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Small Acts Matter

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, February 20, 2015

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 small actions.


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 victory lap.


Rosenberg 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.

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