Protecting arrested demonstrators by protesting outside the police stations where they are being detained

Otpor protester holding floors in front of police officer

Otpor! (“Resistance!” in Serbo-Croatian) prepared secondary demonstrations — their “Plan B” — outside police stations to respond immediately to arrests during protest events. The police were less likely to beat or detain the activists, knowing that large crowds and a number of journalists were waiting outside for them, while the activists felt less afraid, thanks to the support they knew they were receiving.

Once arrests occurred, Otpor! put Plan B into action by mobilizing its extensive network of contacts:

  1. A nearby observer with a mobile phone observed the arrest and determined which police station received the arrested activists.
  2. Lawyers went immediately to the police station to negotiate for the activists’ release.
  3. Other Otpor! activists gathered, within an hour, in front of the police station and at the organization’s office. They played games and sang songs to keep the crowds upbeat, calm and involved. Activists remained outside the police stations until the detainees were released.
  4. Media contacts went to the police station to report on the protests and take statements from the activists’ after they were released.
  5. Opposition parties condemned the arrest and sent their members to the police station.
  6. Local NGOs informed international organizations and asked them to condemn the arrests.

Otpor! put substantial time and effort into building a strong, extensive and loyal network that could be mobilized quickly. Extensive planning outlined who would call whom and exactly what each person was to do after the arrests, so that the second demonstration would follow the arrests almost instantaneously. Most contact information for the network was stored on individual members’ mobile phones, so that the police could not seize or destroy the information.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

In Serbia, under the Milosevic regime, a group of young activists built on the idea of safety in numbers, using secondary demonstrations to protect members arrested during demonstrations and to render the threat of arrest ineffective. They also used humor and theater to lessen the population’s fear of government power.

Otpor!’s “Plan B” is a fascinating example of a tactic that met the aims described in each  section of this workbook. People using this tactic prevented the imminent torture of activists inside the police station. They intervened to stop the ongoing abuses of the Milosevic regime by weakening police power.  They helped heal and restore the confidence of protesters who had been arrested, and helped volunteers overcome the fear of being arrested. And the visibility of the demonstrations built awareness of the regime’s abuses and the growing democratic resistance movement.

Otpor!’s success depended on a number of critical factors. While the country was suffering under an autocratic regime, Otpor!’s lawyers were still able to meet with the activists and have some influence with the police. Similarly, the police and the regime still feared a large public gathering and international public opinion. In a totally closed society, neither of these things would be true.