BY BABKEN DER-GRIGORIAN
Movement building is messy. There are too many factors beyond its control, too many opportunities for missteps, too many unknowns. There is no instruction manual. Often, there is barely a clear idea of what the final outcome should even look like. For this reason, a movement’s long-term success depends in large part on its ability at self-reflection or praxis – the merger of theory and practice. What we are witnessing in Yerevan today is unprecedented. It’s not perfect but that’s ok. Something worked, and it worked well. In under a week, the bus fare hike was reversed (at least temporarily). But, this isn’t the birth of a movement. More important than a birth, this is the maturing of a movement. This is a movement that is growing more experienced and more confident with every step it takes. Behind the backdrop of stopping the 50% bus fare increase, new forms of organizing and movement building are taking shape – and with it an emerging new culture of resistance and solidarity, the building blocks of systemic social change. In light of the recent victory, self-reflection seems appropriate and prudent.
Today’s movement has unique characteristics. It has no single leader, and no single organization. While this can be viewed as an asset as well as a liability, the undeniable truth is that this is serving as an incredible source of empowerment. Everyone is a leader, everyone is a follower, and with this comes the responsibilities of both roles. More importantly, this reinforces the notion that the solutions to Armenia’s problems don’t lie in waiting for a politician-savior, or in blind devotion to dogmatic partisanship. The solutions lay in a collective willingness to take initiative, stand up in the face of injustice, and try something new. In this sense, the mere participation in today’s movement is creating and fostering an empowered citizenry. It’s serving as the training grounds for a new generation of citizen-activists. For many, this is their first movement. The taste of victory means many will probably come back for the next round. They will be more experienced and hopefully more empowered than when they joined this one.
The movement is structurally innovative, combining techniques borrowed from abroad, with genuinely homegrown solutions. It is a loosely coordinated network of informally organized groups where people are united around values, ideas, goals, and demands, not organizations. It is simultaneously online – scattered among various Facebook groups and pages where tactics and strategies are discussed endlessly – and offline – visible throughout the city in the form of actions and at the “Occupy”-style general assemblies at Mashtots Park every evening. Unlike the Occupy movement however, and much to the credit of our activists, the movement is not an end in itself. It’s not about “raising awareness” or “fighting the good fight.” It’s about winning very tangible and specific things. Through this structure, the movement is fostering new values such as horizontalism, equality of voice, and self-organization. In other words, these are the rules of the game; there is no other way to play. Anyone attempting to play by different rules is immediately labeled a provocateur and ostracized. This may seem heavy handed upon first glance, but in the current Armenian reality where state and private-interest provocateurs are plenty, it’s actually been a remarkably effective deterrent against co-optation and sabotage.
This movement is issue-based, broad-based, and goal-oriented. This seems obvious on the surface but it’s actually refreshing and relatively novel for all three factors to be simultaneously present. The issue itself is almost secondary – surely, there is no shortage of issues that need addressing in Armenia – but the fact that it is issue-based is key. In the words of Paulo Freire – “you make the road by walking.” And you walk by taking one step at a time. Tackling concrete issues that affect the general population does exactly that. Unlike other recent attempts at civic mobilization, today’s movement is not abstract, or rhetorical. It’s focused, and it’s pragmatic. From the very beginning, it was able to clearly state its goals and demands, short-term and long-term. There was never any confusion about what they were after, or why. The ability to do this both protects the movement from potential co-optation, and guards against confusion among the public and media. It also builds trust among activists. Since everyone participates voluntarily, it’s a fairly safe assumption that everyone you meet in the movement is after the same set of demands, and is a supporter of the same values.
This movement has introduced a diversity of new and innovative tactics. Conspicuously absent are the tired and ineffective rallies in Freedom Square. In its place is Mashtots Park. Instead of being lectured at from a podium, people are converging to discuss, do trainings, become inspired, and get real work done. This is creating a culture of solidarity among disparate groups and unlikely allies. Here, the process is just as important as the outcome. Through this process everyone contributes whatever they are best at, in a complementary and participatory way. In other words, the movement becomes a collective of people complimenting each other’s best work. This is strategically beneficial because it gives participants a sense of ownership in the movement. It is here, where the shift from cynical spectator to activist begins, because feeling a sense of ownership means developing a vested interest in the outcome.
This diversity of tactics is actually the fuel for the movement. They provide multiple levels of engagement, multiple points of entry into the movement for different groups of people. If you have the time and interest, you show up to the general assemblies, where you can join with others from your neighborhood to organize local actions. If you have a car, you participate in the free carshare initiative, giving strangers-turned-allies a ride home. If you’re a passenger late for work, you refused to pay the new fare. At every level, there are ways to demonstrate your own form of resistance. It’s simple really – the more ways there are for people to participate, the more people will participate.
This movement isn’t asking people to place blind faith in empty promises. Instead, it organized citizen participation to directly oppose the fare increase by paying the old fare. This is an accessible and effective “ask” that directly involved all those affected. In the mere act of refusing to pay the fare hike, the average, overwhelmed, and largely disempowered citizen joined the movement, and immediately reaped its benefits. As the old saying goes, “Direct action gets the goods”. Indeed, the effective use of direct action is perhaps the movement’s greatest strength. When the person sitting next to them on the bus also refused to pay, it built bonds of solidarity. It also lowered their costs of resisting because the risk of doing so was dispersed between them. Eventually, when the entire bus refused to pay, the individual’s risk to resistance became negligible. It is here that the culture of resistance begins to take root. This has already happened on thousands of buses, where many average citizens have experienced this momentary glimpse of shared resistance. What can be done in the next round of struggle to continue fostering this shared sense of resistance?
As mentioned earlier, this isn’t the birth of a movement, but rather its maturing. The birth was last year, when Mashtots Park was saved from being turned into a retail shopping area. Yes, there have been many movements that preceded Mashtots Park, however, the victory at Mashtots Park is distinct. Last year, saving this green space was an end in itself. Today, this green space is the means for a new end. The victory of Mashtots Park has become a multi-pronged victory, and it is here, where its strategic importance lies. Last year’s victory has provided a liberated space for further movement building on issues unrelated to Mashtots Park. Knowingly or not, the activists that saved the park last year laid down the foundations of today’s movement by adding to its toolbox.
Today’s movement is taking initial steps on establishing an independent bus drivers union, a perfect example of another multi-pronged goal: Not only will an independent bus drivers union make the daily lives of bus and marshrutka drivers tangibly better, but it will also invite their greater participation in the movement, especially when their rights are being protected. Most importantly however, an organized transit labor force will provide unprecedented leverage for future civic mobilizations. The more multi-pronged goals today’s movement is able to reach, the more tools and assets it can add to its toolbox for the next round of struggle, whatever it may be.
Not everything works of course. But that’s ok. Demanding the removals of Henrik Navasardyan and Misak Hambartsoumyan is a strategically sound decision. Forcing public officials to take responsibility for their actions means that next time around they will think twice before trying to push through socially unpopular and economically short-sighted policies. The tactic used here however, that of the indefinite sit-in outside City Hall, has yet to move the movement closer to this goal, and understandably. First, a sit-in only provides one level of engagement for the goal. The fewer levels of engagement, the fewer people can engage. Second, the dismissal of individuals isn’t issue-based, or broad-based. This doesn’t diminish its strategic importance, but it does mean the movement is faced with educating the public on why and how, before any effective tactic can take place. Without an effective tactic, its strategic importance doesn’t matter because reaching the goal becomes improbable. And in movement-building, the failure to reach goals doesn’t necessarily mean the retention of the status quo; it may mean steps backwards, resources wasted, spirits broken. Here, the structure and values of today’s movement can help mitigate by inviting new and innovative ideas through self-organization. Some may work, others will not, but through this process the movement becomes smarter and more effective over time.
Movements are messy. But they’re also special. Countless new activists have been trained with real-world experience. They have seen what victory looks like. For many, the past week has indeed been a life-altering experience. Along the way, new friendships have been made and old stereotypes broken. Movement building in Armenia has entered a new stage, and there is no going back. A new culture of solidarity and resistance has taken root among the residents of Yerevan. The more self-reflective and intentional the movement can become in its thinking and action, the more effective it can be in nurturing this new culture and moving forward to systemic social change.
Babken DerGrigorian is a member of the initiative “We’re Paying 100 Drams”. He lives in Yerevan.