Democracy Lab

The Secret of Political Jiu-Jitsu

How to "make oppression backfire" by peacefully leveraging the brutality of the oppressors.

Venezuela's protests are gaining in numbers and momentum. What began in early February as a few localized protests on remote progressive student campuses has now spread to Venezuela's capital, uniting citizens of all political stripes who are fed up with the country's soaring crime rate, mounting inflation, and rampant shortages. The regime has responded to the protests with steadily increasing brutality, but, paradoxically, this only seems to have encouraged more people to join the ranks of protestors. The murder of Genesis Carmona, a beauty queen who was among the demonstrators, has sent more people into the streets. As a result, what began as a small, elite-driven student protest has turned into the country's most significant unrest in a decade. The protesters have created a public uproar over the regime's brutal antics, and in so doing, have made oppression backfire. (In the photo above, a protester returns a tear gas canister back to the Venezuelan riot police.)

Venezuela is not alone. Contemporary people-power movements in countries as diverse as Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine have exhibited a surprising ability to withstand and capitalize on oppression by using their opponents' outsized power and growing brutality to their own advantage. They have shown us that governments cannot get away with violence without risking the loss of key public support.

The reason for this is simple: While oppression may appear to be a display of the government's power, skilled activists know that it's actually a sign of weakness. Indeed, when a regime resorts to violence, forcible arrests, or repressive legislation, it is, in fact, giving citizens an opportunity to make that oppression backfire. In this sense, making oppression backfire is a skill, a kind of political martial art. Gene Sharp, the leading theoretician of nonviolent resistance, refers to it as "political jiu-jitsu," in which activists use a regime's strengths against it.

There are many examples from around the world that attest to this. Take Ukraine. When Ukraine's Euromaidan protests began last November, they were small and localized. It was only after Ukraine's special police units, armed with stun grenades and tear gas, tried to quash the budding protests, that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets.

Then there's Egypt. In 2010, the death of Khaled Saeed -- a young Egyptian man from Alexandria, who died in police custody -- gave rise to the massive protests that brought down Mubarak. In the Salt March of 1930, Ghandi successfully capitalized on the British police's brutal mistreatment of Indian nonviolent protestors to draw the world's attention to the injustices of colonial rule and mobilize popular support for independence. And who could forget the Green Movement in Iran, where public outrage was sparked by the last breaths of Iranian young woman Neda Agha Soltan, a protestor shot in the heart by a Basij militia member. Captured on video and posted on YouTube, this brutal act of violence was later described as "the most widely witnessed death in human history."

The ubiquity of these examples suggests that the key to making oppression backfire is less elusive than one might think. Decades of research and dozens of nonviolent struggles suggest that in taking on oppression, a movement is best positioned when it adopts a strategic approach. And while that approach must always be carefully designed for the specific context in question, there is also evidence that the skills needed to implement that approach are transferable -- with patience, expertise, and hard work, they can be passed from activist to activist, across communities, countries, and even continents. In a word, making oppression backfire is a skill, and skills can be learned and mastered.

Take the training that went on during the American Civil rights movement. In the 1960s, activist and Pastor James Lawson taught dozens of youth activists how to occupy lunch counters in the segregated malls of Nashville. During his workshops, participants role-played scenarios they might face when confronting police and practiced their responses to name-calling, harassment, and abuse. By preparing psychologically and emotionally beforehand, Lawson's pupils were braced for oppression and even violence. This enabled them to succeed in maintaining unity, strategy, and nonviolent discipline in the face of state-sponsored brutality -- even as that brutality increased. Ultimately, they were able to use the viciousness deployed against them to advance their calls for freedom.

Numerous others have picked up where Lawson left off. In his famous handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp offers nonviolent activists insight into some of the basic skill sets and tools needed to fight repression. At the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), we've tried to teach these techniques to thousands of activists around the world. What we've learned is that the key to honing these skills involves developing a three-fold strategy based on: preparing for oppression, facing oppression, and finally, capitalizing on oppression. In the center's latest publication, Making Oppression Backfire, CANVAS offers techniques, tactics, methods, and examples that nonviolent activists can use to organize their campaigns to take on oppression.

The first step recommended by this "oppression jiu-jitsu for dummies" manual is to prepare for oppression. Just as in military training programs, nonviolent activists need to be prepared for the physical and psychological challenges they are likely to face on the battlefield. As the earlier example of Jim Lawson demonstrates, preparation can help activists manage their fear. When they know what to expect, they are better able to handle the pressure that arises as violence grows, and can make sound decisions that benefit their long-term goals.

Once that oppression occurs, it's vital that activists confront it -- not by mimicking oppressive acts, but by publicizing them. In February, Andreina Nash, a 21-year-old student from Venezuela currently residing in Florida, made a six-minute mashup of videos and images obtained via Instagram documenting the current violence against student protesters in Venezuela. The video, "What's Going On in Venezuela in a Nutshell," attracted close to three million views on YouTube and brought global attention to the plight of Venezuela's protesters.

Her work exemplifies classic "Making Oppression Backfire" tactics. Nash names and shames the police, commemorates martyrs, captures the message, engages viewers to share it further, and opens the door for future action. Indeed, the most successful movements are those that understand the value of public perception and the benefits that can be had from publicizing repressive measures. In its training programs, CANVAS advises activists to act quickly to draw attention to acts of repression by the regime. In cases of illegal detention, for example, we advise activists to document those arrests in any way they can. Activists should also be prepared to issue press releases immediately following repressive acts, as well as to launch protests at local police stations where activists are held.  

Finally, a movement should be ready to capitalize on oppression. Following a repressive act, it's vital that activists keep the public aware of what has happened and take sustained measures to ensure that they don't forget. Circulating pictures, leaflets, and using social media are good ways to keep the memory of oppression present. One clever way to achieve this is to turn members of the movement who have faced particular scrutiny by a regime into martyrs. As we've seen across the Middle East and more recently in Ukraine -- where Dmytro Bulatov's tortured image has become the symbol of state repression -- giving oppression a face is absolutely critical if activists hope to mobilize people to the streets.

Of course, these are just some of the lessons being learned in places like Ukraine that are undergoing societal change. It's important to remember that activism requires constant vigilance, and even the most seemingly clear-cut victories can prove ephemeral. Just look at Egypt. Three years ago, groups like the April 6th Movement helped shepherd what many hoped would be a democratic Egypt. Today, the April 6th Movement's founders -- Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Maher -- are behind bars, serving three-year sentences for the "crime" of organizing public protests. Still, even from their prison cells, Maher and Adel are mounting the call of resistance, denouncing their miserable prison conditions and the harsh laws imposed by Egypt's new leadership -- including a recent op-ed by Maher in the Washington Post. Even now they're working to make oppression backfire.

Read and download "Making Oppression Backfire" here.



America Has a Plan. And, No, It Isn't One That Israel Would Like.

New poll shows that if the two-state solution collapses, U.S. public favors democracy over Jewishness.

Middle East leaders are beating a path to the White House's door. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama on March 3, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will arrive on March 17 to discuss the U.S. administration's diplomatic effort to reach a two-state solution.

Although Secretary of State John Kerry has said that "failure is not an option" in these talks, the reality is that both Israelis and Palestinians assume that there is only a slim chance of finding a conflict-ending solution. The president himself put the odds at less than 50 percent. With the Obama administration's goal to reach a negotiated settlement set for the end of April, we could be witnessing the death of the two-state solution. A key, but often unasked, question is whether the American public even cares.

A public opinion survey I commissioned, which was conducted by the polling firm GfK, found that U.S. popular support for a two-state solution is surprisingly tepid. What's more, if the option is taken off the table, Americans support the creation of a single democratic state -- in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories -- in which Jews and Arabs are granted equal rights. The GfK survey consisted of 1,000 interviews conducted through an Internet panel and was weighted to ensure that the results were consistent with several demographic variables, such as age, education, and income.

The Obama administration's focus on mediating an end to the conflict has been predicated on two assumptions -- that a two-state solution is in the national security interest of the United States, and that the current diplomatic efforts may be the last chance to achieve it. Americans themselves, however, are more lukewarm on the possibility of Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side: fewer than four in 10 survey respondents preferred a two-state solution.

If the Obama administration is right that the window to reach a two-state solution is closing, the plurality of Americans who do support that option may start thinking about other ways to resolve the conflict. If efforts to negotiate creation of a separate Palestinian state fail, my poll shows that about two-thirds of those who had preferred the two-state solution would shift their support to a one-state solution, with equal citizenship for Jews and Arabs.

Even among respondents who said they wanted American diplomacy to "lean toward Israel," 52 percent said they would support one state with equal citizenship -- which could, of course, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

For Israelis, a shift in U.S. public opinion toward a one-state solution -- which is not even an option on the negotiating table -- would be extremely problematic. That is to say, most Israelis prefer not to make the choice between Israel's Jewishness and its democracy but when forced to do so, they are divided: Roughly half of Israeli Jews say that they care about Jewishness and democracy equally, while a quarter favor one over the other. Palestinians may welcome support for equal citizenship in one state, but will not have the power to achieve it on their own without Israeli cooperation.

While Israelis are divided over whether to prioritize their state's Jewishness or democracy, Americans' preferences are less ambiguous. When asked which of the two options they favor for Israel, two-thirds of respondents chose democracy over Jewishness. Unequal citizenship is simply antithetical to being an American -- whether one is pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, or neutral.

So what does it all mean? It means that if the two-state solution fails, the conversation among the American public might shift to that of a one-state solution as the next-best thing. If American officials feel pressured to respond to this, it will likely create tension in U.S.-Israeli relations.

American public opinion, of course, is fluid. If Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail, both sides will engage in a war of narratives in an attempt to convince the American public that the other side is to blame for the collapse of the talks.

Israelis usually do far better than Arabs in these contests. Just look at what happened after the 2000 Camp David talks: Although President Bill Clinton promised the Palestinians they would not be blamed should negotiations fail, that was just what he did as soon as the summit ended. Regardless of what Obama or Kerry would do if these negotiations fail, many U.S. politicians can be counted on to quickly embrace the Israeli version of events.

But as soon as the dust settles, the end of the two-state solution will exert a powerful transformation on American attitudes. For U.S. officials, the effect would be paralyzing -- American leaders simply wouldn't know what to advocate if two states were not on the table. At the moment, it is not politically feasible to advocate for a one-state solution with equal citizenship, nor accept a permanent occupation or Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories without equal citizenship.

This dilemma may partially be driving Washington's current diplomatic push. And if the Obama administration's efforts fail, it is unlikely that American leaders would do anything but pretend that the two-state solution was still on the table. No American politician wants to choose between Israel's democracy and its Jewishness -- even if the polls show that the choice is clear to the American people.

Pretending neatly rationalizes paralysis, but it would not hide the naked truth for most people. If the peace talks fail, no number of assurances from the White House could stop the inevitable sense of resignation at home and abroad. The American people are clear about their views: Occupation and unequal citizenship are a losing cause.