Dressed in nothing but a hot pink bodysuit, hat and thong, Igor Bancer gripped the bonnet of the stationary police van in Grodno, Belarus, to the cheers of a gathering crowd.
Then he began to dance.
It was 5 September, 2020, less than a month since Alexander Lukashenko had won disputed re-election and as thousands still protested in the streets of the capital, Minsk.
Bancer himself had only been released from jail two days earlier, having been arrested after the election as a known activist and singer of Belarusian anti-fascist punk band, Mister X.
Bancer and his friends debated how to respond as the police crackdown worsened. It seemed wrong to just carry on as normal, go to work, go home, go shopping. Equally, it was obvious that peaceful protest was not working: week in, week out, tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets for new elections and the regime responded only with more violence.
Meeting violence with violence wasn’t going to work either. If they went out on the streets fighting the police and throwing Molotov cocktails surely it would only play into the government’s hands. They’d end up getting beaten up by the police and having to run away. Ultimately, they would end up showing their behinds to the police as they ran, he said, showing their asses.
That is when it clicked.
“I thought to myself: ‘Wow, it’s a nice idea. Showing my ass to the police.’ It is almost like a radical act of art nouveau, you know?” Bancer told Euronews.
That is how the heavily tattooed punk singer ended up at 3 am with his shorts around his ankles on a busy Grodno street, grinding on the bonnet of a police van.
And how he ended up spending five months in jail.
A member of Belarus’ Polish minority, Bancer has been active in politics since graduating from university, working for a number of newspapers and serving as a spokesperson for the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB).
Mister X, the band he founded in 2003, is well-known on the European punk scene and has played in Germany, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania as well as in Poland.
Mister X has played in Belarus too, but rarely, and with heavy restrictions. Shows are only permitted to small crowds in the capital, Minsk, and are not allowed to be advertised. Even non-political bands can fall foul of the authorities: Bancer recalls a pop outfit called ‘The Moustaches’ who were forced to disband because of fears they were mocking Lukashenko’s facial hair.
Because of his activism, Bancer is no stranger to the inside of Belarus’ jails but has previously been held for days rather than months and on minor charges, such as swearing at the police.
By contrast, his sentence on March 19 after his police car dance protest was one-and-a-half years of hard labour at a penal colony. At his trial, the prosecutor claimed that he had shown the police his penis, something that the widely-viewed video of his protest contradicts. He is currently out on bail as he waits for a date for his appeal to the sentence.
Watch the full video of Igor Bancer’s protest below
The fact that the regime is being so heavy-handed in its response to his performance demonstrates to Bancer how much has changed in Belarus since the election of August 9.
“It was a lot worse than I expected. I thought they would ignore it. I thought it would not be so important, my ‘stupid’ art performances. I do a lot of shocking stuff here. This was nothing more, nothing less,” he said.
“I did nothing wrong, in my opinion. If someone was shocked, that is the point. At my trial I said maybe I was wrong because Belarussian society is 50 or 60 years behind Europe and we are not prepared for performances like this. So OK, I was wrong. But to send me to jail? Come on.”
Belarus under Lukashenko has always been an authoritarian state, but while critics and opposition figures expected that this election – as in 2016 – would be accompanied by repression, they couldn’t have predicted the level of violence that has been seen over the last few months.
“We had more or less high level of repression during campaigns for the presidential election every five years, but we had no blood in the streets. What has happened in Minsk and in Brest, with people killed, people tortured. I never expected it,” he said.
“It’s the hardest repression since I remember, and since all 26 years of Lukashenko’s rule. Nobody can explain it. How did we get to this point in Belarus? Nobody can explain it.”
Bancer speaks to friends now who say they fear the police coming in the night, knocking on their doors and taking them away. And this, nine miles from Poland and the border with the EU.
“No one is safe now, that’s the point, and I understand why many friends of mine just leave the country. Nobody can say what is going to happen in the next few months – the next few weeks. Psychologically, it is really hard,” he said.
Despite his friends leaving Belarus, and what could happen if his appeal fails, Bancer has resolved to stay.
“If all the people of goodwill leave Belarus, then who stays? We need to be determined and fight for a better future in all the possible legal ways. Even if now it means going to jail,” he said.
“Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison because of his ideas and ideals. We need to be ultimately determined if one day we want to celebrate victory.”