Teacher David Benson, center back row, of The Colorado Springs School, introduces his students to Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, center, middle row.
Teacher David Benson, center back row, of The Colorado Springs School, introduces his students to Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, center, middle row.
Teacher David Benson, center back row, of The Colorado Springs School, introduces his students to Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, center, middle row.
Teacher David Benson, center back row, of The Colorado Springs School, introduces his students to Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, center, middle row.

Srdja Popović helped launch the revolution that eventually overthrew the regime of former Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milošević. Colorado Springs residents can borrow from the Serbians’ successful tactics of the late 1990s to encourage city leaders here to fill potholes.

Popović, 42, spoke to the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council last week about nonviolent revolution. He is in Colorado Springs as a visiting scholar at Colorado College.

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in the mid ’70s, Popović helped launch the Otpor! (in English, Resistance!) movement in 1998, starting as a civic protest group that eventually culminated in Milošević’s overthrow. He is now executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, an organization he founded to promote nonviolent resistance  (canvasopedia.org).

With Matthew Miller, Popović co-wrote Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

In his talk, Popović vacillated between serious and humorous examples of nonviolent resistance, using potholes as an analogy to overthrowing a murderous dictator.

In Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “When you get a crazy nationalist in power, you have two different options — to fight or to flee. We lost 200,000 people to the brain drain in the ’90s,” Popović said. “Starting this struggle, we did not know what we were doing. It took us eight years to learn how to deal with Milošević. He is sending troops to Kosovo and to Croatia and to Bosnia.

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“The guy started and lost five wars in less than five years. That’s tremendous success,” he said to laughter.

To lead nonviolent protest, “think big, but start small,” he advised. His group started with graffiti, pranks and petitions, “but you don’t see this on CNN. You see the one big end-game protest.

“One of the things we teach here is that there are two types of nonviolent revolutions. They are either spontaneous or they are successful.”

Over time, the small protests grew because organizers built a joint vision of the country. People will likely join a cause if it targets job or educational opportunities, “or simple potholes is something you can gather people around.”

Milošević had stolen the elections, and monitoring elections is tough, he said.

“What they don’t show you on CNN is how complicated it is to train 30,000 people to take care of the ballot boxes where everybody would love to corrupt you,” he said.

Following the overthrow of Milošević, Popović and others started receiving invitations from “really weird places like Belarus, Zimbabwe, asking us how to do nonviolent revolutions. It feels really weird and very patriotic,” he said.

In the past 15 years, CANVAS has worked with more than 40 countries, with some success and some difficulties, primarily maintaining the stable transition to democracy in the stages that follow revolution.

Gandhi, MLK

“When you work with risk-takers and problem makers, it’s the best job on the planet,” Popović said. “They keep you awake. They keep you energized. They keep you motivated and they keep you ashamed, because a lot of them are taking much bigger risks than we did.”

He brought to light a woman in Saudi Arabia who not only took driving lessons, but posted it on YouTube. Women are not allowed to drive in that country.

“She got 30,000 [views] and then the regime became really upset,” Popović said.

Popović said he likes to ask American students about the size of their nonviolent-struggle DVD collections, movies about Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Harvey Milk.

“Your nonviolent-struggle DVD collection is one inch wide?” he said he asks his students. “You look at this and understand how little we know about this phenomenon and how important it was in shaping our world.

“It was the Gandhi struggle that began the end of the colonialism as we know it. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who changed the world in terms that it’s highly politically incorrect to judge a person by the color of his skin.

“It was Lech Walesa, a simple hobbit from a shipyard in Gdansk who made a movement to kick out 1 million Soviet troops [from Poland]. The man without college hurt the Soviet Union far more than five American presidents in a row. It was him kicking 1 million Soviet troops from there.”

The rules, humor

Revolutionaries cannot win without unity, he said.

“It took us seven years to persuade 19 opposition parties that they actually hate Milošević more than they hate each other, which was a complicated thing, especially in Serbia, where we say, ‘Two Serbs. Three soccer clubs. Three political parties,’” Popović said.

Humor can play an important part in revolution, he said.

For example, in the early days of the Milošević opposition, Popović and pals bought a barrel, painted Milošević’s picture on it and allowed people to contribute a coin for the privilege of hitting the president’s face on the barrel.

The “funny part,” though, was not the line that formed of people wanting to donate money to the revolutionary cause, but instead, after the police arrived.

“If you were a policeman, what would you do? Arrest us? We [instigators] were nowhere to be seen, having espressos three blocks away and cheering the situation. Arrest downtown shoppers? And accuse them with what? Because you are hitting the barrel with picture of Mr. President?

“And of course, they did the most stupid thing — they arrested the barrel,” Popović said to chuckles. “So the picture of the two policemen dragging the barrel into the police station ended up on the cover page of the Serbian newspaper.

But seriously, “we are talking about the guy who single-handedly slaughtered 4,000 people in Srebrenica.

“The power of humor not only degrades the fear and adds a cool factor to your movement, it also makes your opponent do stupid mistakes.

“Social movements are shaping the world. Whether we admit it or not, we need to understand how this process [goes] in order to help the good guys and dismantle the bad guys.”