When Steve Crawshaw wrote his book about creative protests in totalitarian regimes, “Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief,” he never thought it would be all that relevant to the United States.
Crawshaw has been researching protests since 1989 when he covered the East European Revolutions for the British newspaper, The Independent. He witnessed decades of single-party communist rule crumble amidst protests led not by politicians or figures of stature, but by everyday citizens wanting to make a difference.
Since then, the world has seen increasingly creative and even absurd protests, ranging from mock pillow fights and illegal applause in Belarus to calling Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to tell him about menstruation. The book, which includes full-page color photographs of protests around the world, is a tribute to the human spirit. In telling the stories of these protests, Crawshaw challenges traditional narratives about how to create change.
“Too often we only think about the big political stuff, which of course is incredibly important, but we forget that it’s often little, tiny actions by individuals which make huge changes when put together,” Crawshaw said in an interview with the ACLU.
Although the book went to press just before Donald Trump became president, Crawshaw, who now works for Amnesty International, sees echoes of the strategies he covered in Street Spirit in today’s resistance. From the Women’s march with its trademark pussy hats to rogue Twitter accounts — Americans have employed humor in their resistance.
As the ACLU embarks on a new chapter in its history — launching our grassroots organizing effort People Power — and hiring Legal Director David Cole, who believes that cultural change is crucial to the development of constitutional law, we caught up with Crawshaw to discuss the inspiration behind “Street Spirit.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get the idea to do this book?
I’ve always been interested in how change happens. A few years ago, I co-authored a book with John Jackson called “Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World,” which already started to play with some of the ideas I further explored in “Street Spirit.”
What I’ve always loved is the mischief for creating change. When I was writing “Street Spirit” last year, I was at my writer’s desk thinking: “Is anything even going to be interested in protest when this book comes out in 2017? Well, I’m interested, so I’ll write it anyway.” Sadly, this book is much more relevant than I would have wished.
I would trade the great timing for a better situation, but we are where we are. It’s kind of fascinating to see that creativity and mischief are already so much a part of the narrative. There’s been such creativity in the protests in the United States and elsewhere. Brilliant slogans and brilliant activities and all of those kinds of things. That’s great to see.
When did you finish writing it?
The book went to press in mid-October 2016. The election was coming up in the U.S., but everyone thought they knew which way it would go, so we didn’t have to worry about that.
If you stand up for what you believe, you can’t be sure that you’ll change anything, maybe absolutely zero will change, but it will be satisfying to be living in truth itself.
I had a story in the book which I had first written in spring of 2016 about this guy who I confess I had never heard of named Mike Pence, who was the governor of Indiana. There was a lovely story there about a Facebook page — Periods for Pence — mocking him for the terrible anti-abortion law he was bringing in. The ACLU and others were involved in confronting this legislation. I loved this particular story about the Facebook page. So I wrote about Mike Pence, this guy who’s governor of Indiana, then I had to put a little parenthesis into the photo caption saying “who became the running mate of Donald Trump in the summer of 2016.”
So it’s fair to say that you never thought Street Spirit would feel so relevant in the United States?
When I was covering the East European Revolutions of 1989 for The Independent, I read a wonderful essay about the power of the powerless by Václav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president. He wrote it in 1978, in the middle of the Cold War, certain nothing was ever going to change. He wrote about living in truth. If you stand up for what you believe, you can’t be sure that you’ll change anything, maybe absolutely zero will change, but it will be satisfying to be living in truth itself.
He later said he was treated as a Czech Don Quixote at the time, tilting at windmills. In fact, only 11 years later, indeed the whole house of cards of one party rule in Czechoslovakia collapsed, and that power of the powerless was made real.
The people who say, “Oh, it’s not really worth it, there’s no point doing it,” are often the ones who are quite happy to benefit from change when it comes later, but the people who have made the change are the ones who are determined to live in truth. That’s obviously true in repressive regimes, but now we are daily reminded how relevant it can be with a problematic elected leader too.
What would you say to those who think protesting in the streets in futile?
Over and over again, you will hear people saying, “It’s never going to change,” and then it changes, and they say, “Oh, it was bound to change.” There’s a line that I quote in the introduction of the book by this amazing young Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, who in 2011 at the beginning of the revolution that unseated Mubarak, released a video that went viral. It basically said, if you stay at home and don’t go out on the street because you say no one else is going to be there, you are part of the problem. And that of course was highly relevant in Egypt. Millions went out then, partly because her video went viral and she was so powerful in saying, “You are part of the problem if you stay home.” I think that’s a great lesson. It was true in the authoritarian context of Egypt, but it’s true wherever we see bad things happening.
The courage that’s been shown by these people in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes sets a model — few of us are taking the same kinds of risks when we’re standing up, and so I think the very least we need to do is realize we can have an impact by speaking out and speaking the truth.