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    Polish Independence Day March draws 250 000 people

    The annual Polish Independence Day March took place yesterday in Warsaw and managed to attract a record crowd, estimated by the police to number 250 000 people. Last year, the march was heavily criticized by liberal Western media after a group called “the Black Block” appeared at the march and brought with them banners containing far-right slogans. This year, the group was stopped from travelling to Warsaw by the Polish security services and as a result, racist banners were not seen at the march. Nevertheless, some media outlets continued the depict the people participating in the march as extremists. Bloomberg for example published an article with the headline “Fascist flags on Poland’s 100th birthday show a fractured Europe”.

    The outgoing Mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, announced that she had banned the march just a couple of days ahead of the celebrations. Her decision was quickly overturned by a regional court, arguing that such a ban would infringe on the freedom to assembly guaranteed by the constitution. Following the mayor’s decision to ban the march, the Polish government and President settled on a solution based on arranging a march organized by the state on the same route that the annual march takes place. The conservative and nationalist organizations that for years have organized the march, were invited to participate under the condition that they agree to march without banners and only with Polish red-and-white flags. The march was opened with a speech delivered by Polish President Andrzej Duda, in which he spoke about the importance of national unity and the value of Polish statehood. The march was passed by without any riots or clashes. Violence and unrest used to be a regular occurrence at all marches before 2015

    In order to be able to accurately assess this year’s march and to compare it with previous marches, it’s necessary to tell the story of its inception and how it has developed over the years.

    2010
    Two nationalist organizations, the All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp united to organize the first Independence Day March in 2010. The Editor-in-Chief of the local Warsaw  branch of Poland’s largest newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, asked Varsovians to organize a counter-protest to the March. Soon, a group called “the November 11th alliance” came into being and united various left-wing groups, including the militant left represented by Antifa, against the March of Independence. That year, around 1,000 people from the November 11th alliance tried to physically block the first Independence Day March, who were generally made up of nationalists and right-wing football supporters. Clashes erupted and 33 people were arrested. The events set the stage for a considerable escalation over the subsequent years.

    2011
    The number of participants of the march swelled considerably compared to the previous year, with about 20 000 people showing up to celebrate Independence Day. The march was marred in violence from the outset as Polish left-wing extremists had invited their counterparts from Germany in a new attempt to physically block the march. Before the march had even officially started around 100 members of the German militant left-wing organization Antifa attacked a Polish military reenactment group at the helm of the march. Following their attack, the Germans retreated to the nearby headquarters of Krytyka Polityczna, a left-wing journal and think tank before being arrested by the police. The November 11th Alliance, once again  attempted to block the March of Independence. In the ensuing clashes dozens of people are injured and 210 people from both sides are arrested.

    2012
    The march again grew in size, attracting up to 50 000 people. For the first time, the November 11th Alliance doesn’t attempt to block the march, opting instead to host a much smaller march of their own. Nevertheless, police lines block the route of the march and football fans soon clash with riot police. In the aftermath, participants of the march accuse the police of having used masked infiltrators of the crowd serving as agent provocateurs in order to provoke riots. A total of 176 people are arrested.

    2013
    The march drew around 50 000 people but again suffered from wide-scale unrest. Dozens were arrested following clashes with the police and 19 were arrested. An art installation at Plac Zbawiciela depicting a rainbow, widely considered to having been dedicated to the city’s LGBTQ community was burned down. A booth used by the security team guarding the Russian Embassy suffered a similar fate. In 2015, it was revealed in a secretly recorded conversation between the Minister of Regional Development, Elżbieta Bieńkowska and the Head of the Central Anticorruption Bureau, Paweł Wojtunik, that the booth in front the Embassy had been burned down on the orders of Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, the Minister of Interior, in order to tarnish the reputation of conservative politicians who had vocally supported the March of Independence.

    2014
    Up to 100 000 attended the event which was possibly the most violent of all marches with 275 people arrested and 75 injured people following clashes between hooligans and riot police in the vicinity of the National Stadium.

    2015-2017
    After the conservative Law & Justice Party came into power just days ahead the 2015 March of Independence, the event has been taking place without riots or clashes with the police nor counter-protesters. 70 000-100 000 people are estimated to have participated in the marches in these three years.

     

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