Sunday, January 10, 2010

Something to hide, fear, crush

A movement that explicates itself and appears to engage in deliberative dialog with all comers is a movement that doesn’t generate nearly as much fear and thus oppression as do movements which are covert, sneaky, deceptive, and generate an image of sneering superiority. Of course, it’s all culturally relative, but still more or less generalizable.

Serbia is an illustrative example. The Balkans are famous for fear-based terrorism, often inflicted by the state, and Slobodan Milosevic was an exemplar of that. He presided over an extremely nationalistic and conflict-prone regime marked by forcible annexations, concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, rape camps, and extraordinary suppression of minorities. Both internal and external powers attacked him violently and he strode through with swagger and an aura of the Serb standing alone in courageous defiance of all those who would attack Serbs. What finally brought him down was the unexpected soft power of nonviolence and community organizing writ large. The youth started it all, organizing demonstrations, mock conventions, humorous but highly political street theater, and a web and alternative media presence that was infused with joyous rebellion.

They kept at it, and eventually enlisted the mainstream political opposition leadership in a coalition that toppled the regime via elections, general strike, and the ultimate takeover of Parliament. The youth movement, Otpur, had open offices, frequent open public demonstrations and actions, and were markedly different than the youth demonstrations of western Europe and the US in that none of their demonstrators acted violently or covertly. None ever wore face coverings of any sort—no bandanas or masks to hide identities, even though the potential for police and army capture, torture, and worse was far greater than in western Europe or the US. I asked one of the Otpur organizers, Srja Popovic, if any of them ever wore masks.

He laughed. “Never! We wanted everyone to know that these were local kids, nice young people who simply wanted to work for a better future.”

Some of the kids were beaten at one point, when the government became desperate and tried to declare Otpur a terrorist group. This backfired on the government—the people knew better and Milosevic lost even more popularity as his policies produced war, international pariah status for Serbia, and economic hardship for Serbs.

Milosevic bet that his police and soldier brutality would provoke an in-kind response and thus justify even harsher methods ‘necessary’ to maintain domestic order. Instead, the nonviolent discipline and transparency of his civil society opponents clearly won the day. Milosevic lost the loyalty of his people, his police, his soldiers, and he lost the election and his power, and was turned over to the international community to stand trial. He died in prison and the trial was never concluded, but the effectiveness of transparent nonviolence was made quite obvious in that struggle.

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