Four stories from Small Acts of Resistance from Poland, Burma, Uruguay and the UK.
High-Fidelity Fast Food
Police in a one-party state have a more or less simple task. If people criticize the government, they are either harassed or arrested. The system is clear-cut and well understood by arresters and arrested alike.
Things get more complicated when citizens become implausibly loyal.
In Poland in the 1980s, after the banning of the independent Solidarity movement, there were countless demonstrations against the Communist regime. Then there was the Orange Alternative—which demonstrated in support of Communism, carrying banners demanding an eight-hour workday for the secret police and showering police cars with flowers.
Everybody knew that such spontaneous support was unthinkable, and understood the pro-Communist sentiment as an unkind joke. It was, however, embarrassing for the regime to admit that aloud.
A “pro-Communist” demonstration on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1987 began with the rousing call, “It is time to break the passivity of the popular masses!” All demonstrators were asked to wear something Communist red: red shoes, red scarf, or at least red lipstick. Those who had nothing red to wear queued up for ketchup-smeared pizza sticks from a nearby fast-food stall, later holding the color-coded food aloft. The police closed the stall down and a customer who asked for ketchup only, never mind the pizza stick, was arrested.
The Orange Alternative also mocked the regime by addressing people’s basic needs. At a 1988 event called “Who’s Afraid of Toilet Paper?” single sheets of toilet paper (which, like so much else, was unavailable in Polish shops at that time) were distributed free to passersby, thus mocking the official shortages. Another event involved the free distribution of sanitary napkins (also unavailable in stores) on International Women’s Day. Again, arrests were made.
That same year, the government finally agreed to talks with Solidarity. Those talks led to contested elections, which had previously seemed unthinkable. Solidarity’s victory in the elections of June 1989 was so overwhelming that the Communists were forced to hand over power. In August, Poland gained the first popularly elected prime minister in the Soviet bloc.
Three months later, not least as a consequence of the defeat of Communism in Poland, the Berlin Wall fell. Illegal ketchup and free toilet paper had each played a part.
Of Dogs and Dictators
In September 2007, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the lawlessness of the military regime in Burma (officially known as Myanmar). The protests were triggered by a sudden sharp increase in the cost of fuel, but quickly broadened to calls for basic rights and freedoms. The military beat, arrested, and killed protesters. According to the UN, at least thirty-one people died. It became too dangerous to venture onto the streets, which were patrolled by the military. But the imaginative Burmese found a way around that problem: In Rangoon and other cities, they promoted the legions of stray urban dogs to the ranks of protesters.
Dogs are regarded as lowly creatures in Burmese culture. Being reborn as a dog suggests that you were up to no good in a previous life. To hurl a hefty insult in Burmese, throw the word dog or dog’s mother in somewhere, and you won’t go wrong.
Perhaps in an attempt to improve their chances in the next life, stray dogs began to be seen roaming around Rangoon with pictures of the military leader, Than Shwe, and images of other senior leaders tied around their necks.
Throughout the city and to the delight of its residents, troops were seen chasing the protesting mutts down, in a vain attempt to rescue the generals’ irretrievably low esteem. The Irrawaddy, published in neighboring Thailand, quoted a resident as saying with approval: “They seem quite good at avoiding arrest.”
The Great One-Liner
The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 was intolerant in the extreme. Hundreds of thousands fled into exile. Political opponents were jailed. Torture was the order of the day. On occasion, even concerts of classical music were seen as subversive threats. A performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand was canceled because the title sounded leftishly dangerous. Meanwhile, however, a remarkable small protest took place at soccer games throughout the twelve long years of military rule.
Whenever the band struck up the national anthem before major games, thousands of Uruguayans in the stadium joined in unenthusiastically. This stubborn failure to sing loudly was rebellion enough. But, from the generals’ point of view, there was worse to come. At one point, the anthem declares, Tiranos temblad!—“May tyrants tremble!” Those words served as the cue for the crowds in the stadium suddenly to bellow in unison: “Tiranos temblad!” as they waved their flags. After that brief, excited roar, they continued to mumble their way through to the end of the long anthem.
The authorities could not arrest everyone in the stadium. Nor could they cancel games or drop the singing of the national anthem. The junta toyed with the idea of removing the tiranos temblad! line from public performances of the anthem, but that proved too embarrassing. Why, after all, would the generals remove words from a beloved nineteenth-century hymn, unless they believed that they might be the tyrants in question? Today, the national anthem can be sung at Uruguayan soccer games in full and without fear. Leaders of the junta have been jailed for the crimes committed during their years in power. The former tyrants tremble.
Which Side Are You On?
In Oxford and other British university cities, an unusual set of graffiti appeared above pairs of Barclays Bank cash dispensers in 1984. Above one ATM was spray-painted the word Blacks. Above the other: Whites Only. The graffiti changed nothing, of course, in terms of who could use which cash machine. Customers were free to whichever ATM they preferred. Black customers could line up at the Whites Only machine if they wished to. Whites could take cash from the Blacks machine. The black-and-white labeling left people faintly unsettled, however. And unsettled was all that was needed. The graffiti made many of those lining up at the black-vs.-white machines feel uncomfortable about Barclays’ well-publicized involvement in the South African system of apartheid, where signs proclaiming Net Blankes—Whites Only—were at that time the order of the day. Fewer graduates applied to work at Barclays, so as not to be tainted by the black-white division that the bank seemed to represent. Barclays’ once lucrative share of UK student accounts plummeted from 27 percent to 15 percent of the market. In 1986, the banking giant admitted defeat at the hands of the graffiti sprayers and their allies. The Barclays pullout became one of the most high-profile and punishing acts of divestment suffered by the South African regime.
Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for life because of his rejection of the government’s racist policies, was released after twenty-seven years in 1990. Democratic elections were held in 1994. The Barclays graffiti were scrubbed away. Barclays returned to South Africa in 2005.