Can Crowds Celebrate As A Form Of Protest?

May 18, 2012
Originally published on May 25, 2012 9:04 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Power Of Crowds.

When Anders Behring Breivik admitted to killing 77 people in Norway in 2011, he claimed that a children's song was "brainwashing" the country's youth. The song, "Barn av Regnbuen," is an adaptation of Pete Seeger's "My Rainbow Race." It means "Children of the Rainbow," and Norwegians have been singing it for decades.

Graduate student Lill Hjonnevag wouldn't let Breivik's claim stand. "I felt that he had spoiled the song," she said. "I wanted to take it back."

Hjonnevag got on Facebook with an idea: get a crowd of people together in a central square in Oslo and sing "Barn av Regnbuen" together. She gave herself a week to organize and hoped that by then she'd get 100 people to RSVP on the Facebook page. It wasn't long before thousands had pledged to go. With the help of union organizer Christine Bar, Hjonnevag even reached out to Lillebjorn Nilson, the singer who adapted Seeger's original song.

Hjonnevag and Bar frantically planned for an event police estimated could draw as many as 10,000 people. They underestimated. On April 26, 2012, 40,000 people came together in song.

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Clay Shirky says you can see these kinds of collaborations taking place all over the world. A few weeks ago, after our interview, he told us about his recent trip to Norway, where he stumbled into a classic power-of-crowds moment.


CLAY SHIRKY: Yeah, I was in Oslo by happenstance for a concert at the Folk Theater, during the festival. They said, oh here, we're breaking for lunch and stuff you may want to go to the square for this mass sing-a-long. And I said, oh really? You know, what is this? And they said that it was a protest that these two women had organized on Facebook.

STEWART: Here's some background. In July 2001, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Norway. In a country that small, it's estimated one in four people personally knew someone who was killed in that attack. Breivik went on trial in April 2012 and made a number of bizarre claims during his testimony, like how a popular children's song was brainwashing Norway's youth into Marxism.


LILL HJOENNEVAAG: I had a strong reaction to it, because to me, this is a song I hold so dearly. I grew up with it and I sing it to my own child.

STEWART: Lill Hjoennevaag is a graduate student in Oslo and, like a lot of Norwegians, grew up singing this song. It's called Barn av Regnbuen, or Children of the Rainbow. It's actually an adaptation of a Pete Seeger song, My Rainbow Race. Lill couldn't believe Breivik was saying the song was bad for Norway.

HJOENNEVAAG: I felt that he spoiled the song and I wanted to take it back.

STEWART: So, on April 20, 2012, a Thursday, Lill got on Facebook with an idea: to get a crowd of people together in a central square in Oslo and sing Children of the Rainbow together. She gave herself a week to organize and hoped, by then, she'd get 100 people to RSVP on the Facebook page.

HJOENNEVAAG: It took about a couple of hours, I think. We were way beyond 100.

STEWART: Within a day of the Facebook posting, thousands of people had RSVP'd. Lill realized she was going to need some help. A friend told her to get in touch with a woman in town named Christina Bar, who works at a labor union.

CHRISTINE BAR: Yeah, I saw it on Facebook on Friday night and I decided, oh, I'm going to attend this. And I think it was 11.30 in the evening I got the email from Lill, asking if I wanted to help out. Of course, yes. I'm all in.

STEWART: They put out the word to the singer, Lillebjorn Nilsen. He said he'd be there.

BAR: Everyone was tweeting about it as well. And it was all over the media. We were running from TV station to TV station to radio channel. And all the papers wrote about it.

STEWART: Some employers gave their workers time off to go into the square and sing. Police estimated that the crowd could be as many as 10,000.

BAR: I think we started realizing that, OK, so maybe it could be 10,000. But we weren't really sure. And then it said 40,000 people shows up in Oslo.


BAR: Not only the square was full, but the streets connecting to the square was jam-packed as well.

STEWART: At least 40,000 people showed up to sing Children of the Rainbow, and the sing-a-long went viral. Smaller groups assembled in towns across Norway. Ex-pats sang along with a live Internet stream. Even Norway's Prime Minister tweeted about it.

BAR: I don't think we're exaggerating if I say that Norway stopped at 12 o'clock to sing.



SHIRKY: It was a very clear message about the political will of tens of thousands of Norwegians about liberal values, which is what ultimately Breivik was attacking.

STEWART: Since it was Clay Shirky who brought the story to our attention, let's let him have the last word.


SHIRKY: They did not have to say, here is our specific 10-point program. They could say essentially, if you share our goals and values in any broad sense, turn out. I think the biggest lesson is really that, when you frame a message in a way that isn't about raising awareness, but that is about taking action, the old gaps between media and real world action fades away.

Your choice isn't either we're going to have a protest march or we're going to send our a brochure. Now there are ways in which you can send out a message that actually galvanizes real world action. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.