The dashboard camera faces down a side road where a man, who is recording the scene too, is confronted by a pair vying to snatch his phone away. After several failed attempts, a third assailant erupts, punching the man in the head and wrestling him to the ground. The video gets worse in the full cut. The van, where the dashcam was placed, had been previously assaulted by cyclists, and the three attackers in the video were actually part of a larger crowd of militants that had descended from the building they were squatting in to halt its passage. The mob bashed in its side-view mirrors, vandalized it with spray-painting, and even ripped off the license plate.
The attacker, it turns out, was a far-left activist, who has turned into something of a heroic celebrity among Warsaw’s Antifa community.
The recorded scene took place on June 27th, in downtown Warsaw, and has since gone viral as the latest flare-up in Poland’s infamous culture wars between LGBT advocates and the country’s socially conservative core. If you’ve been told nothing else since President Andrzej Duda’s re-election on July 13th, you’ll likely presume the brutal assault to be sadly habitual given what the international media portrays as a frightening escalation of homophobic hate, egged on by Duda’s governing Law and Justice party. “Ginning up fear of LGBTQ people” and “making up a rainbow plague,” was the core of Duda’s campaign strategy, wrote The Atlantic‘s Anne Applebaum a mere two days after the vote.
The bad press was amplified last week as Poland garnered the international spotlight in the lead-up to the signing of a military agreement with the US that will see 1.000 US troops relocated there from nearby NATO-delinquent Germany. As Secretary of State Pompeo visited Warsaw to ink the deal, the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Miracle of the Vistula and the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, two momentous battles against the Soviets and the Nazis, respectively.
Leading up to this media frenzy, one hundred Polish towns, making up a third of the country, decreed themselves to be “free of LGBT ideology.” Six of them did so despite losing EU funds over it. Pride marches in the country’s conservative East have increasingly faced hurdles in the past from mayors seeking to ban them, and from hordes of hateful bigots harassing marchers. To top it all, President Duda won re-election against Warsaw’s liberal mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, on a platform to preserve Poland’s Christian, pro-family values.
But the attacker caught on the recent viral video wasn’t some neo-Nazi hooligan.
The attacker, it turns out, was a far-left activist, who has turned into something of a heroic celebrity among Warsaw’s Antifa community. The victim wasn’t roughed up for his sexual orientation, but for collecting signatures for a citizen’s initiative working its way through Parliament to replace World Health Organization (WHO) standards of sexual education in Polish primary schools with a more chaste version, one that, among other things, prohibits discussion of masturbation and intercourse between children and adolescents. Though Poland continues to be pilloried by global NGOs for the allegedly smothering of civic freedoms, don’t expect this videotaped evidence of actual speech suppression, through actual violence, to cause quite the same stir.
ANTI-HOMOPHOBIA BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
You may object that reforming K-12 sexual education is all well and good until it becomes a front for actual homophobia. By calling its campaign #StopPedophilia, defining “LGBT ideology” as a secret agenda to inculcate depravity in schools, and even using a crossed-out rainbow as its logo, the pro-life group Fundacja Pro certainly didn’t help its own cause.
Still, rationalizing such wanton acts of violence against peaceful campaigners takes a special measure of whataboutism. And yet, that’s exactly what the European Union’s (EU) Commissioner for Human Rights, among other foreign voices, seemed to do when she called for the main suspect’s immediate release even after he had ceased being one. The day after his court sentence came down for physical attacks and property damage, Dunja Mijatović urged that “detaining her sends a chilling message for freedom of speech,” which made her notion of speech freedom seem peculiar. (Given the EU’s self-righteous denunciation of executive meddling in Poland’s judiciary, her tweet has at least the merit of being ironically meddlesome, if not totally worthless.)
I call for immediate release of LGBT activist Margot from .@stopbzdurom detained yesterday for blocking an anti-LGBT hate van & putting rainbow flags on #Warsaw monuments.Order to detain her for 2 months sends very chilling signal for #FreedomOfSpeech & #LGBT rights in #Poland
— Commissioner for Human Rights (@CommissionerHR) August 8, 2020
Global coverage of the attack—or lack thereof—fits into a larger pattern of skewed optics, whereby large media outlets, international NGOs, and EU officials, peddle fears of a homophobic zeitgeist in Poland. A closer look, however, reveals far murkier, more complicated conundrum at the heart of a Polish society debating the value of Western-liberal shibboleths such as K-12 sexual education and adoption by same-sex couples. Sure, hate and violence do simmer at the fringes. This includes actual bigots, like the horde of them that gathered to impede a pride march in Białystok in July last year, eventually dispersed by the police with stun grenades.
But that also includes those imitating their violence on the other side, such as the attacks on police officers in the days leading up to the arrest of the main suspect in the aforesaid video the week after the attack. The media, however, will largely magnify the first and ignore the second, at the expense of the nuanced understanding that readers deserve of what cultural undercurrents actually divide the bulk of Polish society.
The attacker in question is male-born Malgorzata Szutowicz, although you’ll everywhere read about her as Margot. (The president of a progressive radio station was recently forced to resign amidst the onslaught he attracted from his staff for failing to call her a female pronoun.) On Friday, over two months since the videotaped attack took place, Margot turned herself into a police station amidst a chorus of protests against her detention, resulting in 48 other arrests for either obstructing the police from carrying out the court order, or otherwise accosting and physically attacking them—even jumping on the hood and roof of police cars.
Margot now faces up to seven years in prison, although the indictment for her attack against the Fundacja Pro staffers would only amount to two months of her overall sentence. Along with several unidentified members of Stop Bzdurom—the “radical, feminist queer collective” Margot founded to engage in “confrontational, uncompromised and inventive direct action”—she is also accused of desecrating several public monuments across Warsaw. Among the statues the organization spray-painted pink and hung rainbow flags on is the Christ opposite the Holy Cross Church on the historic Krakowskie Przedmiescie street in Warsaw—among the few that survived retaliation for the heroic anti-Nazi resistance’s uprising in the summer of 1944.
The prosecutor’s investigation of these acts is also looking at Stop Bzdurom’s printing and distribution of leaflets featuring saintly figures with rainbow halos. Both of these acts violate article 146 of the Polish Penal Code that prohibits offenses against religious sentiment, but the defendants’ alibi for the latter is quite remarkable. Adverse reactions to said images, Stop Bzdurom would have you believe, are unmistakably symptomatic of internalized homophobic attitudes.
PROTECT PUBLIC DISCOURSE—NOT VIOLENT ACTIVISTS
Again, the media continues to paper over these acts of violence, choosing instead to portray Poland as some retrograde backwater where a vulnerable minority is systematically harassed for its sexual orientation. Yet absent the occasional instance of actual homophobia, LGBT rights are far less at stake in Polish public discourse than the media would have you believe.
What the country is grappling with, instead, is balancing the demands of both Polish parents and progressive groups when it comes to fashioning educational curricula.
What the country is grappling with, instead, is balancing the demands of both Polish parents and progressive groups when it comes to fashioning educational curricula. Sure, children ought to be sensitized, for their own protection, around the primacy of consent and the scourge of sexual harassment, but a majority of Polish parents believe that this not come at the expense of their childrens’ innocence—nor, they believe, should it happen in schools. For better or worse, the inclusion of highly sexualized content in these curricula is what a sizable share of Polish society means by “LGTB ideology,” however ill-chosen the term and seductive to actual homophobes. (Accordingly, the conservative legal group Ordo Iuris has recently urged municipalities to shun the phrase and adopt a “Charter of Family Rights” instead invoking educational freedoms for parents.)
How most Western liberal democracies have settled this matter differs substantively, but Poland is owed its own chance to hash things out, and to do so within the bounds of public discourse. And it is the government’s responsibility to preserve the sanctity of that public discourse.
Therefore, much like when police had met violent bigots with the full force of the law, it should be understandable that the country’s government and prosecutors are enforcing these limits against those who wish choose to make their case by vandalizing public monuments, roughing people up, and offending the legally protected mores of those whom they are meant to persuade.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said it best in a tweet the day the Christ statue woke up vandalized—“you cannot justify an aggression under the guise of supposed equality.”
Nie ma zgody na profanowanie symboli narodowych i religijnych w imię żadnej ideologii. Wartości, które symbolizują, ważne dla milionów Polaków, są dziedzictwem, które podlega szczególnej ochronie. Nie można pod płaszczykiem rzekomej równości stawać się agresorem. pic.twitter.com/E4NPgn2mWr
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) July 29, 2020
Likely, however, owing to the media’s skewed portrayal of events in Poland, somewhere, someone reading this piece will still engage in rhetorical acrobatics to somehow portray it as hateful towards homosexuals. But, then again, some people aren’t worth having a debate with—including those who resort to violence.