I Dodged Bullets at a Polish Fascists' Riot Party
The UK's various far-right movements have spent the last year resolutely dying on their collective misinformed, xenophobic arses. The BNP's core membership has been swallowed up by the more active English Defence League (the EDL, duh), who soon followed suit by collapsing in on themselves after their leader, Tommy Robinson, was hit with a comical amount of criminal charges in a very short space of time. In the rest of Europe, however, those far-right mouth breathers are on the rise – nowhere more so than in Poland, where the movement has taken an extremely violent and sinister turn.
For roughly 20 years, there's been a steady stream of violence committed by Polish far-right groups against the usual assembly of people who oppose racism and hatred: left-wing activists, the media, the LGBT community, everyone who isn't a total dick, etc, etc. And since 1989, 39 people have been killed in attacks attributed to the far-right, with many thousands more injured.
Those statistics also include other members of far-right groups associated with Poland's infamous football hooliganism scene – a scene that makes British fans look like characters from 500 Days of Summer – where brutally violent neo-Nazis are more than happy to unfurl anti-semitic banners and fight each other in the stands while they aren't hunting down members of the antifa.
This charming blend of violent, far-right nationalism and football hooliganism came to the rest of the world's attention during Poland's National Independence Day last year, when nationalists fought a huge battle against the police after local and foreign antifa blocked their march route. The clashes were some of the worst Poland had seen in years, with over 200 protesters arrested from both sides, 14 police cars destroyed and two TV broadcast vans burnt out.
This year I travelled to Poland to see if last year was a blip or, like many were saying, the clashes had galvanised the far-right and would encourage a larger turnout for this past Sunday's festivities.
I arrived in Warsaw on the Saturday and walked around the city, through police vans and soldiers drafted in for the Independence Day parades the following day. Heading into town, I came across a group reenacting scenes from Poland's past, which meant a bunch of people dressed as Nazis, others as Polish resistance fighters and little kids playing with replica rifles. A great start.
I headed to the old town to meet Michat Borowy, spokesperson for the anti-facist organisation 11 Listopada, who organise protests against the annual nationalist march.
"We always come out to oppose the far-right when they try to take the streets and the national holidays," said Michat. "Back in 2008, their marches were a lot more overt; they'd march in SS uniforms and throw sieg heils. In 2008, the blockades began to stop the far-right, then, in 2010, it escalated again when we created the coalition of 11th November with the idea to unite everyone and form a huge platform of people who oppose nationalism and racism. That was also when they started wearing suits instead of uniforms so that they look like normal patriots rather than Nazi skinheads. That made things more dangerous."
I wondered whether the bad press antifa received after last year's blockade would force them to change tactics this year; "Our intention this year is to show the nationalists for who they really are. They've merged with much more moderate conservative groups to increase their numbers this year and they're taking the Independence Day imagery, re-appropriating it and succeeding with this propaganda. We have to show people that they're the violent ones."
I asked Michat what he expected from the protests this year. "The fascists themselves aren't that strong, but the football hooligans they bring along bulk them out a lot. The hooligans put aside their rivalries when they come to Warsaw, although last year there was a fight and two guys ended up in hospital. They've also invited some of the worst fascists from around Europe – some Swedish, some Czech, some Serbs – and, yesterday, a group of around 25 Italian and Spanish fascists caught some of our guys sticking up posters and said, 'Hitler was good. Fuck antifa,' then started beating on them."
I noticed that Michat had a black eye, which made him recount an incident that's all too common for antifa members in Poland: "I was trying to tear a fascist sticker off the wall in the subway and five guys attacked me and my two friends. The attack only lasted a few seconds, but I got hit. You never know where they are; that threat is always there. They were following one of our spokesmen after he did a radio interview, but luckily he managed to escape. These are not comfortable conditions to live in. I've been attacked many times."
The next day's events kicked off in the shape of military parades, an early morning Catholic mass and more reenactments. Security was high – with sniffer dogs and metal detectors put in place – and, after last year's events, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski organised a separate march to honour war veterans without nationalists hijacking the day.
The antifa and nationalist marches were setting off from opposite sides of Warsaw's centre – like a wall of death during DevilDriver's closing number at Download festival, only with a whole city full of people who hate each other – but antifa were getting together earlier, so I headed over to the Warsaw Ghetto Museum where they were gathering.
Considering there was only a crowd of around 500, police presence was almost needlessly heavy. That and the fact that Polish cops make even Greek police look woefully under-resourced (each member of every platoon is armed with batons, shields and full body armour, a few have shotguns and a couple have pepper spray guns) tells you they are not there to be fucked with.
That all made antifa's defence of a book bloc and rumours that a couple of members might be carrying pepper spray kind of pale in comparison.
Surrounding the march and doing a fantastic job of looking completely incognito were this group of undercover riot police, all wearing exactly the same clothes. Real subtle, covert policing.
After an hour or so of the police delaying the march with a moving kettle (intended to prevent breakaway groups from clashing with nationalists) we were finally allowed to set off.
The police dictated the plodding pace of the march, much to the annoyance of the antifa members, but everything seemed to be staying peaceful. Then – perfect timing after that lull of false-security – we heard a series of explosions. I figured they were from a military reenactment at first, but they didn't stop, so I headed away from the antifa march and up towards where the nationalists were gathering in the city centre.
As I got closer to the nationalist protest, the police presence became noticeably larger, with water cannon vehicles circling the protest and dog and horse units stationed nearby in case anything kicked off.
Walking round the corner into the Culture Centre, I was shocked. I knew the nationalist march was going to outnumber the antifa's, but this was absurd. The square and roads surrounding the central metro station were rammed with around 20,000 nationalists, many of whom were football hooligans dressed up in their team colours.
Imagine the calm before that big fight in Football Factory, but actually scary and tense and like something terrible could happen at any moment, plunging the whole scene into a terrifying display of human fists and testosterone-flaunting. It was just like that. The fact that a load of members of the press (including VICE Poland's snapper) were attacked at last year's demo, didn't make me feel much safer, either.
I felt a little better when I realised this policeman was keeping his eyes on the job at hand, though.
And checking that Marks & Spencer had the protection it deserves definitely bolstered my spirits.
Unlike antifa, the nationalists were pretty lax in getting their shit together, taking enough time to get themselves ready for the light to fade, systematically pissing off every single photographer in attendance.
Just in case you've doubted the nationalists' far-right credentials up to this point, the march was organised by two Polish far-right groups: ONR (National Youth Camp) and the All Polish Youth, whose manifesto explicitly states their opposition to abortion and homosexuality, describing gay rights marches as "militant homosexuality". Oh, and they've also been heard chanting "Let's gas the fags" at said marches. They're a lovely bunch.
When their march finally started, it was surrounded on both sides by hooligans whose job – it seems – was to harass photographers with complete impunity. At one point, they charged the line of photographers, smashing a number of cameras with hammers, which obviously made everything very uncomfortable for me, a photographer.
Out of nowhere, shit really started to kick off. Hundreds of hooligans had made it to the front of the march and charged down the road attacking photographers, before moving onto the Polski bank, smashing its windows and trying to set fire to the building. The police were quick to respond, but as they moved in they came under a hail of flares and chunks of masonry bigger than Rick Ross's head.
Besides having to dodge the projectiles being hurled by both protesters and police, I also had to evade the group of hooligans who were actively tracking down and attacking photographers in an attempt to stop them from documenting what was going on. This, people, is hands-down the best way to spend a Sunday evening.
The police managed to organise themselves into a defensive line that slowly pushed the hooligans back, but that seemed to achieve very little other than aggravating them even more. (Fun fact: Hooligans don't like being put in boxes.)
Some decided to express their anger through peaceful means.
Others did not.
As the violence escalated, the police brought in the water cannon, which these guys did not appear to give a solitary fuck about.
The police were still coming under attack and their tactic of soaking up all the bricks surprisingly didn't seem to be working, so they kicked it up a gear by lobbing flash-bang grenades in an attempt to move the hooligans back.
I'd been told earlier that day that the hooligans enjoy a few powdered stimulants before they band together to kick the shit out of police, but coke is pretty expensive in Warsaw (and not exactly conducive to rioting), so they mainly settle for amphetamines. What I forgot about speed is that it has the effect of completely nullifying fear, allowing this guy to nonchalantly saunter past a line of cops, before chucking a rock at their colleagues and calmly wandering back into the throng.
What he forgot is that police have legs, so as he turned, a group of them snuck up behind him – like real men – and viciously beat him to the ground in revenge.
Before a snatch squad moved in and arrested him.
Police on the other side of the street were still coming under fire and what was either a well-aimed shot or a very bad throw narrowly missed my legs. I know I really shouldn't stand in the line of fire (sorry again, Mum).
The cops were clearly ready for a beer and a rollmop by this point, so they broke out the tear gas, finally making some kind of impact on the hooligans – none of whom had come equipped with gas masks. Amateurs.
Just in case the noxious, debilitating gas wasn't enough, the cops then opened up into the crowd with their shotguns. Rather mercifully, they decided to use rubber bullets, but rubber bullets are still bullets and fucking hurt when you're hit with one.
The march was followed by a big flatbed truck with a PA system that had been constantly blurting out nationalist songs throughout the rioting, but, by this point, someone had taken the microphone and managed to convince the crowd to calm down. In return, the cops let the march continue – albeit at a snail's pace – before finally arriving at their destination, a statue of the 1920s nationalist leader, Roman Dmowski.
I spoke to one elderly nationalist, Darius, who was angry at the violence. "The police provoked the crowd – they wouldn't let us march. This is their propaganda to make us look bad in the media."
That may or may not have been the case, but regardless of the police's intention, the nationalists had done a pretty good job of making themselves look like violent neanderthals before I could see any evidence of police starting the fight. Not hard, I suppose, when you hold views as archaic as they do. A number of speeches were made before the crowd dispersed, heading home or back to their coaches in the centre of town.
Walking back into town, you'd never guess that there had been severe clashes taking place only hours earlier. The streets were clear of debris, traffic was flowing and the city appeared to be completely back to normal.
The day's events are hard to summarise – peaceful one minute, unbelievably violent the next – but I was certain of one thing after watching it all unfold: that the Polish far-right are undoubtedly on the rise. It was announced during the protest that the national movement was forming a political party and a paramilitary-style militia (Straz Niepodleglosci) in the style of the controversial Hungarian militia, Magya Garde. As if the rioting on Sunday wasn't enough, on Monday night, a group of a hundred nationalists attacked a squat in the city of Wroclaw, injuring many residents and leaving one in a serious but stable condition in hospital.
Although still relatively small in comparison to other political groups in Poland, moves to legitimise their homophobic, anti-semitic and violent beliefs could easily threaten Poland's status as a functioning democracy. Something more needs to be done and antifa can't do it alone.
Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston
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