When I was a little alternative girl I walked in a protest march once. I didn't quite know what it was about, I think it was against the enrichment of uranium or something like that. At that time I wasn't sure as well, but I went to march anyway. In the 13 years that followed I never participated in anything like that again, also I never went to a protest march as a journalist. Now I do have this experience, and how, since I've been to the Patriot March in Wrocław on Independence Day.
Every year on Novembert 11th the Polish celebrate their independence and there are always Patriot Marches being organized. The biggest march is of course in the capital Warsaw, but also in my city Wrocław there were 2000 people on the streets to show that they are real Poles who stand up for their country. It's not only patriots that are participating, but also nationalists, fascists and hooligans. They all grab this chance to shout their nationalist slogans and light up flares and exploding fireworks. All together it creates an unfriendly and agressive atmosphere which I never experienced before. Since there are also demonstrations from antifa there is a big police force to keep the two groups seperated from each other.
On Rynek, the market square, the march started out pretty quiet. They walked a few rounds on the square, shouted some slogans, lit up some fireworks and flares and looked angry to the photographers and journalists, including me. When the group walked through the rest of the city centre, they came close to the other demonstrating groups and then the atmosphere totally changed. Suddenly I saw thirty extra police officers coming out of their vans and they runned towards the crowd. Curious as I am I decided to follow them to see what was happening over there. That may have been not the best decision of my life, because I couldn't find a safe spot to stand. The benches on which most of the photographers were standing were more than full and the only solution was to stay in the group of angry nationalists and hide my camera and phone, because most of them didn't quite liked the media.
I put my hood over my head and my scarf over my face to blend in with the crowd, this seemed to be the dress-code for being in the march. People were throwing flares to the police and at the same time a guy in front of me decided to lift a trashcan to hit the police with. Then all hell broke loose, the police force came towards us in one big line of shields and sticks. The guys around me decided to run into the police and I couldn't do anything else then to move in the same direction the crowd went and try my best not to fall.
Luckily for me I was able to stay on my feet and I even picked some patriots from the ground so they wouldn't get trodded under feet. At that exact moment I felt some liquid in my face and a very spicy taste in my mouth: teargas! I acted quickly and put my scarf over my entire face and held my hand over my mouth and nose to keep the rest of the gas away from me. Everyone started running away from the police, except from the first line of patriots, who lay on the ground screaming in agony. Shortly after this it got 'peaceful' again and the march went on to the other side of the city center. I decided to walk with the group to check out what will happen there, with my left eye closed and the feeling like I had just had a bucket full of wasabi in my mouth.
I planned on checking the opposite party, but due to the huge police force I had no other choice then to stay on the side of the nationalists and patriots. Since the whole centre was closed down by the police I couldn't go to my tram stop to go home, so I decided to update my Twitter and Facebook on a bench near to where the patriots were ending their march. After a few minutes a Pole came up to me and asked where I was from. When I said I was from Holland his face lit up and he decided to give me a very long and extended hug. Why he did that I still don't know, perhaps he thought I came all the way from Holland to participate in this March of the Patriots. I really have no clue whatsoever, but at least I had some first-time-experiences again in Poland. I now know how it feels to get sprayed with teargas and I know how it feels to be hugged by a nationalist.
Watch my video from the March of the Patriots:
Check de Nederlandse blog over de Mars der Patriotten hier