Biennale in Warsaw.

Speaking of rainbow backgrounds…

The white eagle against the rainbow background

One would think that in a Catholic country, the rainbow should be a symbol of the covenant God established with Noah after the Deluge. Well, not in Poland. Here it is a symbol of “the gays” and therefore by definition dangerous and insulting.

“The rainbow flag of Poland,” designed by Angela Getler, was used for the first time during Warsaw Pride in 2014. It takes the well-known red and white flag of Poland and replaces the red stripe with the bright rainbow colors of the International Pride flag. The red background of the white eagle is substituted with a bright rainbow, too. At the time, however, it didn’t capture much attention.

It was used again this year during Pride in Częstochowa, the city that is a pilgrimage destination for the Catholics and in the past couple years also for the nationalists and neo-fascists.

T-shirts are available on outandproud.pl. Designed by Angela Getler

The white eagle against the rainbow background would not make it to this list without some help from the minister of interior Joachim Brudziński. Noticing pictures from the Częstochowa pride, he announced on Twitter that the combination of a rainbow background and the white eagle insults Polish coat of arms and will be reported to the prosecutor’s office as a possible violation of the statute protecting national symbols. While absurd and clearly homophobic, this action might end in convictions, given how selective and arbitrary the enforcement of the laws protecting national symbols is.

But Brudziński’s action backfired. Now there are Facebook filters for profile pictures with captions such as “rainbow doesn’t insult,” Polish liberal politician Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus posted a picture of her with a similar sign, and a left-wing clothing company Lewacka Szmata issued t-shirts with a similar print. Dollars to doughnuts that the symbol will reappear during upcoming protests as a symbol of openness against bigotry.

The “Falanga”

Photo by Jakub Szafrański

We wish we didn’t have to include this symbol in our guide but, unfortunately, we cannot ignore it.

The symbol pictured above is “Falanga”, the emblem of the National Radical Camp (in Poland known under an acronym ONR), an extreme-right organization that takes its name and ideology from the pre-second World War Polish organization. At their marches, they like to shout about “great white Poland”, profess their conviction that Catholicism is tied to the essence of “Polishness” (what does that mean, anyway?), and wish death to the enemies of the fatherland (i.e. anybody who disagrees with them).

The ONR followers are obsessed with homosexuals and migrants – they hate them yet cannot stop talking about them. Their aesthetic references leave no doubt about their political profile either: military-style marches with flags, armbands with the symbol of the organization, a uniformed appearance, brown shirts, black ties, a tiki torch here and there. You know, the usual fascist stuff.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański

But jokes aside. This organization and the extreme right, in general, has become more present and emboldened since the victory of the Law and Justice party in 2015. The ruling party, with their homophobic and xenophobic (and sometimes openly racist) rhetoric, definitely encourages them. It goes beyond the greater visibility of the right-wing slogans: police data show that hate crimes have risen significantly in the past three years. The ONR has also received attention and support from some of the Catholic church officials in Poland.

Thankfully, they are still a fringe movement. Their idol is Jacek Międlar, an ex-priest whose virulent nationalism, racism, and antisemitism proved too much even for the Polish church (his recent book is entitled “My fight for the truth” – the first two words being a not-so-subtle reference to Mein Kampf by we-know-who). And while the extreme right nationalists are visible and here to stay, electorally they remain rather insignificant for the time being.

Bio

Jan Smoleński
Currently a PhD candidate at the Politics Department of the New School for Social Research in New York. Graduate of the University of Warsaw (philosophy) and Central European University in Budapest (political science). Recipient of the Fulbright scholarship. His research interests include democratic theory, constitutionalism, federalism, and borders and bordering. In 2008-2011 he worked as a journalist for Krytyka Polityczna website. His articles and interviews were published in Gazeta Wyborcza, Rzeczpospolita, Krytyka Polityczna, Public Seminar, Green Europe Journal, and Critical Legal Thinking. He is the author of Odczarowanie. Z artystami o narkotykach rozmawia Jan Smoleński.

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