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Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art

If protest is made illegal, make daily life a protest

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In Sum

When standard dissent is made impossible by overwhelming state repression, find ways to make ordinary acts subversive.

In July 2011, public frustration in Belarus over a deepening economic crisis reached a boiling point. The authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko had outlawed any political protest, and police were cracking down on any vocal expression of dissent. In response, organizers calling themselves “Revolution Through Social Networks” began calling on people to gather in public and clap their hands, or set their cell phones to ring all at once, thereby turning these simple everyday actions into profound public expressions of dissent.

As the non-protests spread, the police cracked down hard. The regime rightly recognized that the clapping was serving to undermine their authority. If they did nothing and continued to allow people to gather and clap without punishment, then the population could openly oppose the regime in other ways. Instead, the world saw the absurd sight of large numbers of Belarus citizens arrested for clapping. The crackdown exposed the government’s deep irrationality, a perception only strengthened when it submitted to Parliament a bill to make “the organized inaction” of silent protesters illegal.

Many years earlier, in 1983, organized labor in Chile planned to kick off new resistance to the ten-year-old Pinochet dictatorship with a massive strike in the copper mines, the backbone of Chile’s economy. Before the strike could occur, the mines were surrounded by the military and it seemed a bloodbath was certain to follow if the miners went through with this plan. Instead, the leadership brilliantly switched gears to a National Day of Protest made of decentralized actions, calling on those who supported them to drive slowly, turn their lights on and off at night, and at 8 pm to bang pots and pans. Many participated, and these mini-protests helped to rebuild the confidence of the brutalized opposition movement as people overcame their fear of acting.

As both of these actions dramatize, when mass gatherings and public protests become too dangerous, everyday actions can be used to signal dissent, gather crowds, get the word out, illustrate the ridiculous nature of repressive authority, and set up decision dilemmas, all the while avoiding or deferring violent repression see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma.

This principle doesn’t only apply to repressive third-world dictatorships, but to situations in supposedly more open societies where daily life has been criminalized for certain segments of the population. Think of the two queer women who kissed in front of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City until they were hurriedly pushed off the grounds by security. Or the Dance Liberation Front, which organized dances in the streets and unlicensed spaces of Giuliani’s New York to flout repressive 1920s era “cabaret laws” still on the books.

Potential Pitfalls

When it’s time to escalate, don’t miss the boat. From the beginning, it is important to have a strategic trajectory in mind for your campaign: focus on activities that build toward bigger and bolder actions.

Nadine Bloch is currently Training Director for Beautiful Trouble. She is an innovative artist, nonviolent practitioner, political organizer, direct-action trainer, and puppetista. Her work explores the potent intersection of art and politics; where creative cultural resistance is not only effective political action, but also a powerful way to reclaim agency over our own lives, fight oppressive systems, and invest in our communities — all while having more fun than the other side! Her affiliations include work with Greenpeace, Labor Heritage Foundation, Nonviolence International, Ruckus Society, HealthGAP and Housing Works, and Bread & Puppet Theater. She is a contributor to Beautiful Trouble book and We Are Many, Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (2012, AK Press). Check out her monthly column on WagingNonviolence, “The Arts of Protest.”

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