Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Of Face-Masks, Umbrellas, and Thunderbolts

by Dota Szymborska, philosopher, sociologist, TEDx speaker, and AI expert, and Tomasz Kitlinski, political philosopher, activist, and curator (Open City Festival of Public Art in Lublin on Hospit-ALTER-ity)

We are veterans. Went on strike in high school? Of course. Political activity in college? Sure. Later: complicated political paths, demonstrations, performances, and plenty of engaged writings. Sometimes fear for one’s life: threats and hate speech that did not necessarily grow out of our fight for freedom. No regrets.

Everything is more arduous during a pandemic.
In “normal times” we take placards, umbrellas, leaflets and go. Now we stay at home. We decorate balconies with black umbrellas. We are privileged — we live in large cities. On the 4th or 7th floor our umbrellas are hardly visible. No one will throw eggs. We are grateful to those who live in small towns or in the countryside, where a poster in the window or an umbrella on the balcony is a mark of courage. It is a declaration, a heads-up!

Everything is harder in a pandemic.
Posters and umbrellas are like the white arrows painted during WWII bombings to tell citizens where the shelter is – today we know where brave and good people live.

But how come – after 30 years of democracy – our bodies, women’s bodies – are still hostage to a ruling party that wants to exercise total control over us? “We’re a free people,” shouted Polish women in 1989 – the mothers of today’s feminism. We defended our reproductive laws in 2016 thanks to mass umbrella performances. There was to be a “Black Friday” demonstration and masses of people turned out on the streets of Poland despite a heavy rain. And it was the black umbrellas that immediately became a sign of resistance. We did not win a spectacular victory; at that time it was a battle of survival to salvage the minimal rights we still had. We could easily have lost whatever freedom was left, but we managed to save at least a bare minimum.

Those concerted actions of women and their allies in 2016 exposed the oppressive qualities of the new regime, which had come to power less than a year before. Democracy should not hurt its citizens but should respect them. It has to respect women’s choices. That dramatic and imaginative 2016 mobilization within the framework of an almost 30-year-old democracy was indeed performative, and it worked.

But in 2020, Poland’s democracy is already vanishing. The current regime, with its autocratically self-righteous decision-making practices, is uncannily mirroring the social silencing policies of the Communist regime experienced by our society 40 years ago.

So now we ask: where are we, as a society, heading?

On the way from “Solidarity” to a pandemic, we have ceased to be social actors: at best we are “extras”. Education reform: “they” have written new history textbooks. Pandemic: “they” have imposed restrictions on our freedom, yet without imposing a state of emergency, or a state of disaster, as required by law.

As veterans, we can see what is going on. Our duty is to explain, to talk, and to march! The virus that is eating up our democracy will also die one day. In the meantime, we wash our hands, wear masks, and post umbrellas in our windows!

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