Dreams do come true: the power and political influence of urban activists

In autumn of 2018, Poland will host the UN COP 24 climate summit. This is a good opportunity to bring problems concerning the ecological crisis, especially the issue of climate change, in Poland to reality -  to the EU, national and, first of all, local policy level. The aim of the seminar organized by the Institute for Advanced Studies in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation is to more specifically address climatic issues in the Polish debate, in the social, economic, but also cultural, identity or ethical dimension. How to act at the local level to be effective? Patryk Białas, a city activist from Katowice and one of the guests of the seminar, presents his experiences in this field.

Mural in Katowice
Teaser Image Caption
Mural in Katowice

Two-and-a-half years ago I decided to start working for the common good. I dreamed about clean air for my children in Katowice, so I decided to change my city. I started with what I knew. I applied to Miejska Szychta [urban shift], and so began my adventure as an urban activist. Civic action is not just about electoral campaigns, referenda or local elections. Air pollution, cars parking on green areas, a pot-holed sidewalk, a closed-down playground or planting trees and shrubs – all these matters demand public intervention. But when you become an active citizen, they start calling you a politician. And to your surprise, you enter the battle for power.

The ‘Clean Air’ public campaign

Civic action is a long-distance run. It requires an abundance of humility, courage, strength and determination. I offer two examples.

Two years ago, we tried out a legislative initiative by the residents of Katowice. In cooperation with the Environmental Development Department of the Katowice City Hall and a lawyer from the BONA FIDES Civil Activities Association, we developed a draft City Council resolution to take action on clean air.

On 14 March 2016, we registered a Legislative Initiative Committee at the city council and began collecting signatures. Forty-five volunteers were involved in collecting signatures. Within two months, we had collected nearly 900 signatures, with the required number being 500.

On 27 July 2016, the councillors rejected the draft resolution with a majority represented by Forum Samorządowe and PiS [Self-government Forum and Law and Justice]. It is interesting that at the same time the city council tripled the budget for subsidising the replacement of heating sources – an initiative by the city president. The council’s July session demonstrated that the authorities are in some sense able to bend under the influence of an organised social movement. How?

In March of that year, no one had taken our initiative seriously. In April, when the media began to show an interest in it, the city authorities began to fight the initiative. In May, however, they took the decision to adopt the initiative and present it to the public ... as their own. Two days before the civic draft resolution was submitted to the city council office, the President of Katowice called a press conference and informed the public that ‘the fight for clean air’ was a priority for Marcin Krupa in his current term of office.

Conflict began to grow with the city's authorities over the vision of what actions were needed. Opposition politicians from PO [Civic Platform] got involved in promoting the residents' initiative. However, we received a negative opinion on the draft resolution from the Environmental Development Department of the Katowice City Hall. The Infrastructure and Environment Committee of the City Council of Katowice refrained from taking any position whatsoever on the draft. On the day of the city council session, the chairman of the Infrastructure and Environment Committee tried to persuade me, as our committee representative, to withdraw the draft resolution from the session agenda. Local media favourable to the authorities began writing unbelievable things about the initiative and about me personally. In short, the city authorities tried to use propaganda to hide the fact that the success actually belonged to a public initiative.

Since the authorities in the city were not prepared to take effective action together with citizens, we decided to activate the residents themselves to engage in anti-smog actions.

For two years we have been in pre-schools, schools and neighbourhood festivals. We have been organising talks and debates about ‘clean air in the fresh air’ with residents, film-and-discussion clubs, and the Social Forum for Clean Air, as well as awareness-raising events and educational programmes. This year, through the Katowice Anti-Smog League, we have organised: art contests, a photo competition with a total of around five hundred works, an Oxford debating league and a street basketball tournament. In the last heating season alone, pre-school and school workshops have attracted around 2,000 people.

One more matter is the campaign for civic cooperation in regional government. From the very moment in May 2016 that the Marshal of the Silesia Voivodeship, Wojciech Saługa, appointed a team of experts to draft an anti-smog resolution for the province, we were heavily involved in the expert work on the project. When social consultations began in January 2017, we mobilised smog alert groups operating across Silesia, as well as residents (collecting nearly 5,000 signatures) and scientists (with a resolution by the Council of the Faculty of Biology and Environmental Protection of the University of Silesia, plus nearly 400 scientists of the Silesian University of Technology who signed an appeal to the Marshal and the Chairman of the regional parliament). We took an active role in the work of regional parliamentary committees. We convinced councillors of various parties to take a stand. It is worth recalling that the main champion of the unanimous adoption of the draft resolution was Silesian regional parliament councillor Jarosław Makowski.

A need for structures

When we were starting out in 2015, none of us was ready to build structures. We met at the headquarters of Bona Fides: Paweł Wyszomirski, Marta Ostrowska, Katarzyna Niemiec, Maciej Biskupski, Kamil Żbikowski and myself. Maciej Szołtysek joined us later. In the first phase of the campaign we completed two tasks: a competition under the slogan A letter to clean air and a happening entitled Put a mask on Kuroś[1]. With Maciek Szołtyski, we also handed out jars of clean air at the Christmas market in Katowice's Nikiszowiec.

Then, in December 2015, we signed up to Polish Smog Alert’s programme and established the informal group Katowice Smog Alert. Initially we worked with the Napraw Sobie Miasto [Repair Your City] foundation. We took advantage of having legal status (applying for grants to finance projects), a premises (Warszawska 56) and the network of Polish Smog Alert experts.

In May 2017, we registered an unincorporated association, BoMiasto, and joined the Congress of Urban Movements. In August, we were entered into the National Court Register and became a registered association. We then expanded our activities to include actions for the benefit of civil society and sustainable urban development. We organised tree-planting campaigns, appeals to take in refugees, and protests against xenophobia and racism. We began to act as a spokesperson for residents in all matters in which citizens do not have the courage to speak out publicly. Importantly, we began to be a party to talks. We began to sign contracts for funding. We began submitting court applications. We began to organise protests.

Becoming professional

Being an urban guerrilla has its charm. Spontaneous actions bring a lot of joy, and exhaustion, but also great satisfaction. When going into action we make a plan first. Then we determine the date and necessary resources. Finally, we invite the media.

I remember that when in December 2017 Jarosław Makowski came up with the idea of protest against the change of name of Plac Wilhelma Szewczyka [Wilhelm Szewczyk Square] to Plac Marii i Lecha Kaczyńskich [Maria Kaczyńska and Lech Kaczyński Square], nobody believed the action would be successful. Nevertheless, on a Saturday in December, the street protest in Szewczyk Square saw a turnout of several hundred people. On the initiative of opposition councillors from PO and Ruch Autonomii Śląska [the Silesian Autonomy Movement] an extraordinary session of the city council was called during the Christmas break. Almost 7,000 people have signed the online petition to date. The street forced the city authorities to submit a complaint to the Provincial Administrative Court in Gliwice regarding the change of street name ordered by the voivode of Silesia, Jarosław Wieczorek. Suddenly, the protest regarding Szewczyk Square is all over Poland.

Today I know that it is possible to change Katowice. When I got up off the couch two-and-a-half years ago, lots of people treated me like I’d gone mad. In the last two years, the words of Mahatma Gandhi have been particularly meaningful to me: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ The process of changing our city cannot be stopped. Residents are contacting us themselves, and they want to help. Artists, senior citizens, teachers, athletes and journalists all come with ideas. Today we are planning actions many months ahead. We have no intention of letting up. Civic activity teaches humility and patience. It helps make dreams reality. The problem is that building civil society is not the job of urban activists alone – it is regular citizens taking action that puts pressure on the authorities. Pressure brings sense, and hope leads to victory.

[1] Kuroś - an affectionate name for a well-known statue of a student in Katowice.

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.