Meet Stop Bzdurom, the anarchic Warsaw collective fighting for Poland’s popular imagination

This is our Poland

23 July 2021

Over several summer weeks in 2020, Małgorzata “Margot” Szutowicz and Zuzanna “Łania” Madej became the faces of Poland’s queer rights struggle. In early August, the activists’ attempted arrest set off a flurry of protests in Warsaw, all met with a police response described as needlessly violent. Later, reports surfaced of detained demonstrators enduring beatings and sexual harassment, prompting global figures – from Pedro Almodóvar to Slavoj Zizek – to issue condemnatory statements. Polish conservatives, meanwhile, accused Margot of “insulting religious sentiments” and attempting to ignite a culture war.

Margot and Łania’s alleged crime was damaging a van festooned with homophobic slogans. Later, they were accused of “desecrating” Warsaw’s monuments — including statues of Jesus, Copernicus, and a mermaid familiar from the city’s crest – by adorning them with rainbow flags. Fellow members of activist collective Stop Bzdurom (translating to “stop the nonsense” in English) were accused of aiding them in the latter. Apart from being given flags to hold, the statues were kitted out with pink kerchiefs symbolising queer anarchism; sheets of paper containing an LGBTQ rights manifesto were tacked onto their pedestals.

Stop Bzdurom member Ignacy is keen to stress that another anarchist collective – Gang Samzamęt, or “Pure Chaos” in English – should really take credit for planting the flags (although the manifesto was also signed by Stop Bzdurom and a third local group, Poetka.) In any case, Stop Bzdurom have staged a host of similar “interventions” themselves, whether spray-painting buildings or treating pro-life rallies to impromptu protest dances. For Ignacy, these actions are designed to raise awareness through performance art.

Małgorzata “Margot” Szutowicz and Zuzanna “Łania” Madej. Image courtesy of Stop Bzdurom

“It’s not our style to talk earnestly in front of cameras; we’d rather dance off with fundamentalists or spray-paint a van”

“I suppose we are battling for people’s imagination,” they tell me. Citing safety concerns, Ignacy prefers to be identified by their first name only. “We know it’s not enough to impart factual knowledge — it’s all about how the facts are framed.”

“There is a strong performance element to everything we do,” they add. “It’s not our style to talk earnestly in front of cameras; we’d rather dance off with fundamentalists or spray-paint a van.”

The reference to vans is not incidental. Stop Bzdurom was formed in May 2019 in response to a propaganda campaign by Poland’s ultra-Catholic Pro Right to Life Foundation, which posited a link between homosexuality and paedophilia. Since early 2020, vans owned by the foundation have coursed through Polish cities, blaring slogans which equate LGBTQ+ rights and secular sex education with the criminal grooming of minors. (Poland’s progressive urbanites have responded by performing citizen’s arrests on the vehicles, and mockingly dubbing them “homophobuses.”)

“What we have on our hands is an information war,” Ignacy asserts. “Pro Right to Life’s ‘Stop Paedophilia’ campaign was what made Stop Bzdurom come together. It was the original ‘nonsense’ we wanted to counter.”

A Stop Bzdurom dance-off. Image: AP.ART/Aleksandra Perzyńska

Read more How TikTok is helping Poland’s pro-choice campaigners engage a new generation

Margot recalls first coming across a Pro Right to Life marquee in a central Warsaw square. “I was there with Łania, and a few other trans and lesbian friends,” she tells me. “It was a really tense situation: a group of young queer people, some of us under 18 at the time, and two metres from us – these campaigners accusing us of grooming minors. One of us thought to call the police: naively, we assumed they’d agree that such defamatory statements infringed on our personal rights. When the police arrived, they sided against us; within minutes, they turned violent. It was both devastating and a cognitive shock: you’re being wronged, you call for help, and those supposed to help you end up tackling you, twisting your arms, shoving you into a van, and taking you away. We were released soon after — in pretty good shape, but fuming.”

Stop Bzdurom was born out of that anger and sense of injustice. The friends’ initial response, which Margot today describes as “pretty naive; a product of primary-school thinking”, was to launch a website debunking Pro Right to Life’s false claims, citing expert opinions and a raft of academic sources. Soon, they printed off leaflets, which they handed out in the same Warsaw square. Then, they got creative, borrowing a loudspeaker from one of the space’s resident entertainers, and deciding to sing and dance the pro-lifers away.

“At the beginning, Stop Bzdurom was focused on countering Pro Right to Life’s messaging,” Ignacy tells me. “A rapid-response force, so to speak, with a very specific goal. With time, our “dance-off” protests drew attention, and we started expanding.”

Image: Agata Kubis

Margot stresses the informal character of the group, and the spontaneous nature of most of its actions. She says that early on, these consisted of sprinkling the city with graffiti and sticker art, as well as putting on semi-regular “dance-offs”.

“There’s a multitude of queer and anarchist collectives behind similar initiatives,” she tells me. She cites Gang Samzamęt and Warsaw-based Szpila as examples. “They come together and they come apart, depending on how well specific people get along. It’s all very much in flux, and that’s okay. Because of how amorphous these groups can be, it’s hard to say exactly how we [all of Stop Bzdurom’s current and former members] met. I see it all as pretty innocent. You match with someone on Tinder or run into each other at a protest, you realise you have a lot in common, you see you can support each other and spur each other on.”

She insists that there is no grand strategy behind Stop Bzdurom’s “interventions” — or, if there is one, it’s simply doing what feels good, or morally necessary given the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in Poland.

“We don’t want to take up space when there are so many other grassroots activists around. So many people put their safety on the line when they protested in solidarity with us last year. Nobody talks about these people”

“All of our actions which really ‘landed’, really struck a nerve, were thought up among friends, over lunch or while taking a walk,” Margot explains. “One of us would say: ‘Look, here’s something I’m mad about … won’t it be a laugh if we do this in response?’ I like to think of that as a moral impulse, an act of recognising and naming simple, basic needs. We grab that moral impulse by the throat and run with it.”

Throughout our conversation, Margot points out that she’s uncomfortable with the media singling Stop Bzdurom out from among other anarchist collectives, whether the group is celebrated for “changing the face of Polish queer activism,” or cast as wayward youngsters posing a threat to public order. Nevertheless, her contentious arrest and three week detention in August 2020 made it difficult to avoid the spotlight.

A Stop Bzdurom dance-off. Image: AP.ART/Aleksandra Perzyńska
Where art meets resistance: the galleries pushing back against Poland’s illiberal politics
Read more Where art meets resistance: the galleries pushing back against Poland’s illiberal politics

“It quickly turned out that we didn’t have enough hands on deck to handle media enquiries and coordinate our response,” Ignacy recalls. “Łania was also being harassed by the police; friends, acquaintances, and allies rallied round.”

Apart from gaining new members, Stop Bzdurom was able to raise over 300,000 Polish złoty (approx. £65,000 at the time), which they say they promptly shared with other grassroots groups. Margot, however, appears conflicted about the visibility afforded to the collective by last summer’s events.

“On the one hand, Łania and I have had criminal allegations against us [in connection with allegedly damaging one of Pro Right to Life’s campaign vans]. Given that, visibility affords a degree of protection,” she says. “On the other hand, we don’t want to take up space when there are so many other grassroots activists around. So many people put their safety on the line when they protested in solidarity with us last year. Nobody talks about these people, or what they might be doing. I’d really like that to change.”

Stop Bzdurom has taken up fundraising again, hoping to raise 1 million złoty before a sentence is passed in the criminal case against Margot and Łania. Margot tells me that most of these funds will be distributed among these unsung activists.

According to Ignacy, the group’s other priority is combatting the growing influence in Poland of “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or “TERFs” in activist parlance. The term is applied to those who oppose laws and formulations asserting that trans women are women, as well as calls for their admission into “women’s spaces” – whether gendered bathrooms or women’s support groups.

“We know it’s not enough to impart factual knowledge – it’s all about how the facts are framed”

“I’d say combatting TERF views is absolutely crucial,” Ignacy says. “You could dismiss this as a fight about semantics, but TERF arguments ultimately dehumanise trans people. I really think these activists are only furthering conservative interests. It’s all about drumming up support by finding a vulnerable group to demonise.”

Members of Stop Bzdurom have recently set up Lobby LGBTQ: a self-described “queer think tank” hoping to both counter such discriminatory views and support grassroots activists in their fundraising efforts and grant applications.

Ignacy points out what they call an “information void” around trans identities and rights – even as Stop Bzdurom’s “protest performances” are trying to bridge the gap. Most of the group’s high-profile members identify as non-binary; Polish media have also referenced the polyamorous relationship between Margot, Łania, and fellow activist Lu. Until recently, neither term was familiar to the broader Polish public, and the group’s rise to notoriety has certainly helped disseminate them.

“I still find the idea of performance-based protests wonderful,” Ignacy says. “Instead of numberless talking heads on TV, we need statements which are creative, colourful, memorable; all in the service of a vision too many still find radical.”

Margot agrees, though she is careful to qualify any statements about Stop Bzdurom’s impact on broader public attitudes. She tells me that in her view, inspiring and empowering queer and trans people in Poland should take priority, especially in light of the hardships many of them face.

“Scores of us are in deep crisis,” she says. “Grassroots self-help groups see so many trans people barely able to afford food, nevermind a second-hand binder to lessen their [gender] dysphoria. No amount of factual analysis or awareness-raising will persuade this government to set up trans-inclusive mental health programmes or emergency funds for young people. This is why, when I talk about firing up people’s imaginations, I mostly mean lifting up other queer people. What I want our actions to say [to them] is: look, you’re not alone in this hell of ours. We should strive to make our lives bearable, have fun when we can, take care of ourselves and our loved ones. I want you to see us doing all of that, and take whatever strength you can from it.”

Read more Polish Gen Z in their own words

After the Warsaw statue of Christ was “defaced” with a rainbow flag, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki solemnly placed candles underneath it in a choreographed “atonement” ceremony beamed into Polish living rooms by state TV. The candles didn’t stick around for long. The next day, Stop Bzdurom’s Twitter showed group members placing them on Warsaw’s Łazienkowski Bridge. LGBTQ+ Poles recognised the site from news reports about the death of Milo Mazurkiewicz, a transgender Polish Stonewall volunteer who jumped to her death in May 2019. Her last Facebook posts spoke of her despair in the face of constant prejudice.

“You fool,” read Stop Bzdurom’s protest sign, “leave the candle here instead.”

Read more

Meet Stop Bzdurom, the anarchic Warsaw collective fighting for Poland’s popular imagination

How TikTok is helping Poland’s pro-choice campaigners engage a new generation