Polish LGBTQ groups are calling for international pressure on their government to release a prominent activist, amid growing outrage over the recent mass detention of protesters in a confrontation being dubbed “the Polish Stonewall”.
The arrest of nearly 50 activists in a fiery standoff with police Friday has reignited the simmering culture war over LGBTQ rights in the conservative Catholic country. The confrontation in central Warsaw Friday erupted when large groups of demonstrators gathered in support of LGBTQ activist Malgorzata “Margot” Szutowicz, after police arrested her for acts of civil disobedience and placed her in a two-month pre-trial detention.
Activists told VICE News that the incident represented a historic “tipping point”, in which the LGBTQ community had risen up against an incessant campaign of demonisation and repression under the ruling Law and Justice Party. Since Friday, defiant protesters have taken to the streets of cities across Poland, chanting slogans like: “You will not lock all of us up.”
“Friday was a tipping point in the escalation of violence and hatred from the government, the Law and Justice politicians, and state-controlled public television,” said Mirosława Makuchowska, vice director of the rights group Campaign Against Homophobia.
“This is the first time the [Polish] LGBT community stood up for itself physically against police officers. It was a moment that people said, ‘Enough is enough, we’re going to fight back.’”
She said her group saw the incident as “the Polish Stonewall”, a reference to the 1969 uprising against police repression in Greenwich Village, New York City, that was a key flashpoint in the fight for gay rights. “Cannons have been launched against the rainbow and there is no turning back,” Campaign Against Homophobia said in a statement.
Over the course of consecutive election campaigns since 2019 — most recently last month’s presidential elections — Poland’s right-wing populist ruling party has unabashedly scapegoated the LGBTQ community, painting gay rights as a dangerous foreign “ideology” that threatens the traditional family unit.
Amid the incessant political attacks, about 100 municipal councils across the country have adopted resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”, while homophobic rhetoric has fuelled violent mob attacks at Pride rallies.
Friday’s incident was sparked when police moved to arrest Szutowicz, a member of the LGBTQ activist group Stop Bzdurom (Stop the Nonsense), which has angered conservative politicians with protests in which they have draped rainbow flags over city monuments.
A court had ordered her to be jailed for two months on remand for suspected criminal damage, stemming from an incident in June where she allegedly slashed the tires of a protest van that disseminates homophobic propaganda — including statements equating gay people with paedophiles — and shoved the van’s driver.
The perceived heavy handedness of the court order prompted hundreds of LGBTQ and left-wing activists to turn out in solidarity at the Warsaw office of Campaign Against Homophobia, where Szutowicz was waiting for police to arrest her.
“People were outraged at the unnecessarily disproportionate measures put on Margot, because they are obviously politically motivated,” said Makuchowska.
She said Szutowicz presented herself to officers for arrest, who told her there was no need to detain her. The crowd then moved to a location in central Warsaw, where Szutowicz was arrested by plainclothes officers waiting in an unmarked car.
She said the angry demonstrators then staged a sit-in around the unmarked police car, preventing it from leaving, before police launched an action to clear the protesters, arresting 48 people in chaotic scenes.
“They were extremely violent,” said Makuchowska, who claims she was shoved by officers in the melee. “They were dragging people, they were choking people, putting boots on their necks and heads.”
Warsaw police said that the crowd had impeded officers, and it had responded with action “against the most aggressive people”.
“There will be zero tolerance for breaking the law,” read a statement on the police Twitter account, adding that 48 people had been arrested in connection with “insults directed at police as well as damage to a police car”.
While most of those arrested Friday were released after a day, Szutowicz remains in custody, sparking growing demands from inside Poland and abroad for her release.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, has called on the Polish government to immediately let Szutowicz go, and said her detention was a “very bad sign” for freedom of speech and LGBTQ rights in Poland.
Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, was also deeply concerned by the police actions, and has launched an investigation into the issue.
He told VICE News his staff had met with 33 of the 48 arrested during their detention, and found evidence of numerous human rights abuses, with complaints of beatings and brutality by police, signs of bodily injuries and reports of homophobic and transphobic comments by arresting officers. Some of those detained were simply passersby returning from their shopping, he said.
“I think simply that arresting 48 persons on Friday was not necessary, and constituted abuse of human rights by the police,” he told VICE News. “There were people who have been arrested accidentally.”
He said police could have largely dealt with the situation by taking down details of protesters.
“But somehow, police – most probably inspired by politicians of the ruling camp – decided to play hardball,” he said.
Despite the condemnation of the police’s actions, Poland’s conservative government has criticized the protesters, with Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro insisting authorities had to take action or face "even more violent" attacks by activists.
For Makuchowska and other LGBTQ activists, while recent events have opened a new chapter in their struggle with the Polish government, they have also unleashed a wave of solidarity across the country and internationally that’s brought them hope and encouragement.
“As a community, we’ve been put under extreme pressure for a year-and-a-half. We’re extremely tired and fed up with it,” she said. “Now, people are putting rainbow flags on monuments around the country. The solidarity brings a little light to the situation.”