How mischief can topple dictatorships
How do you topple a repressive government when they’ve got all the guns, tanks and secret police? With courage, tenacity and Ingenuity. That is the messages in Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson’s book, Small Acts of Resistance, a compilation of stories recounting the clever ways people have subverted oppressive regimes.
Crawshaw, international advocacy director at Amnesty International, was recently in Copenhagen to attend a conference for Humanity in Action but found the time to drop by Books and Company in Hellerup to discuss the book. The cosy English bookshop was packed to capacity for the talk in which Crawshaw demonstrated that no matter how dangerous the stakes, people have an incredible capacity to undermine their oppressors.
“The spirit of the book is the importance of courage and mischief and how that can create amazing change around the world,” Crawshaw told us.
Crawshaw opens with a story from Poland where he worked as a journalist for the Independent newspaper in the late 80s. Resistance to the Soviet sponsored regime had been rising for many years, culminating with the formation of the trade union Solidarity in 1980. Solidarity quickly gathered strength across the country, posing a clear threat to the power of the authoritarian government.
18 months later the government imposed martial law in an attempt to regain control. Tanks and soldiers rolled into the street, several dozen people were killed, thousands of were arrested and strict curfews were enforced.
Steve Crawshaw recently visited Books and Company to talk about his book, Small Acts of Resistance (Photo: www.smallactsofresistance.com)
While the crack down reminded the people who was in charge, it didn’t kill of the will for change. But with troops on the streets, protesting was a dangerous option. So they devised inventive ways to show their contempt for the authority.
One of their targets was state sponsored media. The evening news bulletin was so filled with lies and propaganda that many decided to boycott it. But while that may be well and good, how was anyone going to know? So they started placing their TV sets in their windows facing out onto the street when the news was on.
Slowly they stepped up the protest. They began going for walks while the news was on, some taking their TVs with them in prams. The authorities were powerless to stop a protest that had no chants and wove no banners. Moving the curfew two hours earlier had no effect, people simply walked the streets at the earlier bulletin.
“So while the regime had the guns and the tanks, they were the ones who ended up on the back foot,” Crawshaw explained.
While this clever act of dissent did not in itself bring the end of the regime, it helped keep the spirit of resistance alive. It cheered the people in knowing that despite a ban on free media, there were ways of voicing their disapproval. The state too was reminded that its people were not simply going to accept the status quo.
“Through that sense of the mockery you get a weakened regime, that you laugh at someone while you are being beaten. This sense of humour, while it doesn’t defend you, gives strength to society to achieve amazing things.”
The cosy bookshop was packed to capacity to hear Crawshaw talk (Photo: www.booksandcompany.dk)
The Poles were not alone in finding clever ways to subvert an oppressive regime. When Slobodan Milosevic cracked down on free media in Serbia in the 90s, he dictated that the radio only play state certified news bulletins. But with the station free to play whatever music they liked, songs such as Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ and the Clash’s ‘White Riot’ were played on heavy rotation. Serbia’s young people understood the message but Milosevic and his cronies didn’t, they simply didn’t understand the music.
Crawshaw came across these stories after spending almost two decades working with human rights organisations, first at Human Rights Watch then Amnesty International. After discussing it over dinner one evening, Crawshaw and his co-author Jackson realised there was a common theme to many of the stories.
“We argue in the book that you can make a connection between all these events, that mischief was a singular and important part of the process of change,” Crawshaw explained.
As the talk wound down, heated debates broke out between Crawshaw and members of the audience. When is military intervention called for? Why are violent protests less successful? What does the Occupy movement really represent? And what about the Arab Spring uprisings, what does their future hold for the Middle East?
Well no one knows. But Crawshaw believes we should leave it up to the people to find their own ways to slowly undermine their regimes.
“Before Mubarak fell, people thought he would be there forever. But he fell.”
The question is, who’s next?