As calls to revolution go, history has offered more compelling examples than the one which led Srdja Popovic into a career of political activism. As he recalls, “[W]e just wanted a normal country with cool music.”
In the late ’90s, Popovic was a founder of the Serbian activist group Otpor!, armed with only a hammy sense of humor and the goal of toppling dictator Slobodan Milosevic, whose ceaseless campaigns of war, terror, and repression through that decade had brought his country to economic and cultural ruin.
Rather than attempt to assemble armies and fight Milosevic head on, Popovic used tactics that were resolutely nonviolent (that is, less brandishing, more branding). In just two years, and under the ubiquitous emblem of a clenched fist, Otpor! grew from a ragtag protest group into a full-blown nationwide movement that used humor, irony, imagery, and imagination to unite scattered factions of the populace against the regime, effectively overthrowing Milosevic in 2000.
For Popovic, salt, tea, and cottage cheese serve as far more effective tools of revolution than blades, bullets, or bombs. In “Blueprint for Revolution,’’ he offers a short history of nonviolent protest (from Gandhi’s marches to the sea to harvest salt in defiance of British taxation, to the Putin-punking performances of Pussy Riot) as well as an ideological starter kit for understanding how nonviolent movements can be effective against highly militarized regimes.
Throughout, Popovic weaves in bits of his own experience leading Otpor! in Serbia and later as a founder of CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies), helming training sessions in Otpor! methodology to burgeoning dissident groups from Egypt, the Maldives, and Syria — all of whom initially share the same doubts that stickers of fists can pack the same punch as actual fists but eventually are mostly won over.
There’s the Israeli insurance salesman who responded to a price hike in cottage cheese (a major dietary staple in the region) by using Facebook to spark a nationwide boycott — an effort Popovic describes as “politically motivated lactose intolerance” — and launch a much broader dialogue about the country’s economic imbalances.
Or Harvey Milk, the legendary San Francisco politician and pioneer of modern gay rights activism, who realized after several failures that to reach a position of power he would have to build unity against a common plight, which he found in dog poop.
Popovic’s penchant for absurdity and troublemaking is balanced by his criteria for effectiveness. He celebrates the initial impact of the Ukrainian women’s rights collective FEMEN, but regrets what he perceives as the gradual dissolution of the movement’s message. And he applauds the Occupy movement’s goals while lamenting its hip, urban exclusivity, its liberal, celebrity-weighted tilt, and its misguided branding. (Popovic would have preferred they opted for “The 99 Percent.”)
Violence isn’t completely absent from Popovic’s survey of peaceful protest — it’s hard to see Otpor!’s “laughtivist” placement of a baseball bat, a barrel emblazoned with Milosevic’s face, and a sign that reads “Smash his face for just a dinar” as anything short of a violent indulgence.
Other times, the role that violence can play in triggering change feels so glaringly missing, you might feel compelled to defend it. When Popovic credits recent advances in American gay rights to the “mainstreaming” of the movement — “no longer defined by slogans like ‘We’re here! We’re queer!’ and parades that feature all the members of the Village People, wearing nipple clamps” — he does so at the expense of those who rioted at Stonewall for something more like individual dignity than general homogeneity.
Fortunately, these questionable moments are few , and despite Popovic’s persistent ham factor (at times, the implied laugh track feels out of place), he offers a clear, well-constructed, and easily applicable set of principles for any David facing any Goliath (sans slingshot, of course).
At the outset, as Popovic quotes his hero Tolkein that “even the smallest creature can change the course of the future,” you may feel the same skepticism as the dozens of revolutionaries he’s egged on since his first actions in Belgrade, but by the end of “Blueprint,” the idea that a punch is no match for a punch line feels like anything but a joke.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.