The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different.
~George Orwell, 1984
When I read about the group of women in Handmaid’s Tale red robes and white bonnets who staged a pro-choice protest in the Texas Senate the week of Monday, March 20th, I thought about the power of image. The group of women—channeling the characters in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel who were forced by the government to breed—sat silently in the senate gallery while the anti-abortion bills were passed. In videos posted on Instagram, we see them marching in the senate’s hallway, holding pro-choice signs written not on paper, but on white cloth. The white rectangles, displayed in front of them, one would say, in front of their bellies, swayed to the rhythm of their steps, as they silently follow one another in the eerie procession.
I heard the word protest—incidentally, in Polish the word “protest” is also “protest” (to protest, protestować)—for the first time when I was a little girl preparing for my First Communion in Poland. The year was 1975, and I was complaining to my grandfather, Józef Król, about the hard, wooden benches we had to kneel on in church for too long while rehearsing. When I told him that my knees were hurting, he said that kneeling held memories for him that were not only painful, but victorious, that kneeling was the best protest he had ever staged in his life. It happened in prison, shortly after WWII ended, when he was jailed for over a month for criticizing the new communist government, which he regarded with the same contempt he held for fascism during the war. Józef was held in a bare, concrete cell in Areszt Śledczy Prison in Wejherowo, and to protest his captivity and his captors, he knelt in his cell and prayed silently. Józef’s silent defiance—his protest—flew in the face of the communist ideology that didn’t acknowledge the existence of a higher power. He told me that he tried to be on his knees, with his back turn to the door, as much as he could, but especially when he heard the guards approaching his cell. He credited his release to his kneeling, to his protest, and believed that his prayer held a power of silent transformation the captors could neither accept nor reject. Maybe they were afraid that God existed after all, he said to me, laughing, and his protest story made me view my own complaints about kneeling as something worth enduring.
The women in red robes and white bonnets in the Texas senate reminded me of my grandfather, but they also reminded me of my own protest—also aided with an image—that happened more than thirty years ago in communist Poland, in May of 1984.
I was wearing my father’s suit jacket over a summer dress, because I didn’t own a jacket of my own, and my mother’s jackets were too small, for she was a petit woman. We, the seniors, stood in the hallway of King Jan Sobieski High School in Wejherowo, an hour before the May Day Parade, and looked at each other, wondering who knew what the plan was. The annual May Day Parade was a Soviet-style spectacle, despised by everyone who opposed the Soviet Union and its grip on Poland’s politics.
When I asked my best friend if she heard anything, she shook her head, and said that we all looked like idiots. She pointed to her jacket, and said that it belonged to her grandfather. All we knew was that a couple of male students from our class organized a secret parade protest, and for that asked us to wear jackets. In fear of betrayal, or accidental slippage of information, they didn’t share the details of their plan with anyone. Even though most of us understood that secrecy was necessary, some of us, emboldened with graduating the following month, wanted to know more.
When the two organizers showed up, we gathered around them with questions. They looked at us, pleased with our attire, and announced that they would be in the first row, leading our class, and that we needed to pay attention right before approaching the tribune. The tribune was an elevated platform in the middle of the city square from which the political officials and dignitaries reviewed the parade, waving their arms as they held red carnations, welcoming the working class—the power of the communist Poland, and students—the bright future of the ever-growing country. The tribune was decorated in red cloth, and cut-out white peace doves. Red was the color of the PZPR—Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, the Communist Party. White was the color of purity and peace. Both colors embodied bravery and relentless fight against the imperialistic West, located behind the Iron Curtain, as we were taught in school, against what was discussed at homes and churches.
The teachers showed up with armfuls of red carnations, and each one of us was given one—to wave in front of the tribune. We left the school, hundreds of students, spilling into the streets, most of us, if not all, wishing to be somewhere else, resenting being forced to participate in something we opposed.
The year 1984 was a great year for my senior class. Martial Law in Poland ended the previous year, which meant no more curfews. We were ready to move out of our parents’ homes, and start independent lives. The May Day Parade was not conducive to the freedoms we were preparing ourselves for, but we knew that not showing up for the parade was not an option. Most of us had already applied to various universities, and we needed strong recommendation letters from our teachers. We knew that skipping the May Day Parade would have devastating consequences, which included being labeled “antisocial,” and “enemy of the state.” These labels would surely impede acceptance to universities.
As we entered the main street, leading directly into the city square, red banners with propaganda slogans above our heads, someone in front of me turned around, and said that we needed to pay attention now. My best friend and I looked at each other, still not understanding what was supposed to happen. When we were about two hundred meters away from the tribune—I could see the communist party officials and dignitaries and their red carnations high in the air—the protest started like a quick wave initiated by the two organizers.
First them, and then those who followed behind them, and then the next row, and the next, all students were taking their jackets off, turning them around, back to front, and immediately putting them back on. In a couple of minutes, we were marching in front of the tribune in our jackets pointing the wrong direction, into the direction we all wanted to go—back, away from the parade that under the pretense of celebrating the working class, celebrated the communist government of Poland, the oppressive regime, and the oppressive political system.
With our red carnations pointed to the ground, in jackets turned back to front, we walked in silence in front of the tribune, looking straight ahead—with pride of accomplishing the protest, and in fear of the consequences that would surely follow.
Thirty years later, I don’t remember the consequences that followed, apart from a stern lecture from our homeroom teacher, but I remember—with pride and deep gratitude to those two organizers—the image of us protesting, walking in front of the political dignitaries in our jackets turned back to front.
And there is one more element of the protest I remember, perhaps the most significant one. I remember that everyone immediately understood the message our protest conveyed. Students, teachers, and the political dignitaries understood the insulting message. In silence, we showed explicitly what we thought, what we meant, and what we wanted. No words were uttered, but we were saying clearly—We don’t want to be here! We don’t support you! We don’t believe you! We don’t belong!
My grandfather’s silent protest in the prison communicated his rejection of the new political system imposed on Poland, without the country’s involvement, by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. He protested the new communist regime that devalued prewar democratic Poland, and rejected the existence of God. In the prison cell, he held no power but that over his own body, and he used it as effectively as he could.
When I watched the group of women in Handmaid’s Tale red robes and white bonnets in March, protesting in the Texas Senate, I thought about the power of image that in silence supersedes language, and communicates clearly what it is intended to convey—You are forcing us to follow what we reject! You are not representing us! We will take your power away from you!
Here are the silent images—imagine—the group of women in Handmaid’s Tale red robes and white bonnets in the Texas senate, my grandfather kneeling on the concrete floor in his prison cell, my high school classmates and me marching in front of the May Day Parade tribune in our jackets turn back to front.
Three images of silent protest. Gestures of defiance coming from strong convictions against suppression of women’s rights, unjust prosecutions by oppressive regimes, and silencing political opponents.
In those images, no one is saying anything, but the images hold a clear message, and those involved—also the witnesses—understand the message and its power. The silence amplifies the image, and elicits the witness to seeing it the way it was intended.
The power of the image lies in its silence, because the silence turns the witness into an active participant. The interpretation belongs to the witness, and by acknowledging the message, the witness becomes—unwillingly—an active participant of the protest. And this is how silent image becomes a most powerful protest.