Poland's National Independence Day, traditionally celebrated on November 11, ended in violence this year. Young right-wing Poles torched cars, threw stones at police and even attacked and set fire to the Russian Embassy in Warsaw during a march organized by a nationalist movement. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades, then detained around a dozen individuals from a group of a few hundred mostly masked men who began the march.
Over the last few years, Warsaw's inhabitants anticipate Independence Day with mixed feelings of fear and disgust. Usually a festive day that is supposed to unite Polish citizens in a joyful celebration of independence regained in 1918 after more than 100 years of foreign rule, this one turned out to be quite the opposite. Political discourse over the issue of patriotism and ways of expressing one's national pride was dominated by the definitions and viewpoints of right-wing nationalist and neo-fascist groups.
telefon od babci (płaczącym prawie głosem): “Anuszka, a jak Ty wczoraj tą niepodległość przeżyłaś?!” :D:D
— p_ministra (@p_ministra) November 12, 2013
My grandma called me today (with a teary voice): Anuszka, how did you survive this independence yesterday?!
This tendency has recently been highly supported by the media, which have been looking for controversial content to improve their ratings. It has become clear that only the few “true Poles” will be defining what it actually means to be a patriot. It has also become obvious that the definitions of patriotism provided by these few are tremendously narrow and based on the drastic exclusion of many groups identified as “alien elements”.
And so the spiral began towards the violent events of November 11, 2013 during a ring-wing march organized by All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) in Warsaw. During this march, a group of masked men attacked two squats in downtown of Warsaw and set fire to artistic installation [pl, photos] “The Rainbow” – a representation supporting LGBT rights, located in the most popular nightlife area of the city – then proceeded to attack the Russian Embassy. Poland Talks, a blog that follows social struggles in Poland, tweeted:
— PolandTalks (@PolandTalks) November 11, 2013
Poland seems to be painfully helpless in this matter, not for lack of trying to find a solution though. In the past few years, some attempts to block marches like this one were quite successful, but many now believe that they just escalated the violence instead of reducing it. So a decision was made this year to, instead of banning their march, organize an alternative march on a different day for those who refuse to support the exclusive definition of belonging by these ring-wing groups and believe in a broader one.
This alternative march was organised on November 9, 2013 by a coalition of organisations dubbed Together Against Nationalism, and it had a significant turnout.
A statement by coalition organisers said:
We turn to you on the 75th anniversary Kristallnacht in Germany when hordes of Nazis, with the support of the state apparatus, intensified the persecution of the Jewish minority. Europe today is reminiscent of the times of the Great Depression. As a result of social exclusion there is increased support for the violence embedded in nationalist, racist and fascist ideas.[...]
The most effective way to combat these sick ideas is with social self-organisation. In Poland local groups of antifascists have brought about the cancellation of many events organised by the nationalists. We have also blocked the attempt by the National Movement to make inroads into the academic world. We will allow neither the tragic events of the past nor the present incidents to pass unnoticed.
Immediately after the riots started, many questioned why the city's authorities were not prepared for the expected violence. Since authorities were never very fond of the squats, it is suspected by some that the police were somehow instructed to do nothing during the attack and let the hooligans do the job that the city isn't allowed to. A statement published by the inhabitants of Squat Syrena [pl] said:
Today, on Independence Day, the police maintained constant patrol over the streets Skorupki and Wilcza where the autonomous spaces Syrena and Przychodnia are located.
About 3:30 PM, the nationalist March of Independence moved through the city center. The police troops standing guard near Skorupki street dispersed and disappeared.
Simultaneously, a several dozen-strong group of neo-Nazi demonstrators arrived. They broke the chains at the gate and entered the site. Armed with machetes, bottles, and clubs, they proceded to attack the people inside. At the moment, Syrena’s quarters held eight children aged 3 to 14, among other persons.
The greatest damage was done to Przychodnia – with cars burned and destroyed, people injured, and windowpanes knocked out. For about thirty minutes – due to the police forces’ retreating – we were forced to defend ourselves on our own. Had it not been for our firm response, the scene would have ended in tragedy: the neo-Nazi attackers were ready to kill.
This is what your ‘patriotism’ looks like today. Every single person taking part in the Independence March shares the responsibility for the attacks on homes of evicted families, of the elderly, of people with disabilities and all those who cannot afford neither their rent nor a 30-year bank loan.
This is reality in Warsaw today – those in power evict, the fascists strike.
We will endure both.
The following day, many Warsaw citizens showed their solidarity with the values under attack by decorating the burnt rainbow and creating Facebook groups demanding that the guilty parties rebuild it themselves.
There were many, who highlighted the right of citizens to march under any circumstances, blaming organisational skills of the march leaders rather than the general attitude of it's participants:
It's true – the Independence March was not perfect. But it was better than a year ago. And Poland with this March is better then on without it!
Hanna Kozłowska, a Polish blogger writing for Foreign Policy Blog highlighted the influence of the change in political moods over the last years on the events of November 11, 2013:
While the nationalist hooligans make up a fringe group, their actions reflect a larger shift in Polish society. With the once vigorous economic growth falling from 4.5 percent in 2011 to 1.8 in 2012, the unemployment rate high at 13%, Poles are increasingly dissatisfied with their government, the European Union and their lives. Polls indicate that the main conservative party, Law and Justice which has been out of power since 2007, is now gaining support over the centrist, pro-European Civic Platform, idle and incompetent in the eyes of many.