Rude gestures can be effective forms of non-violent political protest. One such gesture that made an enormous splash in the summer of 1980 was Polish pole vaulter Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz’s controversial elbow slap at the Moscow summer Olympics.
The Moscow Olympics were already mired in political controversy. Sixty-four countries had boycotted the event in protest over the Soviet Union’s recent invasion of Afghanistan. Under tight Soviet control, Poland and the other nations in Europe’s Eastern bloc did not have this option.
Kozakiewicz set a new world record in his sport in front of Moscow crowds that were loudly rooting for his Soviet rival. After receiving his gold medal, a grinning Kozakiewicz made the gesture the French call the bras d’honneur, which the international press interpreted as his way of showing defiance at the Soviet Union’s continuing domination of Poland. The Soviet Union loudly demanded that Kozakiewicz be stripped of his gold; Olympic officials refused. To this day, the gesture Kozakiewicz used is referred to fondly in Poland as the “gest Kozakiewicza.”
Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz’s spontaneous behavior that day is an instance of personal defiance that became political. What are some tips for deliberately using a rude gesture as a form of political protest?
The Gesture Can’t Be Violent
In 2008, an Iraqi journalist famously threw two shoes at George Bush while the American President was making an appearance at a joint press conference in Baghdad with then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki.
In the Arab world, the shoe is a signficator of contempt. This incident was reported upon in headlines around the world. Nonetheless, the journalist gesture was not an effective form of political protest. Why? The gesture cast President Bush in the role of the victim of a physical assault. Political protest is most persuasive when it is non-violent.
The Gesture Must Be Public
The line between personal and political protest is often blurred because people tend to have strong personal opinions about the people and policies with which they politically disagree. Blowing a raspberry at a politician in an airport is not a political act. In fact, it may well be a violation of that politician’s privacy. Blowing a raspberry at that same politician in the context of a political convention, on the other hand, is a political act because the politician is appearing there in front of an audience in his or her public capacity. Make sure all political protest is aimed at functionaries or policies, not the human beings behind them.
Continue reading the 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.