Meet Przemek Witkowski
Przemek is a journalist, academic researcher, an academic lecturer and poet. He has been researching right-wing extremist groups and movements for over ten years. He is also involved in research on the links between ideologies and pop culture with a focus on political propaganda and issues connected to ethnic and religious minorities. He got involved in research into radicalisation and violent extremism in Poland helped by his research skills, as he holds a Ph.D. in political science. Also, Przemek is interested in psychology and culture and fantasy – fantasies that people produce about themselves and the groups they belong to.
The revelatory moment
When Przemek was 12-13 years old, in his neighbourhood in Wrocław there was this neo-Nazi skinhead guy who would bully neighbourhood kids. He would threaten and intimidate them, a really nasty and obnoxious boy. Przemek always wondered why he was doing it, what was behind it. That’s how he started digging deeper into this matter and got interested in radicalisation and extremism.
Getting more interested in the phenomena, he started believing that what was the most detrimental to extremist groups was to expose sources of their funding, their connections and affiliations in Poland and abroad. So he decided to combine his scientific skills and an assessment of current realities and he couldn’t let it go.
The first victory
The first time he thought that his research made sense and that he unearthed something nobody else had brought to light before was his article about the National Rebirth of Poland (NOP), the party which had terrorised his hometown, Wrocław. Przemek remembers that after one of their demonstrations, some of their activists attacked a squat and beat up one guy who lived there. He then started digging into them and found out that their true story was different from what was presented – they had affiliations with security services back in the communist Poland. Through his article he managed to compromise them in the eyes of their supporters and believes he contributed in bringing the party down. Similarly, with another article about the Szturm group and their online magazine – he just carefully reads their magazines and tries to build knowledge around emotions. If people read what extremists write in their magazines, it would be easier to get their hands on them because they openly write about their beliefs and plans, Przemek says. Apart from his articles, charges were brought against them for vandalising several vegan restaurants in Tricity.
The bumps in the road
What makes people fail in actions intended to prevent or counter extremism is their lack of knowledge, believes Przemek. They often mix up concepts and definitions. They do not know whom they deal with, whom they try to stop, how these extremist groups get financed, what kind of affiliations and networks they have. People act based on emotions, not accurate or adequate knowledge.
In order to relax and forget a bit about everything he encounters, he tries to spend a lot of time in nature and do sports.
Extremism explained to a 5-year-old
An extremist is a person who does harm to other people for things they are, which they often cannot change. An extremist does harm to people who in turn do not harm anybody.
Extremism explained to family and friends
Przemek addresses, prevents and counters radicalisation and violent extremism – politically motivated violence. For him it’s about people who think that they hold a certain highest absolute truth and that this allows them to force other people to certain behaviours or to ban them from certain behaviours through the use of violence which is not legitimised by or part of democratic processes of decision making about these behaviours. These are the people he dislikes – the extremists. He’d like to see how they fail in their efforts to make their terrible vision of Poland and the world come true. The extremist beliefs are harmful to many people, they limit their freedom of thinking and he wants to act for the sake of people who come from a different country, different ethnic group, have a different religion or sexual orientation (non-heterosexual), to make them feel safer, to prevent them from falling victim to violence, the extremist violence that he has recently experienced myself.
Some thoughts for undecided activists
Those who want to get involved in addressing radicalisation and violent extremism should look for and join existing informal groups, organisations and initiatives which deal with preventing and countering radicalisation. They should educate each other, gain knowledge, network, coordinate their actions, encourage others to follow them. For example, it could be such simple actions of civil society as signing and distributing a petition or sending emails to ban extremists from entering universities or schools with their workshops, lectures and other events. Anyway, such an action requires sufficient amount of knowledge, coordination and co-operation with other like-minded people in order to be effective, to effectively ban radicalised groups or extremists from public spaces, universities and schools.
Adequate responses in uncomfortable situations
In order to stay safe, he doesn’t go to or near extremist demonstrations. He doesn’t go out in the dark in areas where he may encounter extremists. The trial he has been part of recently (involving a physical attack by an extremist) shows that it’s not worth being attacked directly. He also receives help from anti-fascist groups and circles close to law enforcement. Paradoxically, the more he draws attention to radicalisation and violent extremist groups e.g. in the media, the safer he is because they won’t assault a public visible figure – the media would quickly pick up this topic.
Challenge your inner activist
Do your research. Don’t act based on emotions, use knowledge. And good research takes time. It also helps to have a good memory for names because extremist activists often remain active in the movement for many years.
In conducting research, he would start with general publications, often written by right-wing extremists themselves. Then he would divide them into currents/movements and look for materials for each movement/environment, going by the names which are frequently repeated. He has a catalogue with materials, searches for materials in the National Library – they have a lot of magazines – and in the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) where there are a lot of materials from the 1980s where all these extremist movements in Poland have their roots. He also uses the website academia.pl to search for scientific publications, often written and posted by right-wing activists themselves – they are very proud of their scientific activity. He also uses informants, usually those who have left radicalised groups. By using them and archives or scientific publications, he tries to show how these individuals are interconnected, how they network and how this network largely covers Poland.