The History of Anti-Authoritarian Struggle is a History Worth Repeating

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The History of Anti-Authoritarian Struggle is a History Worth Repeating

The Serbian resistance movement Otpor! successfully overthrew the nationalist dictator Slobodan Milosevic. (Photo: AP) 

Throughout his campaign, critics have drawn comparisons between Donald Trump and authoritarian leaders from the past. From his proposed plans to create a Muslim registry, to threats against journalists and other opponents, these critics urge us to learn from history about the dangers of a leader like him rising to power.

Now that Trump is president, however, we must learn from history in a different way. Nonviolent social movements of the past can teach us lessons about how to resist injustice in the years to come.

If we look to the past for examples of how to organize against injustice, we see how ordinary citizens — through their use of concerted strategy and creative tactics — have harnessed the will of the people against repression. They have, in short, left us a blueprint to follow when it comes to resisting illegitimate leaders.

Their actions show us that the greatest way to fight tyranny is not with an army or even an expert team of Internet hackers, but with the often-overlooked powers of solidarity, civil disobedience and collaborative action.

Rule 1: Refuse to cooperate

Any strong society depends on the rule of law to ensure citizens’ safety and maintain public order. But if history is any teacher, we have seen that the law can also be used to persecute minorities and strip citizens of their civil rights. When unjust and immoral laws or policies are implemented, it is the duty of the people not to comply.

Some of the greatest examples of non-cooperation campaigns can be found in the resistance movements to Nazi occupation during World War II, particularly those in the neutral countries of Europe. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands in 1940, they were met with vehement resistance and nationwide disobedience. Church leaders, artists, shipyard workers, train operators, and thousands of Dutch doctors contributed to resistance by refusing to comply with the Germans’ demands.

In Denmark, citizens immobilized the country through worker slowdowns and mass strikes. Civil servants practiced non-cooperation by refusing to enforce curfews, censorship regulations and the ban on public meetings. The spirit of resistance to Nazi occupation even led to an operation that saved nearly the entire Jewish population of Denmark. Thousands of teachers in Norway mounted their own resistance by publicly refusing to join the fascist Teacher’s Union, holding underground classes, and getting arrested en masse. Their actions successfully prevented the Norwegian schools from being controlled by occupation forces, and ultimately undermined the legitimacy of the government until it collapsed altogether.

Scandinavian resistance movements show that even when opposing a fascist occupation, non-cooperation is a force to be reckoned with. Gene Sharp, one of the leading scholars of nonviolent direct action, explains that the power of civil disobedience lies in understanding that the leaders who govern our societies have no inherent power without the consent of the people. Without citizens’ cooperation, Sharp wrote, “rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow.” All of these most basic functions are crucial to governing a society, and when the people withdraw their consent from the rulers, even the most draconian regimes cannot sustain their rule. Whether preventing Nazi occupation or fighting the Islamic State, repression requires cooperation of the people.

If this all sounds far removed from resisting a Trump presidency, consider the recent actions of the U.S. Department of Energy. When asked by Trump’s transition team to name individual employees who had attended U.N. climate talks in the past five years — as well as providing emails about the meetings themselves — the department refused to provide any names. Instead, it released a statement defying the Trump team’s request. Non-compliance may prove increasingly necessary, as the State Department was also asked by Trump’s transition team to provide a list of names of employees working on gender equality.

Rule 2: Undermine the narrative

Rulers depend on the obedience of the people, and that obedience is often tied to regime-sponsored narratives — such as, the regime is all-powerful and the people can do nothing to change it; or the ruler is fearsome, and opponents will be harshly punished; or that a leader is fighting for the rights of the working class, while actually doing the opposite. These narratives are particularly dangerous in the digital age, when corporate-controlled media and social networks can distort public perception and perpetuate false information.

The greatest leaders of nonviolent resistance throughout history have used the power of narratives to build momentum and public sympathy for their movements. Mahatma Gandhi, who led the famous movement for Indian independence, harnessed the power of nonviolent civil disobedience to undermine the authority of British colonial rule.

When he led a 240-mile Salt March to the sea in 1930, Gandhi defied the British-imposed Salt Act that made it illegal for Indians to produce or collect salt. As the protest grew and salt-making spread, the British responded with repressive measures, thus forfeiting their own image of civility and control. By using the traditional practice of a padyatra, or long spiritual march, Gandhi transformed the Salt March into a symbolic display of Indian solidarity in defiance of colonial occupation. The march shaped a powerful narrative that the people of India, not the British rulers, were the ones in control, and that colonialism could be subverted and resisted using nonviolent means.

Many successful movements use humor and comedic action to counter public fear of a repressive government. Humor undermines the narrative of a regime as fearsome and dangerous, and diffuses reluctance of ordinary citizens to get involved. Consider the narratives about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. A recent music video produced by the Saudi company 8ies Studios shows three women clad in burqas using humor and performance as they dance, ride scooters, play basketball, and mock the government’s ban on women driving cars. Social media helped spread their message of resistance around the world, while — in Saudi Arabia — it served to undermine the fear of repression associated with speaking out against the unequal treatment of women.

Narrative power can play an important role in developing strategic resistance to the Trump presidency. It is important to identify the narratives on which he campaigned, and to find creative ways to undermine the power these stories wield over his supporters. While it is true that he campaigned on racism and bigotry, he also shaped a narrative of fighting for the working class, “cleaning the swamp” of corrupt Washington politicians, and a disdain for political correctness. Studying how past movements have harnessed the power of creative narrative strategy can teach us to devise tactics, interventions, and creative actions that counter the narratives of the Trump campaign, while also eroding the consent upon which his authority will depend.

Rule 3: Bring people in

A movement is only as strong as the groups that back it. Successful movements of the past incorporated diverse stakeholders and developed a clear message that appealed to many different groups. By identifying shared grievances, this principle goes a step beyond fostering solidarity for each others’ causes and, ultimately, underscores the ways in which citizens can be united together in common cause.

In the early 1980s, the Solidarity movement in Poland leveraged the power of including different stakeholders in its fight for workers’ rights and democratic elections. For years, anti-communist resistance was organized by students, intellectuals and workers throughout Poland, but each group remained separate and uncoordinated in their respective demonstrations. By the late 1970s, however, people — galvanized by the appointment of the Polish Pope John Paul II — began to identify a sense of common struggle.

After a campaign of shipyard protests led by the factory electrician Lech Walesa, Solidarity developed into a unified movement that included workers, peasants, intellectuals and students alike. Popular support quickly grew. After Solidarity was legalized as the first free trade union in Central and Eastern Europe, the movement swelled to almost 10 million members, or 80 percent of the state employees — including members of the Communist Party. Solidarity’s efforts led to the eventual collapse of communist rule in Poland in 1989, as well as the country’s subsequent transition to democracy.

Solidarity succeeded in undermining the communist government’s narrative as a free worker’s state, and leveraged the power of non-cooperation through mass strikes and demonstrations. This was all largely due to its original effort to include a broad set of stakeholders, rather than simple appealing to one group’s specific interests.

Building an inclusive movement requires us to think outside the box. In 1963, the civil rights movement in the American South acquired some unexpected new leadership when young black school children in Birmingham, Alabama joined the frontlines of the fight. Thousands of children skipped school to march in the streets in what became known as the Children’s Crusade, facing water cannons and brutal police repression. Kids sang and danced in the streets, even as authorities rounded them up and beat them back. Before long, they overwhelmed the capacities of the local jails and the police were helpless to respond. The city government was forced to negotiate, and finally agreed to desegregate local businesses and release the children without charges.

Engaging children in the civil rights movement was a powerful way to shape the narrative around racial equality in the South. With images of kids as young as four years old locked up behind bars for peacefully protesting segregation, the movement not only garnered the sympathies of white Americans but also pressured the national government to support desegregation.

These examples should be considered when shaping strategic mobilization against Trump’s presidency. A resistance movement that promotes a clear message — appealing to both conservatives and liberals, rural and urban, poor working-class people and college-educated elite — could lead to widespread public mobilization, as well as help heal the deeply-rooted divisions that allowed Trump to be elected in the first place.

 Rule 4: Challenge the institutions

Just as a ruler’s power depends on the consent of the people, a regime depends on a set of institutions — its pillars of support — in order to function. Groups that have developed effective campaigns opposing an oppressive government often aim their actions at pillars like government workers, the judiciary, the educational system, religious institutions, the media, businesses and law enforcement. Weakening the leader’s hold on these institutions is the key to undermining an unjust leader’s control.

Challenging institutions is one way that the Serbian resistance movement Otpor weakened, and ultimately overthrew, the nationalistic war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Originating as a student movement, Otpor used humor, street theater, rock music, and the symbolic image of a clenched fist to gain support and popularity among the Serbian public. The movement united political parties to support a single opposition leader against Milosevic, and disseminated a grassroots manual to train teams of activists across the country in how to undermine local pillars of support for the regime.

Otpor’s message aimed to recruit support from law enforcement by insisting that the police were victims just as much as the rest of Serbia’s citizens, thereby encouraging them to defect and join the resistance. The movement also organized “rapid reaction teams” of lawyers, activists and NGO workers who showed up at police stations when protesters were arrested to apply pressure, increase publicity and provide legal counsel. These measures challenged messages put forth by the state-run media, as well as undermined the effectiveness of both law enforcement and the judiciary to repress the movement’s efforts.

With strategic planning and the involvement of many stakeholders, a movement that understands and identifies the pillars of support can go further than deposing a corrupt ruler — it can build the foundation for new institutions, ones based on justice and equality, that lay the groundwork for lasting, systemic change. However, without envisioning a way to change the institutions themselves, a revolution can create a power vacuum, cutting off the hydra’s head only to see two more grow in its place.

Rule 5: Start now, and start small

The final rule is the simplest, but most crucial of all. Each of these movements began when a small group of people came together around a shared concern. Resistance starts in the community and grows outward, not the other way around. Change begins by talking to each other, to neighbors and coworkers and classmates. It builds when people form associations and start planning actions. It grows out of long-term strategic planning with many stakeholders and the clear articulation of small, attainable goals along the way. It consists of the symbolic actions of the few, as well as the mass mobilization of the many. It calls on us to start taking action and learn from the mistakes we make along the way.

Although it is tempting, at the outset of 2017, to survey the state of the world with cynicism and declare that ordinary people have no power to affect the course this country takes over the next four years, buying into that narrative is both unproductive and historically inaccurate. If we have learned anything from resistance movements of the past, we know that when an unjust regime faces the opposition of a committed, well-organized population, a leader’s hold on power can be reclaimed by the people.

Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

Originally from New Hampshire, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert studied international affairs and conflict resolution at The George Washington University. She lives in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she is conducting qualitative research on youth activist movements.

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