Yesterday evening, students and faculty packed a White Gravenor lecture hall to capacity, taking notes, asking questions and listening attentively as they would any other day. What distinguished this class, however, is that the instructor was Srdja Popovic—also known as the ‘professor of revolution’—and he was there not to teach ethics or economics, but the building blocks of nonviolent struggle.
Popovic has a long history in pro-democracy activism starting in his native Serbia. Beginning in 1998, he was one of the leaders of the student movement Otpor! (English: Resistance!) that played the biggest role of any organization in bringing down then-president Slobodan Milosevic by inspiring a popular uprising against the dictator and uniting over a dozen opposition parties. Popovic then served in the Serbian National Assembly until 2003, when he quit to form CANVAS (Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies). Since then, he has worked with activists in Zimbabwe, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, the Maldives and Egypt, and published a book, Nonviolent Struggle—50 Crucial Points (available for free download here).
Popovic began his lecture entitled The Basics of Nonviolent Struggle by saying a successful movement must be just that: peaceful. Despite the fact that the media is “so much obsessed with violent struggle” around the world, Popovic asserted that while these conflicts make good TV, they make lousy revolutions. 53% of nonviolent struggles, he argued, have historically seen their core demands met, compared with only 23% of those that use force.
From there, the Serbian activist outlined his three principles of success in a revolutionary movement: Unity, Planning, and Nonviolent Discipline. Popovich explained that unity “of purpose, within the organization and of the people” are all needed for a successful struggle. In bringing down Milosevic, a unified Otpor movement was not enough. “It was the unity of the political parties” that offered the populace an alternative to the autocrat. Popvich used the student movement today in Russia as a counterexample.
“There’s a very cool hipster youth movement … pinching Putin’s ass every day,” he said. But, he went on to explain that because their alliances are spread over seven different opposition parties, Putin’s United Russia party recently won big in the regional elections. There was simply no alternative to Putin who could win.
Popovich also emphasized the need for extreme commitment to peaceful tactics, saying “one single action of violence can harm the reputation of an entire movement.” He touched on planning as well, claiming there is “no such thing as a spontaneous and successful nonviolent movement,” and saying activists must commit themselves to the often-boring slog of small actions and planning sessions if they want to achieve the “sexy” moments.
Popovich followed his three principles with another set of guidelines he dubbed the “roots of mobilization.” Designed to take the population from fear of retribution to enthusiasm for a movement, they are emotional, personal, dignity, hope, and peer pressure. Of these five, he first highlighted the point of dignity. “It isn’t because things are bad” that people join a movement, Popovich said. “It’s because things aren’t right.” This motivation for radical protest—the feeling that the state has degraded your dignity—was the impetus for the Tunisian merchant to set himself on fire and kick off the Arab Spring, as it is for the Spanish anti-austerity protesters, Popovich explained.
But, as powerful as personal dignity is, it cannot build a movement on its own. “There is only one way to win a nonviolent movement,” Popovich explained. “That is numbers.” To get the necessary amount of activists to topple a regime, Popovich said a movement must become cool. There must be intense peer pressure to join in the struggle. Recounting his days in Otpor, he illustrated the power of collective pressure, claiming “no one was getting laid without being a part of the movement.”
Especially when you’re faced with a violent regime, Popovich explained that laugh-tivism is an especially good way to discredit the autocrat, break fear and make a movement look cool at the same time. To put it simply, “you can mock the guy.” Popovich recounted a time during the Otpor days when he and some fellow students got ahold of an oil barrel, pasted Milosevic’s face to the front, and placed it in the middle of a Belgrade shopping center with a baseball bat. People would come along, pick up the bat and take a whack at the president while the activists watched from the safety of a nearby cafe. Soon, people started waiting in line for their chance to take out some frustration, attracting the attention of police, who, according to Popovich, “did the most stupid thing: they arrested the barrel!” This form of activism still works today, he explained, citing a funny protest in Barnaul, Russia last year. The citizens there were banned from protesting, so they outfitted their childrens’ toys with anti-Putin signs and put them in the town square, prompting police to ban the toys from demonstrating under the rationale that they were made in China and therefore are not Russian citizens.
To round up his talk, Popovich addressed the role of “new media” in movements, saying that sites like facebook and twitter are “important tools,” but that they do not play a “crucial role.” He explained that the internet makes things “faster and cheaper” for movements and that it “puts a huge price tag on state-sponsored violence.” Hafez Assad, the former Syrian president and father of current head of state Bashar Assad, once “killed 21,000 people in one day” without the international community batting an eye, Popovich said, something unthinkable in the internet age. He also said the internet “makes the learning process fast,” explaining that his book was downloaded in Iran over 17,000 times in a 26 day period during the Green Uprising. Even so, Popovich emphasized that facebook cannot make a movement, and that new media can only really benefit a movement if it has sound underpinnings.
Before hitting the road, Popovich took the time to address questions ranging from how to build functioning coalitions to combating “clicktivism” and apathy. If you missed the chance to talk with the humorous, happy-go-lucky activist, have no fear. Popovich went out of his way to lament that he is in D.C. so often, but had never spoken at Georgetown before, saying “we’ll do our best to fix it in the future.”