UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From youth-led marches in Hong Kong to demonstrations in Russia in support of Alexei Navalny, nonviolent actions are being used to strengthen democracy in the face of authoritarianism. Srdja Popovic has more than 20 years of experience participating in and advising nonviolent movements around the world and argues that success is often driven by a concept he’s come to define as “dilemma action.”
Popovic is the recipient of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Brown Democracy Medal; he will receive the award and present a public lecture at a virtual awards ceremony on March 25 at 4 p.m. ET. The ceremony is free and open to the public.
As part of receiving the Brown Medal, Popovic worked with Penn State’s Sophia A. McClennen, professor of international affairs and comparative literature, on a book titled “Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Nonviolent Activism.” The book examines how activists can place law enforcement or other authority figures in a “lose-lose” situation by making it look absurd to take any action against a protest.
“Dilemma actions are an essential component of effective nonviolent struggle,” Popvic said. “And humorous ones, or laughtivism, in particular, can be even more successful in advancing particular goals than nonviolent resistance in general. This route offers you great opportunities for success.”
An example of such an action was the “toy protest” in Russia in 2012, where activists placed their messages on teddy bears, Lego characters and South Park figurines, rather than demonstrating themselves in person. This action created a dilemma for the Kremlin — how could they effectively disarm the protest without looking weak or foolish?
The government decided to confiscate the “protesters” and place a ban on all unsanctioned toy protests — decisions that were met with ridicule throughout Russia and beyond, especially when it came to light that the toys were made in China, not Russia.
“Thanks to the government’s clumsy reaction, videos, images, and stories of their decision made national and international headlines,” Popovic said.
Popovic is co-director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), an organization that operates a network of international trainers and consultants with experience in successful democratic movements. It has worked with pro-democracy activists from more than 50 countries. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was part of the Otpor! movement that ended the reign of Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević.
Established in 2014, the Brown Democracy Medal is funded by Larry and Lynne Brown to recognize new and innovative scholarship or practice in democracy. Both are Penn State alumni, and Larry is chair of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy Board of Visitors.
For more information about Popovic and the Brown Democracy Medal ceremony, visit democracy.psu.edu/virtual-events.