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Learning & teaching

Courage, skills and mashed potatoes

Authors: Michael Sommer Published:

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Protesting is a key part of democratic culture and a strong civil society. Successful protesting often requires learning a variety of different tactics.

The images and stories are omnipresent: of Iranian women courageously fighting for their rights and for freedom, of people trying to protest in Russia against the war in Ukraine, but also of young people demonstrating for climate action at Fridays for Future.

Non-violent protesting and demonstrating are one way to resist unjust policies, human right violations and other societal defects. They are also an important part of civil society and democratic culture.

But is protesting a skill to be learned?

The competence to protest encompasses many factors, from personality traits to the use of certain methods such as social media.

Whether what is learned ultimately leads to success is an open question, according to Dr Moritz Sommer, protest researcher and sought-after expert in the German media from the Institut für Protest- und Bewegungsforschung (Institute for Protest and Movement Research).

In the current climate movements for example, Dr Sommer has noticed two dominant approaches. Fridays for Future (FFF) tries to mobilise the masses and forge strategic alliances with large demonstrations such as the Global Days of Action.

“This broad approach aims to rally social majorities for climate protection. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, FFF has also been carrying out actions with a stronger programmatic goal such as speeches at shareholder meetings, or most recently a press conference with the demand for 100 billion umbrellas to protect against climate change,” he says.

Diverse strategies for climate protection

Other groups in the climate movement such as Extinction Rebellion or Last Generation consider the focus on demonstrations to be less effective. After all, too little has been done on climate protection since the emergence of FFF.

Actions of civil disobedience, such as occupying bridges or motorways, or mashed potato attacks on works of art, are aimed less at social majorities than at media attention and pressure on the responsible politicians, Dr Sommer explains.

Moritz Sommer

Photo credit: Instituts für Protest- und Bewegungsforschung e.V.

Dr. Moritz Sommer is a staff member of the Institute for Protest and Movement Research e.V. Berlin and co-editor of the Research Journal Social Movements (FJSB). He was a visiting scholar at the European Institute of Columbia University in New York. His work has appeared in national and international journals such as the Journal of Common Market Studies (JCMS), the Journal of Civil Society and the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie.

“While such actions do indeed regularly make it onto the news, the actual content of the protest often falls by the wayside. In contrast, FFF managed to raise the issue of climate protection on the political and social agenda in 2019.”

Overall, however, he believes that a diverse strategy is needed. Gaining media attention, winning social majorities and thus keeping up the pressure on politicians all matter.

How do I spark a revolution?

The Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies CANVAS  in Serbia is an example of how non-violent protest can be taught systematically.

The institute was founded in 2005 after the successful democratic change in Serbia and the fall of Slobodan Milošević.

CANVAS’s expertise is in strategic organising and non-violent civil resistance. The Belgrade-based institute has topics on its agenda that are hard to find elsewhere: “Identifying and overcoming fear” or “Targeted communication: message development” to really get a movement rolling.

According to Programme Director Breza Race and Executive Director Srdja Popovic, the organisation has recently updated its modules by providing more knowledge on digital security, mobilising through social media, explaining the role of non-violent movements during a coup, devising new ways to fundraise, and explaining how to deal with media and propaganda.

All these new modules have been in greater demand in last few years, especially since the pandemic started.

Towards building coalitions

Since its founding in 2005, CANVAS has worked with groups from over 60 countries.

“The credit for exercising amazing strategies and tactics and for achieving progress in human rights and democracy always goes to the local/national group – we never claim it. We are very proud to see some of the tools that we share with activists applied across the globe,” says Srdja Popovic.

CANVAS responds to the initiatives of aspiring groups, mostly human rights, pro-democracy and recently plenty of environmental groups and movements. They do thorough background checks to avoid extremists of all kinds before deciding to work with any of these groups.

Srdja Popovic

Photo credit: CANVAS

Srdja Popovic is the co-founder of CANVAS, and was a founding member of the Otpor! (“Resistance!”) a movement that had a crucial part in bringing down the Milosevic regime in Serbia. He has a wealth of experience working with activist groups, NGO’s and students, teaching nonviolent methods to achieve a positive social change. Srdja’s educational work extends to teaching courses on nonviolent strategy at University institutions in the U.S. and the U.K, and authoring many publications on the topic of nonviolence including the book “Blueprint for Revolution”.

“Also, the CANVAS toolbox, specifically its strategy-based tools like ‘vision of tomorrow’ and ‘spectrum of allies’, actually point participants towards working together, building coalitions and expanding towards the centre of the political and social spectrum, so they wouldn’t really fit with extremist groups of any kind,” Breza Race says.

One of the new things that CANVAS is currently working on is the CANVAS Summer Academy. It is a programme that explores activism and non-violent movements in modern times, incorporating perspectives from various movements around the world.

In 2024, CANVAS Summer Academy will be organised as a hybrid event for the first time to bring together a whole spectrum of activists, experts, donors, organisations, university professors and researchers to share their experience and knowledge regarding strategic organisation and non-violent action in a rapidly changing world.

Resistance can also take silent forms

Right now, many hope to see more civil disobedience and strategic protesting, particularly in Russia.
Although the Russian Government has done tremendous work in preventing and suppressing any kind of pro-democracy activism, it seems that discontent and protests are on the rise, Popovic and Race argue.

One famous example of activism against the war has been the Russian journalist who managed to interrupt a TV programme with an anti-war sign. Others have drawn attention to the absurdity of the brutal crackdown on any mention of word ‘war’. Replacing price tags at a supermarket with messages opposing the war is also an example of “silent” resistance.

Breza Race

Photo credit: CANVAS

Breza Race manages all the programs at CANVAS and organises activities ranging from fundraising to program development. Through her years of work with pro-democracy activists, Breza has used nonviolent creative activism to achieve positive change in society.

“We have yet to see a larger reaction to the recent and supposedly very unpopular mobilisation in Russia. As in many oppressive regimes, mass non-cooperation tactics and specially the tactics of dispersion such as strikes, boycotts or physical branding tend to work better than mass concentration tactics such as marches and rallies, which are easily suppressed by the police,” says Breza.

Will these creative tactics force Putin to give up his aggression? Probably not.

“But could they damage his “special military operation’s” apparent popularity and the authority he exercises over his citizens? Our experience and research show that there is a decent chance for both.”

Further reading:

Srdja Popovic, Andrej Milivojevic, Slobodan Djinovic: Nonviolent struggle. 50 crucial points: A strategic approach to everyday tactics. Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), Belgrade 2007. Free download.

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Michael Sommer (PhD) is an ELM magazine editorial board member. He was the editor of the German magazine "Erwachsenenbildung" (until 2021) and works as a project developer for the Akademie Klausenhof. Email: sommer(at) Show all articles by Michael Sommer
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