By Marc Santora and Joanna Berendt
The marchers at the first gay pride parade here in the conservative Polish city of Bialystok expected that they would be met with resistance.
But last week when Katarzyna Sztop-Rutkowska saw the angry mob of thousands that awaited the marchers, who numbered only a few hundred, she was shocked.
“The most aggressive were the football hooligans, but they were joined by normal people — people with families, people with small children, elderly people,” she said.
They blocked her way, first hurling invective, then bricks and stones and fireworks, she said. From the balconies, people threw eggs and rotten vegetables. Even before the march started, there were violent confrontations, and by the time the tear gas cleared and the crowd dispersed, dozens were injured and Poland was left reeling.
Much as the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, shocked the conscience of America, the brutality in Bialystok last week has rocked many in Poland and raised grave concerns over a steady diet of anti-gay political propaganda in the country.
In a show of solidarity with the LGBT community in Bialystok, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Warsaw and other cities around the country on Saturday. They carried rainbow flags and vowed to combat intolerance.
“One week ago, the government betrayed the people in Bialystok, gays and lesbians,” said Pawel Rabiej, the openly gay deputy mayor of Warsaw. “Warsaw is for everyone and so should the rest of Poland. Solidarity will conquer the time of contempt.”
Since this spring, when the governing Law and Justice Party stepped up its anti-LGBT language in advance of European Parliament elections, the language has only grown more heated as national elections approach this fall.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the governing party, told supporters at a July campaign event staged to look like a family picnic in Kuczki-Kolonia, a village in central Poland, that it was their duty to defend the nation from what he called Western decadence.
“We don’t have to stand under the rainbow flag,” he said.
In recent months, more than 30 localities have passed legislation declaring their region free from “LGBT ideology.” A national conservative newspaper, Gazeta Polska, distributed stickers so people could designate “LGBT-free” zones, a stunt that drew a swift rebuke from the American ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mossbacher, and others and was later banned by a Polish court.
A group in Warsaw called “Stop Pedophilia” has been traveling the country smearing gay people with baseless claims of abuse.
For weeks, the group set up a tent in the center of the old town square of Bialystok to spread its message. Even after the violence last weekend, the group’s truck still patrolled the streets, broadcasting its claims over loudspeakers.
“What happened in Bialystok was the result of months of propaganda,” Sztop-Rutkowska said.
The anti-gay language has also been pushed by many figures in the Roman Catholic Church.
Two weeks before the march, Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda issued a letter that was read aloud in all churches in Bialystok and the surrounding province of Podlasie, asserting that gay pride events constituted “blasphemy against God.” He invoked a Latin phrase that was once the rallying cry of priests fighting for freedom against Communist rule. “Non possumus,” he wrote. “We cannot accept this!”
Dozens were injured in Bialystok. The police have identified over 100 people and accused them of attacking the marchers. At least 77 have been fined or charged. One man was accused of beating a 14-year-old boy.
In the week that followed, the violence was condemned by officials from both the governing party and the church — though both also denied responsibility for fomenting fear and hatred.
Jakub Przybysz is well acquainted with the hatred directed at gay people in many parts of the country. It is why he hid his sexuality for years.
Even before the recent anti-LGBT campaign, it was not easy being gay in this conservative town. There are no gay-friendly clubs or coffeehouses. It would be crazy, he said, to walk hand-in-hand with a same-sex partner.
“The only open life you can live is in your own apartment,” he said.
Still, when he learned that Bialystok County had been declared a region free of “LGBT ideology,” he was “shocked and horrified.”
“I don’t want to leave this country, but I wonder if there is a place in Poland where I can feel safe,” he said.
Bozena Bierylo, a Law and Justice councilwoman from the Bialystok County, said that the legislation was a response to “provocations” from LGBT minorities and their “demands” for sex education classes.
Still, she said, “any violence is unacceptable.”
Przybysz said that the anger he witnessed at the march has been fueled by language from political and religious figures.
His account, along with those of other eyewitnesses and videos, showed how quickly a mob mentality can grip a community.
The march was supposed to begin at 2 p.m., but a group of people who wanted to protest against the event were granted a permit for the same day. Extremist groups put out calls for supporters from across the region to join them.
They assembled on a grassy knoll overlooking the Square of the Independent Student Association, once the site of an old Jewish cemetery that was buried by the Communists after the war.
Sztop-Rutkowska, a sociologist, said that as she was surrounded by thousands of angry protesters, perhaps the most chilling thing was that there were familiar faces in the howling crowd.
“I recognized a former neighbor,” she said. “A friend recognized their doctor. A student of mine saw a counselor from her child’s school.”
“One young girl from Warsaw came up to me and asked if she could stay with me,” Sztop-Rutkowska said. “She was so terrified she burst into tears.”
They held each other as they marched.
All along the way, they were met with scorn and derision. One image that has spread around the country showed a man, his small child in a stroller in front of him, confronting the police and shouting at the marchers as he tried to stop them.
An older lady on a balcony waved at the marchers only to be met with shouts from hooligans in the crowd. “We know where you live, you whore!” they chanted.
Videos showed mobs chasing people. One ended with a young boy being stomped on by a group of large men.
Talk of the violence has gripped Poland in the days since, with endless hours of discussion on radio and television.
Even as political leaders and church officials have tried to distance themselves from the violence, the campaign against the LGBT community has shown no signs of abating.
Przemyslaw Witkowski, a journalist, was riding a bicycle with his girlfriend in the city of Wroclaw on Thursday evening when he spotted anti-gay graffiti and told his girlfriend it was shameful.
Apparently, someone overheard Witkowski. A short time later, a man confronted him.
“You don’t like this graffiti?” Witkowski said the man asked him.
“I said I did not,” Witkowski responded.
The man attacked him.
“He beat me badly, leaving me on the ground bleeding,” Witkowski said from the police station in Wroclaw on Friday, where he was undergoing a physical to catalog his injuries, which included a broken nose and fractures in his face. The photos of his bloody face have been widely shared across the country.
Witkowski has written about extremist groups and said he was worried for his country.
“We are unleashing things that in the future cannot be stopped,” he said. “It is happening.”