On 28 September 2019, Arkadiusz and Karolina packed up a small bag for the day. In it, they placed the makeshift device they had built and a balaclava. Then they set off.
Their destination? Lublin’s LGBT pride march.
The pride march (parada równości) in Lublin is still very young. The event in 2019 was the second ever. The first pride march in 2018 was cancelled due to security concerns and then given the go-ahead at the last minute following an appeal process by the organisers.
While roughly 1,500 people left home that warm September day to support the pride march in Lublin, Arkadiusz and Karolina were on their way to join the 200-person counter-protest.
Karolina, who was just 21 years old at the time, carried the makeshift device in her backpack.
During the course of the march, far-right counter-protesters heckled members of the pride march and attempted to block the route, chanting “bóg, honor, ojczyzna” (god, honour, fatherland) and “chłopak, dziewczyna: normalna rodzina” (a man and a woman makes a normal family). They threw stones and bottles. Police had to disperse them using tear gas and water cannons.
Before the couple had a chance to detonate their device, Police managed to intercept them. Together, they had built a makeshift bomb from fireworks and gas canisters.
Experts who analysed the device stated that “they could have injured or even killed people within an eight-metre radius” and that the contents of the bomb were life-threatening.
The young married couple, Arkadiusz (27) and Karolina (21), were charged with posession of a home-made explosive device that “if used, could have posed danger to the life and health of many people”.
Later, Arkadiusz later told prosecutors that they didn’t want to hurt anyone. They just wanted to make a ‘big bang’.
A different kind of radicalisation
When someone asks you to picture violent extremist, the first image that comes to your head probably isn’t a young married couple from Eastern Poland. That’s because most violent extremist acts are committed by single young men. We even have an established language for those extremists. We call them ‘lone wolf’ attackers.
But this was very different from a ‘lone wolf’ attempt. This was a form of radicalisation underpinned by conservative catholic values and a specific ideology concerning what a family should be and should consist of. And it was planned by a married couple.
Another unusual thing about this attempted terror attack is the role of Karolina. Women are very rarely the prime instigators of extremist violence, although they often appear to be accessories to the crime or supporters of terrorist activities.
In Poland, there are increasing numbers of women joining radical right groups and actively participating in them. Some of them are emboldened to join by their partners. Others join of their own initiative.
Emboldened by state and church
How does a young couple become radicalised to the extent that they would put others’ lives at risk? To work towards an answer, it’s important to understand the social and political climate in Poland.
Not long after the pride event in Lublin, another city in Eastern Poland decided to organise its first ever pride march. Białystok, which is located close to the border with Belarus, 200km east of Warsaw, is one of the most conservative cities in Poland. After the events in Lublin, there were significant concerns about the security of the people involved in the march.
A few months before the Białystok and Lublin pride marches, Gazeta Polska, a right-wing tabloid that openly supports Poland’s ruling PiS party gave away stickers to its readers saying “STREFA WOLNA OD LGBT” (LGBT free-zone), encouraging people to tag their local areas.
The march in Białystok, like in Lublin, was marked by considerable violence among counter-protesters. Twenty-five men were arrested for homophobic attacks during the march.
But anti-LGBT ideology isn’t something that’s only disseminated by a few radical journalists in Poland. It has become part of the country’s political agenda.
At least 80 local governments last summer passed legal acts to make their regions ‘LGBT-free zones’, in a move that was criticised by the European Commission among others. Paweł Rabiej, the deputy mayor of Warsaw raised a formal complaint and noted that “German fascists created jew-free zones”.
These developments prompted one activist to create real-life LGBT-free signs. He then photographed members of the LGBT community standing next to them to send a stark message. In Warsaw, graffiti began popping up around the city, warping the populist phrase “STREFA WOLNA OD LGBT” and transforming it into “STREFA WOLNA OD NIENAWIŚCI’ (hate-free area).
Przedstawiam mój projekt fotograficzny z mieszkańcami ze stref wolnych od LGBT na tle znaków z ich miast i tabliczki ostrzegającej przed wjazdem. pic.twitter.com/DFdMb7OfJG
— Bart Staszewski 🏳️🌈 (@BartStaszewski) January 23, 2020
Back in Lublin, medals were presented to local governments for their work in promoting anti-LGBT ideology. They claim that LGBT ideology is the main cause of paedophilia in the Polish church. Later, a Polish court in Wrocław ruled that a campaign linking LGBT and paedophilia was “informative” and “educational”.
Katarzyna, a young Polish woman who identifies as lesbian told PERICLES that: “the government media is deliberately normalising hate against the LGBTQ+ community. I got used to how LGBT people are portrayed [in the media] and I don’t watch the public television because of that. However, there are many people who believe every word the television says, for example my grandma.”
She added: “I do not feel safe in Poland expressing my sexuality. Even though there are many places in big cities like Warsaw that are LGBT friendly, when I go out on the street I am afraid to hold my girlfriend’s hand. Even if I am in a gay bar, there is still the matter of going there and coming back. It may not be safe as some hate groups may be waiting to attack”.
Setting an example?
Arkadiusz and Karolina were sentenced in February 2020.
Prosecutors chose not to pursue them for terrorist activity, but with the lesser charge of possessing an explosive device that could endanger the lives of others. The maximum sentence for such a crime is eight years in prison.
The couple pled guilty and were sentenced to just one year in prison.
The manager of the Lublin pride march criticised the sentence saying that “We’re dealing with a couple who planned to kill or hurt participants of a peaceful assembly. It is terrifying that such short sentences were handed down. Homophobic crimes should be a priority for the state, but they are not.”
Currently, crimes against people because of their gender or sexual orientation cannot be classified as hate crimes because Poland’s hate crime laws do not cover sexual identity or gender orientation. Attempts to get those crimes included in legislation were rejected in 2016.
When the state, church and media normalises radical anti-LGBT views, members of the public can easily become radicalised themselves. We have a situation in Poland where ideologies that may have once seemed radical to regular people can become the norm through repetition. It is a dangerous trend that leaves many in fear and could beget more radical behaviour in the future.
For many in the LGBT community, the short sentence of the couple in Lublin further normalises radical violence against members of their community.
Has the sentencing of the couple sent a strong message to other radicalised actors who might be inspired to follow them? Only time will tell.