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  • Writer's picturePolish Queer Fem

Chalking rainbows as a crime?

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

If you thought the blog title was a provocation, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint. It was very much inspired by true events. In October 2021, a group of queer activists was prevented from chalking a symbolic rainbow of solidarity outside the Polish Embassy in London. According to the police, it was an act of criminal damage for which we could be arrested. This, of course, was news to us, not just because chalk is one of the most harmless tools of activism, which washes off on its own, after rain, but also because this is something we had done many times before, in that exact spot - and without any difficulties.

If you have ever been to one of the queer solidarity demos outside the Embassy, you have likely seen a chalk rainbow there. It was a symbol of queer love and solidarity - probably the last thing that would make you think of the organisers as criminals. Then, all of a sudden, alleging that chalking was criminal damage, the police were not even slightly moved when we said that we've done it many times before and that we are very well aware of the fact the rainbows wash out on their own, within a few days or even hours, with rain, without the need for any human intervention.

On the infamous day, the incomplete rainbow and the rainbow dispute outside the Polish Embassy in London (photo credit: Ian Johns)

This blog post has been a long time in the making. I did think about writing it right after the action, but between my disbelief at the ridiculousness of being told that chalk is a tool of criminal action (try telling that to the mothers of all the children using it in their playgrounds!) and life getting in the way, I never did. Until now, of course. The revival of the idea was inspired by a discussion with Monika Tichy, one of the leading LGBTQ+ activists in Poland, organised by SOAS, London, as part of their LGBTQ+ History Month 2023 series, where the topic came up again.

I thought it was still important to go back to it, as the situation highlighted not just the ridiculousness of the police behaviour on that particular occasion, but larger, more worrying moves towards curtailing the right to protest, which is a crucial part of the democratic process. Using the pandemic as an excuse, the British government was trying to crack down on the right to protest at the time. Now a 'public order' bill is back on the agenda, trying similar tactics in a slightly different frame (returning to some of the most restrictive - rejected - proposals of the policing bill).

On the day - a police officer watching the incomplete rainbow outside the Polish Embassy in London... (photo credit: Ian Johns)

During the recent discussion with Monika, I was reminded of similarly ridiculous - and often dangerously violent - behaviour of the Polish police and 'justice' system (and other state and Catholic Church leaders, seemingly set against queer people and human rights more generally, particularly in recent years). Crucially, Monika reminded me of the (sadly* memorable) day of the first pride march in my hometown of Białystok in 2019, where there were so many violent, far-right anti-demonstrators attacking the parade that it seemed to warrant the presence of around 700 police (for estimated 1,500 taking part in the march itself!). To make matters worse, in another part of the town, there was another counter-event, organised by the ruling party, with one of the local Catholic priests openly praising the violent counter-protest...

Unfortunately, there are many more examples that could be cited from the last few years. I have only selected a few, to show how the violent move to the right in Poland is supported by various agencies, from police and courts, to the government and the Catholic Church. One of the most high-profile queer actions in Poland during the pandemic was in solidarity with the Stop Bzdurom activists, Margot and Łania, who were accused and arrested for vandalism - even though their action was taken (one might argue, justifiably so) against one of the highly offensive 'homofobuses' (homophobic buses) going around. In the main solidarity action, a large group of activists tried to prevent the police from carrying out the arrests and were, in turn, violently treated by the police in the process, with people being thrown into police cars, arrested without legal justification, and denied access to legal help for many hours following arrest. And the violence was reported to continue when they were in custody...

In yet another example, there was a very public criminal case in Poland against a woman who allegedly 'insulted' religious sensibilities by creating an image of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo... A campaign under the banner #TęczaNieObraża (rainbow does not offend) was started in response - and was ultimately successful. Yet, the case remains a shocking (yet, not unique in the context of Poland) example of the shift to the right in recent years.

All of these examples may seem astonishing to an outsider, at least at first. If we place them in a more consciously international frame - considering, for example, the changes currently happening in the UK - perhaps we realise we should not be so shocked after all. Instead, perhaps, we need to become more vigilant about the curtailing of our democratic rights and anti-queerness taking place in our own backyard? The protest I mentioned at the outset of this post - which happened in the heart of London - is but one small example. It might seem very small, insignificant event, but it is also evidence of a larger shift to policing and right to protest happening as we speak. Those in power may say that the idea behind the new crackdown is to the most stop violent and disruptive protests - but how are chalk rainbows violent or disruptive? It seems like the legal changes are also encouraging the police to become more heavy-handed even with the most peaceful, non-violent and non-disruptive

Shocked at the police reaction - especially considering that we have done these rainbows outside the Embassy a number of times before - we then checked the definition of criminal damage. It didn't seem to fit. The legislation is quite vague (perhaps purposefully so), admittedly, but still - considering we have done this before - we knew we weren't damaging the pavement. What the police then told us when we pointed that out, is that what we were doing fell under the 'recklessness' part of the definition. Now, let's be clear. We know the rainbow comes out. This is pretty much the opposite of recklessness under the criminal damage definition under the UK law - as, as per the legislation, it would mean we did not care about whether we damaged the property or not. As I therefore continued to argue against their justification, the conversation started getting sour, with threats of arrest. So at that point we stopped.

Still, this is something that has troubled me since. Why now? Why does it suddenly bother them after some years of these kinds of protest where they had never even bothered to say anything?

I think we need to look back to Poland and the wider international attacks against queer, activist, and human rights more broadly thave has been quietly sweeping much of the world recently. Poland is perhaps one of the 'easiest' examples as it has been widely criticised in recent years for its anti-democratic slide. But it is, sadly, by no means alone. As already mentioned, the UK has also been cracking down on protesters. And similar trends are visible elsewhere. Already, in the early days of the pandemic, thinkers like Arundhati Roy have warned us about the possibility of the crisis being used to further anti-democratic shifts. Roy was writing in the context of COVID India, but it is just one of many examples.

Also similarly to Poland, this attack on human rights and democratic freedoms in other countries is part of a longer shift to the right, which started some years before the pandemic. This includes an onslaught on LGBTQ+, women's, and migrant rights, and democratic freedoms more broadly, in many other countries, including but not limited to the US, Hungary, or Turkey.

The COVID crisis was then followed by economic crises which made things worse for most of us. These crises can be faced either as an opportunity to do things better, but also as a chance for those in power to grasp the controls even harder... Over time, the pandemic has worn us down, especially considering the cost of living crisis that followed shortly after. Wide and loud calls to #BuildBackBetter faded and changed into widespread demand to go back to the new normal. However, it does not mean that things cannot still shift. But we do have to keep our eyes open and stay aware - both of the positive and the worrying alternatives appearing all around us. The recent wave of strikes in the UK shows us that things may be shifting in a different direction already and that we can all be part of this change.

*I had to add a footnote to the 'sadly' remark about what happened during the first Białystok pride march, as it was also - happily - the first such march in my hometown. The violence that happened on the day also inspired a huge wave of solidarity demonstrations across Poland and beyond (including London - which was also an inspiration for my own public queer coming out), so it was also a great day of action in many respects.

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