Marta: The Freedom Fighter – “The Only Thing I Have Left is to Keep Running”

It is said that no one is irreplaceable. If this is true, Marta Lempart is the exception that proves the rule. For most female activists who have been in the Women’s Strike since the beginning, this is obvious. Although she herself usually says otherwise: “I am not indispensable”. But she is. Without her, this speeding train would not go on. Yes, a whole group of people contribute to the success of the Strike’s work, but Marta is the engine. She is the one who sets the tone and gives a ‘face’ to the social movement. It is thanks to her instinct and strategic sense that this crazy train has not yet derailed and landed in a ditch somewhere. Those who work most closely with her on a daily basis look after her health and well-being, because they know that the movement leader’s charisma drives activists across the country. This locomotive has to deliver, it has to keep giving. And yet it is pulling more and more carriages behind it. Because the Strike is growing, spreading endlessly to new places. There are more and more duties, tasks to be fulfilled, new challenges that appear, problems to be solved.

Marta is crucial to the Strike because for a long time she carried it almost on her own shoulders. “There were times when we were carrying out these daily duties and running the [Polish Women’s Strike] Foundation practically alone with my partner and co-founder.” She has the contacts, the Strike’s history and the narrative at her fingertips. And she has kind of gotten people used to the idea that she takes care of everything herself. She has a tendency to take on too much, but she is working on this, learning to delegate tasks, to involve other people in her work and to distribute responsibilities. She knows she has to, because this social movement is expanding and developing at great pace and needs more and more people to support it. The central helpdesk team needs to grow with it.

An Influential Woman Of The Year

Marta was awarded this title by Forbes Magazine in 2020. She was also voted Superheroine of 2020 by High Heels, a weekly magazine connected with Gazeta Wyborcza. When she’s on top form, Marta is fearless, relentless, focused, deadly logical and unflappable. She writes brilliantly and performs even better live. She gets to the point, speaks simply, clearly and lucidly, and knows how to reach out to anyone. At the same time, she is able to appeal to people’s emotions and get the crowd behind her. She is known for not throwing words to the wind and for being able to condense the message into a single word, as with the famous “F*©µ off!”

She describes herself as “selectively high functioning”. She gives her best when she needs to give her best. She rises to the occasion. But after she gets to the peak of what she can do, a dip in form and a slump inevitably follow. Or, as in the last few months, a real crisis and depression.

I'll Tell Your Shrink On You

The two most popular sayings in the Women’s Strike office? “You’re with Miss!” Or: “Go and see Miss!” It’s an insider joke, referring to how young children at school complain about each other to the teacher. “Miss” is the code name for the psychotherapist who works with the Strike activists. There are several Misses. Some of the organisers use the help of female therapists on a permanent basis, some from time to time if they feel the need. Even here, you can see how crucial Marta’s role is in the Strike – when she admitted that she needed help and reached out for it, other activists followed her example. “I wouldn’t have been able to cope without the help of “Miss”, that is, without therapy. I have weeks where in our session we make a list of tasks to complete for the week – three tasks for each day.

I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to do and grasp, it paralyses me, and I end up not doing any of the things I should.”

She gets stressed out by the sound of her phone ringing, the instant message notifications. What can she do, she switches it off, mutes it, builds a fence, allows just a few trusted people access to her 24 hours a day. “There was a moment when my communications were completely blocked, I was getting thousands of messages, through all possible channels, and even if I was awake and doing nothing else, there was no chance I could receive all of them and read them, let alone reply. I had to change my system because the people who mattered couldn’t reach me either when it was urgent and important.” Marta had to change her phone number because someone had made it public. And that number was quickly compromised, so that there was always someone calling her, sending messages, making obnoxious prank calls, like pretending to order things or services.

Marta talks openly in interviews about how exhausted she is, how she has never been so mentally and physically drained in her life, her battery almost running on zero.

Activism took everything I had, my health and life are in ruins”.

This statement was quoted by media from across the political spectrum. Previously, the darker face of activism, the fact that it is hard work that demands sacrifice and dedication, and that most activists and their whole families pay a heavy price for what they do, was not spoken about publicly. She has also been slammed for telling the truth about the price of activism.

This is not the first crisis Marta has faced in the last five years, but it is the most serious one. As usual in this kind of situation, there are many reasons.

I Used To Be A Person

Anyone who knows Marta knows that she is a strong, resilient, assertive person. She is lucky, because she was raised in the knowledge that “I’m OK”. She is at peace with herself, trusts herself. She knows her own value, can soberly assess her abilities, and has a healthy distance from herself. She believes in her abilities. In Poland, hardly anyone leaves their family home with such equipment for the future, for life. But these five years of living an endless war with an oppressive state have taken their toll.

I am not superhuman, a superheroine. I am a normal woman, independent, yes, but I also need support, help.”

The activist has developed defence mechanisms and tactics to deal with the heckling. But they fail when people who are theoretically on her side shoot her in the foot. Marta defines the phenomenon of ‘positive pressure’. “Yes, we understand that you haven’t recovered from Covid, we understand that you’re running on empty, but….” The greatest pressure comes from allies. They pin their hopes on her, expectations, even demands that she always manage. Her slightest mistake or stumble is accounted for, pointed out, it grows to the size of some unknown tragedy. “You should, you absolutely must.” There is no mercy. There is no tenderness, no kindness, no sensitivity. No empathy. “I am a dancing bear, and a dancing bear has one duty: to do stand-up on demand, which means always being in good shape. And I understand that, because it’s hard for the people who support us, who are with us, to care that I’m having a bad day. The dancing bear has to prove itself.”

I'm Sick And Tired Of Explaining Myself

Up until a certain point, Marta explained everything to everyone, but mostly she explained herself to others. Why she said this, why she acted like that, why not a different way. It has been a while now since she stopped explaining herself. She doesn’t have the strength for it. She is sincere and authentic, either someone buys it or they don’t. She doesn’t tend to do or say anything because it’s seen as appropriate. “I believe that authorities that don’t respect people are not authorities, full stop.”

Marta embodies responsibility. But in recent months, she has learned to set boundaries. The word ‘MUST’ is like a red rag to a bull to her. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t HAVE to do anything.” She has learnt not to react to taunts, comments that are meant to hurt her, to crush her, especially the so-called “internet institute of intellectual supervision”, as the Strike call the quite large and ever-present group of people who criticise her on social media. Often these are people who have nothing to do with activism, their statements detached from the reality in which the Strike operates. And sometimes from reality full stop. Marta often refers to this in her public statements.

People who work with her on a daily basis stress that the activist is confident but not complacent. She listens, she learns, she asks for advice, for tips, she pulls in people who have more experience and knowledge to help her with the Strike. She has no problem accepting criticism, but she hates lies and slander. This is what she fights against and she usually points it out bluntly.

My Body Says Stop

Her body is refusing to obey. For a dozen or so years she has been working like an ox, running herself into the ground to do the job right.  During these last 5 years with the Strike, she has ignored her body’s signals that it was time to slow down, rest, take care of herself. She has neglected health issues. This came back to haunt her in early 2021, just after a serious case of coronavirus in December.

All the health issues that she hadn’t dealt with before - while permanently “in the heat of battle” - resurfaced.

First of all, with her back, which had suffered at the hands of police officers. “Many times during the protests I was literally thrown to the ground like a sack of potatoes, and I do weigh my own weight,” says the activist.

During the action, on adrenaline, you don’t feel any pain, and then, when the emotions subside, it turns out that you can’t get up, stand up, these are the effects of having being dragged to the ground, pushed, jerked around. Marta has problems with her heart, her lungs, her blood pressure, her spine, her sleep.

The question is rather what she doesn’t have problems with. At the moment she walks with visible difficulty, and works daily with a physiotherapist to be able to move and function normally. She suffers from roughly the same ailments as other patients recovering from Covid, only more severely. She has problems with memory, concentration and is chronically tired. She delegates tasks, gets help, but still works too much, on average 10-12 hours a day. She struggles to have weekends to herself, to recuperate.

Hey, Soros, Where's My Money?

Financially and professionally I have lost everything, I am in ruins. I lost my job and my own business. I am in a terrible financial situation. I now earn 20 percent of what I did five years ago. My savings are long gone.”

Marta confirms that without her parents’ financial support she would not have managed. “My dad helps me, he really deserved a long time ago not to have to save his daughter, who is 42 and is saving Poland, which is an expensive hobby. My mother helps me, buys me clothes and food, transfers money for basics like cotton wool.” Marta stresses in interviews that most people involved in the Strike are in a similar situation. Contrary to what their opponents and critics write on the internet, Strike activists most often live from hand to mouth, they have financial problems. They contribute to the Strike, they don’t earn from it. Even those who are actually employed by the Polish Women’s Strike Foundation. “After all, we get money from donors to move, not to live in comfort and luxury. We all work with the same conditions, the coordination team – and there are fewer than 10 of us – earns well below the national average.”

Basically Homeless

The activist lived in a Warsaw office for several months, returning to Wrocław for two, sometimes three days a week. “I can’t afford to rent a flat in Warsaw at the market rate. I can’t afford to pay my own mortgage on a flat in Wrocław, even after renting it out. I’m temporarily living with friends who are abroad.” Marta is looking for a flat to live in permanently. She doesn’t have a lot of things, apart from everyday items she moves from place to place with her favourite sofa and coffee machine. And with her beloved dog. This constant upheaval is not good for her, because she needs stability and peace to recover from her illness.

Marta Vs. The System

At the moment there are 76 different cases pending against Marta. The post brings daily letters from the police, the court and the prosecutor’s office.

In order not to get lost in it, the activist uses the online court system, logs on and checks what stage the cases against her are at. She does not appear for some of the summonses, it is physically impossible. She would have to clone herself and be able to teleport. She appears where it is necessary, for example, at the prosecutor’s office. Marta is one of the people facing charges under the Criminal Code. According to the instructions of the state prosecutor Bogdan Święczkowski, organisers of protests against the abortion ban were treated as perpetrators of the crime of bringing about a threat to human life and health by spreading an epidemic. This is punishable by up to 8 years’ imprisonment. Martha was charged with this offence for 12 protests. And for one on 13 December 2020 in Warsaw, in which she did not participate because she was ill with Covid and was self-isolating in Wrocław. According to the activist, a purely political decision was made in this case. “Calls by the police and attempts to impose fines from the misdemeanour code are ineffective, the police lose these cases massively in court.

That is why they are reaching for the criminal code. This is meant to scare us and have a chilling effect.”

When asked about prison, the activist shrugs her shoulders. “If I go to jail, I go.” She doesn’t worry about herself, she jokes that in prison she will prepare a stand-up routine, maybe write a book. “I only fear for loved ones and co-workers. There’s a pandemic going on, it’s easy to lose your job, and we’ve been skating on thin ice for a long time. The easiest way for the state is to use the old, reliable methods of the communist secret police: blackmail relatives, intimidate and throw people out of work. It’s getting dense and scary.”

Marta has already gotten used to being treated as a public enemy, watched, eavesdropped on and checked. Or rather, she has become desensitised to it.

I’ve become desensitised to many things and I know it’s not good. You can’t normalise it, you have to react, you have to protest.”

I’m Afraid I’ll Get Killed

This is what Marta said in a famous interview with Gazeta Wyborcza. It was another time she pushed the boundaries of activist authenticity and honesty in the media. “I’m fµ#*ing scared of being killed. I’m scared for the people in the streets. I’m not afraid of anything else.” For a while she couldn’t return to her Wrocław flat because neo-fascists had published her address on the internet. Every now and then, someone reminds her of this, either by writing something on the door, or hanging a banner or poster on the fence. This is no longer a safe haven. It is no longer HOME. After the attacks on the Warsaw office, they had to hire someone to guard it. Marta and other activist leaders took bodyguards to one demonstration in the autumn. They made a little joke about it, they felt a bit safer. But in the long run they gave up on this idea, because every now and then they would appear on the street anyway, and an unexpected attack, if it were to happen, could just as well come while they were shopping or on the way to the doctor. After all, they would not be under protection 24 hours a day. And most importantly, none of them wanted to feel more important than the other people at the protest. They could not imagine being “looked after” by security guards while police or neo-fascists attacked people nearby.

Marta takes common sense safety measures. She has stopped travelling by train, she travels around Poland by car with people she trusts, she doesn’t walk alone in the city if she doesn’t have to. She is careful where and to whom she says what. Her parents are worried, but… they are not surprised by the path their daughter is taking.

My parents are fighters, I get that from them. That’s how they brought me up, that’s what they have to deal with.”

During her foreign appearances, she always emphasises that Polish women activists have long since ceased to be just activists. “We are freedom fighters. This is not a normal situation. When I found out on 8 March from a joint network email that various NGOs had received bomb threats for ‘supporting the Women’s Strike’, I just wrote back that, yes, it keeps happening to us too. I kind of shrugged my shoulders and got on with my work. In the meantime, they called the police and reported the matter to the media. Whose reaction was right? Mine or the people from these other organisations? I took it a bit as something that is part of the job. Something normal. Because I’ve been functioning in wartime conditions for months, for years, and my boundaries have shifted.”

Her Resilience

Like every person who feels they have hit the wall, Marta sometimes throws out slogans like “I’ve had enough, I’m leaving”, “I’m giving it all up, what was the point of it all”, or “if it hadn’t been for the Strike, I could [depending on her mood and what is getting to her most at that moment] – a) be rich, b) have a career, c) be healthy, d) have peace of mind.”

But she doesn’t give up, she doesn’t drop everything and go away. No. She gets up every morning and gets to work. Even when she really doesn’t have the strength for it. You can count the days when she doesn’t get up on one hand. The balance between work and rest is something she is still learning. Fortunately, she has people close to her who help her, take care of her, do a lot of small things for her which make her life easier. The activist is also aware that even if she withdrew from the Strike, she would not be able to escape her past.

The only thing I have left is to keep running forward.

I am ‘unemployable’ outside the Women’s Strike Foundation.” But with her mental strength, vitality, will to live and fight, and ability to adapt and regenerate, Marta is truly built for going the long distance. She has an instinct for self-preservation. Even if, at the moment, she has rather limited patience and a bit of a short fuse, she does not have that typically Polish enthusiasm which, like straw, catches fire easily but does not burn. Now she has turned the gas tap on to maximum because she knows she cannot let herself burn out. She has learnt from her own mistakes. Marta knows that she needs to have people around her who help her recharge. She can’t give all of herself away, she needs to keep a reserve of energy for herself, to survive.

You can't pour from empty. Put your own oxygen mask on first”.

Especially since the Strike activists have perhaps a few or even several years of struggle ahead of them to meet the demands. “In the autumn, something else may hit and we will have to mobilise in a flash,” she says. The activist stresses that she is not discouraged: “Fatigue and discouragement are two different things.

Fatigue, even when it’s severe, is part of a cycle. Action, regeneration. Now there is a gaining of strength. Mine, the movement’s, and the people’s.

We get more depressed with every attack, because the outbursts are and will continue to get more violent, and the repression more brutal. But the fact that we see this cyclical nature and can approach it calmly allows us not only to survive, but also to make good use of this time. We are arming ourselves, we are plotting.”

Inner Circle

Marta bounces back because she is surrounded by people who care about her, who treat her normally. “The people I am a person to. A lot of them are people I work with – everything we’ve been through together inevitably brings us into each other’s private lives.” However, the activist makes no secret of the fact that “there are also losses when it comes to people”. Some she sees occasionally don’t really know how to behave towards her, how or what to talk to her about, as if she has suddenly become someone else, from another world.

And I still think I’m the same person, which is probably not true.”

In Warsaw, she has a support network of friends and acquaintances who help her embrace everyday life. “Someone makes rehabilitation appointments for me, someone drives me somewhere, someone helps me move, someone does my shopping for me, someone takes a Zoom meeting for me, someone writes my emails for me, brings me coffee and makes sure I drink water. If there is such a thing as universal love, this is it. That’s what makes it possible to survive and to keep on being a dancing bear.”

Stories by Dominika Kasprowicz. English version edited by Anna Michalowicz.
Photography by Marta Bogdanowicz.