Rubber Ducks for Revolution: the power of humour in protest movements

December 1, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I’m loving the theatre of the protests in Thailand. First the adoption of the Hunger Games’ three finger salute, which actually started in 2014, and was promptly banned by the military. In that earlier round of protest, popular culture figures from cartoon hamsters to the Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort were all invoked.

Now it’s the hour of the rubber ducks. According to a piece by Mong Palatino in Global Voices:

‘Rubber ducks became the newest icon of the Thai democracy movement after protesters used them as shields against police water cannons on November 17. The rubber ducks were used again the following day during a rally condemning police violence.

Images of a rubber duck stained with purple-colored chemicals from the water used in the cannons went viral, inspiring memes and messages of solidarity from activists, artists, and internet users in Thailand and also in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Protesters with rubber ducks

The November 17 rally near the parliament was organized to push for constitutional amendments, which is one of the demands of the youth-led protest movement. The other two demands include proposals for monarchy reform and an end to the persecution of critics of the military-backed government.’

As you’d expect, the memes started immediately. Here are two of my favourites.

Rubber ducks Star Wars meme
Rubber ducks meme

According to a piece in the Guardian: ‘The ducks were initially brought to Tuesday’s rally to mock the authorities, who had blocked access to the parliament building. Protesters joked that the only way to reach parliament, where possible changes to the constitution were under discussion, would be to send rubber ducks along the river.’ 

The rise of the ducks sent me back to one of my favourite books on campaigning – ‘Blueprint for Revolution’ by the Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, distilling lessons from his experiences of fomenting protests in several countries, including his own. One chapter, called ‘Laugh Your Way to Victory’, extols the ‘genius of laughtivism’. Humour is cool – it swells the numbers of protesters; laughter trumps fear (Mark Twain ‘against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand’).

But above all, it throws the police off guard and makes attempts at repression look ridiculous – they know how to handle and repress angry demonstrators, but what if they take their TV sets out for a walk in a pram, instead of listening to the state-controlled news (Poland, 1982) or conceal loudspeakers in piles of garbage, forcing the Syrian police to root through piles of muck to track down the source of anti-Assad messages, to the amusement of onlookers?

Mark Thomas wearing sheep mask
First they came for the Sheep…. Credit: Indyrikki

The British comedian Mark Thomas specializes in the subversive use of humour. Dressed as cartoon character Shaun the Sheep, he protested against the privatization of public space by walking up and down outside the London Stock Exchange in the square owned by Mitsubishi. Baffled security men ended up wrestling a cartoon character to the ground on camera, before frogmarching him from the square, bizarrely addressing him as ‘Shaun’ throughout

The Thai protesters must be praying for the moment when the police arrest one of their ducks…..

And just to show it’s not just a Thai thing, check out the Singapore protester who’s currently up in court for…… holding up a smiley face sign.

December 1, 2020
Duncan Green