Dilemma Actions: Wild and Powerless Tactics?

blue bucketeNew Orleans Gene Sharp, the nonviolence expert, shared a list with that we maintain on the Organizers’ Forum website (www.organziersforum.org) of effective nonviolent tactics useful in authoritarian regimes.  Judging from an excellent and encouraging piece in the New York Times by Ellen Barry, Gene may have to update the list, because people are coming up with some interesting tactical expressions.

The additions to the list found in Barry’s article would include the following:

  • Belarus:  Phones set to simultaneously beep, buzz, and play music
  • Belarus:  Clapping protests – regular gatherings that then clap.
  • Russia:  “Blue Buckets” – using beach toys affixed to cars and bodies to protest special driving privileges to the elite
  • Azerbaijan:   Flash mobs where people converge and then folk dance or sword fight
  • Ukraine:  Young women of the group Femen protests pension reform and other issues by meeting in public in a different time of “flash mob” by baring their bosoms.

According to Barry, the profs call these “dilemma actions” and many of the governments have absolutely no sense of humor about such actions and totally understand they threaten the regime:

“Social scientists refer to these as “dilemma actions,” because they force the authorities to choose between two equally distasteful alternatives: to stand back and allow such activities to continue, taking the risk that they will build into something significant; or to impose harsh punishment on people who are engaged in a seemingly benign activity.

The latter route can result in a public backlash, as when Azerbaijan imposed two-year prison sentences on the so-called donkey bloggers, or when Russian authorities prosecuted Voina, a radical art collective best known for painting a 210-foot penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.

Belarus has opted to take a hard line. About 1,830 people have been detained by the police since June, when a small group of activists living in exile initiated the clapping protests, said Tatyana Revyako, who works for Vyasna, a human rights group. Upward of 500 people have received sentences of 5 to 15 days, she said.”

Are they effective?  Have they built a mass base?  Did refusing to move to the back of the bus or leave a lunch counter make a difference?

The real point is that all of this is better than nothing, and the more protest of any kind, the more the promise of power and change in the future.

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Egypt’s Protests and Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp in his office
Gene Sharp in his office

San Pedro Sula Newspapers, as the saying goes, write the rough drafts of history.  In Egypt is is fascinating to watch the 20-day process of rewriting, revising, and re-framing that is already taking place in papers like the New York Times.

The first drafts desperately wanted this to be a Facebook or Twitter revolution…young and hip, and that’s still the hope in the rewriting now, because that supposedly had helped drive the Tunisia overthrow only days before.  Then there was the effort to try and find the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nobel Laureate wherever possible, though it was hard to do, since neither were on the scene in many situations and seemed almost uncomfortable and disconnected from the masses on the streets.  Finally, as the plot thickened the real organizers, as we have discussed earlier, grabbed the press by the collar and had to break it down for them.

Now, luckily, every day we get to see behind the screen a little more clearly.

Maybe?

Today’s lead story purported to once again sand the story down.  Maybe the story is even accurate but I worry that we are getting spun again by someone somewhere behind the screen.

The line today was back to the Balkans and earlier overthrows from the state, particularly the role played Optor years ago.  There the Times had wanted to credit text messages and other communications devices as if all the tools were the same as the carpenters.

It was nice to see that Gene Sharp once again got to make an appearance.  He has been a relentless advocate and theorist of non-violence and one of the unparalleled heroes behind many of the most dramatic efforts to win popular voices a place against firmly entrenched dictatorships.  His has been thankless work, so when he is anywhere near a success, the world is frankly a better place.  When I read the Times piece on Optor, I tracked down Gene at his Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he not only agreed to speak at one of the first dialogues of the Organizers’ Forum, but sent me a copy of his books developing his theories on non-violent organizing, which I found fascinating.  That’s the good news.

The other piece of the news is the way that it is so important for victories to have a thousand fathers is that often Gene’s work and many of these efforts have been funded by various arms of the US government, like National Endowment for Democracy and others.  Given that Secretary of State Clinton had been busted for being off message, I wonder if others are lining up to make sure that they get some accolades for the next funding cycle.

So, good work Gene, and all props to the organizers and the Egyptian people, and we’ll have to look for the future reports as we find the real story in future drafts.

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