Steve Crawshaw shows that those who seem powerless can conquer their oppressors without using their methods

When a repressive system has been in place for a number of years, it can seemalmostto becomethe natural order of things. The Berlin Wall, South African apartheid, military regimesin Latin America – each of these seemed, at some point, destined to last for ever. Then – not least because of people who showed enormous courage – slowly or with great suddenness,the apparatus of fear crumbled.

Once the changes have taken place, they are explained in hindsight (including by those who never saw the changes coming) as the inevitable result of geopoliticalchanges, economic pressures, or anewly arrivedImportant Person at The Top. All these elements are relevant — including where a reformist leader understands that change must come, and that it should take place in a peaceful way. But apparently powerless individuals make an enormous difference, too. That has been true in past years, and remains true today.

TAKING ON THE TANKS: Tiananmen Square’s famous ‘Tank Man’
TAKING ON THE TANKS: Tiananmen Square’s famous ‘Tank Man’

Vaclav Havel – Czech playwright, much-jailed dissident, and later his country’s president –wrote a landmark essay, in the depths of the Cold War, on the‘power of the powerless’.He talked of the importance of ‘living in truth’ in order to create remarkable change. For his apparent optimism inthe possibilities of change, Havel was, as he put it later, mocked as a ‘Czech Don Quixote, tilting at unassailable windmills’.

That kind of scepticism isparforthe course. When hardliners staged a coup in the dyingdays of the Soviet Union inAugust 1991, tens of thousands ofRussians went out on the streets to protest. One leading British commentator arguedthat the protests were a ‘cabaret’, because: ‘The indignation of the people on the streets counts for nothing.’ The coup collapsed, because of protesters’ courage, on the same day that his contemptuous column was published.

When Egyptians talked about the possibilities of a peaceful ending to the Mubarak regime, they, too, were dismissed (in this case, by the US ambassador to Egypt) as‘highly unrealistic’. One eloquent retort to that argument came from a young Egyptian woman, AsmaaMahfouz, who, in a powerful short video in January 2011, argued: ‘Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, “You are the reason for this.”’In other words: if you stay at home, he will remain in power. Millions watched the video; millions went out on the streets; after18 days, Mubarak fell.

Even with bitter hindsight, it is still worth remembering the courage of Aung San SuuKyi, who repeatedly dared to speak truth to the military junta in Myanmar,even when she was punished for doing so. When I interviewed her in Yangon in 1998, she showeddignityand courage, and insisted that change would eventually come. But even during the ‘saffron revolution’ of 2007, there were arguments that the protests would achieve nothing. And yet, those protests helped trigger a process which led to the release ofSuuKyiherself. (As with Egypt, the bad news of today in no way takes away from the power of what was previously achieved.)

When it comes to the power of non-violent protest, Mahatma Gandhi provides a kind of shorthand for the impact of non-violence. Even his achievementsare sometimes attributed to the supposedly‘tolerant’ approach of the British rulers. That wasn’t a tolerance that many would recognise. Two weeks after Gandhi’s famous salt-tax protest in 1930, 200 protesters were killed in Peshawar, on British orders. (Some Indian soldiers who refused to shoot at unarmed protesters were court-martialled for their impertinent humanity.)

Non-violence has again and again proved remarkably effective in achieving lasting change

The protesters wanted the release from jail of Gandhi’s close friend and Muslim comrade in non-violent arms, Badshah Khan.As Khan pointed out, in words that remain relevant today: ‘The British feared a non-violent Pathan more than a violent one. All the horrors the British perpetrated on the Pathans had only one purpose: to provoke them to violence.’

Khan has repeatedly been proved right: non-violent protestis in many ways harder for well-armed rulers to deal with.In the Philippines, nuns knelt down to block the tanks during the mass protests of 1986,a key element in the eventual downfall of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos declared: ‘I have all the power in my hands to eliminate this rebellion… I am not bluffing… Let the blood fall on you.’Andthen, shortly afterwards, he and his wife Imelda clambered into a helicopter and fled.

In the east European revolutions just three years later, which I covered as a journalist, I was privileged to witness moments when the courage of non-violent protesters forced violent rulers to back down, in almost unbelievable circumstances. In Leipzig on 9 October 1989, for example, the authorities publicly threatened a Tiananmen-style crackdown. Hospitals were cleared, a massacre was prepared.

In the end, however, many more people, not fewer, came out that day. The authorities, with all their guns, backed off at the last moment. That evening, when almost nothing happened – 50,000 people went out in the expectation of being beaten or shot, walked peacefully, and went home again – was one of the most memorable in my life. Exactly a month later, as a direct result of Leipzig, theBerlin Wallcamedown.

PROTEST & IMPACT: Steve Crawshaw’s book
PROTEST & IMPACT: Steve Crawshaw’s book

There is of course the obvious counter-argument:  what about Tiananmen Square itself, when courageous non-violence ended in such terrible bloodshed?None the less, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan show in their compelling study Why Civil Resistance Works, statistics over the past 100 years show non-violence has again and again proved remarkably effective in achieving lasting change.

Even on Tiananmen Square, the jury is arguably still out.Twenty-eight years on, the subject remains taboo, reminding us how frightened the authorities still are of any discussion of it. A few years ago, digital mischief-makers highlighted the famous Tank Man image, by inserting three yellow ducks into the image, thus simultaneously erasing and highlighting the familiar tanks.Theyellow-ducks-and-man-with-shopping-bag image went viral. Beijing promptly banned searches for ‘yellow duck’. But itallservedasa reminderthatthesubject,thoughbanned,isnot forgotten.As one commentatornoted, ‘Chinese netizens 1, Chinese censors 0.’

Those who defy Beijing today take great risks – as thefate of the courageous Liu Xiaobo, and the continued persecution of his widow, Liu Xia, vividly remind us. But Liu Xiaobo will be remembered – and none of us knows how much impact his courage may have, in the years to come.

Even during the ‘saffron revolution’ of 2007, there were arguments that the protests would achieve nothing

Meanwhile, itis remarkableto see the confidence with which those who, while taking no risks of their own,feel able to pronounce on those who take risks elsewhere.Thus, Charles Powell, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, proclaimed duringtheumbrella protests in HongKongin 2013that the protests were pointless. ‘It’s a pity there is perhaps this small black cloud there, but that’s life,’he told the protesters, but they took no heed.

Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, two of the umbrella protest leaders, now play key roles in the new opposition groupDemosisto. They are back in jail – which, on the face of it, might seem to prove Lord Powell’s argument of ‘pointlessness’. But those who have been jailed see it differently. As Wong pointed out, on his way to jail (again): ‘You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds.’

The Chinese artist Ai Weiweihas also spent time behind bars, for the crime of speaking truth to power. As he wrote in the foreword of my book on the themes of protest and impact: ‘When a totalitarian society faces creative protests, it is like ice meeting fire… The question is not whether changes will happen or not. Change can happen at any time, anywhere. It is happening now.’Or, to quote Havel again: ‘It is up to all of us to try – and those that say individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.’

Steve Crawshaw, a senior advocacy adviser with Amnesty International, is the author of Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief, foreword by Ai Weiwei

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