Featured photo: Police pepper spray seated protesters at UC Davis
When my mom saw these pictures she said to me, “Its just like during Communism.” This present day example of police brutality, reminded my mother of the oppression that she faced and the institutionalized violence she witnessed during the 1980’s in Communist Poland.
Poland in the 1980’s
Poland had been under the oppressive Communist regime since the end of World War Two. But, things took a turn for the worse in the late 70’s and early 80’s, as the Polish economy hit an all time low. Everything was in short supply – food, clothes, toilet paper. To deal with the scarcity, the government instituted a “food stamp” system to distribute the basic necessitates to Poles (meat, dairy, bread, a bottle of vodka or a bar of chocolate). But, as the Polish economy got worse, the government raised food prices and decreased wages which fueled the people’s desperation and frustration, and the union strikes began. And the Solidarity Movement was born, which demanded social change in Poland to solve the problems of the nation.
The Solidarity union proved successful and after the Gdansk Agreement was signed, it appeared that the movement was going to lead democratic change in the Poland. However, Russia fearful of the strength of the Solidarity Movement and its potential to overthrow its whole power structure in the Eastern Block, pressured the Polish government to eradicate the movement, or face the consequences.
On December 13th, 1981 the Polish government declared Marital Law. Pro-democracy movements, such as Solidarity, were banned, and their leaders were arrested. A curfew was imposed, the national borders were sealed, airports were closed, and road access to main cities was restricted. Telephone lines were disconnected, mail was subject to postal censorship, all independent organizations were delegalized, and classes in schools and at universities were suspended.Thousands of soldiers in military vehicles patrolled the streets of every major city and brutally suppressed any show of resistances.
Marital law was not lifted until 1983.
1981 Martial Law
This picture was taken on December 31st, 1981 in Warsaw of taken in front of the Moscow Theater where the movie Apocalypse Now had just opened. It became the iconic image of the time.
Through out Martial Law, in the wee hours of the morning, women would construct floral crosses in a central Warsaw square. The police would demolish the crosses, only to have them reappear the next day. Eventually the police blocked off the square but the women just walked to the next square and the cycle continued, to the embarrassment and frustration of the government.
On August 31, 1982 peaceful street protests were organized in Poland to commemorate the second anniversary of the Gdansk Agreement. The police reacted forcefully and violently, resulting in the injury and death of an unknown number of people. The most violent reaction occurred in the Lubin protests, where riot police armed with AK-47’s opened fire on the demonstrators.
The Lubin protest.
August 31,1982 Warsaw protests
Although the protest in Warsaw was less violent than Lubin, the police presence in Warsaw was large and organized. The disturbing aspect of the police’s reaction was that as they would follow the fleeing protesters into residential neighborhoods.
Riot police walking down Kredytową street
Chmielna street, protesters running away from tear gas.
Marszałkowska Street – a major street in Warsaw. The pictures below show the portion of the street where a major bus station is located and is a key commuter-transportation point. The pictures below show how the riot police fired tear gas into a crowd of ordinary, commuters.
What does history teach us?
Institutionalized violence and brutality is the last resort of a corrupt and dying regime’s effort to hold onto power. But, instead of squashing the tides of change, it legitimizes the need for change and fuels greater support.
Institutionalized violence creates a people with nothing to lose. And a people with nothing to lose, will fight to the death.
Do we need someone to die before this stops and someone listens?