He’s been called “the secret architect of global revolution” (by the Guardian) and a “nonviolent storm trooper” (in the pages of our magazine). Now, after two decades traveling the world training pro-democracy activists in more than 50 countries, Serbian revolutionary Srdja Popovic finds himself in the United States, where he’s teaching strategic nonviolent struggle to students at Colorado College. Upon arriving here not long before the election, Popovic was struck by the deluge of headlines questioning whether the upcoming presidential race would be free and fair, which he found eerie but unsurprising.
“Some people get haunted by ex-lovers, or scary movies, or ghosts,” he told me shortly before the election, in an edifying and hilarious video chat. “What haunts me is the spirit of the disputed election.”
Popovic first tasted the “narcotic collectivism” of movement-building while studying ecology in Belgrade. When Serbia’s autocratic President Slobodan Milošević refused to recognize opposition victories in local elections in 1996, Popovic and other activists founded Otpor! (Resistance!), which organized mass demonstrations and strikes until Milošević recognized the election results three months later; he later resigned from the presidency following another disputed election in 2000. Four years later, Popovic founded the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), based in Belgrade, which seeks to undermine autocrats worldwide by distributing handbooks to activists and consulting with movements fighting regimes from Ukraine and Myanmar to Venezuela and the Maldives.
As the United States endures what, at least for now, feels like a failing slow-motion coup, Popovic—also an instructor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and rector of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews—explains how activists can not only ensure that Trump leaves office, but sustain the popular movements for racial justice, gun control, and climate action that will continue into the Biden years.
Delilah Friedler: What did you learn from Serbia’s disputed elections in the 1990s?
Srdja Popovic: Movements witness exponential growth when things stop being political and start being personal. I vote Republican, you vote Democrat—that’s politics. Government steals my vote—that’s personal. That’s like stealing my wallet. This is where the people who don’t traditionally participate in politics come in. Serbia is a country of 6 million people, and we had 70,000 people mobilized before the elections. Then it grew into a half million, because people felt somebody stole something from them.
You need organizations that can net that mobilization. This is a large problem with movements across the globe, and in the United States. You often misunderstand that successful movements are the happily married couple of mobilization and organization. In the case of the gun control movement, you have these peaks of mobilization when, unfortunately, innocent people get killed. But you need to recruit the people who are out then, put them into some kind of organization and give them tasks, so next time, when there is a window of opportunity—when there is a law passing your local legislature, or another school shooting—you use this increased organization in order to have bigger-scale results. Mobilization is like the sea, it comes in waves. Your organization needs to be there to build on this.
What’s different about an election being disputed by someone like Trump, who’s supposedly a democratic figure, as opposed to the more authoritarian figures we see in other countries?
You don’t want to look at the politicians or the people in power. You want to examine the status of the pillars. What’s happening in the US is incomparable with the situations like in Serbia, Georgia, and elsewhere, because you guys, at least in my view, have strong democratic institutions: the way your elections are conducted; the way your media operates. It’s very difficult to expect that that we would witness some kind of major election fraud in the United States. But when you have disputed elections, there are five main things you want to focus on.
First, if you think elections will be disputed, you need to win, and win big. The bigger the win, the larger the landslide, the more refutable is the claim that the elections are stolen. This is what worked in Belarus: huge participation, large turnout, a lot of new voters and young voters. That gives gravitas to the results that is very difficult to dispute.
Second thing, have a comprehensive plan for putting pressure on pillar after pillar. In Serbia, demonstrations were held across the country, but it was the general strike that was more important. Labor unions were involved, citizens were blocking the streets, every Serbian version of a 7-Eleven was closed with a sticker that said “closed because of the fraud.” You couldn’t buy cigarettes, you couldn’t buy gas, you couldn’t buy anything. Milošević called the army and police with orders to intervene and they refused, because they knew their kids were in the crowd.
Number three, to sustain the struggle, you need nonviolent discipline. Put your strong points against your opponent’s weak points. If you need to defeat Mike Tyson, is the boxing ring the battlefield you would pick? No, because your life expectancy in a ring with Mike Tyson is probably 37 seconds. Depends how fast you can run. But if you pick Scrabble, or chess, or a puzzle, you may win. Having violence involved in a situation where your opponent, the state, has more weapons and a legal monopoly over violence—that’s entering the ring with Mike Tyson.
Then you need to sustain this struggle. Election defense tends to be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s taken six weeks in Georgia, three months in Serbia, three months in the Ukrainian winter. This is not something that could be resolved if enough people show on the street for one day; it’s always going to be back and forth. I doubt this scenario is ever possible in the US, but as Ronald Reagan—not my favorite American president—once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Theoretically, a disputed election can happen anywhere.
Finally, you need to maintain your democracy. I have to remind my American friends that democracy is like a marriage. You didn’t win by getting married; you need to make love every day, buy flowers for your wife. It’s not, “We have a constitution, so we’ll have democracy forever.” You need to nurture this thing. The fewer people participate in the process, the more you get unorganized, and when the wrong guy comes into power, next thing you know, you live in a dictatorship like Turkey
Having worked in dozens of countries, what have you seen that makes movements successful?
You need to have a vision and unity. Know what you want, not only what you don’t want, and have a clear answer to the question: If we win, what will be different? Movements never win by mobilizing only like-minded people; movements win because they are capable of building diversity, figuring out who potential allies are and finding the smallest common denominator between them. Often that means building weird coalitions with people you wouldn’t normally have a coffee with. Look at the Polish Solidarity Movement, which ended domination of the Soviet Union in Poland. It was the urban intelligentsia, blue collar workers led by Lech Wałęsa, and the Roman Catholic Church—very unlikely allies, but they found a way to work together.
When you see millions of people in the streets, it may appear spontaneous, but the truth is there are only two types of nonviolent movements: they’re either spontaneous or successful. And either the mobilization wanes, or it turns into chaos.
That’s why we talk about nonviolent discipline. You win by numbers, and the less a movement is likely to get involved in violence, the more people will participate. If a protest is going to have rock bands and church singing, I will bring my two kids and wife. If, however, I think they will burn down a Wendy’s, I may still come, but I’m not bringing my kids. The first time they burn a police car, I won’t come. By turning to violence, you lose four out of four from our household. What you want is to be bringing people to your side.
The way movements grow, whether you like it or not, is from the extreme to the mainstream. That’s how you win in football—and I mean the real football, not this game in the US where people wear armor and push each other—you win by controlling the middle ground, and that’s the way you win in social change. People were tying themselves to the fences of nuclear power plants in 60s, but the movement became effective when it reached the point of building institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency. To get into the mainstream, your largest vehicles are staying nonviolent so you don’t disrupt people from joining, and finding what speaks to lots of people without being exclusive.
You are going to have people in your movements who are angry, and people that you’ve never seen ready to act. You need the organization to tell them what to do, otherwise, there will be more Wendy’s. Poor Wendy’s. My kids love Wendy’s.
How have you seen these kinds of strategies play out in the United States?
When people think of Rosa Parks, they see a heroic Black woman who decided not to follow the rules of segregation. The story people don’t ask themselves is, Why Montgomery? Why not New York? Why buses, not planes? Because this was strategic thinking. If you were a Black civil rights organizer in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the most segregated, awful places to be a Black person, what would you do? You get angry, go in front of the City Hall, you march. Then the police or the white folks come and beat you up. City Hall ignores you, because they are elected by the very people who love segregation.
So turn your gaze somewhere you have power: public transportation. The majority of people riding public transportation in the South were African Americans, so this is where they have leverage, the power to deny the companies their money until the buses get desegregated, using tactics that are very difficult to suppress. How can you make me use the bus?
The kids from Parkland fighting for gun control, they think strategically. They figured out that the people who can bring gun control legislation don’t give a damn about them. They care more about the money they’re getting from the NRA. Now we see the enemy. They put pressure on airlines and car rental companies to stop giving discounts to NRA members, and that helps us get to where we are now with the NRA being weaker than before. The kids try to get background checks at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart, chains where people buy guns. The stores start listening, because they don’t care about politics, they care about customers. This is where people have leverage. Improvements haven’t come from the legislative pillar, they’re coming from the pillar of business.
You go after these victories, you win, you proclaim the victory, you empower people, you give them a boost to go off to next victory. The road to success is paved with small victories, and determining what we call the “order of battle” is really important. What do you attack first? Which institutions do you engage first? And I love the word “engage”—because it’s not always attack.
But the Parkland movement hasn’t done much to curtail gun violence in our country. The civil rights struggle still continues. Why do you think US movements aren’t having more success?
In democracies, people are often content with how they are living—it’s not bad enough to get engaged. People are too busy distracted with football or Wendy’s. They’re comfortable, they think the problem is something happening to somebody else, which is why I needed to quote Reagan.
But it’s not that it’s not working. Some of the most important achievements of the modern world have happened in the US. The environmental movement was sparked by people here, the anti-racial movement starts here. You now have the Indian minority in Burma using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. There would never be Nelson Mandela if there wasn’t Martin Luther King. We would never have our gay prime minister in Serbia if it wasn’t for Harvey Milk.
People are looking at environmental movement and saying, “America has left the Paris Climate accord. We are back to fossil fuels. The EPA is run by a political climate activist denier.” But the thing is, every single Friday, students of high schools everywhere in the world are marching for climate. These people will vote in four years. Sometimes it doesn’t work tomorrow, but it will work. Despite all odds, my kids will live in the world where majority of the energy will be renewable. For these global challenges of race and environment, it takes time. It’s a marathon. You’re not losing just because you’re on the second or third kilometer, you need to keep running, and keep the pace.
You say the pillars of US democracy are strong, but under Trump, we’ve seen a rise in dangerous misinformation from unreliable sources. How can we rebuild the integrity of our media?
Conspiracy theories like QAnon and such—they’re not just attacking the other side, they’re destroying the middle. Autocrats do this in other countries: to socially disenfranchise your opponent, you want to hurt their capability to recruit neutrals. So the opponent needs to be pedophiles, terrorists, drug dealers, the stooge of the foreign power; whatever will prevent people from speaking with you. This is done with intention, whether through blunt tools like state TV attacks, or with more subtle tools like this mysterious QAnon that doesn’t really need to say who you need to support. It’s more subtle, and it can be more brutal. It’s an assault on truth.
You defend your movement by holding on to values, building up your own narrative that sticks to the science, and not getting engaged in relativization of the facts—but also not taking yourself too seriously, potentially mocking the other side. I read this amazing piece on how K-pop groups are actually the largest threat to QAnon, which sells its conspiracy theories under mainstream hashtags. I couldn’t recognize a K-pop star if he was driving my car, but with their huge internet firepower, the fans are using these hashtags to post K-pop songs and water down the number of conspiracy stories. Young, clever people respond to bullshit with wit, and that builds civil resistance. By watching and engaging in satire, you’re building your common sense immunity, getting the fake news vaccine.
In other words, non-traditional attacks need non-traditional responses.
Everything is non-traditional. We are living in a time where my six-year-old downloads five games on my phone between me going to the café and coming back. I didn’t know how to turn the radio when I was six. So this is a very non-traditional world, and we need to accommodate.