LONDON/WROCLAW VIA PHONE—From Washington to Warsaw and Wellington, millions of women, girls (and men) will be marching on January 21st in a global show of solidarity for women’s respect and rights. The largest march—dubbed the Women’s March on Washington— is expected to take place in the U.S. capital a day after the inauguration of Donald Trump, who has famously made a number of misogynist comments over the years, many of which were highlighted during the presidential election campaign last year. Marta Lempart, a Wroclaw, Poland-based former labor and disability lawyer who now runs a construction company, knows a thing or two about protests and demonstrations—last year she came up with the idea of holding the Polish Women’s Strike.
The strike, also called Black Monday (Czarny Poniedziałek in Polish), took place across Poland in October with tens of thousands of women (and men) taking the day off of work to wear black and march through their cities, towns and villages in protest of proposed legislation that, if enacted, would have imposed a blanket ban on abortion including in instances of incest and rape. There were wide concerns that the legislation would also mean that a woman who suffered a miscarriage might also face criminal suspicion and doctors might be hesitant to conduct even routine procedures on pregnant women in fear of being accused of helping in a termination. Ms. Lempart, who will be organizing the Warsaw march, spoke with Ginanne Brownell Mitic about organizing the Polish strike and advice for people taking the streets on the 21st. EXCERPTS:
Lempart: I am a member of the Committee for Defence of Democracy [Komitet Obrony Demokracji] a civic action group we started since the new government started ruining the country. So I have been at many demonstrations and I organized a lot of pickets and protests that were anti-government. When I went to another one on 25 September, my girlfriend said to me “we should do a strike” because we are always doing anti-government marches once a month. And sometime before she read of the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike. So that day I went to the demonstration and said I am calling for a strike like what happened in Iceland 41 years ago.
How did you begin the movement?
My friend put something on FB about this event. In Poland you can skip work if you are on holiday, if you have a sick child, and also in Poland you can take the day off when you give blood. Before I was a disability lawyer I worked on labor law and so I have examples of what you could do legally to not go to work. I also said we should wear black or if you cannot skip work if you work in a hospital or something, you can wear a black ribbon. So there were three things: skipping work, the demonstrating/protesting part and the third was this symbolic thing to wear black.
Were you surprised how it took off? How angry women were over this?
I was not angry. But there is a life outside of Warsaw and Government is not scared of marches that go through the capital because they happen twice a week. We had a way on Facebook where people could pin where they were and link up. So say in Krakow you had five or 30 people who wanted to meet up and get involved, they could find each other and start working. And thanks to that, people from smaller cities could do that too. So Wroclaw, Poznan, Krakow, Warsaw—they are not important because there are always demonstrations. I had 20,000 in Wroclaw, the largest in the country. But in the little city of Zielona Gora [population of 138,000] there were 7000 people there, so that would be like have millions marching in Warsaw [if you compare populations].
Firstly women were really angry and the second thing, no one told them to get on bus to Warsaw to protest. After 27 years since Communism fell, they were doing protests on their territory and by their rules. It was scary, I am sure. A lot of my work was to do the formal administrative job for smaller city protests because in many of them, they did not have the paperwork in their local offices for protests because no one had ever made a demonstration before and they did not know how to do it. So even the police did not know how to handle it. I also gave everyone a 12 point plan of things like how to organize a demonstration, how much time do you need, what do you need to have there, how long does it take, what should you not do. We had a protest [in one town] where there were 15 people who came and they were so proud, you cannot imagine. And they made photos with hashtags and everything.
Were you surprised when the government ended up backing down—arguably because they saw so much intense anger, passion and rebellion across the country from cities to villages?
At first, we did not believe that (laughs). It did not feel like this victory because we thought maybe they were pretending to be backing down so they will prepare something worse.
What words of advice would you have for the over one million women across the globe who are expected to be marching on Saturday?
Always protest where you live. Always stay in your community, focus there and you will find people there. You will find there is nothing to fear and there will always be people who support you. There will also be people who hate you, but they will always hate you anyway. You do not have to care about that. Instead of going to where people are gathering, do your own gathering and collect more people, that is what I think. Then you feel the power, even if you have five or 10 or 50 people—you collected those people. I would also tell them to join in the International Women’s Strike on March 8.
Graphics via theamplifierfoundation.com (1st, Shepard Fairey “Defend Dignity”, second Liza Donovan “Hear Our Voice”); Photo of Marta, courtesy Michał Stadnicki