History lesson: How to oust a dictator, using cellphones

Peter Ackerman wants to be clear: The "strategic nonviolence" he's talking about isn't passive or meek. It's aggressive. It's an orchestrated series of pressure tactics used on a tyrant to get him to yield. It's an alternative to an armed insurrection, which can inflict a huge cost in lives lost and physical damage.

And most important, he says, it works.

Mr. Ackerman's case in point is Serbia, where a popular uprising led by students and other civilians in 1999 and 2000 uprooted one of the world's most brutal dictators, Slobodan Milosevic, who is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes.

In a new documentary, "Bringing Down a Dictator," executive producer Ackerman and filmmaker Steve York tell the story of how "the Butcher of the Balkans" was removed from power. (It's showing on PBS stations nationwide this month, including tonight at 10 p.m. on WGBH in Boston.)

On Oct. 5, 2000, TV networks in the United States showed scenes of a crowd of ordinary Serbs peacefully taking over their parliament building. But the brief coverage failed to explain how the victory was won.

"We thought it was an untold story," says Mr. York, who wrote, produced, and directed the film. "The news media doesn't find it very interesting to shoot students in cafes talking on their cellphones, but that's really where a lot of this happened."

The film is a kind of sequel to an earlier collaboration between York and Ackerman, who has written two books about the concept of "strategic nonviolence."

In 2000 the team aired a documentary on PBS called "A Force More Powerful." It showed the successful use of "strategic nonviolence" in six countries around the world: the drive for independence in India; the Nashville, Tenn., civil-rights lunch-counter boycotts; the antiapartheid movement in South Africa; the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War II; the Solidarity movement in Poland against Communism; and the overthrow of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

"Though these conflicts happened at different times and all over the world on different continents, many aspects of them are very similar," Ackerman says. Among the lessons learned: Spread your movement and spokespeople all over the country to make it difficult for the dictator to know where to strike back. Try to win the army and local police over to your side by showing them that you are not their enemy. And always stay on the offensive, creating new nonviolent actions that keep the dictator scrambling to respond.

"Bringing Down a Dictator" shows how, in Serbia, a student group called Otpor ("resistance," in Serbian) played a key role. It plastered its symbol, a black clenched fist, on every available surface Â- not only walls and buildings, but matchbooks, umbrellas, T-shirts, even Easter eggs. Later, during the election, it devised a simple but powerful slogan that became a rallying cry: "He's finished." No one needed to be told who "he" was.

"We used humor in the beginning a lot," says Ivan Marovic, a student leader of Otpor. "The reason was that people were very afraid, and we wanted to show them that there are some things they can do to express that they are against the official policy."

(Mr. Marovic, along with Ackerman and York, was in Boston last week for a showing of the documentary.)

"We made Milosevic look ridiculous in several situations, and that was good," Marovic says. But later, he says, the movement needed to show that it was also a serious political force. Eventually, Serbia's weak and divided opposition political parties were able to band together and defeat Milosevic in an election Sept. 24, 2000.

Though Ackerman is encouraged by the events in Serbia, he concedes that "there is a real danger of overpromising what a nonviolent resistance movement can do. It doesn't always succeed, just like a violent insurrection doesn't always succeed." He notes, for example, the failure of nonviolent protests against Burma's repressive military regime.

Nonetheless, he says, nonviolent strategies are worth trying even in the seeming intractable IsraeliÂ-Palestinian conflict. "The beauty of a nonviolent strategy is that every element of Palestinian society can participate: old people, young people, rich, poor. It's a process that creates the basis for democracy in the Palestinian state that's coming.

"What I see them doing now [suicide bombing] is a huge detour. [You pay] a moral cost ... when you send your youngsters out to be blown up."

• For more information on "Bringing Down a Dictator" and TV air dates, visit www.pbs.org/weta/dictator

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