Traffic in the city centre was blocked as thousands of people marched towards the Law and Justice (PiS) headquarters in Cracow. There were grave candles, the Aborcyjny Dream Team phone number written on the pavement, Maria Peszek’s songs playing, and throats became sore from shouting. People stood in the windows, ramming pots and waving banners to the cheering crowd. It was loud, huge and pulsatory with both rage and euphoric hope. And the single moment when someone chanted ‘jebać PiS!’ (‘fuck PiS’), thousands of other voices gladly responded.
The streets have spoken following the Constitutional Court’s decision regarding one of only three premises upon which abortion is legal in Poland and ruling it as unconstitutional. However, the fact that the Constitutional Court is now widely critiqued to be controlled by the ruling party, and there have been many poor decisions made by the government during the COVID–19 pandemic, influenced the overall dissatisfaction that also played its role. The streets have spoken, and the way they have done so not only stirred debates but turned out to be truly unique.
‘Wake up, samurai’
‘Wypierdalać’ (‘Get the fuck outta here’), ‘To jest wojna’ (‘This is war’), ‘Trzeba było nas nie wkurwiać’ (‘Shouldn’t have pissed us off’), ‘Myślę – czuję – decyduję’ (‘I think – I feel – I decide’), ‘Rewolucja jest kobietą’ (’Revolution is a woman’), ‘Kiedy państwo mnie nie chroni, mojej siostry będę bronić’ (‘When my country doesn’t protect me, I’ll be stand by my sister’s side’). These are just a few of the most popular slogans chanted at the protests. Yet the most common remains ‘Jebać PiS,’ also symbolised by eight stars (***** ***) – censored version of the slogan, deriving from the internet ‘Eight Stars Movement’, which banteringly critiques the ruling party.
It is said that the youth dominated the streets, with their language of memes, techno music and sarcastic humour. That the protests are also a war of generations. Although people of all ages are demonstrating, there is much truth to it. Witty language of the protesters has even evoked academic interest. It is being compared to the Orange Alternative (an anti-communist happening movement known for its teasing, youthful humour). Michał Rusinek, a renowned linguist, commented on the slogans every week in ‘Wysokie Obcasy’ magazine. The Museum of Gdańsk announced that they’d be collecting banners to preserve them for the next generations and protesting organisers in Warsaw created the ‘Forest of Banners’ installation next to the Museum of Contemporary Art. And rightly so.
Creativity and wit of the banners were truly astonishing and received a response by photos of them circulating on social media. Many emphasised the independence of the body (‘Keep the social distance to my uterus’, ‘Compromise? I’ll decide about my uterus, you’ll decide about yours’). There were references to fictional dystopias such as Orwell, ‘Black Mirror,’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ which remained one of the most resonating, and to the real totalitarian systems (‘Our parents overthrew communism, we’ll overthrow PiS’). Lots of banners were inspired by culture, both classical (‘Per aspera ad ***** ***’, ‘Annushka has already spilled the oil’) and modern (‘Wake up, samurai, we have a government to overthrow’). Others reminded that also transgender men and non–binary people may need abortion (‘People’s with uterus rights’). Some were truly dramatic (‘Even the introverts are here, it’s that bad’), some bitterly humorous (‘I’ll bear you a leftist’). Many referenced to the politicians, especially Law and Justice’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński (‘The cat can stay, the rest get the fuck out’ – Kaczyński is an elderly bachelor with a cat, which somehow results in many jokes). Also, in a country, where Catholic Church remains one of the most influential institutions, it is worth noting the number of slogans aimed at the Church (‘For this is MY body’, ‘I’m a Catholic, but also a citizen’). The list goes on.
‘We are very discontent’
However, it was the strong language that gained national attention and became a controversy. Many politicians, journalists and internauts expressed their resentment towards the vulgarity of the demonstrations. For instance, Konrad Piasecki, a journalist, wrote on Twitter that ‘Style, language and postulates of Women’s Strike is a straightforward way to ridicule and compromise the protests.’ Some people claimed that profanities discouraged them from demonstrating in the first place, and would only cause people to turn their backs on the case.
There was an instant backlash from the side of protesters and allies. Michał Danielewski wrote for Oko Press that focusing on the strong language during demonstrations is simply an attempt to distract from the main point – women’s rights that have been brutally violated. Those are the new regulations that are cruel and obscene – not the slogans (especially on the nonviolent protests). The very aim of profanities, as some linguists remind us, is to express both, rage and helplessness. Abortion ban has evoked strong emotional responses and, after all, the Polish language seems to be especially expressive and rich in this matter. There have already been attempts to dialogue diplomatically about legal abortion, ever since the 1990s – yet they turned out to be ineffective. Curses, by breaking the decorum, at least make people listen.
Others, including Jola Szymańska or Magdalena Adamus, have also raised an issue of societal expectations for women to behave obediently and politely. Swearing in public space is associated with unmannerliness and breaking the taboo. Both being especially condemned when they come from women, stereotypically considered more ‘delicate’ and ‘well-behaved.’ Calling a female ‘aggressive’ aims to diminish her position as a ‘real woman,’ which is assumed to be motherly and rarely raise her voice. This ‘discrepancy’ observed at the demonstrations triggered discomfort and attempts to scold the protesters. Isn’t it a part of patriarchal discourse – expecting that women will be fighting for their rights with a proper language and, hopefully, a smile? Should they be exclaiming ‘We are very discontent’ – as an interviewed woman on TV responded when the journalist asked her to say something different than ‘We’re here because we’re fucked off’?
The protesters ironically picked it up, for instance, writing ‘We kindly ask you to leave at once’ or ‘I was discontent in 2016’ – incidentally speaking, the year of an attempt to tighten Polish abortion law, followed by first outbreak of mass protests. And actually, the slogans, such as ‘My Uterus, My Opinion’ or... ‘We are fucking angry,’ were already used back then. And such ‘profanities’ were also widely critiqued. It is striking, however, that they remain so controversial four years later.
Embracing the discomfort
There is something bitterly paradoxical that the protesters are expected to act politely. Similar objections were raised last summer when Stop Bzdurom (Stop Nonsense, Polish anarcho-queer collective) hung Pride flag on the statue of Christ in Warsaw. It was debated whether it was not ‘too much,’ while the collective was accused of breaking the blasphemy law, violating religious symbols and barriers of good taste.
But isn’t causing discomfort the very point of protests? They aim to draw attention to the problem of oppression and to show that beneath the calm surface lies violence and injustice. Of course, not everyone is comfortable with screaming ‘Fuck the police.’ Of course, we may discuss whether domination of strong language has not taken space that should be reserved for pro-choice and feminist slogans. But there is something utterly improper in telling women who are protesting against taking away their freedoms, how they should protest and act. We are infuriated. When one is infuriated, one needs to express it.
There is this one slogan that I find especially powerful. ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ When I looked at the demonstrating crowd in Cracow, for a moment I felt hope that no one ever will. And when the protest’s organiser shouted ‘You’re fucking amazing!’, I couldn’t help but think - I guess we fucking are.