Blueprint for Revolution: Laugh Your Way to Victory
How to win new activists over to your cause and throw dictators off-balance
I want you to take a moment and play one of my favorite games. It’s called “Pretend Police.” It’s fun. Here goes. Pretend you’re the police in Ankara, Turkey. A few days ago, security guards in one of the busiest subway stations in town spotted a couple making out on the platform. Strict Muslims, the guards were bugged by such immodest behavior in public, so they did the only thing they could really do, which was get on the subway’s PA system and ask all passengers to behave themselves and stop kissing each other. Because everyone in Ankara has smartphones, this little incident was leaked to the press within minutes; by the afternoon, politicians opposed to the ruling Islamist-based party realized that they had gold on their hands and started encouraging their supporters to stage huge demonstrations to protest this silly anti-smooching bias. This is where you come in. On Saturday, the day of the demonstration, you show up in uniform, baton at hand, ready to keep the peace. Walking into the subway station, you see more than a hundred young men and women chanting anti-government slogans and provoking your colleagues. Someone shoves someone. Someone loses their cool. Soon it’s a full-blown riot.
If you’re seriously playing along, it’s probably not hard to figure out what to do. You’re a police officer, and you’ve probably spent a whole week at the academy training for situations just like this. It’s what police all over the world do. You move in, you get in formation, you put on your riot gear, and you start to thump your baton on your shield to intimidate the crowd. You probably don’t feel too bad about it, either; you’re only doing your job. Besides, you’re just protecting yourself and your fellow cops from flying stones or whatever else the people decide to throw your way. You move in. It takes you an hour, maybe two, before thirty or forty of the protestors are in jail, ten or twenty are in the hospital, and the rest have run away. You return to the precinct house, drink a coffee with your buddies, and go to bed feeling content with a day’s work.
That was easy. Now, let’s play again.
It’s Saturday morning. You arrive at the subway station. There are more than a hundred people there, protesting against the censorious announcement from the day before. But they’re not saying anything against the government. They’re not shouting or chanting. They’re kissing each other loudly, making these gross slurpy sounds nobody likes, drooling and giggling. There are almost no signs to be seen, but the ones you do notice have little pink hearts on them and read “Kiss me” or “Free hugs.” The women are in short-sleeved, low-cut blouses. The men have their button-downs on. No one seems to notice you — they’re too busy holding each other’s heads as they suck face.
What do you do now? Go ahead and game it out if you’d like, but let me save you the trouble. The answer is that there’s nothing you can do. It’s not only that the amorous demonstrators aren’t breaking any laws; it’s also their attitude that makes a world of difference. If you’re a cop, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to deal with people who are violent. But nothing in your training prepares you for dealing with people who are funny.
This is the genius of laughtivism. I know, the name is stupid; my friends who are native English-speakers tell me so all the time. But the principle is solid, and like many things, I stumbled upon it completely by mistake.
It was early on in our efforts to take down Milošević, and like all novice activists, we had a moment of reckoning. Looking around the room at one of our meetings, we realized that we were kids, and rather than focus on what we had going for us, we began obsessing about everything we didn’t have. We didn’t have an army. We didn’t have a lot of money. We had no access to media, which was virtually all state-run. The dictator, we realized, had both a vision and the means to make it come true; his means involved instilling fear. We had a much better vision, but, we thought on that grim evening, no way of turning it into a reality.
It was then that we came up with the smiling barrel.
The idea was really very simple. As we chatted, someone kept talking about how Milošević only won because he made people afraid, and someone else said that the only thing that could trump fear was laughter. It was one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. As Monty Python skits have always been up there right with Tolkien for me, I knew very well that humor doesn’t just make you chuckle — it makes you think. We started telling jokes. Within the hour, it seemed to us entirely possible that all we really needed to bring down the regime were a few healthy laughs. And we were eager to start laughing.
We retrieved an old and battered barrel from a nearby construction site and delivered it to our movement’s “official” designer — my best friend, Duda, designer of the Otpor! clenched-fist symbol — and asked him to draw a realistic portrait of the fearsome leader’s face. Duda was delighted to comply. When we came back a day or two later, we had ourselves Milošević-on-a-barrel, grinning an evil grin, his forehead marked by the barrel’s numerous rust spots. It was a face so comical that even a two-year-old would have found it amusing. But we weren’t done. We asked Duda to paint a big, pretty sign that read “Smash his face for just a dinar.” That was about two cents at the time, so it was a pretty good deal. Then we took the sign, the barrel, and a baseball bat to Knez Mihailova Street, the main pedestrian boulevard in Belgrade. Right off Republic Square, Knez Mihailova Street is always filled with shoppers and strollers, as this is where everyone comes to check out the latest fashions and meet their friends for drinks in the afternoons. We placed the inanimate objects smack in the middle of the street — right at the center of all the action — and hastily retreated to a nearby coffee shop, the Russian Emperor.
The first few passersby who noticed the barrel and the sign seemed confused, unsure what to make of the brazen display of dissidence right there in the open. The following ten people who checked it out were more relaxed; some even smiled, and one went as far as picking up the bat and holding it for a few moments before putting it down and quickly walking away. Then, the moment we’d been waiting for: a young man, just a few years younger than us, laughed out loud, searched his pockets, took out a dinar, plopped it into a hole on top of the barrel, picked up the bat, and with a gigantic swing smashed Milošević’s face. You could hear the solid thud reverberate five blocks in each direction. He must have realized that with the few remaining independent radio and newspapers of Belgrade criticizing the government all the time, one dent in a barrel wasn’t going to land him a prison sentence. To him, the risk of action was acceptably low. And once he took his first crack at Milošević’s face, others started to realize that they too could get away with it. It was something between peer pressure and a mob mentality. Soon curious bystanders lined up for a turn at bat and took their own swings. People started to stare, then to point, then to laugh. Before long some parents were encouraging their children who were too small for the bat to kick the barrel instead with their tiny legs. Everybody was having fun, and the sound of this barrel being smashed was echoing all the way down to Kalemegdan Park. It didn’t take long for dinars to pour into the barrel and for poor Duda’s artistic masterpiece — the stern and serious mug of Mr.√ — to get beaten into unrecognizability by an enthusiastic and cheerful crowd.
As this was happening, my friends and I were sitting outside at the café, sipping double espressos, smoking Marlboros, and cracking up. It was fun to see all these people blowing off steam with our barrel. But the best part, we knew, still lay ahead.
It came when the police arrived. It took ten or fifteen minutes. A patrol car stopped nearby and two pudgy policemen stepped out and surveyed the scene. This is when I came up with my beloved “Pretend Police” game. I played it for the first time at the café that day. The police’s first instinct, I knew, would be to arrest people. Ordinarily, of course, they’d arrest the demonstration’s organizers, but we were nowhere to be found. That left the officers with only two choices. They could arrest the people lining up to smack the barrel — including waiters from nearby cafés, really good-looking girls holding shopping bags, and a bunch of parents with children — or they could just arrest the barrel itself. If they went for the people, they would cause an outrage, as there’s hardly a law on the books prohibiting violence against rusty metal cylinders, and mass arrests of innocent bystanders is the surest way for a regime to radicalize even its previously pacified citizens. Which left only one viable choice: arrest the barrel. Within minutes of their arrival, the two rotund officers shooed away the onlookers, positioned themselves on either side of the filthy thing, and hauled it off in their squad car. Another friend of ours, a photographer from a small students’ newspaper, was on hand to shoot this spectacle. The next day, we made sure to disseminate his photographs far and wide. Our stunt ended up on the cover of two opposition newspapers, the type of publicity that you literally couldn’t buy. That picture was truly worth a thousand words: it told anyone who so much as glimpsed at it that Milošević’s feared police really only consisted of a bunch of comically inept dweebs.
I like this barrel story. It’s usually one of the first that our CANVAS trainers Sandra, Sinisa, or Rasko share with aspiring activists. And without fail, every time people hear about it they say more or less what my Egyptian friends did when we walked with them through Republic Square: “It’ll never work back where I’m from.” I have two things to say in response. The first is to quote Mark Twain (you can’t argue with Mark Twain!), who said, “The human race has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter… Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” The second is to remind my new friends that while humor varies from country to country, the need to laugh is universal. I’ve noticed this as I’ve traveled to meet with activists around the world. People from Western Sahara or Papua New Guinea might not agree with me on what exactly makes something funny—for more on this, see the French obsession with Jerry Lewis or check out any German “comedy”—but everyone agrees that funny trumps fearsome anytime. Good activists, like good stand-up comedians, just need to practice a few acquired skills.
The first is to know your audience. I heard a funny story once about a comedian—I forget his name, so my apologies to whoever it was—who was paying his dues by working the club circuit. He was a funny but clueless guy who could put together a punch line but couldn’t read social cues too well. One night the hapless jokester took the stage and started riffing about his girlfriend’s cat. The animal, he said, was a bastard; he knew just when things were getting hot and heavy in the bedroom, and then jumped on the bed and refused to move, meowing and ruining the moment. Then the comic launched into a tirade about how he’d love to kill that cat, describing all the ways—most of which were outlandish and cartoonish—in which he dreamed of robbing the feline of all nine of its lives. It was a great bit, fast-moving and punchy, but no one was laughing. The comic said goodnight and walked off the stage. A few people booed. Only later in the evening did he learn that the evening’s performance was a benefit for a local animal shelter.
Had he done his homework, he could have tailored his jokes to the audience’s sensibilities and walked home a winner. That’s just what the Poles did, and often, in the days of Solidarity. In the 1980s, Solidarity was the labor movement that led the fight against Polish Communism. And its activists knew that their audience, the Communist officials who ruled the country, didn’t tolerate outright dissent. It wasn’t like Belgrade, where the culture of an independent media and a grudging acceptance of opposition voices allowed shoppers to feel comfortable smashing a barrel with Milošević’s face on it. In Communist Poland, the activists’ gambits needed to be not only funny but also subtle.
And so it was that on a very cold February evening in 1982, the people of Świdnik, a small town in eastern Poland, took their television sets for a walk.
This legendary bit of protest began when a few activists in town grew tired of turning on their TVs every evening at seven-thirty and watching smiley announcers with fancy haircuts reading government-approved scripts that were ridiculously rosy and full of lies. They decided to protest by not watching the news. Soon enough, it occurred to them that simply not watching the news wouldn’t do: if all you did was turn off the set and sit around in the dark, nobody would ever know. For the boycott to work, it had to be public, but also subtle enough to avoid a police crackdown.
Like comics trying out new material, they improvised. At first, they made a point of unplugging their sets and placing them on their windowsills every evening at 7:30. It was a good first step, public and visible and sending a clear message. But it wasn’t funny at all, and therefore it was uninspiring. This is where the wheelbarrows came into the picture. Someone procured a bunch of them and encouraged a group of friends to take their sets down to the street, load them onto the wheelbarrow, and stroll around leisurely. Before too long, anyone walking the streets of Świdnik at dusk could see friends and neighbors ambling and laughing, pushing along their TVs as if they were baby carriages, using the half-hour previously spent listening to the official newscast to greet one another, gossip, and share in the thrill of standing up to the regime together.
It was a great gag, and the practice soon spread to other Polish towns. Flabbergasted, the government weighed its options. It couldn’t arrest anyone; there was no law specifying that Polish citizens were prohibited from placing their television sets in wheelbarrows and walking them around. All it could do was move up its curfew from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., forcing everyone indoors. This, they were certain, would stop the shenanigans.
It didn’t. Like any budding comedian who gets a taste of the audience’s applause and is hooked for life, the Polish resistance wanted to move on to bigger and flashier displays. It was getting more and more difficult, though, with the Communists now on the lookout for any sign of civil disobedience. By 1987, with the showdown with the dictatorship growing more and more inevitable, they decided to stage their biggest joke yet. They would take to the streets, en masse, to display their absolute and manic love of Communism.
In October, as the government celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Solidarity announced that it would stage its own commemorative rally. Adopting the bombastic language of Communism, it printed brochures calling on the people to “break the passivity of the popular masses.” Come to the square, it ordered the faithful, and wear red.
Soon the streets were filled with red shoes and red scarves, red ties and red lipsticks, red shirts and red coats. Seeing so many people they knew dressed up like extras in a bad Soviet propaganda film made Poles laugh. The authorities, on the other hand, weren’t amused. It was obvious that the red-clad marchers were mocking the regime’s ideology, but how could the Communists break up a rally in support of Communism? The police positioned themselves on the sidelines, waiting for any excuse to act. Finally, when a few people who didn’t have anything red to wear asked a nearby food stall for a breadstick smeared with ketchup to wave around, the police pounced, shutting down the stall and arresting one of its customers. It was the best they could do. By 1989, the opposition succeeded in instituting semi-free elections. And by 1990, it was in power.
It wasn’t only knowing their audience that helped the Poles use humor effectively. It was also that other tenet of good comedy: timing is everything. Using the occasion of International Women’s Day one year, for example, groups of activists positioned themselves in central spots all over Poland distributing free sanitary napkins to passersby. It was a clever way to use the calendar to stage a piece of theater that reminded people that basic supplies, sanitary napkins among them, were nearly impossible to get in the shortage-stricken and disastrously run Polish marketplace.
Iranian nonviolent activists, too, have a great knack for timing. Soccer in Iran is second only to Islam in sanctity. It is beloved by everyone and stands just a notch above nuclear armament on the national priority scale. So when Iran played South Korea for a spot at the 2014 World Cup, you could count on everyone’s full and undivided attention.
Fatma Iktasari and Shabnam Kazimi knew this when they dressed up for the decisive match one afternoon in 2012. Even though it was hot outside, they put on blue jeans, long black jackets, and wool caps. It was the only way into the stadium: by long-standing custom, women aren’t allowed to attend soccer games in Iran. There, in one of the most religiously conservative societies in the world, it’s just another restriction placed on women. The mullahs, of course, say that this “protective” measure exists to prevent the country’s ladies from hearing the sort of foul language that’s thrown around during sporting events, the type of chant that might corrupt the purity of the delicate feminine soul. But Iktasari and Kazimi weren’t afraid of learning new dirty words. With generic costumes concealing their gender, the two women walked right past the guards and hoped to see their beloved national team beat its opponent and secure a berth in soccer’s most prestigious global tournament. But once the game was underway they quickly ditched their disguises. It was clear to all who were watching that there were real live women inside the stadium, watching the match. In between cheering and chanting, Iktasari and Kazimi also took a few photos of themselves in the stands, which they knew would be big hits on all the social media networks.
Had the same feat been attempted on any other day, it’s likely that it would have gotten a bit of attention and then been forgotten. But with soccer and the victory and the World Cup on everybody’s minds, the two women’s dress-up stunt quickly became something much larger than it actually was. First, it presented the Iranian authorities with what we at CANVAS call a dilemma situation. It’s lose-lose for the police all around. They could arrest the women, which would make them look foolish to a worldwide sporting audience of millions — and, what’s worse, perhaps risk some sanction or disqualification from the World Cup tournament — or they could just grin and play nice, let the women sit there to enjoy the game, and give similar ideas to the other thirty-five million women in Iran who are stifling under oppressive laws.
The soccer sit-in became a symbol and, like all symbols, a vessel for anyone to read anything into it. In the popular imagination, Iktasari and Kazimi weren’t just activists protesting an oppressive and discriminatory law many Iranians despised; they symbolized hope itself, the promise of one day living in a country where all citizens, regardless of their gender, could go to a soccer match freely and happily. One Iranian blogger even expressed this desire in the form of really bad poetry: “Heroes,” he wrote, dedicating his words to the two daring women, “warriors, dream one day of a workshop with the kids in the ‘freedom’ gym.” The word choice was poor, but the meaning was clear: the comical costumed stunt had gone over very well. By exploiting this dilemma situation, the Iranian activists pushed one of the most feared security apparatuses in the world into a lose-lose scenario.
You may doubt that this approach is applicable to political comedy. After all, if they are to succeed, activists must convey meanings and deliver messages, not just pull off a pratfall or a sight gag. But there is a reason humor is such a popular tool in the modern activist’s arsenal: it works. For one thing, it breaks fear and builds confidence. It also adds the necessary cool factor, which helps movements attract new members. Finally, humor can incite clumsy reactions from your opponent. The best humorous actions — or laughtivism — force autocrats and their security pillars into lose-lose scenarios, undermining the credibility of their regimes or institutions no matter how they manage to respond. Politicians, whether they are democratically elected or harsh dictators, usually share an inflated sense of self-importance. After too long in power, and after seeing their own Photoshopped face too many times in newspapers and on the covers of magazines, they start taking themselves too seriously. It’s as if they start believing their own propaganda. This is why they make stupid mistakes when challenged with laughtivism. The high and mighty can’t take a joke.
From the book BLUEPRINT FOR REVOLUTION by Srdja Popovic and Matthew Miller. Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Miller and Srdja Popovic. Reprinted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.