Activist’s life in Poland: trials and attempted murder

Joanna Wolska is a sworn translator who used to like her boring life and was doing little more than reading books as a university lecturer when Law and Justice, Poland’s conservative party in power (PiS), came to power seven years ago. Since then, she has spent her time protesting in the streets, giving evidence to the police and, to date, has also survived an assassination attempt because of her activism. Feministeerium spoke to Joanna Wolska about her journey to activism and the obstacles faced by women’s strike organisers in Poland. 

Tell us about yourself, who are you and how did you get into activism?

I have always considered myself a feminist, but not an activist. I rather stuck to theory because I didn’t know how to do activism. I didn’t know how to enter the field and I didn’t know any activists. About 14 years ago there was a Women’s Congress in Warsaw. I remember going there with my best friend and approaching people and asking them, sorry, how can I help? And people were like, hmm… no idea. And that’s where it stayed. I actually liked the boring life and I didn’t do anything except read books. But then 2015 came and there was a change of government (PiS won the 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections – ed.). All the values I believed in were suddenly threatened. As I am 50 years old, I still remember what Poland was like before the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989. So for me, this sudden regression was probably even more frustrating than for younger people who don’t have personal memories of our history.

The new government started to change the court system. They started removing women from important positions, especially left-wing or feminist women who were directors of museums and cultural institutions. When they started to change the abortion law in Poland in 2016, the first big demonstration was planned in every small town and village.

And I couldn’t find anyone in Bielsko-Biała, my hometown of 170 000 inhabitants, to organise it. I went everywhere to ask if anyone knew anyone who would organise a demonstration and the answer was no. Finally, someone asked me why don’t you do it yourself if you are so interested?

I got in touch with some women via Facebook – because obviously you can’t be an activist without Facebook or social media these days – and we organised the first demonstration. About 1000 people took to the streets in Bielsko-Biała and it was the biggest demonstration in the city that year. The protest was successful because it worked – the government resigned and the abortion issue was voted down at that time. But just as importantly, I finally met like-minded people with whom I could do things together. We started to organise protests or support actions in Bielsko-Biała on a wide range of issues, from women’s rights to the war in Ukraine and anti-church demonstrations. It was a time when I still felt safe and quite happy.

What happened next?

In 2020, Poland’s Constitutional Court ruled that abortion for foetal malformation is contrary to the constitutional protection of human dignity. Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world, but before the ruling, abortion was legal in Poland for three reasons. Two of those remain: abortion is still possible if the pregnancy was the result of rape or some other criminal offence, and if the mother’s life and health are in danger. However, the court ruling removed the main reasoning for legal abortion. Until now, nearly 99% of abortions were performed due to foetal malformations (official abortion statistics show that the annual number of abortions in Poland dropped dramatically after the ruling, from just over 1,000 legal abortions per year before the ruling to around 30 after the ruling – ed).

So we took to the streets again, this time illegally, because you weren’t allowed to gather during a pandemic. So for a couple of weeks there were big demonstrations every day in Bielsko-Biala. The biggest of them gathered 11,000 people. Nothing similar has happened in the history of my city. There were mothers, husbands, children. There were also many policemen filming and recording.

When the demonstrations ended, the police called us in for questioning. We went to court, mostly got fines. I was prosecuted under Article 165 of the Criminal Code, which prescribes up to eight years’ imprisonment for endangering the life and health of many people. It was tough. My lawyer was optimistic, but the real possibility of going to prison… It was not a good feeling. Fortunately, the charges were dropped.

Joanna Wolska. Photo: Marta Bogdanowicz / Spacerowiczka

Do you have any real penalties?

I have two misdemeanour convictions. One was for shouting “Fuck off!” in the street and it was filmed. I’m not a person who just goes on the street and shouts “Fuck off!” to people, it was a slogan of a whole series of demonstrations all over Poland. The judge was a woman who actually sympathised with me, and the only punishment I got was a reprimand. The second punishment was for taking my mask off for a few seconds to breathe while speaking at the demonstration. This was also filmed and I was punished for not wearing the mask.

Penalties have generally been light, either fines or reprimands. But two weeks ago, an activist was sent to prison for a couple of weeks. This has been the harshest punishment that activists have ever received. At the moment we don’t yet know what really happened.

How many activists are there in Bielsko-Biała now? Are you still alone or do you have a whole team?

If something big happens, I know I can find people to help me. But it’s never the same team. I’m recognisable enough to mobilise people for a particular event. For example, a couple of weeks ago Jarosław Kaczyński (PiS chairman – ed) visited Bielsko-Biała. As this happens extremely rarely, I knew that many people would want to go out into the streets to ‘welcome’ him properly. So it depends on what I actually do. When I go to the border to help Ukrainians, I know I can count on certain people. If I go to greet Kaczynski, I know I will find other people who are willing to do it. 

Do you have a structure to organise yourself, an NGO?

No, it’s just pure activism. And it’s unpaid, I’ve never received anything for what I do. I’d probably be homeless if I didn’t have a husband to pay for me.

What about litigation, does it cost money?

Luckily I have the most wonderful lawyer who does my cases pro bono. He never takes any money from me. In November, when they tried to kill me, he phoned me and said remember, whatever happens, whatever you need, you can count on me and you can count on the other lawyers in town. It’s unbelievable. A lawyer calling you to offer free help!

Tell us about this attempted murder.

Well… it was very difficult. When I started to demonstrate, I was very cautious. I was warned to never leave my car unattended, never to wear the women’s strike T-shirt when going to or coming from a demonstration, and never to move around alone. But nothing happened and I think I lost my caution. That day I went to the demonstration and wore my strike T-shirt when I left the car. I came back four hours later, started the car and turned off onto the motorway. I heard a strange noise and slowed down, so luckily I was driving at a very slow speed when the front wheel on the driver’s side fell off. Someone had unscrewed it. The policeman who took my statement said that if the wheel had fallen off at normal speed I would have died.

Before that day, 13 November, the main negative aspect of my activism was police interrogations. But once you’ve been to your first interrogation, all the ones after that don’t affect you so deeply. You get used to it. There’s internet hate, but you get used to that too. But when the thing with the car happened… it seemed impossible. I couldn’t believe that someone could actually go to the trouble of trying to kill another person for ideological reasons, just because they didn’t share their political views. At first I thought it was some silly teenager making a joke of himself. But undoing the wheel nuts is hard. It takes planning, a wrench, time, and strength. We checked the other wheels on the car, all of them were stuck so hard that even with pretty strong force you’d struggle to get them off. It wasn’t as if someone had smashed a car window in anger. It was a cold-blooded act.

Photo: Małgorzata Koniorczyk

Are the police taking this seriously? Are they investigating properly?

Well, I don’t know. The funny thing is that because of my activism I am well known to all the police chiefs in Bielsko-Biała. When I called the police and told them who I was and what had happened, they all knew that I had come from a demonstration and that it was supposed to be political. When I went to the police station to testify, they were very serious. But whether a policeman is being nice to me and whether he is investigating seriously are two different things. So I don’t know. (After the interview Joanna Wolska received a formal letter from the police informing about their decision to discontinue the investigation due to lack of evidence – ed.)

It’s very, very scary. But tell me, do you have any joys in your activism?

The Polish Women’s Strike is a very nice transnational women’s network and we meet from time to time, in Zoom and in person. Recently we celebrated the one hundred and fourth anniversary of women’s right to vote in Poland. We went to Warsaw and organised a demonstration in front of Kaczyński’s house. Afterwards, we had a meeting, we could just talk and hug each other. When you do things in a collective of people who like you, who think and who experience similar things, it really helps.

You’ve mentioned before that you organised a Pride march in Bielsko-Biala and that it brought joy.

Yes, it was an event with a very healing energy. Fighting something has a very negative energy that kind of eats you alive, even if the fight is necessary. Pride was like an antidote. It was healing.

The women’s strike started on the abortion issue, but you have covered other issues too. Which others?

We cover everything that touches minorities and social injustice. We mobilise when we see harm being done somewhere and try to help. When the war in Ukraine started on 24 February, we were on the streets on the same day. On 25 February, I was already collecting things the Ukrainians needed, and on 26 February I drove to the border, covering 900 kilometres in one day. So if there is a need somewhere, we just help. When you live in a country like Poland, ruled by a right-wing, terrible party, you experience frustrating things every day. For example, three months ago, Monika Strzępka, a very good professional, was elected director of a theatre in Warsaw in an open competition. When she had Iwona Demko‘s sculpture ‘Wet Lady’ installed in the foyer of the theatre, which, let’s face it, is one huge shiny pussy, a PiS politician decided, personally, to cancel Strzępka’s appointment. This sort of thing happens every day in Poland.

Elections will be held in Poland next autumn. Do you see that change is possible?

I have no idea. I know that some people try to be optimistic, saying that everything – the crisis, prices, inflation – is working against the ruling party, but I am afraid that they will win again. And if that happens, I think we will be in Hungary.

Who are PiS supporters?

Mostly people from the working class and small places. When the PiS first came to power, they started paying families 500 zlotys (about €105 – ed.) per child. For many families, getting this money was very important. It’s not much, but it’s something. And now these families are afraid that if another party takes over, the support will disappear. People are afraid, even though the opposition says we won’t change it. 

You work in a very difficult environment. How do you cope with it? Do you have any strategies or techniques?

No, I don’t have anything. I don’t think I’m a good person to talk to about it, because I’m in a dark place right now. The Polish women’s strike has set up a special psychological emergency system and because of what happened to me, they arranged psychological counselling for me. I am waiting for my first session. I hope that by some miracle the psychologists will make me magically optimistic and ready to work again.