My mind has been split between my two major stories these last few months. In the U.S., October was the final feverish leadup to an Election Day that sometimes felt more like a referendum on democracy vs. fascism. In Poland, where my family is from, October brought another round of Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) protests that were initially in response to a court ruling banning abortion in all cases but then broadened to, again, democracy vs. fascism. 

For me, all of this has been deeply personal. My dad came to America from Poland in the early ’80s, leaving communism behind in search for freedom. The rest of our family stayed in Poland, where in 1989 the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement, led by workers and trade unions, overthrew the communist government and brought about democracy. For a while, in the ’90s and 2000s, it felt like things were mostly looking up. 

Photo of three adults sitting down at a dinner table.
My dad (right) and his roommates, all Polish immigrants, celebrating their first Wigilia (Christmas Eve supper) in America in the studio apartment they shared in New York, 1980.

But in 2015, the right-wing populist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) party won in Poland, and the following year, Trump also won. In reality, the signs had been there for a while, but as a family, we were shallowly engaged — holding onto a belief that things would keep getting better and trusting institutions to do the hard work of ensuring that happened.

Since winning in 2015, PiS has dismantled many aspects of democracy — most importantly, the checks and balances on the courts — and steered Poland in an increasingly illiberal and authoritarian direction. In particular, they’ve weaponized immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and abortion in an effort to divide the country. This might sound familiar if you’ve been paying attention to Republican electoral strategy in the last few decades. 

Institutions that were supposed to protect Poles failed. The public news stations became mouthpieces for the PiS party line. The EU, supposed to be protecting the rule of law, became powerless because Poland’s leadership had an ally in Hungary’s right-wing leaders. The Catholic Church, which in the ’80s was a key player in liberation from communist rule, effectively became one and the same with the party, with priests interlacing their prayers with calls to vote for PiS. 

So in response, Poles showed up. Initially it was women, protesting a total ban on abortion. In 2016, women marched through the streets of many cities and towns wearing black. In April of this year, they protested again, wearing masks to protect from COVID-19. Then this October, when the constitutional court (stacked with PiS appointees) passed a constitutional ban on abortion, women took to the streets again.

And they stayed. Since October 22, the protests have coalesced into a movement, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in cities and towns across the country. 

They also broadened their demands. After the government responded to protests by delaying the constitutional court decision on abortion (a temporary win!), the protestors shifted their strategy, and are now essentially protesting to bring down the current government and leadership of the Polish Catholic Church.

Masha Gessen has an incredible piece in The New Yorker, where she asks whether the Strajk Kobiet protests that became a movement are actually a revolution.

Woman holding a sign at a protest, wearing a dark jacket.
The red lightning bolt, designed by Ola Jasionowska, is one of Strajk Kobiet’s main symbols

I’ve been primarily witnessing this through my family. My father has felt despair for the last five years, as the freedom and peace of mind he sought in America and the promise of democracy in Poland both seemed squandered. My cousins, who never once posted about politics, now mark themselves with the iconic Strajk Kobiet red lightning bolt on Instagram. My 92-year-old babcia (grandmother), who has lived through WWII and Soviet oppression, shared articles with her friends on Facebook and showed up to the Kraków protests. A lifelong Catholic, she walked out of her church after a political sermon a few years ago and hasn’t been back since. 

All summer long at protests here in the States, I heard the chant: This is what democracy looks like

To me, the lesson of the last five years is that this is what democracy feels like. Messy. Urgent. Hard. Collaborative. Invigorating. Poles, my family, and I, learned once again that democracy isn’t having passive trust in institutions and watching leaders do all the work. Democracy is participatory. Democracy is a verb. The acknowledgment of this truth can turn a movement into a revolution. 

Learning from Strajk Kobiet activists 

I’ve been so inspired by the tactics used by Strajk Kobiet activists — there is a lot that organizers (both online and offline!) can learn from Polish women. 

1. Protest symbols help signal intent

In March of this year, when PiS tried to use the COVID-19 lockdowns to push through their inhumane total ban on abortion, the red lightning bolt that was the symbol of the first protests in 2016 was instantly transformed and took over social media feeds. It wasn’t just shared — women marked themselves and made the symbol their own, posting selfies with the red lightning bolt drawn on their bodies.

That was designer Ola Jasionowska’s goal all along: “I…wanted to create something universal that women could identify with regardless of their place of residence, character or expression,” she told The Art Newspaper.

Notes from Poland goes into the symbols of Strajk Kobiet, and shows how protestors have taken ownership of several of the marks, beyond just the red lightning bolt, broadening their impact. My perspective: Similar to signing a petition or open letter, a supporter drawing a symbol on their body or otherwise making it their own serves as a signal of intent and sets the supporter up to take further action. 

2. Leaderless organizing empowers ordinary people

Strajk Kobiet has no leader. There’s no one organization coordinating efforts. Protests might be initially organized by a few, but people make the protests their own. 

In addition to making protests harder to suppress, leaderless structures, such as Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, are more effective because they require ordinary people to take ownership. Most successful organizing efforts are dispersed, yet when we look back, we remember one person. In Poland’s case, Solidarność is associated with Lech Wałęsa, when in reality it was ordinary workers across the country who powered the 1989 revolution.

This was deliberate. Marta Lempart, who helped organize the original 2016 protests, told Masha Gessen in The New Yorker that the Strajk Kobiet movement has been working toward a leaderless structure for years now — at this point her primary role is “help desk to people who want to organize protests.”

3. Profanity and vulgarity make the stakes clear

Strajk Kobiet’s slogans are vulgar and profane. “Wypierdalać” roughly translates to “get the fuck out of here”; “Jebać PiS” means “fuck PiS”. The coat hanger, used so effectively by women’s and abortion rights groups in the States, makes the stakes of a total abortion ban extremely clear. 

Collection of signs and hangers scattered on the ground.
Protestors use a wide variety of symbols and slogans, often profane, to get their point across.

Rather than turning people off, this profanity and vulgarity has brought people in — because they are authentic expressions of rage, anger, and fear. They make the enemy obvious. 

Too often, design-by-committee in established activist organizations results in campaigns that feel stale and out of touch. Trusting people also means not constraining them; it’s often more effective for organizations to follow the lead of activists and organizers on the ground. 

4. Providing tangible support alongside activism

In the aftermath of the Polish Judicial Court’s October 22 decision to amend the constitution, protestors graffitied the phone number for Aborcyjny Dream Team, an organization that helps Polish people get abortion in other countries by providing financial support, transportation, post-abortion health care, and mental health care. There can often be tension between activism and providing care — Strajk Kobiet is yet another example that movements can and should do both.