“They’re uncompromising”: How the young transformed Poland’s abortion protests

Young people have swelled the ranks of the pro-choice movement and the effects have been palpable. As one organiser explained, “Young people are uncompromising, they do not want…

Young people have swelled the ranks of the pro-choice movement and the effects have been palpable. As one organiser explained, “Young people are uncompromising, they do not want to get along. They have grown up with a sense of freedom and now someone wants to take it away from them”. 

That uncompromising attitude is evident in the radical language on display. Popular chants include, “This is war” and “Revolution is a woman” and, blunter still, “Get the fuck out!” and “Fuck PiS”. The latter is often written censored as eight asterisks, which has been adopted as the name and emblem of another anti-government protest movement, Eight Stars. The chant is even used in the chorus of a popular protest song – to the tune of Eric Prydz club hit ‘Call On Me’ – which has received several million views on YouTube.

The explicit language has created a stir among the political class and both conservative and liberal commentators. It has been embraced only by the country’s few left-wing MPs, who sometimes appear on TV with placards reading “***** ***”. 

The language of the protests is colourful in more ways than one. As the sociologist and anthropologist, Dr Magdalena Muszel, said to a local newspaper, Dziennik Bałtycki: “It is a response of protesting young men and women to reality, written in the language of memes, songs, school readings, video games, films, TV series. Memes are for young people a source of information, a commentary on reality, many of these people are not only recipients but also creators of memes, who count on their popularity. That is why there is total freedom of slogans and full, creative freedom on the boxes”. 

Some slogans are political, but there’s a lot of humor, too, with signs reading “I wish you’d step on LEGO”, “Handmaid’s Tale is not a tutorial!”, and “It’s so bad, even the introverts are here”.

A widening generational divide

The Polish presidential elections in June, which the PiS incumbent Andrzej Duda won by a narrow margin, exposed the country’s deep generational divides. Duda won a majority only among Poles aged 50 or over. Almost two-thirds of 18-29 year-olds voted for his liberal rival, Rafał Trzaskowski.

This frustration has been articulated by a new, derogative catchphrase for the older generation – dziaders. There’s no direct English translation, but it echoes the mocking Generation Z jibe, “OK boomer”. The term encapsulates not only a rejection of the previous generation’s approach to politics, but also their moral authority and patriarchal values. This includes a rejection of the Polish Catholic church, which has been a target of the protests for its anti-abortion lobbying. While support for the Catholic church remains high in Poland, religiosity is declining faster than any other country, particularly among the young, according to a 2019 Pew survey.  

It also doubles as a literary reference to the title of Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece ‘Dziady’. The poetic drama became a symbol of resistance towards the Polish People’s Republic after it’s staging was banned by the government in 1968. In October this year, protesters alluded to this history by performing the play outside the home of Jarosław Kaczyński, the co-founder of PiS and current deputy prime minister.

“Young people are afraid that they will be deprived of more freedoms, more rights, more spaces, that this is a dictatorship that will impose everything on them,” an protest organiser in Sochaczew, a town on the outskirts of Warsaw, told us.

History repeats itself

It’s not just the age of the participants that distinguishes the current protests from those of previous years – so, too, does the scale. In the first week of the protests, 410 events took place throughout the country, frequented by approximately 430,000 people, according to the police – likely a conservative estimate. 

Support for the protests has also come from different demographics. The political scientist, Anna Grzymała-Busse, points out that while the majority of protesters are young women, they have also mobilished “a far broader cross-section of Polish society, including rowdy soccer fans, union locals, tram and bus drivers, and hundreds of taxi drivers who blocked the streets of Warsaw so the protests could pass”. 

However there seems to be a split among football fans, as some have taken on Kaczyński’s plea to his Facebook followers to “defend churches”, which have become a target from protesters. Women have also been attacked by football ultras at protests in Wrocław, Poznań, and Białystok. In one instance a mob released tear gas and beat people with clubs. Police detained 37 people, many of whom were identified as football hooligans, during clashes at one of the largest protests to date in Warsaw. The far right’s tactics have been more elaborate: tending to separate into small groups and merge with the crowd before causing pockets of panic by attacking people. 

Occasionally commentators have drawn comparisons to the anti-government protests of May 1968. There are numerous similarities. Both are generational protests that reject the moral authority of older generations, and have involved the protesters breaking a number of cultural taboos. People in Poland have been talking more openly about their abortion experiences during the protests, and phone numbers of underground organisations helping people access safe abortions are being written on walls, as young women demand full control over their bodies and reproductive rights. Contrary to some public statements, the new generation of protesters on the streets are gaining their political subjectivity and expressing it in their own voice.

This text is based on research funded by the Polish-German Science Foundation (Deutsch-Polnische Wissenschaftsstiftung).

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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