How to Cause “Good Trouble” in Ethiopia Part 1

Jeff Pearce
10 min readMar 20, 2023

The signs have been there for a long time. Massacres and persecution of Amhara. Shooting and teargassing people while they attend church. Attacking people while they celebrate Adwa Day… And when you have a mayor of a capital city who makes irresponsible remarks, who claimed that “a large migration” into Addis Ababa “is intended to overthrow the government by forces and take power”… Well, you are literally trying to criminalize the most vulnerable.

And you have the gall to tell people they don’t have the right to travel to their own capital in their own country.

That’s unacceptable. We discussed the reasons why in a previous column.

This article can’t possibly cover every aspect of tactics in a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign. It’s intended to be read in the context with my previous post and hopefully future ones. In fact, I’m hoping that this sparks discussion and as we go along, other aspects can be explored, tactics can be shaped and evolve.

I’m already getting pushback from Twitter trolls on this sort of thing — which is both sad and hilarious. If my words have no value, there is nothing for them to fear. These are ideas that Ethiopians can either reject or accept as they see fit. They can adapt them as they please. If nobody acts on my words at all, it’s no failure for me because the choice is, was and always will belong to the Ethiopian people. Their campaign, their initiative.

Now let’s get down to making trouble.

To be clear, I can’t go along with Gandhi’s whole shtick of “love your enemy” and then put up with him clubbing you to a bloody mess with a baton or shooting you.

In another lifetime, before I was a bald, pear-shaped and flabby curmudgeon, I trained for years with one of the greatest martial artists on the planet, which involved learning how not to get beaten up by idiots (but again, that was thirty years ago). So, yes, I’d love to open a chain of aikido and karate dojos in Addis, Dessie, Gondar, etc. but martial arts aren’t for everyone, and you can’t expect ordinary folks to break into a perfect mawashi-geri in Menelik II Square.

Yet neither is it practical or morally ethical at all to suggest people smuggle in weapons and drag the country back to the kind of agonies we saw for two whole years.

The minute you start hurting people physically or killing them, you validate a government’s definition of you as a “terrorist.” I am not suggesting that armed struggle should always be off the table, but —

Ethiopia is supposed to have a democracy now, and protest and civil disobedience are the natural rights of any citizens who live in one.

Civil disobedience is not passive resistance — quite the contrary. You are saying to authorities: Here we are, and we defy you. We have nothing but our arguments and our voices. But

For such a campaign to work and for any future protests, I’m warning you guys, you need a hell of a lot more discipline.

You need it at the strategic and the tactical level.

Marching is not an end in itself. Oh, you marched? What was the result? What did you achieve? “We marched for freedom.” Really? What did you get? What action was taken in response by the authorities? What did you win? You need a specific goal. Each and every time.

And not the same damn one every week! You want to create an atmosphere in which pressure leads to concessions. If you march every week with the same goal, the government just might let you, and it’ll yawn or laugh because it knows that’s all you’ll ever do. It’s called your bluff.

But if you calmly, politely, gently barge into a state broadcaster and sit in their studio and disrupt their evening newscast while playing a pop tune that sings about the need for a new constitution… Okay, now you’re making “good trouble.”

Yes, that kind of thing will lead to arrests. So, you have to weigh: do you want that? Are some of you prepared to do that?

Or can you just hack into their network system and play the tune during their broadcast, with no one finding out who did it?

Look at the power for morale and protest that Shervin Baraye accomplished with one song against the regime in Iran. And you guys are Ethiopians — you practically live and breathe music, so I presume there are already protest tunes already out there, so just keep making more.

But boy, would it be funny if a huge convoy of vehicles slowed down at hmmm, you know, a certain strategic spot in the city and then with perfect synchronization, blared one of these tunes to make a point. To a few powerful folks who need to hear it. I’m just thinking out loud.

Addis is a big city. Seems to me there are a lot of places to put up very cool protest art.

But of course, when we think of civil rights campaigns, we think of collective protest, a march in the streets. Okay, let’s break this down. We can’t cover it all in one go, but for now…

Ideally, you want to form groups in which at least two of you in every cluster are armed with cell phone cameras of reasonably good quality. If we use the most recent examples of outrages — the attack on St. George church, the cowardly attack by that uniformed sadist on the poor guy on the horse, or that other coward who slapped a priest — all of these were captured by instinct and impulse.

To which you’ll say, duh, of course they were, Jeff. But

The sad fact is you must go into any march or demonstration now ready for the worst. A protest is always designed to be a provocation, even if it looks for positive reform. But

By shooting and teargassing people at churches, the various forces have told you they will define anything they like from now on as a provocation. The rationale for beating you to death will come later.

The Gandhi tactics of old and those used by Martin Luther King and his allies depended on filling the jails to bursting. The Black civil rights movement gambled everything on the inevitable intervention of a federal government that couldn’t afford to look the other way. But

There is no tactical or strategic use in protesters filling up the jails. The authorities you’re fighting will love tossing you into jail.

That was the whole point of the authorities randomly arresting people for wearing black last month or barring workers dressed in black from their offices at government institutions. The goal was to separate you from the flock, to attack and intimidate individuals because they realize they can’t defeat something like this:

Arrests may be inevitable. Violence may be inevitable. But you can try to minimize the risks and scope of both, and through mass campaigns and steady, relentless pressure and a variety of creative protest, these authorities will re-learn shame. And as I wrote last time, nonviolent civil rights campaigns work on the fulcrum of shame.

So, how do you do that?

Well, I have some more thoughts on methods. Which brings us back to the subject of phone-cams.

Sure, in the past, you’ve caught one or two creeps on camera. But keep in mind, the whole system relies on intimidation. We must flip the table. Let it be known that they can always be caught on camera, that we will blow up their faces with screen shots — whatever uniform they wear, whatever force they’re with — and work to identify them.

Again, you may say, “Jeff, that’s obvious, we already do that.” To which I say, No, you don’t.

The trick is not bringing a camera. The trick is having that camera ready and knowing where to use it. The trick is creating a verifiable system of reportage with that camera.

That means you’ll have designated folks to be the chroniclers. You’ll have them scout out spots in the district for days, maybe even weeks in advance of a march, so that they can find the best locales where they can capture what happens, peaceful or not.

It means making friends and sneaking in buildings to get at windows so that if cops or soldiers beat a guy to death in the street and stop everyone from holding their phone up six feet away — too bad, your guy in the window caught it.

Such folks will make sure to shoot as much as possible and stand ready — it’s not just Tesfa Whoever or Eden What’s-Her-Name who happens to catch it. And your friend Tesfa should know to send the shots to one of those designated folks and only those designated folks and not just dump them on Twitter to go, “Look at me, look at me, look at me! Oh, check out my views!” Screw that.

The goal is to put out information for which we can always say, This happened at this time on this day, and X-person took this or Y-person took this.

Proper Documentation. Now please help us identify the uniformed creep who slugged a priest.

You don’t nail ’em just through footage but through details — and the regime doesn’t get to say, “Oh, that’s doctored.” Because here are all the precise details.

Senait Senay and others in 2020 (and likely well before) practically begged people to submit photos and video on the various massacres happening then with firm, verifiable background details. Proper documentation. So did I. And it drove us crazy when folks didn’t. Over and over, we asked people to document time, day, names of victims if known, etc. But

People being what they are, acting on human nature and forgetting or not caring or not knowing , I think the smart thing to try now is to build up a network of the truly committed to take on these chores. We’ll still get the posters who just dump video, but hopefully we can build a network of those who will do the proper homework.

And why all the footage and shots of police and soldier abuse?

Yes, this will hurt and undermine police/army morale. Good. But the true goal is not to instill constant fear into a soldier or cop because that just emboldens that person with a rifle or a stick to go, “Okay, fine, I’ll be as savage as I like!”

No — the goal is to provoke them to question their own actions. They are government authorities’ attack dogs and goon squads. Infect their ranks with your values of justice and equality, and now you’ve got something.

So, you must create avenues where you can win individuals in the armies or police forces to stand down when someone gives them the order to club and shoot.

And better still… to join your ranks.

These choices could be made on the spur of the moment as a soldier or police officer sees the horror of his colleagues beating up a protester. More likely, I expect it will be a private decision that comes to them after lots and lots of soul searching.

Remember: the authorities want to cull the herd and intimidate the individual. Arrested, you are all alone, you no longer have the comfort of the crowd, the pack.

But the whole point of a civil rights campaign is to make your target believe you are everywhere, you are the conscience of the city, of Ethiopia itself. You are the collective whole who can’t be ignored. Who will not go away or give up.

They want to break you into atoms, you want to come together as the voice of a nation. That’s why discipline is key and essential. Plan, coordinate, execute. But

You in the civil rights campaign are also fighting a herd. A pack of hyenas and wolves. While you join ranks to be a mighty force for social good, you want to break them down. You want to push these guys to think like individuals and make each one of them remember their personal conscience. You can’t pluck them out of their herd, but you can erode their resolve.

This is why no black clothing again for more than the specific day of the protest. No wearing this or that special pin or T-shirt while you’re alone.

You need to create conditions in which they can only arrest the 20,000 of you or none at all. Wear black the next day, for instance — easy, you’re away from the herd, you’ll get picked off.

You must become an invisible army. You show yourselves when you need to be seen. The rest, you make your presence felt through art, song, action… and then disappear again.

Call it guerrilla tactics for the nonviolent Ethiopian protester.

We have a lot of ground to cover, but again, such civil rights campaigns only work in certain political and cultural contexts, and these aren’t “one size fits all” solutions or methods; you adapt and use them or change them as need be. Hopefully, this all leads to something.

But it’s up to you. What kind of Ethiopia do you want to have in the future?

Let’s say you’re reading this and are not Amhara. Do you honestly think that after they get through with the ethnic cleansing of the Amhara out in the remote villages that they’ll leave you alone?

Let’s say you’re reading this and are not Orthodox. You honestly think as a Protestant or a Muslim, you won’t hear a knock at your door late at night one day?

If you can devalue one category of people in a nation, you can devalue anyone.

Do you want to live in a country where men in uniform actually attack you for celebrating the greatest accomplishment in your nation’s history?

This is why this column was written. And why others will be written and published later.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.