For the Future of Democracy and the Planet,
Small Acts Matter
Mass movements and big social changes, whether they are to
topple dictators or protect the environment, often start with carefully planned
The huge demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square
that culminated in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak were the result of two years of
careful planning and hard work, Tina Rosenberg writes in her New
York Times column “Fixes.” They weren’t just a spontaneous happening. Mass
demonstrations aren’t the beginning of a movement, she writes, they’re the
describes the work of Srdja
Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic, leaders of Otpor,
a Serbian student movement that aided the overthrow of Slobodan
Milosevic in 2000. The two founded the Center for Applied
Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), an organization devoted to
training activists committed to nonviolent ways of achieving democracy and
human rights. Otpor, Rosenberg
writes, began with 11 people and grew to 70,000 in two years, starting with a
few activists who staged humorous
anti-Milosevic street theater. Popovic calls that “laughtivism,” and says one
of Otpor’s guiding spirits was Monty Python.
Humor can puncture the invincibility of authority.
When Turkish officials inveighed against kissing
in the Ankara subway, Popovic has
written by way of example, 100
protesters gathered the subway in pairs, kissed mightily, and carried signs
advertising free kisses. Police were surprised and lawmakers were prompted to
wonder who had the right to ban kissing.
Popovic and Djinovic have trained nonviolent activists in 46
countries, and have been invited to lecture and teach at several American colleges,
including Grinnell, Harvard,
Columbia, NYU and Rutgers.
They say nonviolence is not only morally superior to brutality, but it’s really
the only tool small groups have against raw power. Dictators are good at violence, they assert,
so advocates for democracy can’t compete in the same way. They have to think
strategically and start small.
Burmese who attended a CANVAS workshop knew a big
demonstration for political goals would be dangerous. So they organized to get
the Yangon government to collect garbage. In a
similar vein, Gandhi began a massive civil protest against
the British Salt Tax. CANVAS also teaches the value of “tactics of
dispersal,” such as coordinated
pot banging and traffic in which everyone drives at half speed. They show
widespread support, which encourages larger participation.
The Earth Day
Network’s A Million
Acts of Green describes individual actions, large and small, that can impact
the environment. And if you think
individual acts don’t matter much, watch the FutureEnvironment.Org
YouTube presentation on how atmospheric pollutants could be reduced by
millions of tons if one percent of the population left some lights burning for
five fewer minutes.