UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Twenty years ago, Srdja Popovic was part of a revolution that ended the reign of Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševi?. Now, he runs CANVAS, an organization that helps others around the world fight back against authoritarian leaders using nonviolent tactics.
Popovic’s work will earn him the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s 2020 Brown Democracy Medal. He plans to visit University Park Oct. 15 to receive the medal and present a public lecture.
He is executive director of CANVAS — the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies — an organization he founded in 2003 with Slobodan Dinovic. The organization operates a network of international trainers and consultants with experience in successful democratic movements. It has worked with pro-democracy activists from more than 50 countries, including Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Ukraine, Georgia, Palestine, Tunisia and Egypt. CANVAS also works on producing free online tools for organizing, mobilizing and fighting for democracy and human rights under oppressive and authoritarian conditions, .
Popovic is also the author of “Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World,” and visited Penn State in February 2019 for a presentation on the book and his work on the tactics he describes as “laughtivism.”
His application for the Brown Democracy Medal moves one step beyond “laughtivism” toward the concept of “dilemma action,” which offers a structured, strategic approach to protest movements.
“Dilemma actions are an essential component of effective nonviolent struggle,” Popovic said. “They are designed to create a response dilemma or lose-lose situation for public authorities by forcing them to either concede some public space to protesters or make themselves look absurd or heavy-handed by acting against the protest.”
An example of this is the Salt March, an act of civil disobedience in India led by Mohandas Gandhi in 1930, said Popovic. Gandhi and his supporters made their own salt and spread it over hundreds of miles to protest the monopoly on salt production by the British colonial government. The march challenged the government and gave Indians a sense of self-empowerment that would eventually lead the country to establish a democracy.
These tactics can work just as well to defend democracy as they can to overthrow authoritarianism, Popovic said.
A recent example is the tactic of holding town hall meetings with cardboard cutouts of legislators who refuse to appear in person, he added. The politician looks foolish for not showing up to meet with their own constituents, and the novelty of holding a meeting with a replica attracts attention on both social and traditional media.
“As a politician, you need to listen to people, especially those who disagree with you,” Popovic said. “If you don’t, these tactics show that you can easily be turned into the punch line.”
As authoritarian leaders come to power around the world, McCourtney Institute for Democracy Managing Director Chrs Beem said recognizing Popovic with the medal this year is both timely and important.
“Srdja’s nonviolent methods in defense of human rights are creative and engaging. They empower and affirm the humanity of all who employ them,” Beem said. “At a time when democracy is in retreat throughout the globe, Srjda’s work is critical to empowering democracy advocates everywhere.”
Established in 2014, the Brown Democracy Medal is funded by Larry and Lynne Brown to recognize new and innovative scholarship or practice in democracy. Both are Penn State alumni, and Larry is chair of the McCourtney Institute’s board of Visitors.
The award’s previous recipients include David Farrell and Jane Suiter of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly and Michael McDonald and Micah Altman of the Public Mapping Project.