Jörg Schel­ler: Fran­cis­zek, you are the initia­tor and, toge­ther with others, orga­ni­zer of the so cal­led “Chain of Light Pro­tests” in Poz­nań. Thousands of peop­le from all parts of socie­ty have par­ti­ci­pa­ted in them to express their dis­con­tent with the pola­ri­za­ti­on of the Polish socie­ty and the poli­tics of the gover­ning right-wing natio­na­list par­ty PiS [Pra­wo i Spra­wi­ed­li­wość, i.e. Right & Jus­ti­ce]. How did you come up with the idea to gather peop­le on the Płac Wol­nosći and what are your inten­ti­ons?

Fran­cis­zek Ster­c­zew­ski (*1988) is an archi­tect and urban activist based in Poz­nań. 

Fran­cis­zek Ster­c­zew­ski: I lear­ned about the cand­le pro­tests in front of the Supre­me Court in War­saw on the inter­net. They are orga­ni­zed by the asso­cia­ti­on of jud­ges in War­saw, Ius­ti­tia Poland. I cal­led the asso­cia­ti­on and asked them if they would like to do the same action in Poz­nań and that I would like to sup­port it. They ans­we­red: no, we are focu­sing on War­saw. So go ahead, just do it yours­elf! And I deci­ded to do it, not least becau­se I have a long expe­ri­ence of orga­ni­zing public hap­pe­nings in Poz­nań and brin­ging peop­le toge­ther. But how to do it? I knew that peop­le would shout aggres­si­ve, pola­ri­zing slo­gans so I laid down some ground rules: no flags, no shou­ting, just silence – becau­se only through silence could we be toge­ther in the first place. That’s the only sound we all can under­stand. I thought that 500 peop­le would show up in July. But thousands came. That’s how it star­ted.

Silence can be a way of com­mu­ni­ca­ting as well. Depen­ding on the con­text, it can have a very spe­ci­fic mea­ning.

Exact­ly. And some­ti­mes it its much lou­der than the vul­gar lan­guage being used in poli­tics now. Not only in Poland, but also by Donald Trump, by Geert Wil­ders, by Mari­ne Le Pen. And I am real­ly fed up with this lan­guage.

The coar­se­ning of poli­ti­cal lan­guage is frigh­ten­ing. Ver­bal vio­lence is the door ope­ner for phy­si­cal vio­lence. And the door is wide open alre­ady…

In March this year I’ve been to Gdańsk to see the Second World War Muse­um. I wan­ted to go the­re befo­re PiS, the cur­r­ent­ly gover­ning natio­na­list par­ty in Poland] chan­ges the exhi­bi­ti­on. I spent five hours the­re, it’s a huge exhi­bi­ti­on. In the begin­ning the­re is a sec­tion about the time befo­re the war and about pro­pa­gan­da in all the tota­li­ta­ri­an coun­tries, for ins­tan­ce Ger­ma­ny, Ita­ly, Rus­sia. And it beca­me per­fect­ly clear that war starts with wor­ds, with pro­pa­gan­da in the media, and the way peop­le talk to each other. It made a huge impres­si­on on me. We have to fight for good lan­guage. We can’t just sit and wait for what will hap­pen next.

Many peop­le think that lan­guage is not an issue. Becau­se it is so omni­p­re­sent. Ever­yo­ne uses it. It feels natu­ral. We don’t think about it too much becau­se it is like bre­at­h­ing. But lan­guage is any­thing but natu­ral. We have to obser­ve and to react to chan­ges in lan­guage care­ful­ly. What Trump does, for ins­tan­ce, is may­be less dan­ge­rous than what he says and how he says it. As a poli­ti­ci­an, he has to grapp­le with insti­tu­tio­na­li­zed checks and balan­ces. But in terms of lan­guage, in his spee­ches, his inter­views and espe­ci­al­ly on soci­al media, he can ram­pa­ge without restraint.

This is a strong disea­se that we can not cure instant­ly. It will be years and years of work. I am drea­ming of a grass­roots move­ment in Poland that does not aim to chan­ge big poli­tics imme­dia­te­ly. We won’t chan­ge the top of the trees but may­be we will chan­ge their roots. And I am real­ly sho­cked that the poli­ti­cal oppo­si­ti­on in Poland does not see this. They do not have a good dia­gno­sis whe­re­as PiS actual­ly has a good dia­gno­sis of the socie­ty. They real­ly know about the people’s basic needs. Peop­le need flats, so they intro­du­ced the pro­gram Mieszka­nie+ [sub­si­di­zed hou­sing pro­gram]. Peop­le have kids, so they intro­du­ced the pro­gram 500+ [finan­ci­al sup­port for fami­lies, com­pa­ra­ble with “Kin­der­geld” in Ger­ma­ny]. That’s actual­ly very socia­list…

… even though PiS claims to be anti-socia­list, anti-com­mu­nist. Do you think the­se pro­grams are sustain­ab­le in the long-run?

I don’t know if they will real­ly chan­ge Poland. May­be they are just sym­bo­lic. It will take a few years to judge it. But any­way, just the way PiS talks about them – they real­ly try to com­mu­ni­ca­te with the less pri­vi­le­ged, the com­mon peop­le and the fami­lies. They have a posi­ti­ve poli­cy, a posi­ti­ve pro­gram, not just nega­ti­ve cri­ti­cism. And I think that the libe­ral and left-wing oppo­si­ti­on does not have a posi­ti­ve pro­gram, they don’t have a clear visi­on or may­be they just don’t sha­re their visi­on. They see that the pati­ent is ill but they don’t know how to cure him. They just want to chop off his arm becau­se it’s bro­ken.

From the per­spec­tive of an out­si­der, the poli­ti­cal oppo­si­ti­on in Poland in fact seems to be rather weak and inef­fi­ci­ent.

I’ll tell you what the oppo­si­ti­on does in Poz­nań at the moment. The libe­ral par­ty Nowo­c­zes­na was gathe­ring many peop­le. They had a huge pos­ter sho­wing the faces of tho­se poli­ti­ci­ans from PiS who had voted for the new supre­me court law which gives the Jus­ti­ce Minis­ter the power to con­trol it. Of cour­se this law is very bad. But sho­wing the­se faces on a pos­ter, that’s like in a Wes­tern movie – Wan­ted, dead or ali­ve! Isn’t this cra­zy? They name them­sel­ves Nowo­c­zes­na which means “the modern ones” but they use stra­te­gies from the 19th cen­tu­ry!

Fran­cis­zek Ster­c­zew­ski in Poz­nań, Source:

And if one con­tra­dicts oneself, one’s oppon­ents will pro­fit from it immen­se­ly…

Exact­ly. And that’s why I’ve been afraid that this crowd will move to a PiS office and break the win­dows or some­thing like this. That will be the worst – or rather the best, name­ly for PiS. It turns them into vic­tims. Hate, no mat­ter in which form, has an ener­gy that is like a boo­me­rang: it comes right back at you. But of cour­se this is real­ly hard to com­mu­ni­ca­te. Ever­yo­ne now feels more and more ent­it­led to express hate. And they don’t see that the hate will come back to haunt them.

Which brings us back to the ques­ti­on of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. How did the com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on with and among the pro­tes­ters on Płac Wol­nosći evol­ve?

During the­se actions we actual­ly found a dif­fe­rent kind of com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. The first time I went to the Płac Wol­nosći toge­ther with the judge Olim­pia Barańs­ka-Małus­zek from the asso­cia­ti­on Ius­ti­tia, we didn’t even use an ampli­fi­ca­ti­on sys­tem. I sim­ply told the atten­dants why I came here and that tho­se who agree with me should light a lamp. Małus­zek just read a state­ment by the jud­ges. And that was all.

That was day one. But cer­tain­ly the­re was some cri­ti­cism after­wards. I can ima­gi­ne that many peop­le argued that silence is insuf­fi­ci­ent in terms of poli­ti­cal activism.

In fact some peop­le com­p­lai­ned: what are you going to do with this silence! It won’t make an impres­si­on on PiS! I thought well, let’s make some noi­se then. But I saw the hate in this steaming crowd. So we had to find a way to deal with this emo­ti­on and to miti­ga­te the ten­si­ons. The first day I wel­co­med all the peop­le: “I wel­co­me the poli­ti­ci­ans, I wel­co­me the mecha­nics, I wel­co­me the tea­chers, I wel­co­me the lawy­ers, I wel­co­me all clas­ses of socie­ty”, and so on. Becau­se in my opi­ni­on, ever­yo­ne deser­ves an inde­pen­dent jus­ti­ce sys­tem, that is a fun­da­men­tal human right. That’s why I was gree­ting ever­yo­ne. But while I was doing this, peop­le star­ted to clap, so they actual­ly did not under­stand who I was gree­ting. The­re­fo­re the second day I intro­du­ced a new sche­me: I said “I wel­co­me the mecha­nics” and asked the crowd to clap only once. Then I said: “the cooks”. One clap. “The tea­chers”. One clap. And so on. So it beca­me more like a hip hop per­for­mance – guys, give me some noi­se! It was real­ly fun­ny becau­se we were gree­ting lef­ties, righ­ties, cen­trists – ever­yo­ne, as I said befo­re. I also deli­be­r­a­te­ly used PiS- and right-wing lan­guage. I said: “I wel­co­me vege­ta­ri­ans, bikers and intel­lec­tu­als”, that is, all the the peop­le PiS-poli­ti­ci­ans do not like.

I assu­me the events did not end with wel­co­m­ing the atten­dants?

After this we shou­t­ed not only nega­ti­ve, but also posi­ti­ve slo­gans and con­cre­te deman­ds, like “we want a veto!” [of the Polish pre­si­dent Andrzej Duda against the PiS reforms]. Howe­ver, we did not use any dero­ga­to­ry lan­guage. That was com­ple­te­ly for­bid­den. And after that the­re was ano­t­her sec­tion: Ever­yo­ne was invi­ted to speak in front of the crowd, except for poli­ti­ci­ans. I wan­ted to pre­vent par­ty poli­tics from instru­men­ta­li­zing the gathe­ring. So all sorts of peop­le spo­ke, socio­lo­gists, jud­ges, basi­cal­ly citi­zens. I was hap­py that the media were the­re, that they broad­cas­ted live from the Płac Wol­nosći when com­ple­te­ly ran­dom peop­le expres­sed their opi­ni­on in public. And of cour­se also voters of PiS were among them. This was com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent from the ongo­ing Polish-Polish war in the par­lia­ment. I did not expect this. But it tur­ned out to be at least an attempt to build a bridge over the gap that sepa­ra­tes PiS-voters from left and cen­ter-left voters. We all are dif­fe­rent. But it is pos­si­ble to coexist as long as we do not radi­ca­li­ze.

From my own obser­va­tions, radi­ca­li­za­ti­on in the Polish socie­ty, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in the so cal­led “midd­le of socie­ty”, beco­mes appa­rent above all in events com­me­mo­ra­ting important events in Polish histo­ry.

In this regard, it is inte­res­ting to com­pa­re Poz­nań and War­saw. On the 11th of Novem­ber, Poz­nań is cele­bra­ting Saint Martin’s day. Our main street car­ri­es his name. It is a fami­ly event, ever­y­bo­dy eats Roga­le Świę­to­m­ar­cińs­kie [a local spe­cial­ty], has fun and lis­tens to music being play­ed in front of the cast­le which was built by the Ger­mans as a resi­den­cy for the Kai­ser Wil­helm II. It is ama­zing that noo­ne thinks of this buil­ding as a Ger­man buil­ding any­mo­re. It is now a Poz­nańi­an buil­ding.

Howe­ver, on Novem­ber 11th Poland also cele­bra­tes the inde­pen­dence day. The­re are count­less events, with poli­ti­ci­ans deli­vering spee­ches, the army defiling and so on. Ever­yo­ne is utter­ly serious but actual­ly this day should be a day joy and hap­pi­ness. Natio­na­lists are also instru­men­ta­li­zing this day for their par­ti­cu­lar par­ty poli­tics. The inde­pen­dence march in War­saw is real­ly frigh­ten­ing becau­se some of the lea­ders of this march often shout racist and xeno­pho­bic slo­gans…

Which does not even make sen­se when one thinks of the patrio­tic ide­as of the first pre­si­dent of the Second Polish Repu­blic (1918–1939/45) Józef Piłsud­ski (1867–1935). On the one hand he was a mili­tant and aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an Socia­list-Natio­na­list-Roman­tic but on the other hand he was a Phi­lo­se­mi­te who envi­sio­ned the new­ly inde­pen­dent Poland as a mul­ti­cul­tu­ral, mul­ti­eth­nic Repu­blic in the tra­di­ti­on of the “gol­den era” in the 16th and 17th cen­tu­ry.

In Poland, we have two con­tra­dic­ting patrio­tic tra­di­ti­ons. One stems from, as you said, Józef Pił­sud­ski. The other stems from Roman Dmow­ski [1864–1939] who was a very chau­vi­nistic and anti­se­mi­tic poli­ti­ci­an. PiS is con­ti­nuing this tra­di­ti­on of natio­na­lism. It is no coin­ci­dence that the inde­pen­dence march in War­saw starts from the Dmow­ski Ron­do [Ron­do Roma­na Dmow­skie­go]. So this is how War­saw cele­bra­tes Novem­ber 11th. Once the­re was also a natio­na­list march in Poz­nań. The par­ti­ci­pants shou­t­ed “Poz­nań is a natio­nal city!” I published a com­ment on Face­book say­ing “Poz­nań is an inter­na­tio­nal city! This is what you should shout!” Becau­se in the 20th cen­tu­ry, the Poz­nań Inter­na­tio­nal Fair was the engi­ne of the city and shaped its iden­ti­ty. Right now the fair is still important but during com­mu­nism and even befo­re the Second World War, it was the main dri­ving force of the city. The­re are not so many cities in Poland with such an inter­na­tio­nal con­nec­tion. Poz­nań was – and con­ti­nues to be – a win­dow to the world. So our inter­na­tio­nal cha­rac­ter is our iden­ti­ty. If someo­ne does not see this, he is not a patri­ot but a hypo­cri­te. And I am proud that Poz­nań is not such a city whe­re peop­le burn tele­vi­si­on cars or fight with the poli­ce. We are buil­ding here a spi­rit of toge­ther­ness.

Pho­to of the first Chain of Light Pro­tests in Wars­zaw, Source:

Would you con­si­der Poz­nań as a strong­hold of libe­ral, inter­na­tio­na­list Poland?

May­be it is, but it is also divi­ded. And our major Jacek Jaś­ko­wiak is also par­ti­al­ly respon­si­ble for deepe­ning the­se divi­si­ons becau­se he is some­ti­mes pushing his pro­gres­si­ve agen­da too hard or he has good ide­as which he fails to com­mu­ni­ca­te pro­per­ly. He does many things right but he is not exp­lai­ning suf­fi­ci­ent­ly why he does what he does. Wro­cław, Słupsk and Tri­ci­ty [a metro­po­li­tan area inclu­ding the cities of Gdańsk, Gdy­nia and Sopot] are also libe­ral cities. Słupsk for ins­tan­ce is gover­ned by Robert Biedroń, who is the hope of the Polish left-wing and a gre­at com­mu­ni­ca­tor. So the­re is more than Poz­nań. On the other hand, Wro­cław is also home to radi­cal natio­na­lists. Not so long ago they even bur­ned a pup­pet of a Jew! It is incredi­ble. In Poz­nań, we are may­be more ratio­nal. Of cour­se we have right wing peop­le; of cour­se we have radi­cal groups. But I think they are smal­ler than else­whe­re.

In the 18th cen­tu­ry, it was pre­cise­ly inter­nal quar­rel and divi­ded­ness among the Poles which faci­li­ta­ted the decli­ne and final­ly the three par­ti­ti­ons of the Rze­cz­pos­po­li­ta. Had the Polish lea­ders shown a sen­se of unity or at least an under­stan­ding of the neces­si­ty of toge­ther­ness, it would not have been so easy for Prus­sia, Rus­sia and Aus­tria to con­quer and divi­de the Polish ter­ri­to­ries. And now the natio­na­lists divi­de the nati­on for the pur­por­ted sake of the nati­on. Is Poland in dan­ger of histo­ry repea­ting its­elf or rather: being repeated? And do you see your bi-par­ti­san or post-par­ti­san activi­ties in the civil socie­ty as an attempt to pre­vent this?

Last year we cele­bra­ted the 60th anni­ver­s­a­ry of the Poz­nań upri­sing against com­mu­nism. This was one of the sad­dest days in my life. In n Poz­nań, the­re was a gathe­ring with [the cur­rent] pre­si­dent Andrzej Duda [who has clo­se ties with PiS and is con­s­i­de­red as a pup­pet in the hands of PiS lea­der Jarosław Kac­zyń­ski] and for­mer pre­si­dent Lech Wałe­sa [one of the main prot­ago­nists in the Soli­dar­ność move­ment which ushe­red in the end of the Soviet Empi­re] which thousands of peop­le atten­ded. It took place in front of the memo­ri­al of the Poz­nań upri­sing near the cast­le. When Wałe­sa was speaking, some peop­le were clap­ping. Other peop­le were booing and shou­ting “go home, Bolek!” [Wałesa’s code name as dis­pu­ted agent of the Polish secret ser­vice during the com­mu­nist regime]. When Duda was speaking, the situa­ti­on was inver­sed. Some peop­le were clap­ping and the others were booing and shou­ting “go home!”. This was not a socie­ty. This was a gathe­ring of hos­ti­le tri­bes. Each tri­be had its own poli­cy and its own flag. The­re was also a group of radi­cals, foot­ball fans, shou­ting “once with the sick­le, once with the ham­mer!”, mea­ning: let’s crush com­mu­nism! But that was a mino­ri­ty, may­be 50 guys. For me, the divi­si­on bet­ween the rest of the gathe­ring was much sad­der. I thought “oh my good­ness, the civil war is just a mat­ter of time!” I was afraid of a Polish Mai­dan. In War­saw, I think a Mai­dan sce­n­a­rio is actual­ly pos­si­ble. That’s why this year, when I star­ted to orga­ni­ze the pro­tests in Poz­nań, I wan­ted to show an alter­na­ti­ve to divi­si­on and pola­ri­za­ti­on.

Von Jörg Scheller

Jörg Scheller ist Kunstwissenschaftler, Journalist, Musiker und Bodybuilder in Teilzeit. Er leitet den Bereich Theorie im Bachelor Kunst & Medien an der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste. Nebenbei ist er Sänger und Bassist des Metal-Duos Malmzeit.