Ten everyday acts of resistance that changed the world

By Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson

On 16 June 1976, an ordinary photographer took a photograph of an ordinary trio of students making extraordinary history. Sam Nzima became famous for his shot of the dead Hector Pieterson, an icon of the struggle waged by black South African youth against the apartheid machine. As we commemorate in June the contribution of  schoolchildren towards the advent of democracy in this country, steve Crawshaw and John Jackson invite educators and students on a journey of resistance, around the world, and back in time.

The Arab spring of 2011 has already changed the region and the world. Throughout history both recent and distant, ordinary people have found innovative and inspiring
ways to challenge violent regimes and confront abuses of power.

Poland, 1982: Want to make a political statement? Take your television for a walk

On 13 December 1981, Communist authorities put tanks on the streets of Gdansk and across Poland to stop the popular movement, Solidarity, created in 1980 by striking shipyard workers, once and for all. Hundreds were arrested; dozens were killed. Despite the tanks and arrests, Poles organised protests against the ban on Solidarity, including a boycott of the fiction-filled television news. But a boycott of the TV news could not by itself embarrass the government.

After all, who could tell how many were obeying the boycott call? In one small town, they found a way. Every evening, beginning on 5 February 1982, the inhabitants of Swidnik in eastern Poland went on a walkabout. Before going out, some placed their switched-off television set in the window, facing uselessly onto the street. Others went a step further. They placed their disconnected set in a stroller or a builder’s wheelbarrow, and took the television itself for a nightly outing.

One Solidarity supporter later noted, “If you see your neighbours taking their TV for a walk, it makes you feel part of something.” The TV-goes-for-a-walk tactics, which spread to other towns and cities, infuriated the government. But the authorities felt powerless to retaliate. Going for a walk was not, after all, an official crime under the criminal code. Eventually, the curfew was brought forward from 10pm to 7pm. The citizens of Swidnik responded by going for a walk during the earlier edition of the news at 5pm instead.

Uruguay, 1973-1985: The not-so-innocent one-liner that shamed an entire regime

The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 was intolerant in the extreme. Hundreds of thousands fled into exile. Political opponents were jailed. Torture was a regular occurrence. On occasion, even concerts of classical music were seen as subversive threats.

But a remarkable small protest took place at soccer games throughout the 12 long years of military rule. Whenever the band struck up the national anthem before major games, thousands of Uruguayans in the stadium joined in unenthusiastically. This stubborn failure to sing loudly was rebellion already. But, from the generals’ point of view, there was worse to come. At one point, the anthem declares, Tiranos temblad! – “May tyrants tremble!” Those words served as the cue for the crowds in the stadium to suddenly bellow it in unison as they waved their flags. After that brief, excited roar, they continued to mumble their way through to the end of the long anthem.

The authorities could not arrest everyone in the stadium. Nor could they cancel games or drop the singing of the national anthem. The junta toyed with the idea of removing the ‘tiranos temblad!’ line from public performances of the anthem, but that proved too embarrassing. Why, after all, would the generals remove words from a beloved nineteenth-century hymn, unless they believed that they might be the tyrants in question?

The military rulers were thus obliged to suffer the embarrassment until 1985, when they and their friends lost power. Democracy won.

Ireland, 1880: The strange and spirited legacy of the Boycott family

‘Boycott’ is a widely understood form of social, economic and political action. But where does the word come from?

Once upon a time there was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, a much-disliked land agent for Lord Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo in the west of British-ruled Ireland. On 23 September 1880, “as if by one sudden impulse” (in the words of the Connaught Telegraph), Boycott’s servants walked out on him, in protest against unjust rents and evictions.

Boycott and his family found themselves obliged to milk their own cows, shoe their own horses, and till their own fields. Shopkeepers refused to serve Boycott and his family. The post office stopped delivering mail to him. Boycott was isolated and powerless to retaliate. One of the organisers of the action, James Redpath, realised that no single word existed to describe this successful form of ostracism.

As he recounted in his 1881 memoir Talks About Ireland, he asked the sympathetic priest, Father John O’Malley, for advice: “[O’Malley] looked down, tapped his big forehead, and said: ‘How would it be to call it to Boycott him?’” Boycott fled to England. He never returned. Eventually, Ireland won its independence. Meanwhile, the name of an obscure land agent in the west of Ireland has gone global in the dictionaries.

General Augusto Pinochet’s regime suffered from those who were ready to ‘boicotear’ Chilean apples and wine in protest against repression by the military junta in Chile in the 1970s. Russians talk of ‘boikotirovat’, and the French declare ‘un boycott’.

Britain, 1984: Breaking the bank: graffiti artists put a stop to investment in apartheid

In Oxford and other British university cities, an unusual set of graffiti appeared above pairs of Barclays Bank cash dispensers in 1984. Above one ATM was spray-painted the word BLACKS. Above the other: WHITES ONLY. Customers were free to choose whichever ATM they preferred, but the graffiti made many of those lining up at the
black-vs-white machines feel uncomfortable about Barclays’ well-publicised involvement in the South African system of apartheid, where signs proclaiming NET BLANKES – Whites Only – were customary.

Fewer graduates applied to work at Barclays, so as not to be tainted. and Barclays’ once lucrative share of UK student accounts plummeted from 27 to 15% of the market. In 1986, the banking giant admitted defeat at the hands of the graffiti sprayers and their allies. The Barclays pullout became one of the most highprofile and punishing acts of divestment suffered by the South African regime.

Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for life because of his rejection of the government’s racist policies, was released after 27 years in 1990. Democratic elections were held in 1994. Barclays did not return to South Africa until 2005.

Burma, 1990s: Notes on democracy

The brutality of the Burmese military junta made international headlines following the massacre of hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters in 1988. When, in 1990, the party of opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming election victory, the generals ignored the results – jailing, torturing, and even killing those who spoke out.

Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest. Pinning her picture up, in public or in private, became grounds for arrest. All the more startling, then, was the design of a modest banknote that the government commissioned and published at that time. Unfortunately for the regime, the designer of the new onekyat note was a political supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi. He knew the note must include an image of Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father – General Aung San. The general was the founder of the Burmese army, and was revered by the Burmese for his pivotal role in securing his country’s independence from British colonial rule.

The designer engraved the image of the general in the watermark. As he drew, however, he subtly softened the sharp line of the soldier’s jaw. He also used a light hand when drawing the general’s eyes, nose and mouth. From these slight, almost imperceptible changes emerged a powerful form of sedition: the face of the father was gently transformed into the face of the daughter.

The censors approved the design and the banknote was printed, distributed and put into mass circulation. The act of subversion wasn’t limited to the main portrait. The floral design consists of four circles of eight petals – eight around eight around eight around eight, echoing the date of Burma’s ‘four-eights’ uprising that began on 8/8/88.

The subtly defiant one-kyat note was withdrawn from circulation and possession of the banknote became illegal. Those who kept it continue to treasure it. It is known as the ‘democracy note’.

Liberia, 2003: Ordinary women end extraordinary violence

The west African nation of Liberia was founded by freed American slaves. The country’s coat of arms declares, ‘The love of liberty brought me here’. In the last years of the 20th century and the early years of this one, however, Liberia was anything but a land of liberty. Drug-fuelled militias maimed and killed civilians. Government and rebel forces alike raped with impunity. Hundreds of thousands fled. Others were trapped by the unending violence, unable to flee.

In spring 2003, a group of women decided to try to end the conflict once and for all. Dressed all in white, hundreds of them sat by the roadside, on the route taken daily by President Charles Taylor, rebel leader-turned-President.

The President’s motorcade swept past, slowing down only briefly. But the women returned, day after day. In pouring rain and blazing sunshine alike, they danced and prayed, fighting for the right to be seen, heard and counted. Taylor mocked the women for “embarrassing themselves”. Still, though, the protests gained momentum. Pressed on all sides, Taylor agreed to talk. He met with the women’s leaders in the presidential palace. Peace talks with the warring factions began in Ghana a few weeks later.

It soon became clear, however, that the talks were going nowhere. Even as the warlords basked in the comfort of their luxury hotel, they worked the phones, directing a renewed orgy of violence at home in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The women decided that enough was enough. Determined to focus on the human cost of the war, they barricaded delegates into the room where the talks were taking place.

The men with guns agreed to talk seriously at last. A peace deal was struck. Charles Taylor went into exile. International peacekeepers arrived in Monrovia, greeted by cheering crowds. In 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Liberia’s first peacefully elected President, Africa’s first woman leader. Johnson-Sirleaf said: “It was ordinary Liberians who reclaimed the country and demanded peace.”

Kenya, 2009: No sex without peace

In Kenya in 2009, many feared a renewal of the post-election violence that had brought the country to the brink of catastrophe a year earlier. The relationship between the two main political rivals, Prime Minister Raile Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, remained dangerously tense. Women’s groups, fearing another descent into violence, urged men to settle their differences and, as they put it, “begin to serve the nation they represent.”

To emphasise the point, they announced a sex strike. The strike gained widespread support – even the Prime Minister’s wife, Ida Odinga, declared that she supported it “body and soul”. Women’s groups welcomed the success of the action – “Kenyans began talking about issues that are affecting them. And it got the politicians talking.” The women even persuaded some sex workers to join the strike.

It ended with a joint prayer session. The Prime Minister and the President finally agreed to talk.

Denmark, 1943: A nation conspires to save the lives of 7 000 Jews

In September 1943, the Nazis prepared for the deportation of all Danish Jews to concentration camps. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat with a conscience, deliberately leaked the plans for the round-up, which was due to begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Armed with the information from Duckwitz, Danes
swung into action.

Teachers fetched children out of class, and told them to go home and pack their things. Friends and strangers alike provided alternative accommodations, so that
nobody would be at home when the Nazis came knocking on the door at the registered addresses of Jews. Adults and children checked into hospitals under fictitious names, suffering from fictitious ailments. Others appeared at chapels, as if to attend a funeral. The ‘mourners’ – sometimes hundreds at a time – then travelled at a stately speed out of Copenhagen, as part of a huge funeral cortege.

Families were transported to remote beaches, where boats picked them up at night and took them to safety. Others arranged escapes in broad daylight. In Copenhagen, families stepped into canal boats that advertised ‘Harbour Tours’. These special harbour tours avoided traditional sights, delivering their passengers to waiting fishing boats instead.

Families hid in the hulls, or were covered by tarpaulins, herrings and straw, and were ferried to neutral Sweden to wait out the war in safety. As a result of Duckwitz’s whistle-blowing and of Danish solidarity, 99% of Denmark’s 7 000 Jews survived.

Israel, 2002: A tank gunner refuses to pull the trigger

Yigal Bronner, a former member of the Israel Defence Forces, and hundreds of others refused to serve with the Israeli army in the occupied territories. These soldiers were from prestigious elite units, who had seen active combat and risked their lives. Many were jailed for their refusal. They became known as ‘seruvniks’ from the Hebrew word
‘seruv’ – refusal.

The seruvniks drew their compatriots’ and the world’s attention to the dehumanising effects of the occupation on both Israelis and the three million Palestinians in the occupied territories. They insisted, in what became known as the Combatants’ Letter: “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defence Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defence.

The missions of occupation do not serve this purpose – and we shall take no part in them.” Bronner’s letter to the General who called him to serve in the occupied territories was a meditation on the relationship between an individual soldier and the army that orders him to do the unthinkable. Bronner had one such experience when he, working as a tank gunner, was ordered to fire a missile into a group of people. “I am the final small cog in the wheel of this sophisticated war machine. I am the last and smallest link in the chain of command. I am supposed to simply follow orders – to reduce myself to stimulus and response. To hear the command ‘Fire!’ and pull the trigger, to bring the overall plan to completion,” Bronner wrote. “And I am supposed to do all this with the natural simplicity of a robot, which senses nothing beyond
the shaking of the tank as the shell is ejected from the gun barrel and flies to its target.”

United States, 1993: A 20-something law student teams up with Burmese villagers against a California oil company

Katie Redford, a 25-year-old student at the University of Virginia School of Law, was doing a human rights internship on the Thai-Burmese border in 1993. During her time there, she heard many stories of villagers fleeing from military- ruled Burma into Thailand.

The Burmese army terrorised communities as entire villages were destroyed to clear a corridor for a gas pipeline being built for the California-based oil company, Unocal, and its partners, including the French oil company, Total, and the Burmese military junta. Redford documented a range of horrific abuses. In one case a woman’s baby was thrown into a fire and burned alive.

On returning to law school in the USA, Redford searched for a way to force Unocal to take responsibility for the abuses that she believed had been committed on Unocal’s behalf. In 1995, she and Ka Hsaw Wa founded the non-profit organisation EarthRights International. They filed suit on behalf of 15 Burmese villagers in an unprecedented
legal action as corporate America looked on nervously. Then, in a landmark decision in 1997, a federal district court in Los Angeles concluded that US courts can adjudicate claims against corporations for complicity in abuses committed overseas.

A series of appeals and counter appeals followed. Finally, in December 2004, just months before the trial was due to begin, Unocal settled out of court. Thoughthe amount has never officially been disclosed, the company is reported to have paid millions of dollars in compensation.

For those involved, as important as the money was the principle. A law student, and those she went on to work with, proved wrong those who believed that villagers on the
other side of the world could challenge a global company for its part in their suffering.

Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson adapted this article for YES Magazine from their book Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World, published by Union Square Press, a division of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. This article is reprinted here with their kind permission. Crawshaw is International Advocacy Director of Amnesty International, and former UK Director and United Nations Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. Jackson is Vice President of social responsibility for MTV Networks International, and has directed international campaigns on human rights, economic justice, antipersonnel landmines, HIV/Aids and climate change.


Category: Winter 2011

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