Big changes often start with acts that looked pointless at the time: small acts of resistance, bold acts of defiance, subtle acts of subversion, and even witty acts of disobedience. Small Acts of Resistance celebrates the inspiring ingenuity and awe-inspiring courage of the human spirit and pays tribute to those who have been standing up to say “no”. Telling the stories of more than eighty acts of resistance, spanning the world and the 20th and 21st centuries, this book pays homage to the groups and individuals that treat the impossible as the possible that just hasn’t happened yet.
Three stories from Small Acts of Resistance from Burma, Uruguay and the UK.
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 cancelled 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.
Read: Steve Crawsaw and John Jackson, Small Acts of Resistance (2010)