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October 27, 2010

What does the end of North-South mean for the development sector?

October 27, 2010

Book Review: Small Acts of Resistance

October 27, 2010
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small acts coverWriting a blog is a mixed blessing when it comes to freebies. You get sent some real turkeys in the shape of papers and books to review. But every now and then an unexpected treat drops into your pigeon hole. One such is ‘Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World’, by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. It’s an unashamed paean to activism, bringing together 80 examples from across geography and the last 100 years.

There’s a passing attempt to cluster these (e.g. sport, the law, women, digital), but not much in the way of analysis – this is definitely a dip-into-for-fun-and-inspiration feelgood book, rather than a serious piece of political science. There is no discussion of why some protests succeed and some fail, the importance of coalitions with progressives or reformists in positions of power, the impact of shocks, or the differences between movements aiming to overthrow repressive regimes and those seeking reforms within the given system. And there are some very overblown claims for the actual impact of these ‘small acts’ that should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

My favourites? The Solidarity activists in Communist Poland who, to demonstrate publicly both that they didn’t believe the state TV news and were boycotting it, took their disconnected sets out for a walk in baby buggies (strollers); one of the acts covered is even the one that gave rise to the word ‘boycott’ – the unfortunate Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, a much-disliked land agent in British-ruled Ireland whose name became a byword for protest when his servants walked out on him, in protest against unjust rents and evictions. Local shopkeepers joined in, refusing to serve the captain and his family; the post office stopped delivering mail, and in the end the Captain eventually gave up and returned to England.

Then there are the Peruvians who protested against the Fujimori regime by washing the national flag in public every Friday in the centre of Lima. And the Turkish dissidents who clogged and eventually defeated the courts by getting hundreds of people to sign up as co-authors to dissident texts. But my favourite is another story from Poland– the Solidarity activists who dumbfounded the authorities by organizing ironic demonstrations in support of the regime, demanding an eight hour day for secret police and showering police cars with flowers. The government could hardly jail them, and the Polish public loved it.

Some common themes jump out in these more modern, urban versions of what James C Scott famously termed the ‘weapons of the weak’. Humour and irony usually baffle dictators; using repressive regime’s rhetoric and symbols against them often confounds the bad guys (I remember how the Argentine junta, with all its rhetoric about the sacredness of the family, did not know how to deal with the Mothers of the Disappeared – how could they jail mothers?). Protesting en masse, without identifiable leaders, can bring safety (the protesters banging pots and pans at night in Latin America’s cacerolazo protests are invisible and untouchable).

Targeting the most absurd aspects of a repressive regime – as when Gandhi marched to the ocean and made salt, a practice banned by the British, can be particularly effective. Bad guys seldom have a grasp of youth culture – under Slobodan Milosevic one Serbian radio station fought back against a media crackdown by broadcasting rock music with lyrics that implicitly criticised the regime (the Clash’s ‘White Riot’; Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’)

But often, cleverness is not enough – plenty of the small acts described in the book involve straightforward courage – people taking huge personal risks to ‘speak truth to power’.

Looking for a Christmas present for an activist friend? This might be the answer. Check out the book website for photos, videos etc, plus you can add your own stories of small acts. And here are the authors hyping their book in a short promo video:  Small Acts of Resistance Final.


  1. My small-town favourite was a woman in Iringa, Tanzania, who bared her buttocks (the ultimate insult) at council staff who had come to uproot her crops as part of a crackdown on urban agriculture (c.2003). This and subsequent acts of bare-faced resistance were soon the talk of the town, and officials beat a hasty retreat…

    Duncan: I shall definitely try this during my next disagreement within Oxfam…….

  2. Alas, the Women of Zimbabwe Arise, (WOZA) don’t have the same luck with their peaceful protests, for schools, and medical care. They are jailed.

    Somehow I don’t think Mugabe & Co. have much of a sense of humour. I have ordered the book, and will buy it as soon as it arrives in Canada.

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