Franciszek Sterczewski, Polish urban activist and architect, is the initiator of the Chain of Light Protests protests in Poznań. Jörg Scheller spoke with him about the language of politics, the political situation in Poland and the non-violent, post-partisan forms of resistance he is exploring in his hometown.

  • Jörg Scheller

    Jörg Scheller ist Professor für Kunstgeschichte an der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste. Er schreibt regelmäßig Beiträge unter anderem für die Neue Zürcher Zeitung, DIE ZEIT, frieze magazine und ist Kolumnist der Stuttgarter Zeitung. Bereits als 14-Jähriger stand er mit einer Metalband auf der Bühne. Heute betreibt er einen Heavy Metal Lieferservice mit dem Metal-Duo Malmzeit. Nebenbei ist Scheller zertifizierter Fitnesstrainer.
  • Franciszek Sterczewski

    Fran­ciszek Ster­c­zewski (*1988) ist Archi­tekt und Akti­vist sowie Orga­ni­sator der Lich­ter­ketten-Proteste in Poznań.

 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…

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… 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.