As I was reading about the group of women in Handmaid’s Tale red robes and white bonnets who staged a pro-choice protest in the Texas senate this week on Monday, March 20th, I was thinking 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 bread—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, sway in the rhythm of their steps, as they silently follow one another in the eerie procession.  

Their protest reminded me of a different protest—also aided with 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 attires, and announced that they will be in the first row, leading our class, and that we needed to pay attention about two hundred meters before 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 with 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 Komunistyczna, 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 to be forced into something we opposed.

The year 1984 was a great year for my senior class. The Martial Law in Poland ended the previous year, which meant no more curfews, and most of us were preparing for the university entrance exams. 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, because we needed strong recommendation letters to follow us after graduation.

As we entered the main street, leading directly into the city square, red propaganda banners above our heads with slogans we disrespected with jokes, someone in front of me turned around, and said that we needed to pay attention now, and be very quick when it starts. 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 what were 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 out 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!

When I watched the group of women in Handmaid’s Tale red robes and white bonnets, 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!

Danuta Hinc

Danuta is a Principal Lecturer at University of Maryland where she teaches writing. She is the recipient of the Barry Hannah Scholarship from Bennington College. Hinc is the author of the novel To Kill the Other, (Tate, 2011), and has published short fiction and essays in literary journals worldwide.

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