Editor's note: This story was updated on November 22, 2016.
In 2011, the Arab Spring changed the region and the world: Ordinary people lost their fear and shattered the perception that their rulers were invincible.
In Tunisia, the now famous “jasmine revolution” began with protests triggered by the self-immolation of a 26-year-old vegetable seller, Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi, remembered by his younger sister Basma as “funny and generous,” could finally take no more of the official harassment and humiliation meted out to him.
Four weeks of protests, fueled by Facebook and other social media networks, concluded with the unthinkable: Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, president for the past 23 years, fled the country.
Even after the collapse of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, it seemed that Egypt would surely be a different matter. The 30-year-old, U.S.-backed rule of Hosni Mubarek was reckoned by many to be too ruthless for protests to succeed in creating real change. But millions in Tahrir Square and across Egypt were determined that they should be allowed to make the choices that others around the world had made for themselves.
After 18 days of protests, Hosni Mubarek was gone. Though Egypt faced tumultuous times in the following years, that day, all across the country, crowds erupted in celebration.
Victories like this, born of small acts toward monumental change, are not new. Throughout history both recent and distant, ordinary people have found innovative and inspiring ways to challenge violent regimes and confront abuses of power: bringing down dictators, changing unjust laws, or simply giving individuals a renewed sense of their own humanity in the face of those who deny it.
The people here treat the impossible as full of possibilities that haven’t been realized yet. Some have achieved the change they were struggling for. For others, it’s yet to come.
1. Poland, 1982: Want to make a political statement? Take your television for a walk.
The rise of Solidarity, a popular movement created in August 1980 by striking workers in the shipyards o f Gdansk and across Poland, caused panic in the region that had ruled the country since the Second World War. On December 13, 1981, the Communist authorities put tanks on the streets to stop Solidarity once and for all. Hundreds were arrested; dozens were killed.
Despite the tanks and arrests, Poles organized protests against the ban on Solidarity, including a boycott of the fiction-filled television news. But a boycott of the TV news could not by itself embarrass the government. After all, who could tell how many were obeying the boycott call?
In one small town, they found a way. Every evening, beginning on February 5, 1982, the inhabitants of Swidnik in eastern Poland went on a walkabout. As the half-hour evening news began, the streets would fill with Swidnikians, who chatted, walked, and loafed. Before going out, some placed their switched-off television set in the window, facing uselessly onto the street. Others went a step further. They placed their disconnected set in a stroller or a builder’s wheelbarrow, and took the television itself for a nightly outing.
“If resistance is done by underground activists, it’s not you or me,” one Solidarity supporter later noted. “But if you see your neighbors taking their TV for a walk, it makes you feel part of something. An aim of dictatorship is to make you feel isolated. Swidnik broke the isolation and built confidence.”
The TV-goes-for-a-walk tactics, which spread to other towns and cities, infuriated the government. But the authorities felt powerless to retaliate. Going for a walk was not, after all, an official crime under the criminal code.
Eventually, the curfew was brought forward from 10 p.m. to 7 p.m., thus forcing Swidnikians to stay at home during the 7:30 news, or risk being arrested or shot.
The citizens of Swidnik responded by going for a walk during the earlier edition of the news at 5 p.m. instead.
2. Uruguay, 1973-1985: The not-so-innocent one-liner that shamed an entire regime.
The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 was intolerant in the extreme. Hundreds of thousands fled into exile. Political opponents were jailed. Torture was a regular occurrence. On occasion, even concerts of classical music were seen as subversive threats.
But a remarkable small protest took place at soccer games throughout the twelve long years of military rule.
Whenever the band struck up the national anthem before major games, thousands of Uruguayans in the stadium joined in unenthusiastically. This stubborn failure to sing loudly was rebellion already. But, from the generals’ point of view, there was worse to come.
At one point, the anthem declares, Tiranos temblad!—“May tyrants tremble!” Those words served as the cue for the crowds in the stadium to suddenly bellow it in unison as they waved their flags. After that brief, excited roar, they continued to mumble their way through to the end of the long anthem.
The authorities could not arrest everyone in the stadium. Nor could they cancel games or drop the singing of the national anthem. The junta toyed with the idea of removing the tiranos temblad! line from public performances of the anthem, but that proved too embarrassing. Why, after all, would the generals remove words from a beloved nineteenth-century hymn, unless they believed that they might be the tyrants in question?
The military rulers were thus obliged to suffer the embarrassment until 1985, when they and their friends lost power. Democracy won.
3. Ireland, 1880: The strange and spirited legacy of the Boycott family.
“Boycott” is a widely understood form of social, economic, and political action. Everybody now takes the word for granted. But where does the word come from?
Once upon a time there was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott. He was a much-disliked land agent for Lord Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo in the west of British-ruled Ireland.
On September 23, 1880, “as if by one sudden impulse” (in the words of the Connaught Telegraph), Boycott’s servants walked out on him, in protest of unjust rents and evictions. Boycott and his family found themselves obliged to milk their own cows, shoe their own horses, and till their own fields. Shopkeepers refused to serve Boycott and his family. The post office stopped delivering mail to him. Boycott was isolated and powerless to retaliate, to the dismay of his supporters. In London, an editorial in the Times complained: “A more frightful picture of triumphant anarchy has never been presented in any community pretending to be civilized and subject to the law.”
One of the organizers of the action, James Redpath, realized that no single word existed to describe this successful form of ostracism. To bolster the political impact of these actions, he decided that needed to change. As Redpath recounts in his 1881 memoir Talks About Ireland, he asked the sympathetic priest, Father John O’Malley, for advice: “[O’Malley] looked down, tapped his big forehead, and said: ‘How would it be to call it to Boycott him?’”
In Captain Boycott and the Irish, Joyce Marlow describes how a pro-English volunteer force came to help the beleaguered Boycott, guarded by a detachment of a thousand soldiers. Their supplies included fourteen gallons of whiskey, thirty pounds of tobacco, and four foghorns. After a few weeks of digging vegetables in the rain, however, they abandoned Boycott once more. Boycott fled to England. He never returned. Eventually, Ireland won its independence.
Meanwhile, the name of an obscure land agent in the west of Ireland has gone global in the dictionaries. General Augusto Pinochet’s regime suffered from those who were ready to boicotear Chilean apples and wine in protest against repression by the military junta in Chile in the 1970s. Poles protesting against the Communist imposition of martial law in 1981 declared a bojkot of the television news. Russians talk of boikotirovat, and the French declare un boycott. And all because of some local difficulties involving the Irish turnip harvest of 1880.
4. Britain, 1984: Breaking the bank: Graffiti artists put a stop to investment in Apartheid.
In Oxford and other British university cities, an unusual set of graffiti appeared above pairs of Barclays Bank cash dispensers in 1984. Above one ATM was spray-painted the word BLACKS. Above the other: WHITES ONLY.
The graffiti changed nothing, of course, in terms of who could use which cash machine. Customers were free to choose whichever ATM they preferred. Black customers could line up at the WHITES ONLY machine if they wished to. Whites could take cash from the BLACKS machine.
The black-and-white labeling left people faintly unsettled, however. And unsettled was all that was needed. The graffiti made many of those lining up at the black-vs.-white machines feel uncomfortable about Barclays’ well-publicized involvement in the South African system of apartheid, where signs proclaiming NET BLANKES—Whites Only—were customary.
Fewer graduates applied to work at Barclays, so as not to be tainted by the black-white division that the bank seemed to represent. Barclays’ once lucrative share of UK student accounts plummeted from 27 percent to 15 percent of the market. In 1986, the banking giant admitted defeat at the hands of the graffiti sprayers and their allies. The Barclays pullout became one of the most high-profile and punishing acts of divestment suffered by the South African regime.
Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for life because of his rejection of the government’s racist policies, was released after 27 years in 1990. Democratic elections were held in 1994. Barclays did not return to South Africa until 2005.
5. Burma, 1990s: Notes on Democracy: A subverted state-backed banknote becomes a “bright collection of small victories.”
The brutality of the Burmese military junta made international headlines following the massacre of hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters in 1988. When, in 1990, the party of opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming election victory, the generals ignored the results—jailing, torturing, and even killing those who spoke out.
Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest. Pinning her picture up, in public or in private, became grounds for arrest. All the more startling, then, was the design of a modest banknote that the government commissioned and published at that time.
Unfortunately for the regime, the designer of the new one-kyat note was a political supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi. He saw an opportunity for subversion in his task. He knew the note must include an image of Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father—General Aung San. The general was the founder of the Burmese army, and was revered by the Burmese for his pivotal role in securing his country’s independence from British colonial rule.
The designer engraved the image of the general in the watermark. As he drew, however, he subtly softened the sharp line of the soldier’s jaw. He also used a light hand when drawing the general’s eyes, nose, and mouth. From these slight, almost imperceptible changes emerged a powerful form of sedition: The face of the father was gently transformed into the face of the daughter.
The censors approved the design—failing to notice that the watermark resembled the daughter more than the father. With the subversive image in place, the banknote was printed, distributed, and put into mass circulation.
In tea shops and pagodas across the country in the weeks and months that followed, people whispered to each other as they studied the new note with its hidden portrait of “The Lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is known to her compatriots. Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, incidentally, translates as “Bright Collection of Small Victories.”
The act of subversion wasn’t limited to the main portrait. The floral design consists of four circles of eight petals—eight around eight around eight around eight, echoing the date of Burma’s “four-eights” uprising that began on 8/8/88. Some observers believe there are as many as eleven hidden messages in the design of the banknote.
Although the people held up the banknote with disbelief and pride, it was not pride that the generals felt. The subtly defiant one-kyat note was withdrawn from circulation and possession of the banknote became illegal. Those who kept it continue to treasure it. It is known as the “democracy note.”
6. Liberia, 2003: “Mama, what was your role during the crisis?” Ordinary women end extraordinary violence.
The west African nation of Liberia was founded by freed American slaves. The country’s coat of arms declares, “The love of liberty brought me here.”
In the last years of the 20th century and the early years of this one, however, Liberia was anything but a land of liberty. Drug-fueled militias maimed and killed civilians. Government and rebel forces alike raped with impunity. Hundreds of thousands fled. Others were trapped by the unending violence, unable to flee. As one Liberian woman later remembered, “My children had been hungry and afraid for their entire lives.”
In spring 2003, a group of women decided to try to end the conflict once and for all. Dressed all in white, hundreds of them sat by the roadside, on the route taken daily by President Charles Taylor, rebel leader-turned-president.
The president’s motorcade swept past, slowing down only briefly. But the women returned, day after day. In pouring rain and blazing sunshine alike, they danced and prayed. In the words of Comfort Lamptey, author of a book on the Liberian peace movement of those years, the women were “fighting for the right to be seen, heard, and counted.”
Taylor mocked the women for “embarrassing themselves.” Still, though, the protests gained momentum. Religious leaders—imams and bishops alike—spoke out in support of the women’s demands. Radio stations began reporting sympathetically on the roadside protests. Leymah Gbowee, one of the protest leaders, declared in front of the cameras, “We are tired of our children being raped. We are taking this stand because we believe tomorrow our children will ask us: ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’”
Pressed on all sides, Taylor agreed to talk. He met with the women’s leaders in the presidential palace. Peace talks with the warring factions began in Ghana a few weeks later.
It soon became clear, however, that the talks were going nowhere. Even as the warlords basked in the comfort of their luxury hotel, they worked the phones, directing a renewed orgy of violence at home in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
The women decided that enough was enough. Determined to focus on the human cost of the war, they barricaded delegates into the room where the talks were taking place. One of the negotiators, Nigerian General Abdulsalami Abubakar, remembered later: “They said that nobody will come out till that peace agreement was signed.” As described in the 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, one warlord tried unsuccessfully to kick his way out of the room. Others tried (and failed) to escape through the windows.
The men with guns agreed to talk seriously at last. A peace deal was struck. Charles Taylor went into exile. International peacekeepers arrived in Monrovia, greeted by cheering crowds. In 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Liberia’s first peacefully elected president, Africa’s first woman leader.
Johnson-Sirleaf said: “It was ordinary Liberians who reclaimed the country and demanded peace.”
7. Kenya, 2009: No sex without peace: Women unite in a nationwide bedroom strike.
Aristophanes never intended the Lysistrata story to be taken literally. His play was a satire, a way of pressing for an end to the death and destruction of the long-running Peloponnesian War in Greece in the 5th century BCE. The story played with an obviously unthinkable idea: that women, by withholding their consent to sex, could do something to end a brutal conflict.
Two thousand years later, Lysistrata has achieved a real-life momentum of its own.
In Kenya in 2009, many feared a renewal of the post-election violence that had brought the country to the brink of catastrophe a year earlier. The relationship between the two main political rivals, Prime Minister Raile Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, remained dangerously tense. Women’s groups, fearing another descent into violence, urged men to settle their differences and, as they put it, “begin to serve the nation they represent.” To emphasize the point, they announced a sex strike.
They were perhaps inspired by a similar action taken in Sudan in 2002, when thousands of women in the South took up the practice of “sexual abandoning” to compel men to end the twenty-year civil war in which an estimated two million people had died.
Rukia Subow, chair of one of the groups in Kenya, argued, “We have seen that sex is the answer. It does not know tribe, it does not have a party, and it happens in the lowest households.”
The strike gained widespread support—even the prime minister’s wife, Ida Odinga, declared that she supported it “body and soul.” Women’s groups welcomed the success of the action—“Kenyans began talking about issues that are affecting them. And it got the politicians talking.” The women even persuaded some sex workers to join the strike.
It ended with a joint prayer session. The prime minister and the president finally agreed to talk.
8. Denmark, 1943: A nation conspires to save the lives of 7,000 Jews.
In September 1943, the Nazis prepared for the deportation of all Danish Jews to concentration camps and death. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat with a conscience, deliberately leaked the plans for the roundup, which was due to begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Armed with the information from Duckwitz, Danes swung into action.
Teachers fetched children out of class, and told them to go home and pack their things. Friends and strangers alike provided alternative accommodations, so that nobody would be at home when the Nazis came knocking on the door at the registered addresses of Jews. Adults and children checked into hospitals under fictitious names, suffering from fictitious ailments. Others appeared at chapels, as if to attend a funeral. The “mourners”—sometimes hundreds at a time—then traveled at a stately speed out of Copenhagen, as part of a huge funeral cortege. Families were transported to remote beaches, where boats picked them up at night and took them to safety. Others arranged escapes in broad daylight. In Copenhagen, families stepped into canal boats that advertised “Harbor Tours.” These special harbor tours avoided traditional sights, delivering their passengers to waiting fishing boats instead. Families hid in the hulls, or were covered by tarpaulins, herrings, and straw, and were ferried to neutral Sweden to wait out the war in safety.
As a result of Duckwitz’s whistle-blowing and of Danish solidarity, 99 percent of Denmark’s 7,000 Jews survived.
9. Israel, 2002: A tank gunner refuses to pull the trigger, and sets off a buzz of objection instead.
General, your tank is a powerful vehicle.
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.
Yigal Bronner, a former member of the Israel Defense Forces, included this quotation in an open letter he wrote in 2002. He and hundreds of others refused to serve with the Israeli army in the occupied territories. These soldiers were from prestigious elite units, who had seen active combat and risked their lives. Many were jailed for their refusal. They became known as seruvniks from the Hebrew word seruv—refusal.
The seruvniks drew their compatriots’ and the world’s attention to the dehumanizing effects of the occupation on both Israelis and the three million Palestinians in the occupied territories. They insisted, in what became known as the Combatants’ Letter: “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense. The missions of occupation do not serve this purpose—and we shall take no part in them.”
Bronner’s letter to the general who called him to serve in the occupied territories was a meditation on the relationship between an individual soldier and the army that orders him to do the unthinkable. Bronner had one such experience when he, working as a tank gunner, was ordered to fire a missile into a group of people. “I am the final small cog in the wheel of this sophisticated war machine. I am the last and smallest link in the chain of command. I am supposed to simply follow orders—to reduce myself to stimulus and response. To hear the command ‘Fire!’ and pull the trigger, to bring the overall plan to completion,” Bronner wrote. “And I am supposed to do all this with the natural simplicity of a robot, who senses nothing beyond the shaking of the tank as the shell is ejected from the gun barrel and flies to its target.”
Bronner wrote that, although he was not a particularly gifted soldier, he was capable of thinking. And so he refused to fire. He acknowledged that he was “a buzzing gnat that you will swat and try to crush before striding on.” But his warning to the general and Israel’s political leaders was powerful: “One single gnat can’t halt a tank, certainly not a column of tanks, certainly not the entire march of folly. But … ultimately other gunners, drivers, and commanders, who will see more and more aimless killing, will also start thinking and buzzing. There are already many hundreds of us. Ultimately, our buzzing will turn into a deafening roar, a roar that will echo in your ears and in those of your children. Our protest will be recorded in the history books, for all generations to see. So, general, before you swipe me away, perhaps you too should do a little thinking.”
10. United States, 1993: A twenty-something law student teams up with Burmese villagers against a California oil company.
Katie Redford, a 25-year-old student at the University of Virginia School of Law, was doing a human rights internship on the Thai-Burmese border in 1993. During her time there, she heard many stories of villagers fleeing from military-ruled Burma into Thailand.
The Burmese army terrorized communities as entire villages were destroyed to clear a corridor for a gas pipeline being built for the California-based oil company, Unocal, and its partners, including the French oil company, Total, and the Burmese military junta.
One local activist told Redford how he and others had written to Unocal and the U.S. government describing the violence they suffered. They received no response. The young man asked her: Given that he had been ignored in his peaceful attempts to prevent the destruction of his community—did he have the legal right to blow up the pipeline? Redford pointed out that she was only a second-year law student, but she guessed that no, that would be illegal. “And, in any case,” she added, “it’s really not a great idea.”
The question did, however, make her think through the challenge of how to find suitable redress. At the time, it seemed impossible.
Redford met with an activist named Ka Hsaw Wa, who had been jailed and tortured in 1988 for his part in Burma’s pro-democracy protests. While working secretly near Burmese army units, Ka Hsaw Wa agreed to smuggle Redford across the border, where, despite a bout of malaria, she gathered information for a report on the brutality connected with the pipeline.
Redford documented a range of horrific abuses. In one case a woman’s baby was thrown into a fire and burned alive. As Redford later recalled: “Refugees who were literally fleeing their burned homes, fearing murder, rape, or being seized for forced labor, would look me in the eye and say, ‘Please, when you go back to your country, use your freedom to protect ours. Use your rights to protect ours.’”
On returning to law school, Redford searched for a way to force Unocal to take responsibility for the abuses that she believed had been committed on Unocal’s behalf. She focused especially on an obscure law signed by George Washington in 1789 and originally intended to combat piracy. Two centuries later, Redford believed the long-defunct Alien Tort Claims Act might have a useful role to play, by giving U.S. courts the jurisdiction to make rulings against companies in connection with international crimes committed against individuals outside of the United States.
Redford worked for a year on a paper that explored those options. The paper gained her an academic A. But her professor assured her that she was deluded if she thought that suing an international oil company in connection with abuses in a far-off country could ever happen in the real world. Redford later described the conversation: “It will never happen. It’s a terrible idea. You will not succeed.”
Redford challenged that confident assessment. In 1995, she and Ka Hsaw Wa founded the nonprofit organization EarthRights International. Using the arguments first set out in her student paper, they filed suit on behalf of 15 Burmese villagers in an unprecedented legal action as corporate America looked on nervously. Then, in a landmark decision in 1997, a federal district court in Los Angeles concluded that U.S. courts can adjudicate claims against corporations for complicity in abuses committed overseas.
A series of appeals and counterappeals followed. Finally, in December 2004, just months before the trial was due to begin, Unocal settled out of court. Though the amount has never officially been disclosed, the company is reported to have paid millions of dollars in compensation.
For those involved, as important as the money was the principle. A law student, and those she went on to work with, proved wrong those who believed that villagers on the other side of the world couldn't challenge a global company for its part in their suffering. As one of the forced-labor victims said, “I don’t care about the money. Most of all I wanted the world to know what Unocal did. Now you know.”
Redford and Ka Hsaw Wa, who were married in 1996, continue in their work with EarthRights International to highlight connections between human rights abuses and international business. Companies around the world—in Indonesia, Nigeria, and elsewhere—have been forced to think about their human rights responsibilities as never before.