It was a surreal sight – and a terrible sound. On Friday evening, as tens of thousands of pro-choice protesters gathered in Warsaw for a massive demonstration against a near-total ban on abortion, military police in red berets formed a protective cordon around the Church of the Holy Cross on Krakowskie Przedmieście, an elegant thoroughfare leading from Warsaw’s Old Town to the city centre.
Behind the military cordon stood far-right activists and supporters of Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS), responding to a call by PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński to “defend Polish churches” from what government-controlled state television news describes as the “leftist fascism destroying Poland” after some churches were defaced during protests last weekend.
As the pro-choice protesters filed past the church, government supporters chanting mournful incantations blasted the screams of a crying baby through giant megaphones at the entrance to the church. The sound was broadcast on a loop, the desperate screams repeated over and over as protesters marched stoically past.
But if the protests, which by Friday had entered their ninth day, have been characterised by anger at Poland’s political and clerical establishments, the rage felt by many marching through the streets manifested itself within a joyful, even carnival atmosphere.
Accompanying the chants of “Fuck PiS!” and “This is war!” were thousands of humorous placards mocking Polish leaders and demanding the right to choose. Some protesters wore costumes and danced as techno music and 80s classics were blasted from speaker vans. Protesters brought drums, vuvuzelas, kitchen pots and pans – even bagpipes.
You can read my report for the Observer here.