Police intimidation of activists – a lesson from Poland

Photo by Silar, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I saw a story on West Country Voices. Two women wanted to sign up for a meeting with an MP to ask him an inconvenient question. As a result, they have been paid a visit by the police officer. This story never got attention it deserves. And it should. Because this is not only about wasting police time. I know it well. I saw a lot of it already – in Poland.

 In Poland, opposition activists and politicians are under investigation for many years now. First reports came in 2017, two years after Jarosław Kaczyński’s party PiS took over. Now we know that there are all kinds of surveillance – from illegal use of the Israeli spying software Pegasus on the opposition politicians and prosecutors who oppose PiS’s attempts to dismantle the rule of law in Poland to just plain, old school, secret, plain clothes police agents following people on the street.-
This is, obviously, a huge waste of police force, but this is actually the least important bit here, as those actions can be a huge threat to democracy. Let me briefly explain various aspects.

1. The actual spying on opposition activist or politicians can give the ruling party important information – either on the opposition’s plan for the oncoming elections, as has been the case with senator Brejza who happened to be a campaign chief for major opposition party Platforma Obywatelska – the text messages obtained from his phone were then doctored and used by government-controlled media to compromise him.

But we don’t have to go that far technologically. Even old-school surveillance can give the government some compromising material. Imagine a police officer discovering an opposition politician to be a crossdresser. He’s doing no harm to anyone and it’s nobody’s business what he does in his spare time, but such an information leaked timely to a friendly paper could destroy his career.

2. This is a form of harassment. In some cases, the police do not hide. They want to be seen, they hope for the investigated person to feel intimidated. Because if you are a woman, and two strong men are walking behind you everywhere, and you know they are police, where would you turn for help?

Of course, some opposition activists are not afraid. But by harassing them, you can prevent them from doing their job – making it to the rally in time, for example. It is very common in Poland for the police to stop cars in which opposition activists are travelling for a “routine” check. They have their document checked very carefully. They might expect a technical control of their vehicle. The police might hold their registration document suspecting some dangerous fault – of course, there will be nothing wrong with the car, but the police have the right to do so if they suspect danger.

This was the case of the most famous caravan in Poland – caravan with some political slogans like “stop stealing” aimed at the ruling party painted on it. This has to be the most thoroughly checked vehicle in the whole of the country. On one occasion five different police cars were conducting checks on that trailer at the same time. They blocked a whole traffic lane in the centre of Warsaw to do so. The “routine check” took four hours and the police tried to issue him a ticket for some made up technical fault (the trailer was on its way to the annual MOT check on that day. Obviously, it failed to make it before the station was closed, but passed it with flying colours two days later).

The trailer had also been blocked by the police. An actual police vehicle was parked in front of it 24/7 to prevent a car hitching up to it. But every time the trailer actually goes on the road, it is harassed by several police patrols, just browse this clip from just one day of driving with this caravan.

Or just look at this picture of the police cars trying to block the access for the vehicle towing caravan to… guess where? The street where Jarosław Kaczyński lives. A street that is open to traffic like any other.

Does it sounds like a normal country to you?

3. The police harassments can also take form of punishment. This is a common tactic now, used during anti-government protest regarding the rule of law, the Women Strike or, most recently, towards counter-protesters who oppose Independence March – a celebration on November 11, the day when Poland regained its independence in 1918 that has been hijacked for some years now by radical right who march – under police protection – through the streets of Warsaw under antisemitic, racist and nationalist banners.

It usually looks the same. The police call for the protesters to disperse, but then immediately surround them, making leaving the location impossible. Then often they are attacked with pepper gas or even beaten with police batons “for refusing to follow police’s orders” and then kept in the cold for hours under pretext of the need of the identity checks, that are stretched for as long as possible. Those, who refuse to show their ID are being detained and taken to the police station – and they are usually taken to the very distant ones, on the outskirts of town or even in the next town over, just to make it as inconvenient to them as possible. They were reports of them being denied water or medicine, as well as refused access to legal aid.

4. This is also a way to break them. The most common way to do so is asking them for their ID. By the Polish law, to ask you for your ID the police has to give you a practical reason. They can’t just randomly check IDs of people on the streets. In real world it is very easy for the police to circumvent, it’s enough they say you look like someone who is on “wanted” list or that they saw you speaking with someone and swapping something on the street so they suspect you might be a drug dealer. Yet, when the opposition activists are asked for ID, the police refuse to give them a reason. In that moment, the opposition activists – who know their rights – refuse to show the cops their ID. This back-and-forward can take a long time, and it usually escalates to another back-and-forward when the opposition activists asks if they are detained (which would be illegal) and police deny it, so they try to walk away, and then police prevent them from doing so. This can be also coupled with refusing access to public places even while other people are allowed to walk by. Example of all of the above can be seen in the following clip:

The elderly woman is a well-known opposition activist; she had been picked up for carrying a bag in LGBT colours and therefore not allowed to the official (and public) event. The clip ends with her being carried away in a police car for refusing to show her ID after the cops failed to give her a valid reason.

It might look like a completely counterproductive action, but this is truly Orwellian 1984-style police attempt to psychologically break them: if you agree to forfeit your rights and show them the ID or give up heading to where you were going, you have already lost.

5. Last but not least, this kind of harassment is a kind of SLAPP activity. It’s one thing to go for a rally in the afternoon, shout some slogans, shake a banner and then go home as you need to be at work next morning. If you are held in the cold for several hours, then kept overnight in a distant police office and then released next day at lunch time, your employer might not be too happy about it. Especially if some charges were brought against you and you need then to go to the court, and may even end with a criminal record for “assaulting a police officer” for example.

The most active political activists can count their court cases in hundreds. Their political activity has to become a full-time work, shared between attending protests, being harassed by the police and going to courts. True, some activists go as far as to troll the police – like when they attached a rubber duck to the bonnet of their car (Kaczyński surname is derived from the Polish word “duck”) and drove around Warsaw, making several rounds across roundabouts or u-turns at dead end streets etc. to expose all of the EIGHT police cars that were following them. The vast majority of those court cases – as long as the courts are still not controlled by the ruling party – will end in finding the activists to be not guilty and their detentions illegal. According to Gazeta Wyborcza – the biggest Polish daily paper – the courts rule in favour of the political activists every few days, often awarding them financial compensations for illegal activities of the police. One could argue that it is possible to actually make a living of being an opposition activist that way. But how many people are ready for that? And how many of ordinary people will stay at home of fear of being illegally detained by the police, pepper-sprayed or even beaten and then held overnight at the police station in the back of beyond?

We don’t hear yet about much of those things happening in Britain. But we already had reports about police paying visits to activist to intimidate them, arresting journalists who were just doing their jobs, harassing people who try to protest – not to mention the new outrageous laws making protests illegal. Britain is already on the top of that slippery slope. Poland is already happily sliding down it at high speed. And what is at the bottom of it?

One of my earliest childhood memories is militia’s visit to our home. They were conducting “searches” that were basically them throwing everything on the floor. And they were detaining my dad – an underground journalist and opposition activist – for 48 hours (It was a maximum legal time for detention before you had to be arrested and charged or released) on regular basis. It was perfectly normal thing to me – my dad was being taken away in a militia’s car so he does not shout “Solidarność” during first May parades: a logical explanation for my five year old mind.

But do you want to live in the country where such things are normal for the children?