Syrians map their future, post-Assad

Discussion about changes to a Syrian street name, via The Highest Monkey.

The opposition in Syria is not waiting for Bashar al-Assad to depart before drawing up new maps of their country. According to a recent Washington Post report, activists have been using a Google crowdsourcing program, Map Maker, to rename major streets, bridges and thoroughfares after their own heroes. The purpose has been to erase the remnants of the Assad family’s 40-year rule and to memorialize nonviolent challengers who have died during the course of Syria’s almost year-long uprising. Stefan Geens, author of the Ogle Earth blog, which tracks Google Maps, told the Post that Syria’s is the first rebellion of which he knows where activists have used online mapping programs to rewrite history.

Syrian human rights organizations believe that more than 7,000 people have been killed since the start of the revolt in March 2011. That this sustained mobilization has remained essentially and remarkably nonviolent makes the Syrian government’s wonton killings all the more wrenching and heartbreaking. The tragedy hit home for me personally, excruciatingly, with the death of Marie Colvin, whom I knew, one of the greatest war reporters of recent history, who was killed on February 22 in Homs. An exemplary journalist for London’s Sunday Times, her mother told television correspondents that Marie viewed her job as an act of bearing witness to the horrific events upon which she reported.

The Syrian movement’s use of online mapping programs is alluring. Yet before we become exhilarated with the creative use of new technologies, we must remember that nonviolent movements usually appropriate the latest, most advanced technologies. The painting over or removal of street signs and name plates, furthermore, is a long-practiced method in the repertoire of nonviolent resistance. Scholar Gene Sharp included this sanction in his famous list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, first published in 1973 (and continually being modified in evolving campaigns). He places removal or replacing of signs in two categories: “symbolic public acts” and “citizens’ noncooperation with government.” The Syrians, at least so far, seem to be engaged in the former. Perhaps the best example of this method as noncooperation, however, occurred after the crushing of the Prague Spring, which began in what was then Czechoslovakia in January 1968.

As I have written elsewhere, the period of liberalization called the Prague Spring ended as the Soviet Union sent 750,000 troops with tanks from five Warsaw Pact countries across the borders into Czechoslovakia on Tuesday, August 20. Sharp recounts in the second volume of his Politics of Nonviolent Action that, three days later, Czechoslovak Radio announced that arrests were imminent. Activists issued an appeal for people to obscure or paint over street signs and number plates, and to make illegible name plates of apartments. Highway directional signs were to be repainted throughout the country. By Thursday evening, many street markers were already obscured, along with directional postings on highways. By midday Friday, Prague was awash with handouts and leaflets urging the removal or repainting of street names and signs denoting significant buildings and factories. Sharp cites Robert Littell’s The Czech Black Book: An Eyewitness, Documented Account of the Invasion of Czechoslovakia for its account of the newspaper Prace reporting, “There was a lightning reaction to this appeal. Prague streets have lost their names!” He also credits Littell for noting that another newspaper, Lidova Demokracie, reported that hundreds of thousands had joined the action:

Prague names and numbers have died out. For the uninvited guests, Prague has become a dead city. Anyone who was not born here, who has not lived here, will find a city of anonymity among a million inhabitants. … [L]et us follow the slogan: The mailman will find you, but evil-doers won’t! Bravo Prague and other cities that followed and follow its example!

Sharp also cites the 1966 Czech film Closely Watched Trains, by Ostre Sledované Vlaky, made well before the Warsaw Pact’s “allied socialist” invasion, which depicted people changing the names of railroad stations during the Nazi occupation in order to confound the invaders. Railroad workers could prevent trains from reaching their destinations until hours or days after the schedule on timetables.

According to Sharp, the removal or alteration of signs and placemarks as a nonviolent method of political noncooperation is “most likely to be effective where the troops or police are quite unfamiliar with the territory, where the country or layout of streets is especially bewildering or complicated, and where the population is unwilling to provide accurate directions.” Indeed, during World War II, Winston Churchill ordered the removal of all street names and sign posts on Britain’s highways so that, in the event of a Nazi invasion, the enemy would have the utmost difficulty finding their way from one town to another and locating specific addresses.

What the Syrians are doing on Map Maker is emblematic, rather than constituting a form of outright noncooperation. In this regard, Sharp notes that in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942, the “Little Wolves” group of young resisters stole the “For Germans Only” signs that were displayed at fine restaurants, movie houses and hotels in Warsaw. They made multiple copies. One night these signs were strung onto hundreds of the capital’s lampposts and trees, locations that the Germans had used as gallows to hang Polish nationalists. Sharp cites Jan Karski’s 1944 war memoir, Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World, for its description of how the underground Polish government ordered the Poles to rename most of the country’s thoroughfares and streets. Along with streets newly named after Polish patriots appeared Roosevelt Street and Churchill Boulevard.

We welcome online mapping programs to the ever-growing inventory of nonviolent methods. It may be an even more potent sanction than those using it in Syria are aware.

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