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Tracing the Tactics of 21st-Century Youth Protest

Using nonviolence, humor, and pop culture savviness, a group of Serbian university students sparked a revolution and provided a blueprint for global youth movements.

by Emma Garland; illustrated by Kitron Neuschatz, and Lia Kantrowitz
Oct 29 2018, 3:30pm

Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz & Lia Kantrowitz

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

The future of 21st-century political youth movements was shaped by a barrel and a baseball bat. In 1998, the Serbian parliament passed the University Act—a law that undermined the autonomy of universities and replaced academic staff with Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević’s own allies. The move was part of a broader effort to stomp out dissent and free expression in Serbia. In response, a handful of students at the University of Belgrade founded the civic protest group Otpor (translation: Resistance!) on two strategies: grassroots opposition and mockery. One of their most infamous pranks riffed on the government’s “Dinar for Sowing” campaign, which set up collection boxes in public places to raise funds for farmers. For their own “Dinar for Retirement” campaign, Otpor painted Milošević’s face on an oil barrel and left it in the middle of Belgrade’s largest shopping district. A sign offered passersby the opportunity to insert a coin in exchange for the privilege of whacking the barrel with a bat, which they’d left conveniently next to it.

The students sat in a nearby cafe and watched as shoppers queued up to express their feelings toward the president, leaving the authorities in an impossible position. To do nothing would look weak, but to intervene and drag the barrel away would look ridiculous. The next day, opposition TV broadcast photographs of the police “arresting” the barrel and loading it into a van, and Otpor became a household name. What started as a tiny civic protest snowballed into a 70,000-strong popular movement in the space of just two years, and the group’s strategic use of nonviolence, humor, and pop culture savviness led the fight against Milošević, who lost the 2000 election he called prematurely, eventually earning himself a one-way ticket to The Hague.

Taking inspiration from a combination of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Gene Sharp (the father of strategic nonviolence), and the liberation movements of 1989, Otpor overhauled the image of political activism to appeal to Generation X’s young and disaffected. Turning away from violence, they aimed instead for a revolution of the mind. In place of weapons, they fought with logos, slogans, and street theater. They used laughter to make resistance enjoyable, corporate-marketing tactics (a bold logo, a memorable slogan) to make it attractive, and technology to disseminate information and organize. Simply put: They made it fun. They disrupted the status quo to stay one step ahead of a regime desperate to maintain it through force—and they won.

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Otpor had a ripple effect not just through neighboring countries in the former Soviet Union at the time, but through the spirit of anti-authoritarian activism pretty much everywhere. They provided a blueprint for youth movements in their wake to adopt or adapt, which is exactly what’s been happening over the past two decades, with varying degrees of success.

After receiving training from the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS)—a nonprofit NGO established by the founding Otpor members Srđa Popović and Slobodan Đinović with the aim of transferring their knowledge to other pro-democracy activists—the civic youth resistance movement Kmara (Enough!) helped bring about a peaceful change of power in Georgia in 2003, while Pora (It’s Time!) coordinated young people’s opposition to authoritarian rule in Ukraine in 2004–2005. CANVAS’ training and methodology also helped usher in regime change in Lebanon in 2005 and the Maldives in 2008. Their manual—“Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points”—was downloaded 17,000 times in Iran during the presidential election protests of 2009. A year and a half before the Arab Spring uprising began, a group of young Egyptian bloggers and activists called the April 6 Youth Movement attended a CANVAS training session in Belgrade, and would become integral to the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011. In homage, Otpor’s strong and easily replicated logo—a stylized clenched fist lampooning the WWII Serb Partisans’ symbol—has become the go-to logo for resistance, raised high from Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square.

The majority of people attending CANVAS training sessions, Popović tells me, are young. “Young people very often spearhead social changes for several reasons,” he says. “When you’re in your 20s you think you have the right to a bright future—as I did when I was an activist at that age. Young people have more time to invest into social change because outside of studying they don’t have the economic or time constraints of careers, kids, or family. They’re also braver because they don’t have a lot to lose. It’s very easy to blackmail someone whose family depends on their salary, but it’s very difficult to blackmail someone by just saying ‘I’ll expel you from studies,’ because they’ll just say ‘I don’t give a shit, I believe in this too strongly.’”

"Otpor had a ripple effect not just through neighboring countries in the former Soviet Union at the time, but through the spirit of anti-authoritarian activism pretty much everywhere. They provided a blueprint for youth movements in their wake to adopt or adapt, which is exactly what’s been happening over the past two decades, with varying degrees of success."

Though their ends may be different, the origins and means of youth movements are often similar. In his 2007 book, The Time of the Rebels, Matthew Collin defines the democratic revolutions of the late 90s and early 00s as “a tiny faction of disaffected students which grew into a subversive network spanning the entire country.” Despite these modest beginnings, the success of any revolution relies on numbers. “To really have a successful movement you need young people,” Bryan Farrell, a journalist, activist, and the editor of the website Waging Nonviolence, says. “You need their energy to make it a fun, enjoyable experience. You need to make your campaign the place to be, essentially.” What Otpor did, and other youth groups have done since, is innovate to wrangle them in.

Since they didn’t have the numbers initially, Otpor steered clear of traditional forms of opposition like marches and rallies out of necessity, opting instead to attract people to their revolution by making it cool. “Our product is a lifestyle,” founding member Ivan Marovic´explained to Foreign Policy in 2011. “The movement isn’t about the issues. It’s about my identity. We’re trying to make politics sexy.”

So, for Otpor, witty logos, slogans, and dilemma actions were more than just methods of protest, they were branding strategies—designed to bring large numbers of people into a movement in order to make more traditional action like strikes and boycotts more effective.

“A nonviolent movement, especially now, needs to know how to brand itself and how to make itself popular. It’s not all about the content of the political campaigns anymore but about how they present themselves to the public,” says the author Janjira Sombatpoonsiri. For her PhD research on nonviolent resistance movements, Sombatpoonsiri investigates why young people in particular were attracted to Otpor’s brand of activism. “They joined the movement because they didn’t have a job and they thought that Milošević was the cause of all troubles in their lives,” she explains. “And although they did have a very clear idea about what kind of change they wanted to bring about, back then they also joined the movement because it was fun.”

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Social media has massively reinvented the way youth movements operate, with hashtag campaigns making dissent easy to access and impossible to ignore. The April 6 Youth Movement began as a Facebook group encouraging support for a workers’ strike; supporters of Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement in mainland China were able to swerve around web censorship by posting images instead of words; and platforms like Twitter mean demonstrators are able to take control of their own narratives and broadcast them internationally even if regional media is subject to corruption or blackouts. Social media enables a movement to grow significantly and quickly, but it also needs a tangible direction. This could partly explain the recent rise in occupations.

Over the past decade, Otpor’s tactics, which were street theater and pranks (pop-up actions, almost) to disrupt the social hegemony and galvanize people, have shaped modern social movements, for whom holding physical space has become central to nonviolent resistance. Whether it’s Occupy settling on a location in New York City that represents injustice, Tahrir Square becoming the focal point of the Arab Spring, or the occupation of districts and schools that brought Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days, youth movements increasingly hinge on the taking and holding of space. It’s a natural outgrowth of Otpor’s strategy of forcing moral questions into the public, making the simple question “Which side are you on?” impossible to ignore.

“A nonviolent movement, especially now, needs to know how to brand itself and how to make itself popular. It’s not all about the content of the political campaigns anymore but about how they present themselves to the public,” says the author Janjira Sombatpoonsiri.

Historical research has shown that campaigns of nonviolent resistance are more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts. In their 2012 book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan studied campaigns between 1900 and 2006 and found that nonviolence leads to higher levels of participation because “the barriers to participation are lower.” This leads to enhanced resilience and a greater chance of achieving a more stable democracy in the long run. They also found that no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained involvement of just 3.5 percent of the population, but those that did surpass the 3.5 percent threshold were all nonviolent. Using Otpor’s model to gain that support, then, is a guaranteed route to success. “When campaigns are able to prepare, train, and remain resilient, they often succeed regardless of whether the government uses violence against them,” Chenoweth writes.

Many nonviolent resistance actions in recent years have been unsuccessful because the protests weren’t significant enough (as with Belarus’ Denim Revolution in 2006) or their central organization fell apart (as with the Arab Spring). The April 6 Youth Movement splintered into two groups, both of which were banned in Egypt in 2014 following accusations of espionage and defamation of the state. The government held fast through Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution and the protests didn’t dent the economy in the way they’d hoped, and the students who led them were jailed until democracy activists won an appeal to have their sentences overturned in February 2018. The student-led protests at Maidan Square in Ukraine in 2013 against government corruption under president Viktor Yanukovych began much in the spirit of the successful 2004–2005 revolution—with music, speakers, and performance art. But, despite beginning as the largest peaceful protests since Pora’s previous efforts almost a decade prior, the Euromaidan Revolution, as it became known, turned incredibly violent. Government snipers, police officers, and mercenary agents killed more than 100 protesters and injured thousands more. There was indeed an overhaul in parliament after Yanukovych fled the country, but some positions of power were given to members of far right parties—not exactly the change demonstrators had in mind.

Nonviolent tactics can be applied to reactionary movements, too. In Moscow, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (“our guys”) was set up to counter Pora’s influence in Ukraine, although they mostly did community work in exchange for the promise of a future career in leadership. Arguably the most definitive political movement of this generation is the “alt-right,” whose use of disruption, tech-savviness, and branding (think: Pepe, the flag of “Kekistan,” calling everyone they disagree with a cuck) isn’t that dissimilar to how any of the aforementioned left-leaning groups started either. But, while there may be some tactical overlap, the alt-right’s organizing is ultimately geared toward the intimation of and physical manifestation of violence.

“The thing is, [the nonviolent model] is an open-source book,” Popović tells me. “And you can use it for any goal that isn’t too extreme. If your goal is extreme then the nonviolent model of mobilizing numbers toward the mainstream doesn’t really work, but if your idea can be sold to the middle of the political battlefield then unfortunately even the people you disagree with can use this model.”

But this is mainly an issue affecting democratic societies, as we’ve seen play out across Europe and the United States over the past decade. “In democracy you have options and referendums,” Popović continues. “In autocracies it’s the government exercising control and misusing the pillars of the state to stay in power. Suppressing people, controlling media, preventing opposition from running in elections—it’s a different game.”

Youth groups tend to be short-lived, but their influence lasts a lifetime. The most recent example of potential sustainable change was spearheaded by a politician. On April 13, people took to the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan to protest Serzh Sargsyan becoming prime minister after serving two terms as president (just as the government’s structure had shifted to give the prime minister more power than the president). The opposition leader, Nikol Pashinyan, called for a 14-day march from the municipal community of Gyumri to Yerevan’s Liberty Square, and when the demonstrators reached the capital thousands more were there to greet them, united under the slogan “Reject Serzh.” The protest movement snowballed into a nationwide campaign of civil resistance, with citizens going on labor strike, blocking roads, and shutting down public transport. Those who were unable to leave their homes mobilized in other ways, like banging pots and pans together between 11 and 11:15 every night.

“In democracy you have options and referendums,” Popović continues. “In autocracies it’s the government exercising control and misusing the pillars of the state to stay in power. Suppressing people, controlling media, preventing opposition from running in elections—it’s a different game.”

Designed to disrupt basic services and provoke an over-the-top response, the peaceful campaign has its roots in the Otpor school of thought. This time, although students played their typically large role, the original impetus came from an opposition party. It was a rallying cry against corruption—something Popović calls a “bread-and-butter nonpolitical issue.” If somebody from the government is misusing taxpayers’ money, the majority of people feel more personally about it than they would about fighting for a less tangible issue like democracy or human rights. Still, it was coordinated nonviolent action with a clear goal. The movement captured the spirit of the nation and accomplished what several former Soviet Union states have done in the past: the peaceful removal of a long-sitting leader. On the eleventh day of the protests, Sargsyan resigned. What the movement hasn’t been able to do yet, however, is bring about real systemic change. As is the case with Egypt and Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring, they may have removed the head of the Hydra, but the beast isn’t dead.

In 2018, a time when political divisions have never been greater or more apparent, effecting change rests just as heavily on youth involvement as ever. Whether it’s high school students in Florida organizing the Never Again movement to advocate for gun control in the wake of the Parkland shooting, or the indigenous-youth-driven protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, nonviolent civil resistance—in the US, at least—feels deeply personal and visibly young right now. But Popović says it’s important to understand that this new generation isn’t standing alone.

“When Otpor was created, the first branch after the student branch and the high school branch was the so-called ‘resistance mothers,’” Popović tells me. “These are the mothers of the activists, who were supporting events, standing in front of the police and baking cakes—all that kind of stuff. Student protesters have never brought political change alone, not even in [the protests of] 1968. To have a successful movement you need diversity. You need to build across the constituencies. Your goals, your objectives, and your tactics should be ones that take the movement from the minority into the larger majority—from the extreme into the mainstream.”

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