Sticker Shock

This narrative is adapted from excerpts of "The New World of Power" in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (Palgrave, 2001).

Stickers were far from trivial; in fact, they represented both the cheerful insolence and ubiquity of Otpor's effort to undermine Milosevic. Popovic called stickers "the key medium," in part because putting up posters made people more noticeable to the police, but "you can count on everyone" to get involved "when it comes to a sticker." Near the climax of the struggle, Otpor went into sticker overdrive, slapping 1.8 million stickers that said, "He's Finished," on flat surfaces everywhere. But it was also the content and not merely the abundance of opposition symbols that mattered. After the regime began making spurious claims that Otpor members were terrorists and drug-dealers, many began wearing t-shirts that said, "Otpor, Drug Addict," lampooning the government's propaganda. "Each of our actions was full of humor," Popovic recalled, because it draped on nonviolent activists the mantle of confidence.

A Belgrade woman holds up an Otpor sticker during a protest march. “Gotov je!” is Serbian for “He's finished!”

The audacity of tactics like this seemed to unnerve the regime. Srdjan Milivojevic, an Otpor activist in Krusevac, remembers spray-painting a big graffiti of a fist on police headquarters there, along with the line, "Infidels, you betrayed Kosovo," and Otpor's name. The next morning, security people came out and photographed the fist. "They stayed for a long time," Milivojevic said. "I noticed their fear of it." Emboldened, he climbed on the roof of the building that night and destroyed police satellite antennas with a hammer. But no one noticed the damage, and it seemed to have no impact. "I understood," he said of the spray-painting, "that through these small deeds I could do much more than by any violent actions." And such deeds were happening all over Serbia; at the crest of its wave, Otpor had 70,000 members in 130 branches.

The psychological pressure of people power, when it proliferates in all directions-as Corazon Aquino's yellow-kerchiefed followers in the Philippines discovered — has two strategic benefits: It transfers anxiety about what's coming next from those who are challenging the regime to the regime itself (whose consequent repression often backfires), and it plants doubt in the minds of police and military cadres about how long the rulers whom they serve can last. Milosevic could "resist only with support from police and (the) army," opposition leader (later Serbian prime minister) Zoran Djindjic observed. "We knew if we can affect police and army around him, and bring them to think, 'should they support Milosevic or not' ...that he cannot survive."

To do that, Otpor and other oppositionists realized, meant that the police had to be persuaded that they were not viewed as enemies of the movement, but in fact were natural allies. "Our message was: There is no war between police and us," Srdja Popovic recalled." Our message was that we together are the victims of the system. And there is no reason... to have war between victims and victims. One [kind of] victims are in blue uniforms, other victims are in blue jeans." Serb national soccer teams wore blue uniforms, and crowds had often chanted in support, "Blue Guys! Blue Guys!" So that's what anti-Milosevic crowds sometimes chanced exuberantly at the police.