Book review: Blueprint for Revolution - light-hearted protest tips
Blueprint for Revolution
by Srdja Popovic
Srdja Popovic was among the Serbian protesters who overthrew dictator Slobodan Milosevic and went on to train protest movements around the world.
In Blueprint for Revolution, Popovic describes his "personal journey from a too-cool-to-care Belgrade guitarist to one of the leaders of Otpor!, the non-violent movement that toppled the Serbian dictator". The book is wonderfully contemporary European, full of knowing cultural references and witty asides. A really fun (and funny) read - and you can't say that for many books on politics.
His inspirations are J.R. R. Tolkien - "If I had to choose one book to call my scripture, it would be The Lord of the Rings" (activists are hobbits, ordinary folk allying with a motley collection of unusual suspects such as dwarves, elves etc, to take down the Dark Lord) - and Monty Python (dictators can't handle humour, and it makes being an activist fun). His other influence is non-violence guru Gene Sharp.
Although it's called a blueprint, Popovic shows respect for national roots and differences, building his case on his experiences in Serbia, and his subsequent career with Canvas (the Centre for Applied Non-violent Action and Strategies), training activists in some of the hottest political struggles around (Myanmar, Syria, Egypt).
Some of the ideas are particularly useful. Branding really matters: "We wanted Serbs to have a visual image they could associate with our movement." They went for a clenched fist - cheesy but effective, and it echoed partisans of the second world war. Struggle becomes a battle of the brands because "every dictator is a brand", and "we need a brand better than theirs".
Dream big, Popovic says, but start small. Find tactics that will prove "we are the many and they are the few" without getting you "killed or roughed up too badly", such as the taxi go-slows in dictator Augusto Pinochet's Chile; or vaguely subversive ringtones in Iran.
And apparently food is one of the best entry points. Activists have built movements around cottage cheese (Israel), rice pudding (Maldives) and, most famously, salt (India) and tea (the US). "Food has a special way of getting people to come together," Popovic writes, and is often low risk. It gets the ball rolling.
He calls for laughtivism. It's a terrible word, but to quote Mark Twain: "The human race has unquestionably one really effective weapon - laughter … Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." Popovic's crew released anti-regime accessorised turkeys in the streets of Belgrade, while Syrian protesters buried loudspeakers broadcasting anti-regime messages in dustbins in Aleppo. (The police looked ridiculous - and much less scary - rummaging in the bins.)
Be cool, Popovic suggests (not usually an NGO strong point): in Serbia, getting arrested apparently turns you into an instant sex magnet, especially if you earn the black Otpor! T-shirt awarded only to those arrested 10 times or more.
Stick firmly to non-violence because it works. "If you're up against David Beckham, you don't want to meet him on the soccer field. Taking up arms against a dictator is silly," Popovic points out.
But make them oppress you. "Making oppression backfire is a skill every activist can and must master; like jujitsu, it's all about playing your opponents' strongest card against them." In Serbia, Otpor! turned arrests into events, with elaborate systems for notifying parents and colleagues of those arrested, crowds outside the prisons singing pop songs and chanting the prisoners' names, and "rock star receptions" (and T-shirts) when people were released.
Invest everything in building and maintaining unity (of message as well as organisations and alliances).
Know how to win, he writes. If you declare victory too early, it all unravels (Egypt). Stay maximalist and you lose the chance of quick wins and building momentum (Tiananmen Square). Be clear on what your aim is (democracy rather than the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak). Keep unity after victory rather than return to infighting (Ukraine). "Successful movements must have the patience to keep working hard even when the lights and cameras have moved on."