How to "make oppression backfire" by peacefully leveraging the brutality of the oppressors.
Venezuela’s protests are gaining in numbers and momentum. What began in early February as a few localized protests on remote progressive student campuses has now spread to Venezuela’s capital, uniting citizens of all political stripes who are fed up with the country’s soaring crime rate, mounting inflation, and rampant shortages. The regime has responded to the protests with steadily increasing brutality, but, paradoxically, this only seems to have encouraged more people to join the ranks of protestors. The murder of Genesis Carmona, a beauty queen who was among the demonstrators, has sent more people into the streets. As a result, what began as a small, elite-driven student protest has turned into the country’s most significant unrest in a decade. The protesters have created a public uproar over the regime’s brutal antics, and in so doing, have made oppression backfire. (In the photo above, a protester returns a tear gas canister back to the Venezuelan riot police.)
Venezuela is not alone. Contemporary people-power movements in countries as diverse as Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine have exhibited a surprising ability to withstand and capitalize on oppression by using their opponents’ outsized power and growing brutality to their own advantage. They have shown us that governments cannot get away with violence without risking the loss of key public support.
The reason for this is simple: While oppression may appear to be a display of the government’s power, skilled activists know that it’s actually a sign of weakness. Indeed, when a regime resorts to violence, forcible arrests, or repressive legislation, it is, in fact, giving citizens an opportunity to make that oppression backfire. In this sense, making oppression backfire is a skill, a kind of political martial art. Gene Sharp, the leading theoretician of nonviolent resistance, refers to it as "political jiu-jitsu," in which activists use a regime’s strengths against it.
There are many examples from around the world that attest to this. Take Ukraine. When Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests began last November, they were small and localized. It was only after Ukraine’s special police units, armed with stun grenades and tear gas, tried to quash the budding protests, that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets.
Then there’s Egypt. In 2010, the death of Khaled Saeed — a young Egyptian man from Alexandria, who died in police custody — gave rise to the massive protests that brought down Mubarak. In the Salt March of 1930, Ghandi successfully capitalized on the British police’s brutal mistreatment of Indian nonviolent protestors to draw the world’s attention to the injustices of colonial rule and mobilize popular support for independence. And who could forget the Green Movement in Iran, where public outrage was sparked by the last breaths of Iranian young woman Neda Agha Soltan, a protestor shot in the heart by a Basij militia member. Captured on video and posted on YouTube, this brutal act of violence was later described as "the most widely witnessed death in human history."
The ubiquity of these examples suggests that the key to making oppression backfire is less elusive than one might think. Decades of research and dozens of nonviolent struggles suggest that in taking on oppression, a movement is best positioned when it adopts a strategic approach. And while that approach must always be carefully designed for the specific context in question, there is also evidence that the skills needed to implement that approach are transferable — with patience, expertise, and hard work, they can be passed from activist to activist, across communities, countries, and even continents. In a word, making oppression backfire is a skill, and skills can be learned and mastered.
Take the training that went on during the American Civil rights movement. In the 1960s, activist and Pastor James Lawson taught dozens of youth activists how to occupy lunch counters in the segregated malls of Nashville. During his workshops, participants role-played scenarios they might face when confronting police and practiced their responses to name-calling, harassment, and abuse. By preparing psychologically and emotionally beforehand, Lawson’s pupils were braced for oppression and even violence. This enabled them to succeed in maintaining unity, strategy, and nonviolent discipline in the face of state-sponsored brutality — even as that brutality increased. Ultimately, they were able to use the viciousness deployed against them to advance their calls for freedom.
Numerous others have picked up where Lawson left off. In his famous handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp offers nonviolent activists insight into some of the basic skill sets and tools needed to fight repression. At the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), we’ve tried to teach these techniques to thousands of activists around the world. What we’ve learned is that the key to honing these skills involves developing a three-fold strategy based on: preparing for oppression, facing oppression, and finally, capitalizing on oppression. In the center’s latest publication, Making Oppression Backfire, CANVAS offers techniques, tactics, methods, and examples that nonviolent activists can use to organize their campaigns to take on oppression.
The first step recommended by this "oppression jiu-jitsu for dummies" manual is to prepare for oppression. Just as in military training programs, nonviolent activists need to be prepared for the physical and psychological challenges they are likely to face on the battlefield. As the earlier example of Jim Lawson demonstrates, preparation can help activists manage their fear. When they know what to expect, they are better able to handle the pressure that arises as violence grows, and can make sound decisions that benefit their long-term goals.
Once that oppression occurs, it’s vital that activists confront it — not by mimicking oppressive acts, but by publicizing them. In February, Andreina Nash, a 21-year-old student from Venezuela currently residing in Florida, made a six-minute mashup of videos and images obtained via Instagram documenting the current violence against student protesters in Venezuela. The video, "What’s Going On in Venezuela in a Nutshell," attracted close to three million views on YouTube and brought global attention to the plight of Venezuela’s protesters.
Her work exemplifies classic "Making Oppression Backfire" tactics. Nash names and shames the police, commemorates martyrs, captures the message, engages viewers to share it further, and opens the door for future action. Indeed, the most successful movements are those that understand the value of public perception and the benefits that can be had from publicizing repressive measures. In its training programs, CANVAS advises activists to act quickly to draw attention to acts of repression by the regime. In cases of illegal detention, for example, we advise activists to document those arrests in any way they can. Activists should also be prepared to issue press releases immediately following repressive acts, as well as to launch protests at local police stations where activists are held.
Finally, a movement should be ready to capitalize on oppression. Following a repressive act, it’s vital that activists keep the public aware of what has happened and take sustained measures to ensure that they don’t forget. Circulating pictures, leaflets, and using social media are good ways to keep the memory of oppression present. One clever way to achieve this is to turn members of the movement who have faced particular scrutiny by a regime into martyrs. As we’ve seen across the Middle East and more recently in Ukraine — where Dmytro Bulatov’s tortured image has become the symbol of state repression — giving oppression a face is absolutely critical if activists hope to mobilize people to the streets.
Of course, these are just some of the lessons being learned in places like Ukraine that are undergoing societal change. It’s important to remember that activism requires constant vigilance, and even the most seemingly clear-cut victories can prove ephemeral. Just look at Egypt. Three years ago, groups like the April 6th Movement helped shepherd what many hoped would be a democratic Egypt. Today, the April 6th Movement’s founders — Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Maher — are behind bars, serving three-year sentences for the "crime" of organizing public protests. Still, even from their prison cells, Maher and Adel are mounting the call of resistance, denouncing their miserable prison conditions and the harsh laws imposed by Egypt’s new leadership — including a recent op-ed by Maher in the Washington Post. Even now they’re working to make oppression backfire.
Read and download "Making Oppression Backfire" here.