“When citizens of oppressive governments can’t protest, how do they show their discontent?” asks Zeynep Memecan at Newsweek last week. A few creative examples of what people have done under such circumstances are then offered, including one which caught me off guard. She writes of a protest in Chile against “Marxist” President Salvador Allende in December 1971 where thousands beat on pots and pans in the streets of Santiago to protest “widespread food shortages” and “acts of violence in the country.” In what seems to be an approving tone, Memecan concludes by saying that “these elite women were very influential in creating an unstable political moment that eventually led to a military coup by Augusto Pinochet in 1973.”
There is no mention of the fact that many of Chile’s problems while Allende was president were due to meddling by the U.S. government. In Killing Hope, William Blum documents in extensive detail Washington’s campaign to destabilize the Chilean government. For example, it was later revealed that only days after Allende was elected, President Nixon ordered CIA Director Richard Helms to “make the economy scream” in Chile, and for starters offered $10,000,000 for the task. (Here is an excerpt from that chapter, which unfortunately does not include the many useful footnotes that he provides in the book.)
Also not mentioned by Memecan is the reign of terror that Chileans lived through as a result of the coup in 1973. The raw numbers are shocking. According to Naomi Klein, “more than 3,200 people were disappeared or executed, at least 80,000 were imprisoned, and 200,000 fled the country for political reasons” during Pinochet’s 17-year rule.
But what I found most problematic about this article was that Memecan chose this example at all, especially when she could have highlighted a very similar protest that happened more than a decade later against Pinochet. On May 11, 1983, people throughout Santiago beat on their pots and pans as a symbolic act of resistance and solidarity, which helped spark the courageous nonviolent movement that eventually brought an end to the dictatorship.
Despite these serious flaws, Memecan does give several other examples of creative protest that are worth mentioning:
Panties for Peace was a campaign launched [in Burma during the 2007 anti-government protests] by a Burmese peace activist group based in Thailand to emphasize the military’s violations of human rights, especially violations committed against women, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. Participants would mail out panties—and occasionally men’s underwear—to Burmese embassies around the world as an insulting gesture. The idea was inspired by the superstitions of the ruling generals, who thought touching women’s undergarments would reduce their powers.
Students harassed Burmese generals by ruining their good night’s sleep: they would call generals’ homes in the middle of the night, waking them up to convey a message: “We want democracy!” The sleepy general at the other end of the line would often shout in annoyance (further rousing them), but he knew another call would be coming the next night. In order to avoid being identified, the callers used an international line and a satellite phone.
With a campaign that lasted for more than a month [during the winter of 1997], Turkish citizens protested government corruption… Popularized with the slogan “One minute of darkness for perpetual light,” thousands of furious citizens across the country turned off their lights for a minute at exactly 9 p.m. every night. The protest eventually evolved, so that protestors flickered their lights and honked car horns, and it lasted until the military pressured the government to step down in 1997. It is believed by some to be the largest case of mass protesting in Turkish history, with the participation of millions, according to some estimates.
How movements settle the debate on whether to engage with political parties from the inside or outside will have a profound impact on their effectiveness.
The so-called ‘world’s friendliest people’ are finding power in vulgarity as they protest the brutal torture of a novelist for ridiculing the dictator’s son.
Activists throughout history have put social movement work on hold for the electoral arena. Determining whether to do so is a matter of strategy and calling.