Article originally published by Notes From Poland on 19 November 2020

Violence erupted in Warsaw last night, as police officers – many in plain clothes – used force, including tear gas and batons, against the latest protest in ongoing demonstrations that have emerged in response to a near-total ban on abortion.

Police say they were responding to aggression towards them from the demonstrators. The protesters and opposition politicians – one of whom was herself pepper sprayed while showing police her parliamentary ID – say the use of force was unjustified and wanton.

The evening protest – which had several thousand participants at its peak – began outside parliament. It then moved through the city and ended up at the headquarters of TVP, the state broadcaster, which is under the influence of the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.

There, a cordon of police surrounded the demonstrators. When some participants tried to break through the police line, chanting “Let us go home”, police deployed tear gas and force against them, reports Interia.

Among those pepper sprayed were Marta Lempart – the leader of Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet), the main group behind the protests – and Magdalena Biejat, a left-wing MP.

Videos on social media show that Biejat was sprayed while attempting to show her parliamentary identity card to police.

Among those using force against the protesters were officers in plain clothes armed with telescopic batons. On Twitter last night, police said that they were responding to an “illegal gathering” and aggression against them.

This morning, police confirmed they had detained 20 people – including those “most aggressive towards officers” – during the protest, and submitted requests for hundreds more to be fined for violating coronavirus restrictions. One police officer suffered “a very serious injury”, they said.

“We were dealing with a group of people that was very aggressive; the police had to use physical force,” Sylwester Marczak, the spokesman for Warsaw police, told TVN24. “These assemblies are illegal” and this one “was not peaceful”, he added.

Biejat, however, told Wirtualna Polska that the unannounced use of force by non-uniformed officers against peaceful demonstrators had caused panic. Some protesters thought they were being attacked by members of far-right “defence groups” that have recently emerged in response to the abortion protests.

Opposition MP Michał Szczerba, of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), drew attention to a video of one unidentified man in plain clothes using a baton aggressively against the crowd. He demanded the resignation of the head of Warsaw police.

The police also faced criticism last week over their handling of the nationalist Independence March, at which officers used force against members of the press. One 74-year-old photojournalist was shot in the face with a rubber bullet, leaving him requiring surgery.

Poland’s government has previously warned that the abortion protests – which are the largest demonstrations in Poland since the fall of communism – are a threat to public health during the pandemic. Prosecutors have been instructed to seek charges against the organisers.

However, on Monday this week, the health minister announced that coronavirus infection rates in Poland have in fact recently fallen from their peak and are now “stabilised”.

The abortion protests – which have been attended by hundreds of thousands of people – have so far been almost entirely peaceful. However, a report last week, based on inside sources speaking to newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, suggested that Kaczyński wants police to take a more aggressive approach towards the demonstrations.

The protesters themselves – including Lempart – have also declared they are “at war” with the government.