“Why dictators hate pranks, why Nazis are so afraid of clowns and why a mix of wits and dilemma actions may be the most powerful tool to change the world? The answer is simply – humor and creativity beat fear and apathy. Every time!“
— Srdja Popovic
Join us on March 25th at 4:00PM EST for the Brown Democracy Medal ceremony, to see Srdja Popovic be awarded for his work with CANVAS! Find out about our research and the new book Pranksters vs. Autocrats!
Have a good giggle with us, as Srjda shares inspirational stories of social change, through the brilliant efficiency of dilemma actions. Come learn about how laughtivism, dilemma actions, and creativity can scare dictators and build democracies across the world. Who knew laughter could be the death of a dictatorship?!
Register for the award ceremony below to learn and laugh!
The article has been originally published here .
If you have watched the recent footage from postelection protests in Little Rock or Los Angeles, in Dallas or Detroit, the images are by now familiar. Angry crowds chanting with hatred, huge “Black Lives Matter” signs torn and then burnt in front of an ecstatic mob, violent attacks on people who disagree, police forces under siege or using force to arrest protesters.
This Wednesday, as Congress meets to certify the results of the Electoral College, crowds of alt-right protesters will once again descend on D.C. President Donald Trump, in his ongoing denial of the reality of his election loss, has called for a “wild rally” to take place. Violence is likely.
At the core of this situation is a thorny problem: How best to effectively respond to hate speech, xenophobia, racism, and political extremism? The level of delusion and aggression among “Proud Boys”-style protesters logically triggers a response. In many cases, though, counterprotesters have met the alt-right’s anger with anti-alt-right anger, or even violence. The results have been predictably disastrous.
While it’s completely reasonable to feel angry at these marches and the odious ideas they represent, it isn’t a good political strategy for the simple reason that it doesn’t help advance your goals and may actually strengthen the alt-right. It may be tempting to combat the extremism of the alt-right with righteous anger, and for many, it sounds like a logical response; but our research shows that it is a terrible tactical one. Meeting anger with anger not only increases violence; it tends to diminish support for your movement and distract media coverage so that it centers on the violence rather than the core issues at stake.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, anger, while a useful rallying cry for a political movement, is generally not as effective in achieving a movement’s goals and often backfires during demonstrations. In the case of neo-Nazi and alt-right groups, it is an even worse tactic. As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tina Rosenberg noted in a 2017 New York Times article on how best to counterprotest Nazis following that year’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right rallies have six core goals: legitimize their views, strengthen their self-image as part of the downtrodden, unite their squabbling factions, attract new people to the movement, control media coverage, and feel powerful and heroic.
In her piece, she explains that aggressively counterprotesting the alt-right is exactly what they want. It allows them to build on the narrative of themselves as victims. In fact, she points out that when antifa protesters angrily respond, it helps alt-right groups accomplish all of the above goals. Since Charlottesville, examples of far-right violence have only been on the rise.
This means that if we want to meaningfully counter the far right, we need to choose a tactic different than anger. In our new study, Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Democracy, we came up with a surprising answer: The best counter to the aggressive and delusional anger of the right is creative, playful, often humorous counterprotests. Strange as it may seem, there is a lot of evidence that proves that the lighthearted, fun-loving, ironic challenges to Nazis are more effective than anger.
One especially strong example of effective laughtivism is the case of clowns versus Nazis.
Clowns have been a successful way to counterprotest Nazis in a range of nations from Finland to Germany to the United States. In one brilliant example, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert describes a Nazi rally in Whitefish, Montana, where counterprotesters showed up in bright blue wigs with signs that read “Trolls Against Trolls” and “Fascists Fear Fun.” When the Nazi rally fizzled out, the counterprotesters gleefully deemed it a “Sieg Fail.”
Not only were the counterprotesters successful at defusing the energy at the right-wing rally; they defused each of the six core goals of alt-right rallies. They made the Nazis look like idiots and in so doing made anyone wanting to join them seem stupid too.
The reason why clowns work better than angry protesters is because they put the alt-right in a dilemma they can’t win. Either they ignore the clowns and look weak or they attack the clowns and look violent and stupid. Violent clashes between the alt-right and clowns will only backfire for the right and strengthen the left. In contrast, violent clashes where both sides are angry tend to increase polarization and alienate moderate observers.
This doesn’t always require literal clowns. There are a range of creative, playful tactics that are at the disposal of counterprotesters. Feminists have been known to sling used panties at toxic males in Burma, environmental activists have superglued their butts to Parliament in the United Kingdom, democratic activists have silent-clapped at an autocrat’s speech in Belarus, and more. The key is crafting the right dilemma—one that brings to light the internal hypocrisies that define your opponent.
Looking into a range of nonviolent movements in different contexts teaches us that not only is it the case that nonviolence is more effective when you are facing violence and oppression, but that using a strategic approach and dilemma tactics tends to make your opponent’s violence backfire.
For instance, take the recent “involuntary walk-a-thon” organized in response to an annual neo-Nazi march in the German town of Wunsiedel. The organizers used chalk markers to draw lines along the planned parade route marking the starting point, halfway point, and finish line. Then they enlisted local residents and businesses to pledge to donate 10 euros for every meter the white supremacists marched to a group called Exit Deutschland, which is dedicated to helping people leave right-wing extremist groups.
Rather than attempt to block the neo-Nazi marchers, counterprotesters chose the tactic of ironic encouragement. They came out to cheer the marchers on the day of the event, flanking the route with signs that read, “If only the Fuhrer knew!” and “Mein Mamph!” (or “My Munch”) by a table of bananas offered to the walkers. This turned the marchers into involuntary resistors of their own cause and brought the community together in unity to counter the messages of white supremacy.
These examples of creative resistance are especially helpful in the current context. With the extreme right losing its “mainstream ground” in the United States and the majority of European countries after four years of a “populist wave,” and as the topics of race, environment, and gender equality continue to become more central in social debates across the globe, it is likely that alt-right anger and aggression are only going to grow.
If we want to effectively resist the increasingly angry alt-right, progressive activists should consider confronting political divisions by using the examples of creative pranksters. Because the last thing an angry right-wing protester wants to deal with is a counterprotester making fun of them and getting all the attention. In other words: Before you hit the streets to protest the alt-right, leave your anger hanging in your closet and instead pull out your creativity, humor, or even a clown nose.
What’s happening in Myanmar?
The military of Myanmar overthrew the civilian government Monday, February 1st, arresting civilian leaders, shutting down the internet across large parts of the country, and canceling domestic and international flights. The stock market and many banks have also closed. Myawaddy TV, the military-owned television network, announced in a read statement that Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would lead the country for one year during a state of emergency. Throngs of migrant workers from Myanmar living in neighboring Thailand protested in front of the Myanmar embassy Monday, many holding pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and donned in red, the signature color of the National League for Democracy party.
Sources indicate that numerous arrests have taken place, potentially even extending to non-N.L.D. party members. After Myanmar’s slow march to democracy began in 2011, many citizens are concerned that new strife could prove to be detrimental to Myanmar’s sputtering economy, which has already been damaged by the Covid-19 Pandemic.
How did the coup unfold?
The coup d’etat came the morning that Myanmar’s new parliament, elected last November, was about to begin its first session and followed days of concern that the overthrow was imminent. The military maintains its actions are legally justified, citing a section of the constitution that allows the military to take control during times of national emergency. The military has said that the take over was necessary, because the civilian government had not acted upon claims that election fraud was widespread during the November election, and because the government allowed the election to take place amid the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic. No major violence has been reported, but soldiers have blocked the main roads in the capital Nay Piy Taw, and the largest city, Yangon. The military has also announced that twenty-four deputies and ministers had been removed from their posts, and eleven replacements have been named, including positions in finance, health, the interior, and foreign affairs. A curfew is reportedly in effect from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM local time.
Sources on the ground in Myanmar indicate that, despite chatter among the government and international actors, the coup d’etat came as a surprise to many ordinary people. According to the Constitution drawn up in 2008, only the President has the power to approve a state of emergency. However, in the early hours of the take over, the military announced that Vice President Myint Swe, a former general, would be elevated to acting President, giving the military the go ahead for declaring a state of emergency.
Why did it happen now?
Monday’s coup d’etat returns Myanmar to military rule after a brief stint of quasi-democracy between 2011 and 2021. Before the military government instituted parliamentary elections and other reforms in 2011, the military had single-handedly controlled the levers of power since 1962. In elections that took place on November 8, 2020, the National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), Myanmar’s leading civilian party, won a resounding victory, garnering approximately 83% of the parliamentary seats. The election was widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the N.L.D. and the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government since 2015. Tensions further intensified in the days before the overthrow, after the military had tried to argue in Myanmar’s Supreme Court that the November election results were fraudulent, and threatened to take action and surround the houses of Parliament with soldiers.
Who is in charge?
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who is now leading the country, was supposed to age out as army chief this summer. His ascension to Myanmar’s top political leader prolongs his career and cements military rule in the country. Under the former power-sharing agreement, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing retained significant influence in the quasi-civilian government, presiding over two business conglomerates and having the power to appoint cabinet members who oversee the police and border guards. While leading the army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has overseen campaign’s against several ethnic minorities which reside in Myanmar, including the Rohingya, the Shan, and the Kokang.
The coup d’etat marks a significant fall from grace for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who came to power as state counselor in 2016. The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest, which made her an international icon. Since her release from detention, her reputation has been dimmed by her cooperation with the military and her defense of Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group. In 2019, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar at the International Criminal Court against accusations of ethnic cleansing. Her cooperation with the military may have been a pragmatic effort to move Myanmar along the path to democracy, but Monday’s events show that the military’s commitments to democratic values are nil.
How has Myanmar and the world reacted?
While many residents expected armed vehicles and protests in major cities, the situation on the ground in Myanmar has been eerily quiet. The most common reaction from ordinary citizens has been anger at the military for thwarting democratic rule in the country. The response in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, has been similarly subdued, with some supporters of the army waving flags in the streets. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the army’s actions a “serious blow to democratic reforms,” and the United Nations Security Council is preparing for an emergency meeting. The United States also condemned the coup, saying it “opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections.” European Union leaders have issued similar condemnations. China, which has been historically opposed to any outside intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences.”
In order to better understand the situation, Canvas has contacted an activist on the ground in Myanmar. Even though experiencing a dangerous and unstable situation, the activist was able to provide an insight into the events taking place in the country right now. The following interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How are you? How do you feel about the events that have been taking place in Myanmar?
A: It’s hard to describe the feeling. People who are not activists do not really know what is happening. I, along with many other people, feel lost. I know of someone who has been arrested who is not even a member of N.L.D. [National League for Democracy]. I don’t support the military or the N.L.D., but I am against the coup because I do not want Myanmar to return to military rule. We are surprised and we are lost and we are suffering.
Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of what has taken place since yesterday based on the information you have been able to access?
A: Everything beforehand was normal, most people did not expect that the coup would take place. The military is facing international pressure because of the genocide against the Rohingya, and no one expected them [the military] to have the authority to launch a coup because of this international pressure. I, along with everyone else, was caught by surprise. The military has talked about seizing more power, but nothing had happened up until now. My understanding is that the N.L.D. leaders are under house arrest. According to the 2008 Constitution, there should be a meeting of the security council first, and then the President can approve a state of emergency. However, the President was detained and the military made the Vice President the new interim President so they could approve the state of emergency.
Q: How are you currently speaking with us? There are reports that telephone and internet connections have been suspended across the country. How are people, including yourself, getting information?
A: It is true that some operators have made it so that you cannot access the internet. I am using one of the two telephone operators that are still working. After 8:00 PM tonight, the internet will be shut off entirely. Citizens in Myanmar already do not have access to many civil liberties, so I am worried that this will prove detrimental to our liberties in the future. I am worried that they will shut off the internet and social media entirely, so that people will not be able to communicate.
Q: What are your biggest concerns right now?
A: I am concerned that life will go back to what it was like after the 1962 coup, or what it was like in 1988. The military already ruled the country for fifty years, the younger generation doesn’t want this because it is bad for the economy and it takes a toll on individuals and their families.
Q: Do you think that the November election was fraudulent? Or do people think this is just an excuse for the military to return to power?
A: It is hard to say. Most activists know that the military already held the power because of the provisions outlined in the Constitution. Most of the public believes that the National League for Democracy holds power in the country, but it is actually the military who is in control. Most people are worried about the economy and what the return to military rule will mean for their families, but they are too afraid to go out into the streets.
Q: A large number of people supposedly voted for the National League for Democracy. Do you expect protests? Who do you think will be at these protests?
A: Most of the NLD leaders have been detained, so it will likely be new faces that will fight for democracy, but it will be difficult for people to accept a new leader. Maybe 100 or 200 people will join a protest, but they will likely be crushed by police.
Q: What do you think are the next steps for the country? What will you do next?
A: Only international pressure will help us. I am going to work with international organizations and the international networks we are in. I will help to pressure the solidarity movement, that is what I am currently doing.
Q: How do you think the Covid-19 Pandemic will affect the response to the coup, if at all?
A: People are not thinking about the Pandemic, only about the coup. I have no reason to believe that protests would be affected.
At this time, the situation on the ground is still unfolding. There have been no reports of major violence, but the situation is fluid. The military has declared a one-year state of emergency, so it is likely the army will retain their hold on power for at least the remainder of 2021.
Activists, such as the one interviewed by CANVAS, have highlighted the importance of international pressure as one of the crucial avenues for future progress towards democracy.
The high levels of fear, regarding the dominance of the military in Myanmar’s politics, will likely dampen any coordinated response by activists on the ground in the short-term.
Regimes that rule through fear are unfortunately common in today’s world, but the people of Myanmar should look to other nations which have experienced military coups to formulate a strategy for the future. Sudan is an example of a state that was able to overcome military rule through political action. Activists there relied on tactics of non-cooperation and an international social media campaign, #BlueForSudan. As a part of the #BlueForSudan campaign, activists changed their Instagram profile pictures to a blue background, memorializing a 26-year-old protestor named Mohamed Hashim Mattar who was killed during crackdowns on the protests in Sudan; his favorite color was blue. Activists in Myanmar could use similar tactics, possibly including the color red as a symbol of the National League for Democracy. The tactic seemed to work, spreading awareness about the violence not only across Sudan, but across the entire world. Celebrities and public figures changed their profile pictures to Mattar’s blue and posted messages about the conditions in Sudan to large audiences. However, because #BlueForSudan lacked specific demands, calling only for solidarity and awareness, it is difficult to assess the actual impact of the movement. Activists in Myanmar could draw inspiration from tactics used by organizers in Sudan, while also learning from their mistakes.
Fear of reprisal for speaking up is one of the main tactics the military has relied on in the past, to squash dissent and cement army control over the levers of power. However, activists have at hand a number of strategies to combat the fear instilled by the military government. Fear is an effective method of control because it relies on peoples’ anxiety about the future and what is to come. Thus, a remedy for counteracting a strategy of fear is a strategy of information. Pro-democracy movements should make their goals clear and identifiable, so that ordinary people understand the things for which activists are campaigning.
Pro-democracy campaigns should be truly grassroots in nature, as the people who witness oppression every day are the ones who know best what needs to be changed. It can also be productive to provide information about the tactics being used by the government, so that people can recognize that the goal of those in power is to terrify them into submission. The imprisonment of the National League for Democracy’s top leaders could be catastrophic for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar if leaders cannot find a way to communicate with the people, or if no new leaders arise from the chaos. The cultivation of a sense of trust and confidence in the leaders of a pro-democracy movement is essential to the cause. One way to instill this confidence is to place emphasis on preparation; if grassroots leaders are prepared and knowledgeable about the situation they face, then people will place more trust in them and feel more equipped to take on their fears.
Nonetheless, Monday’s coup is a significant step backwards on Myanmar’s journey towards becoming a functioning democracy. Overcoming fear should be the first step on the path to restoring democratic values in the country.
The source of the article: RealClear World
Every day, it seems a new brush stroke is added to the dystopian picture we call 2020. The canvas is the coronavirus pandemic that is disrupting civil society globally. As someone who spent the last two decades as a nonviolent movement leader, the pandemic has caused me no slight amount of worry. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlined how lockdowns and physical distancing measures are confining people to their homes and upending their ability to meet, organize, and advocate. Social distancing measures effectively disabled some of the most popular forms of protests (rallies, marches, etc), and for a time, whenever you spoke to human rights and democracy defenders, you would hear that it has become very difficult to engage people in talk and action about democracy and human rights.
George Floyd, whose name will forever be ingrained in protest history, died in Minneapolis on May 26, his neck under the knee of a policeman until he stopped breathing. The event was recorded on video, and then, everything changed. Within a week we saw mass protests, mostly nonviolent, shake over 80 U.S. cities and many capitals worldwide, calling for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.
Now is a good time to take stock of protest movements around the world, and how they have been impacted by the pandemic, and by the rising global tide of autocracy/
Why external threats and crises are an autocrat’s best friend
External threats, natural disasters, and epidemics were always fertile ground for seeds of authoritarianism and despotism. Throughout history, external threats have regularly been utilized by autocrats to limit freedoms and disrupt independent checks and balances to their power. I lived through the state of emergency proclaimed in Serbia in March 1999, after President Slobodan Milosevic’s confrontation with the West, and his ambitions for ethnic cleansing, brought 78 days of NATO bombing to my country. Happy to increase his wobbling grip on power, Milosevic proclaimed the state of emergency and relished it in much the same way my two kids would enjoy a candy store. He imposed absolute censorship on his critics, enforced the closure of independent radio and TV stations, thrived on arbitrary arrests, and led a propaganda witch-hunt. The state-sponsored assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor and owner of Serbia’s largest opposition newspaper, caused some of us troublemakers to temporarily flee the country.
So, there is no wonder that illiberal leaders are taking advantage of the COVID 19-crisis, tightening their political grip by weakening checks and balances, imposing censorship, and expanding state surveillance — all at a time when civil society groups are less able to fight back.
Take a look at Thailand, where a vivid student movement has been challenging a military junta that recently achieved a slim majority through controlled elections. Only weeks after the pandemic started, on March 26, the government invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations (2005). Under Article 9 of the decree, officials are empowered to censor or edit any information they deem to be false or distorted, with a possible penalty of up to two years in jail.
Looking elsewhere, Russia is using supposed “COVID tracking measures” to install surveillance-camera facial-recognition systems, which activists know will be used to monitor and crack down on dissent. Then there are at least three cases of healthcare workers who mysteriously died “falling from windows” after some of them criticized the government for the lack of protective equipment they had received.
Even in democracies such as Poland or Hungary, and hybrid democracies like my own country, Serbia, we see the extraordinary appetite of political leaders to sideline democratic institutions, concentrate power, and rule by decree.
But despite these depressing conditions, there are growing signs that movements are increasingly adapting to new circumstances.
Adapting to crisis
From Hong Kong to Bolivia, activists and peacebuilders are confronting the need to innovate tactically and adapt their strategies amid national lockdown orders, social distancing, and other measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The first action of many activists was to go online, turning to digital platforms to inform and educate citizens about COVID situations. Some of these activities have scaled up quickly. In Tunisia, for example, more than 100,000 people joined a Facebook group bringing together volunteers to help fight the virus. Some of these campaigns, like the one in Poland that pushed for postponement of presidential elections, are also combining what you do in a virtual space with real individual protest acts such as banners draped by activists from the windows of their homes, which are then uploaded on social media.
The second example of creative adaptation may be physical protests which include disciplined social distancing. Israeli protesters outraged with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s securing of a new term and possible avoidance of a corruption trial gathered in Tel Avivs main square on April 20. X marked a spot where someone could stand under Israel’s social distancing guidelines (2 meters away). Though protest organizers marked 2,800 spots for protesters to stand, twice as many people showed up to protest, with many people standing on the surrounding streets. Similarly, in one of most iconic videos of the latest racial-equality protest wave in the United States, Denver activists used a disciplined “lying on the ground while social distancing tactic” to mimic the last seconds of George Floyds torture, launching into the cry, “I Can’t Breathe.”
The third adaptation that we are increasingly seeing might be a shift toward creating disruption without mass gatherings. On April 14, Polish feminists made headlines by blocking traffic at Rondo Dmowskiego, the intersection of Warsaw’s two main boulevards. Responding to a call on social media, they paralyzed traffic at noon as they stopped their cars and bikes adorned with banners. This “our vehicles are broken” type of protest was used to address situations where the conservative government led by the PiS party is using the pandemic to push controversial laws banning all abortions — laws that had previously been stopped due to mass protests.
The last adaptation that we are seeing is that with limited options for large concentrations, activists increasingly resort to what we in CANVAS call “tactics of dispersion.” Faced with the world`s second-largest outbreak of coronavirus, and the epically incompetent response from the government, people in Brazil have expressed anger at President Jair Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the pandemic by banging pots and pans together on balconies. Croats used a similar tactic to protest the mayor of their capital, Zagreb. For more than 10 days in a row I personally enjoyed the “noise from the balcony protest” that lamented the situation in my own country, Serbia, with two of our kids contributing. They had a blast.
All of these adaptations show that despite the crisis, activism may be still around, alive and kicking. But protesting is so much more than strategic nonviolence. There is a deeper phenomenon transforming our societies for the better: civic resilience.
The lasting vaccine to the authoritarianism virus?
If we treat individuals’ tactical adaptations to pandemic restrictions as an immediate treatment to the autocracy virus, then a more strategic approach is civic resilience. We could see it as a long-lasting vaccine that will prevent the autocratic infection of our societies in the future.
In short: Societies with strong community bonds and a history of united action are more likely to contain any attempt of manipulation coming from either governments or non-state actors. So if civic resilience is, like some form of antibody, already spread in the population, developed through some form of civic engagement, can it make our societies more immune to crises like a global pandemic?
Many times in the history of social movements, human rights defenders, and even small NGOS, have operated with some acknowledgment of Albert Einstein’s quote that “within every crisis lies a great opportunity.”
Remember Burma in 2005? Using the fact that the military junta was completely unable to provide for victims of a devastating tsunami, civil society and NGOs stepped in as first responders. Civil society did what the military junta could not: It helped villagers bury their dead, prevent cholera outbreaks, and meet basic needs. As a result, civil society, which was at the time mostly underground, gained both prominence and legitimacy, recruiting thousands of volunteers — some of whom were crucial in voter mobilization in the years to come.
Another example of a political movement gaining from its strategic reaction in crisis is “Occupy Sandy,” an organized relief effort created to assist the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern United States. The effort has worked in partnership with many local community organizations.
When a forest fire struck the “lungs of the planet,” causing millions of acres of Amazonian forest in Brazil and Bolivia to burn, we witnessed how environmental groups quickly filled the vacuum left by an unresponsive government. They built a network of aid and volunteers to help immediate victims, won the hearts and souls of the local population as well as firefighters and doctors, and later leveraged that support into large anti-government protests. If it wasn’t for the Amazon, Evo Morales would probably still be ruling Bolivia.
The strategic advantage of these popular movements lies in the fact that they correctly recognized vacuums that appeared during crises. They seized the empty spaces created between the immediate need for support in the face of disaster and governments’ absolute inability to deliver, and then used their numbers and organization to help people in need. This allowed civil society to build new layers based on reputation, and to recruit thousands of supporters through community and humanitarian work.
Take a look at Hong Kong, where, with the government flailing, the city’s citizens decided to organize their own coronavirus response. Hong Kong Governor Carrie Lam dragged her feet in closing the city’s borders and never fully closed down the land border with China. The hospitals suffered from shortages of personal protective equipment. Lam wavered on masks, and even ordered civil servants not to wear them. There were shortages of crucial supplies and empty shelves in stores.
The civic resilience of Hong Kong stepped in. Thanks to a previous wave of protest, it seems that “civic resilience antibodies” were already within society. In response to the crisis, Hong Kongers spontaneously adopted near-universal masking on their own, defying the government’s ban on masks. In response to the mask shortage, the foot soldiers of the protest movement set up mask brigades. They acquired and distributed masks, especially to the poor and elderly, who may not be able to spend hours in lines on their own. An army of volunteers also spread among the intensely crowded buildings to install hand-sanitizer dispensers and keep them filled. During the protest movement, Hong Kongers developed shared digital maps that kept track of police blockades and clashes; now similar digital maps kept track of outbreaks and hand-sanitizer distribution.
So amid the government’s sloppy response, the people of Hong Kong took their defense into their own hands, effectively surviving the virus with minimal consequences. The secret ingredient of Hong Kong’s response was its civically resilient population and, crucially, the movement that engulfed the city in 2019.
Similar support networks, with pro-democracy activists turning their organization into societal hubs, are filling in gaps left by governments to provide essential services, spread information about the virus, and protect marginalized groups. In some places they are partnering with businesses and public authorities to support local communities strapped for economic relief. They are also forging new coalitions to hold their governments to account. We witness their growing role, numbers and reputation across the globe. We can take a look at dozens of examples in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
Is there a new global protest wave ahead?
How can we explain the latest post-COVID wave of protests in the United States, and can we somehow predict the future of protesting at this dramatic moment?
History teaches us about a very interesting phenomenon called rallying around the flag. Even at the very dawn of humanity, we always had our disputes and quarrels — where to hunt, who would marry whom within the tribe. And we had complaints about leaders at that time as well. But then an external threat appears, and for a moment all quarrels cease. Instinctively societies rally around their leader, even a bad leader, until the outside threat passes. We haven’t changed much. Look at the ratings of world leaders in times of crisis: The classic example is George W. Bush, whose approval ratings skyrocketed in the days following 9/11.
But once the immediate external threat is out of picture, another phenomenon happens. People start asking questions. When the state of emergency was lifted after the NATO bombing of Serbia in June 1999, Milosevic seemed invincible, and our opposition was in disarray. Eighteen months later, in the autumn of 2000, the butcher of the Balkans was ousted in an electoral landslide amid million-strong protests.
So it is now. The sooner we see the normalization of life, the sooner people will start asking questions about how the crisis was handled. Take a look at Belgium, and the iconic video of healthcare workers silently turning their backs to the prime minister’s motorcade to protest her handling of the pandemic, which resulted in Europe’s highest death rate per-capita. Soon you will get an idea of what may be happening everywhere.
Expect first responders to be on the front lines of accountability campaigns, demanding checks and balances from their officials. Strikes and other noncooperation tactics are already erupting as labor unions try to defend essential workers who are forced to appear at work without enough protective gear, like in the case of the New York branch of Amazon. Very soon we may be witnessing a wave of protests targeting businesses who are trying to hastily reopen without necessary testing, or firing workers en-masse, like what’s happening in the French auto industry.
Others will follow. Though crises like the pandemic can resurrect the political prospects of some leaders, as 9/11 did for President Bush, and as the pandemic has done for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they can also present a dire threat to other leaders — those less lucky, less skilled, less able to lead properly in times of disaster. People will be back. Many of them will be angry. Unfortunately, in many cases, they won’t have much to lose — they have already lost their loved ones, or jobs, or perspective. So they will be more willing to take risks. And they will have more time on their hands to do it.
Below the dystopian surface of a post-pandemic world hammered by health and economic crises, as well as by shrinking freedoms and vanishing human rights, peoples’ creativity and civic resilience may be resurging. Watch carefully and remember: Societies are as healthy and vital as are their citizens.
Srdja Popovic, co-founder, and Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions (CANVAS), has trained activists in over 50 countries to promote democracy, accountability, and human rights. He is also the author of “Blueprint for revolution”. Theodore Weiss is a former research analyst at CANVAS and a board member of Build A Movement, is based in Colorado. The views expressed are the authors’ own.