Riots in Krakow, 1989
Diary Entry, February 24
(Glossary of Polish terms can be found below.)
Saturday I read in the paper that there had been a
demo on Friday during which some "arrogant students" injured four Police
officers "fulfilling their duty." I found this impossible. Polish kids throwing
rocks? I didn't give it a second thought. Wednesday I was sitting in a tram, basking
in Stalinist glee -- I'd actually found a seat -- and during rush hour! Around four.
But the tram stopped and refused to start up again. Suddenly a voice called out, "Everybody
off! Demonstration!" I got off and could barely find the demo. It turned out
to be maybe ten kids from 9 to 14, one holding a Czechoslovak flag, another two holding
a sign that said, "Free Vaclav Havel." Kids. Skinny, small girls in net
stockings and sneakers and hennaed hair and khaki jackets. Some boys: fat, horribly
skinny and dorky, pimply, fresh-faced with that skin that looks like it has never
been touched. Moving the way kids move -- loping, giggling, punching each other, self
conscious of their bodies. When I joined no one looked at / talked to me -- too great
a risk of plants. We marched to the square, where the crowd grew thicker. We marched
to a lovely old house on the Maly Rynek where we chanted against General Fatty. We
marched to perhaps a police headquarters? Where suddenly everyone ran. I've never
felt like I needed to run away from something. I did. I found myself face to face
with Smurfs. I just stood there looking at them. They looked back -- shame facedly,
smirky, cocky, lost, confused. Their trucks wobble and shake like cookie tins nailed
on wheels. Their uniforms are shabby. They aren't all big. It got old pretty fast.
I walked away. But the kids began to play chicken. The cops did the same thing. I
found it rather tragic and futile -- Poles burning up shoe leather chasing each other
back and forth over a tiny piece of sidewalk while POLAND was getting flushed down
the toilet. Eventually, we regrouped in the square, where, at Mickiewicz's statue,
a boy of 18 or so, looking comparatively senior and statesmanlike, got up and announced
the score -- how many arrested, "one sign taken," when the next demo would
be. Later I found out that that demo had begun at three and was much larger, but had
been severely depleted by arrests and beatings. It was held to protest the capricious
beatings of kids during the demo of the previous Friday. That demo had already ended;
kids were going home, and whammo -- the Smurfs attacked them in the alleys off the
Thursday the demo began at three at Collegium Nowum, A la Orange Alternative -- national
holiday of the 71 st anniversary of the founding of the Red Army. There's a big plasterboard
in the square attesting to this. Theme: "Around the World with the Red Army."
Twenty people in mock army uniforms, khaki clothes and exaggerated caricature hats
and epaulets made of paper. Funny speeches about the bravery and big heartedness of
Soviets -- a playboy-esque poster, red star over her crotch, "I only have love
like this for the Red Army." A picture of Gorbachev with a bull's eye centering
on his forehead. A large picture of Lenin with wounds on his head, heart, crotch.
A sign saying, "With the Red Army since childhood." The crowd chanting,
"We want to return to Kabul," and "The Red Army is waiting for you,"
etc. We marched to Mickiewicz's statue where more satirical speeches were given. We
sang "Sot Lat" to the police. As we tried to march out of the square, they
announced over loud speakers that all the streets were closed. I was scared, tense.
The crowd began stomping its feet in unison to create a marching sound and people
began to chant, oh, so solemnly, "Chcemy szykac!" "We want to pee!"
We marched down a side street a kilometer to the Red Army monument where the true
feelings of the crowd were laid bare. A six foot by four foot by three foot wooden
tank and all the paper hats and epaulets and wooden sticks handed out earlier were
burned while cartons of yogurt were thrown onto the monument. (Couldn't buy yogurt
for love or money in Krakow that day.) Suddenly there was silence as we all stood
and stared at the burning symbols. It was such a sudden change, from lighthearted
and gay to grim anger and bitterness and seriousness of purpose, like a summer's day
erased by a silent hurricane. The break up of demos is always very sudden, abrupt.
People change into their "Who? Me?" Couldn't-care-less-half-alive Polak
poses. During these demos very badly mimeographed tracts are thrown into the crowd;
hands scramble in the sky for one. One said, "Another demo. Friday at three."
At Mickiewicz's statue at three on Friday, tracts were thrown into the crowd by the
Federacja Mlodziezy Walczacej. Speeches were made by some gray beards -- Solidarity
reps. A KPN boy said, "Someone wrote on a wall in Ulica Grodzka, 'Emigrate or
fight.' Well, I don't want to emigrate."
We marched down Ulica Anna, then back toward the square, when, for reasons unclear
to me, the confrontation began. I saw Martin, to whom I've never been very polite.
He stuck by me the whole time. I couldn't see a darn thing. I heard the announcements
over bullhorns. Every time the police tried to announce something an eardrum-piercing
whistle went up from the crowd. Martin, a skinny, hunched bow of a boy with bad skin
and teeth, in need of orthodontia, said to me,
"You'd better go now."
"Okay," Martin said, "But when it's time to run, run that way. When
they catch you, you don't understand a word of Polish."
Stand off. I don't know how long. Suddenly, everyone ran. No choice, no chance to
examine my conscience. It was run or get crushed. I have two whopper bruises on my
leg, one on my calf, the other on my butt, and a neat footprint on my skirt. It's
very difficult to run in a tightly packed crowd of people running for their lives.
I needed to grab onto and hold the people in front of me just to remain upright. At
a certain point, we stopped. More of this. Back and forth. I saw a pale, skinny, eleven
year old, wrath on his features, pick up a rock.
I circled round with a group of Punks -- Mohawk hairdos, safety pins in ears, painfully
thin and frail and pale and burnt-out-looking with jeans and jackets, signs saying,
"Bite the hand that feeds you shit," and other cynical sayings, but determined
to do their part for Poland in their own "Fuck Everything!" way. We circled
round and faced a bulletproof face-masked, bulletproof-shielded phalanx of Smurfs.
Some of the protesters had entered a church and the Smurfs, for no good reason, stood
guard on them there. Passersby simply stopped and were staring at the Smurfs, silently.
I went up close to these men completely dehumanized by their masks and shields. An
old woman, barely dressed in a fuzzy, ragged coat, cotton dress, knee-high socks,
floppy rubber boots, and babushka, stepped out of the crowd and walked up to the Smurfs,
weeping. Everything was silent. You could hear her clearly state, "I lived through
the Nazi occupation. This is just like it. I never thought I'd live to see Polish
boys do anything like this. How could you do this?" It was then that I realized
how really demoralized Poles are. They aren't pretending to be burnt out, cold, demoralized
zombies. They *are*. They simply stood there watching all this, some laughing. Suddenly,
out of nowhere, very far, traveling a high arch, a rock, a serious rock, a potentially
deadly rock, big as a brick, flew and hit one of the Smurfs square on his shield.
Silence. Not a move. The old woman in her floppy boots and knee-high socks walked
over to the rock. "Rocks. None of this." She picked it up and tossed it
to the side. She cried and cried.
I reached out to stroke her back. "Bedzie lepiej," I said, at a loss, and
a linguistic lack, for anything better or more profound to say.
"Bedzie?" she asked, like a kid, eager to pin hope on a promise.
So we stood, facing the Smurfs, they facing us, canisters of tear gas exploding, blowing
our noses, crying, all very anemic, quiet, subdued.
A bus of soldiers pulled up. "Wyciecka," said the sign, "Vacation."
"How is our lovely Krakow?" called out a voice. A couple of men remonstrated
the Smurfs, but in a subdued way. A couple of others trying to get from A to B tried
to deal with them, assuming the, "I'm-a-humble-harmless-person" pose. Patient.
No one yelled but no one walked away. People just seemed to be waiting.
Adam, Nina, Carolina, Hugo: I joined them. Went back to thickest scene of trouble.
Air blue with tear gas. We had to keep heavy cloths over our mouths and noses. Civilized
paths and stodgy lanes transformed into a battleground. Smurfs threw benches across
the road as barricades. Paving stones, building bricks, had been torn up. The streets
were strewn with them, and broken glass. Huge trucks -- water cannons -- surrounded
us. Nothing looked normal, every day. It looked like a war zone. White tears oozed
from Zbiszek's eyes. He warned us not to touch our eyes. We zigzagged aimlessly, hopping
on and off trams, marching down streets, shouting, "M.O. Gestapo!" and turning
and running when they came after us. Zbiszek ran up to flaming tear gas canisters
as they came down and stamped them out with his feet. Suddenly military vehicles would
drive by and slender black-clad figures with black ski masks, assuming the professional
stance of major league pitchers, would run out and pelt them with heavy stones. A
truck swerved. Breaking glass. Tear gas. Chanting. Crying. We ran to Collegium Nowum.
The students there cheered us on: "Faster! Faster!" Once inside, we sat
down amid a bustle of smiling, busy-looking students. A sweet and gentle and pale
Polish girl put a vinegar-soaked handkerchief under our noses, and instructed us to
inhale. We were told to step into an inner courtyard for some fresh air. We stayed
briefly -- as if the sweet air were rationed, and we should take too much, to avoid
depriving our comrades. Through it all, Zbiszek played the gracious host. Zbiszek
is a "nothing." He failed the exam, doesn't have a job. Wears tight jeans,
khaki jacket, piercings, funky hair. He seemed to know every fantastically costumed
person there. He was a knight, a student of courtly behavior; as we ladies got on
and off trams, he made sure we went before him; he was sure to instruct me when to
run and when to stop.
Frightening new chants: "We want Afghanistan to happen here." "Enough
of this whorehouse of a regime," "Death to Russians." Poles seem to
work at making themselves unreadable. Those who watched the demos pass -- A couple
of fat, wrinkled, poorly dressed older women -- just glowed, pride, joy, hey, "Yeah,
God bless 'em," written all over their faces. Like watching their grandkids go
on their first dates. Quite a few people seemed simply even more zombie-esque than
usual: blank faces, staring, hollowed, shadowed, hopeless, detached. As if this were
just not their world, but something they watch from their fish bowl tram windows they
go to and from their meaningless jobs. Some looked stupefied, stunned, full of wonderment,
as if the leprechauns were dancing in the street. Disturbingly, many just went about
their lives: flirting, striding from A to B in high boots and heavy make-up, licking
ice cream, driving trams, commuting, walking the baby, threading through enraged students,
broken glass, riot police, and pleas of "Join us," "Choc z nami!"
Poles are so wounded, so atomized, so convinced that they are doomed to martyrdom,
even their pleas of "Join us!" sounded doomed. Raw anger … they want
to hurt, fight against, dismantle these forces. I pity the Smurfs. They've lost their
humanity. If a protester dies he dies with his integrity intact. Not so for the Smurfs
. . . I think it's all wrongheaded, tragic [Really? Did I really think that?]. The
protesters seem to want only to experience the prerequisite Polish rite of passage.
Accomplishing something is beside the point [But, they accomplished a lot . . . ].
Scoring a direct hit on a Smurf shield seems to be the idea. Poles do these every
ten years or so: 1956, 68, 70, 80, 1989. Then a new regime comes in, jails or kills
or exiles the best, pacifies the rest with meat and promises. But when you're near
these young men, you sense how much they like it -- playing chicken with the cops,
fighting. The Hormonal Imperative. A great percent of any politics.
February 26. Saw Gregorz [Watroba] at the Micro yesterday. He said he feels that there
must be tragedy, martyrs in Poland. That that is Poland's destiny. He feels the kids
have to throw rocks at the police to be taken seriously. He's ice cool and insane,
I think. And I have to say, during those demos in Krakow is the first time that I've
felt alive in this country.
It's wrong. Violence is wrong except as a last resort. If a person conducts herself
with right action and conviction, violence is often not necessary. We can't create
life; we can't understand life; it's wrong to destroy life. Self control and control
of others is vital in a leader. Do we want to be lead by people who can't control
themselves? Would we want to live under a government that has casual disregard for
people or property? Would we want to live under a government that has so few creative
solutions? What is the creative, rather than the destructive, alternative? The good
must be strong and flourish as the good. The milicja are people, too. Are Poles, too.
Will be citizens of any future republic.
Some had taken refuge in the church. Some of the priests were attending to those overcome
by tear gas; some priests were lobbing gas canisters back at the milicja. Priests
were actually carrying some completely prostrate riot victims to safety.
Monica, a cute girl, had a face-to-face with one of the milicja. He showed her how
to operate his tear gas launcher. He said he hated his job, but he would lose his
apartment if he quit, and all the other police would hate him.
Rob [Minczinowski, from Australia,] was in the church. He said, "This is the
Poland I came to see." Polska Walczaca. Fighting Poland.