Why Liberation From Oppression Can Happen Here And Anywhere

The symbol of Otpor! in their movement against the Serbian Regime.

One of the main activists behind Otpor!, the organization who took down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, released Blueprint For Revolution in 2015 to share the most effective strategies from efforts to topple repressive governments across the world. Srdja Popovic trains potential revolutionaries in strategic nonviolent direct action through the organization the Center For Applied Nonviolent Action And Strategies (CANVAS). In the first several chapter he has discussed training Syrians, Egyptians, and Venezuelans to hold uprisings against the regimes controlling their countries. Full disclosure: I am writing this chapter by chapter and have not yet finished the book.

Srdja Popovic, a Serbian activist, of Otpor! and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). September 2012, Berlin Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Heinrich Boll Foundation

The first chapter of the book is titled It Can Never Happen Here. It focused on a group of Egyptian activists who needed to surreptitiously leave their dictatorship to attend Popovic’s training. The entire group held a similar, and extremely reasonable concern. The former Egyptian Dictator Hosni Mubarak led a violent Police State. The participants felt powerless in the face of State repression. Yet members of the group would still go on to topple his regime in the Arab Spring. When the people rose up and occupied Tahir Square and other town centers the police crackdown resulted in 846 deaths and over 6000 injuries.

According to Popovic, the opinion that the strategies taught by CANVAS cannot work against brutal regimes has a two-tiered response. He wrote that this opinion has two implicit assumptions; one true, the other false. The true assumption is that every situation is different. The strategies which Otpor! used against the Serbian regime would not work in Egypt. The false assumption is, “the notion that there is categorically no way for a nonviolent movement to succeed in your country.” He claimed that the rules of nonviolent agitation are the same across time and culture. Gandhi and Otpor! were using the same rules of engagement to battle their empowered opponents.

His proposed solution, which we will look at in a future post, is to campaign on issues which are, “small, relevant, but achievable, something that won’t get you killed or roughed up too badly.” Gandhi went after the salt tax imposed by the British by having Indians march to the coast to collect salt. Otpor! spread graffiti and stickers which allowed them to have a relative degree of anonymity and avoid the State’s thugs who would torture them if caught. And Chilean leftists in the 1970s agitated against the brutal, American-backed, Junta of Augusto Pinochet by encouraging drivers to create traffic by driving slowly.

Protesters rally in Tahir Square in 2011. Photo Credit: Joseph Hill.

The big question for our nation is how to respond to our little-understood form of authoritarian government. Our authoritarian regime’s power comes from a system of inverted totalitarianism, a government which is directed from below by a Corporate-class of powerful interests. Americans have the freedom to say whatever they want until they do not. This is evidenced by moves in legislatures and universities to silence support for human rights in Palestine, or to criminalize protest. Americans will sing and sermonize about their freedoms without critically engaging in study of what freedoms they still have.

American authoritarianism needs to be opposed because of the subtle attacks it throws at its poor, people of color, and anti-establishment voices. America does not need to imprison every voice of conscience attacking its edifices of power. It silences them with corporate PR disguised as journalism. It creates the debate using bought-scholars parading ideas of humanitarian intervention and libertarian politics as populist ideals.

Two quotes from American thinkers come to mind regarding these subtle mechanisms of oppression:

Noam Chomsky is quoted with the astute opinion that, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” It is fine to suggest that the government should never intervene in markets. It is okay to suggest that the government should regulate economic activity. However, the discussion of whether private property should be limited or abolished is not permitted in intellectual circles.

In Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut discussed poverty in America. The passage*, which you can read in the postscript, started with the line, “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.” The sentiment expressed here is that the American poor have no sympathy for their own situation or that of anybody else who has not become wildly successful. This lack of compassion reflects the belief that in America, anybody can become successful if they work hard enough. It ignores the structural and historical inequalities that make the American Dream a fantasy.  

These Americans help describe the barricades blocking an American revolutionary movement. It is a lot of work to decolonize minds. As I read through the advice of Popovic we can try to understand how the activism of CANVAS can be applied to the liberation of downtrodden Americans. His advice can help Americans interested in system change to improve the bottom-line of the American poor with the strategies of nonviolence and humor.  


*“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”


Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five


This is Part 1 of a series on Srdja Popovic’s “Blueprint For Revolution”

Part 2 Dream Big, Start Small – Initiating Momentum & Victory

Part 3 How To Peacefully Face A Brutal Dictatorship And Win

Part 4 Topple Your Target With The Help Of Their Financiers


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