Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Road to Warsaw: Marching

This is day three in my "report" of the trip I made to Warsaw with the London Gay Men's Chorus for Europride between 15 and 18 July 2010. The days leading to the trip, the journey itself and the first evening in the city are described here. The second day can be found here.

Pictures of the day.

Having set my phone alarm but forgotten to turn it on, it is only after about 10min to get ready that I errupted out of the hotel to see the old banger of a communist-era coach that was going to take us on another tour of Warsaw leave the curb, on that second morning. Thankfully, the tour people had a second smaller vehicle for overflows and I jumped into that.

It was just me and the young driver who rattled on in an overexited way until we joined the main group on Constitution Square, a vast ensemble of autere building dumped in the middle of the city without care for the existing street plan. This was apparently mostly a show piece where official demonstrations took place.

From there we walked to a communist monument exhaulting the workers and further on to a lovely little hotel built in 1912 in the courtyard of the appartment block that provided the money for its construction. We then got back to the coach a drove towards a street of the Jewish Ghetto eerily preserved and allowed to decay, while the guide explained how Warsaw had been distroyed mostly after the war by the communist, although the Germans had a good go at it first.

Throughout this part of the tour which was in the area where the Pride march was later going to take part an increasing police presence could be noticed, doing little to allay the worries of some of us about what was to come.

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Our group in Constitution Square and in the remains of the Jewish Ghetto.

After our stop at the remains of the Jewish Ghetto, we were soon was back on our mobile sauna (the temperature outside being over 30 degrees already) to cross the river for a taste of Vodka and Polish nibbles, that would constitute my breakfast. This was to take place in little bar in the Praga district (called Sense/NoSensu) which would find approval with the most hardened Hoxton Hipster with its decor of garish wallpaper and second-hand 70s furniture.

Praga, situated on the eastern side of the river (which is why the locals have apparently nicknamed the district "Asia"), is a mixture of communist, russian and war-surviving buildings. This is a decidedly poorer area with apparently a strong artistic community, attracted there by the low rents. Many substandard buildings are however being replace by more expensive development and things are changing.

Having been dropped off at the hotel, there was little time to get changed and prepare for the afternoon before we had to convene in the lobby and walked to Bankowy Square where the parade was to beginning.

As we entered Saski Gardens we were greeted by a small group of men holding a banner that, although it was in Polish, was clearly not a friendly welcome.

As we progressed through the park, we became aware that the people staring at us from the benches may not necessarily random pleasure-seekers enjoying the shade and cool of trees. One of them even asked a group of us if they liked "penis in bed" while another shouted the word "pedal", a good translation of "faggot" in Polish (as in French).

Members of the police (both on horses and on foot) were also enjoying the shade of the park but things were clearly soon to heat up.

We reached the square without any problem however and soon put our banner together, took a group photo and started to mingle with the rest of the 10,000 people here to take part in the parade (Pink News).

A big butch lesbian who normally does security at events in London told me that in the morning of the parade, "Pride House", a meeting and information point, had been fire-bombed (she added that she had nearly shat her pants). Later in the day several of our members felt intimidated by random hostile groups.

Despite a higly-visible police presence however (about 2000 officers), a main group of about 300 right-wingers tried to block the parade (see video below). They were quickly surrounded by the riot police.



Seeing the Polish branch of Dykes on Bikes (only half a dozen of them) finally breakthrough and kick-start the parade was an emotional moment. The protestors however started hurling insults, half-full plastic bottles, bibles, eggs and stones at the 11 floats (a member of the Chorus was indeed hurt).

Other smaller groups (also under close police surveillance. it was clear that they had been told to behave) were protesting along the route of the parade. Someone was throwing holy water at us. 8 people were arrested and the parade had to be re-routed and cut short to avoid further protests.

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Anger of the far right protestors v calm of the marchers

On the whole however, the usual party spirit pervaded the day. Interestingly, the people taking part in the parade were mostly "every-day-looking" people, rather than the more flamboyant kind we are used to in London. Even so, many onlookers seemed genuinely nonplussed by what they were seeing, a sign that LGBT visibility is probably not as high as it could and should be in the country.

The parade ended in joyous mayhem in the former communist ceremonial square of the city where one of the floats turned into a stage for a rally which included a speech by Nick Herbert (out British Minister for Police).

Comments from marchers about our performance the night before and our presence on the parade show how our Polish brothers and sisters welcomed and needed our support in this long struggle they have to fight. We all got home elated and proud to have been part of this event. For some of us it was also a wake up call to the fact that things are probably not as rosy as they thougth they were.

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All my pictures from the trip are available on my flickr account here.

See also SDPL leader Marek Borowski promises to open Warsaw Pride if elected mayor on PinkNews.

Part Four is available here.

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