"Hate Is Like A Boomerang." A conversation with the polish activist Franciszek Sterczewski

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.

Artikel URL: https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/hate-is-like-a-boomerang-a-conversation-with-the-polish-activist-franciszek-sterczewski/

 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!

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.

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.