In this guide, you will learn all about direct action. This guide is designed to help activists who are considering using direct action as a way of bringing about change. It includes information on planning and carrying out an action, as well as advice on what to do if things go wrong.
Direct action is a form of protest in which those taking part seek to achieve their goals through direct, often physical, action, rather than through negotiation or discussion.
Direct action can take many different forms, from occupying buildings or blocking roads, to more disruptive actions such as property damage or violence. It is often seen as a last resort by those taking part, when other methods of protest, such as petitions or letter-writing, have failed.
What is direct action?
Direct action is doing something that helps us achieve our goals without handing power to someone else (for example, the government). Direct action interrupts business-as-usual, seizes leadership, and introduces an alternative narrative.
Direct action is often practiced by people who have few resources. They do this to try and free themselves from an injustice.
Smart direct action assesses power dynamics and finds a way to shift them.
The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object, or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, religious organizations or established trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.
Anthropologist David Graeber defines direct action as "a form of action in which means and ends become, effectively, indistinguishable; a way of actively engaging with the world to bring about change, in which the form of the action — or at least, the organization of the action — is itself a model for the change one wishes to bring about."
As Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” Malcolm X elaborated, “Power never takes a step back, except in the face of more power.” Rather than deferring to others to make changes for us through votes or lobbying, we seek to change the dynamics of power directly.
Both direct action and actions appealing to others can include nonviolent and violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the action participants. Nonviolent direct action may include sit-ins, strikes, and counter-economics. Violent direct action may include political violence, assault, arson, street blockades, sabotage, and property destruction.
By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, arbitration are not usually described as direct action, as they are electorally mediated. Nonviolent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law.
Difference with civil disobedience
People often conflate direct action with “getting arrested.” While sometimes getting arrested can amplify your message, or is strategically necessary to achieve your goal, it isn’t the point of direct action. (In most liberation struggles throughout history, “getting captured” is actually seen as a bad thing!)
Similarly, people often conflate direct action with civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a specific form of direct action that involves intentionally violating a law because that law is unjust — for instance, refusing to pay taxes that would fund a war, or refusing to comply with anti-immigrant legislation. In these circumstances, breaking the law is the purpose. With other kinds of direct action, laws may be broken, but the law being broken isn’t the point. For example, we may be guilty of trespassing if we drop a banner from a building, but the violation is incidental: we aren’t there to protest trespassing laws.
While associated with confrontation, direct action at its core is about power. Smart direct action assesses power dynamics and finds a way to shift them.
One way of thinking about power is that there are two kinds: organized money and organized people. We don’t have billions of dollars to buy politicians and governments, but with direct action, organized people spend a different currency: we leverage risk. We leverage our freedom, our comfort, our privilege or our safety.
How do organise a direct action?
Check out our tactics chapter to get inspiration for your next action. Choose which tactic to use, and learn all about the specifics of how to organise that type of action. Or read our guide on how to organise a protest.
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We see instances of direct action in indigenous parables and stories, in the Bible, Torah and Koran, and in every people’s movement and popular revolution in modern history.
Nonviolent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mahatma Gandhi's Indian Independence Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Anarchists organize almost exclusively though direct action, this manifests as a varied set of actions, non-violent or violent. Direct action is used by anarchists due to a rejection of party politics, and refusal to work within hierarchical bureaucratic institutions.
Direct action tactics have been around for as long as conflicts have existed but it is not known when the term first appeared. José Ortega y Gasset located the origins of the term and concept of direct action in fin-de-siècle France: "When the reconstruction of the origins of our epoch is undertaken, it will be observed that the first notes of its special harmony were sounded in those groups of French syndicalists and realists of about 1900, inventors of the method and the name of 'direct action.'" The radical union the Industrial Workers of the World first mentioned the term "direct action" in a publication in reference to a Chicago strike conducted in 1910. Other noted historical practitioners of direct action include the American Civil Rights Movement, the Global Justice Movement, the Suffragettes, LGBT and other human rights movements (I.e, ACT UP); revolutionary Che Guevara, and certain environmental advocacy groups.
American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote an essay called "Direct Action" in 1912 which is widely cited today. In this essay, de Cleyre points to historical examples such as the Boston Tea Party and the American anti-slavery movement, noting that "direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it."
In his 1920 book, Direct Action, William Mellor placed direct action firmly in the struggle between worker and employer for control "over the economic life of society." Mellor defined direct action "as the use of some form of economic power for securing of ends desired by those who possess that power." Mellor considered direct action a tool of both owners and workers and for this reason, he included within his definition lockouts and cartels, as well as strikes and sabotage.
Martin Luther King Jr. felt that the goal of nonviolent direct action was to "create such a crisis and foster such a tension" as to demand a response. The rhetoric of King, James Bevel, and Mahatma Gandhi promoted nonviolent direct action as a means to social change. Gandhi and Bevel had been strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's 1894 book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which is considered a classic text that ideologically promotes passive resistance.
By the middle of the 20th century, the sphere of direct action had undoubtedly expanded, though the meaning of the term had perhaps contracted. Many campaigns for social change—such as those seeking suffrage, improved working conditions, civil rights, abortion rights or an end to abortion, an end to gentrification, and environmental protection—claim to employ at least some types of violent or nonviolent direct action.
Some sections of the anti-nuclear movement used direct action, particularly during the 1980s. Groups opposing the introduction of cruise missiles into the United Kingdom employed tactics such as breaking into and occupying United States air bases, and blocking roads to prevent the movement of military convoys and disrupt military projects. In the US, mass protests opposed nuclear energy, weapons, and military intervention throughout the decade, resulting in thousands of arrests. Many groups also set up semi-permanent "peace camps" outside air bases such as Molesworth and Greenham Common, and at the Nevada Test Site.
Environmental movement organizations such as Greenpeace have used direct action to pressure governments and companies to change environmental policies for years. On April 28, 2009, Greenpeace activists, including Phil Radford, scaled a crane across the street from the Department of State, calling on world leaders to address climate change. Soon thereafter, Greenpeace activists dropped a banner off of Mount Rushmore, placing President Obama's face next to other historic presidents, which read "History Honors Leaders; Stop Global Warming".
In 2009, hundreds blocked the gates of the coal fired power plant that powers the US Congress building, following the Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C. In attendance at the Capitol Climate Action were Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, Phil Radford, Wendell Berry, Robert Kennedy Junior, Judy Bonds and many more prominent figures of the climate justice movement were in attendance.
Anti-abortion groups in the United States, particularly Operation Rescue, often used nonviolent sit-ins at the entrances of abortion clinics as a form of direct action in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Anti-globalization activists made headlines around the world in 1999, when they forced the Seattle WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 to end early with direct action tactics. The goal that they had, shutting down the meetings, was directly accomplished by placing their bodies and other debris between the WTO delegates and the building they were meant to meet in. Activists also engaged in property destruction as a direct way of stating their opposition to corporate culture—this can be viewed as a direct action if the goal was to shut down those stores for a period of time, or an indirect action if the goal was influencing corporate policy.
One of the largest direct actions in recent years took place in San Francisco the day after the Iraq War began in 2003. Twenty-thousand people occupied the streets and over 2,000 people were arrested in affinity group actions throughout downtown San Francisco, home to military-related corporations such as Bechtel. (See March 20, 2003 anti-war protest).
Direct action has also been used on a smaller scale. Refugee Salim Rambo was saved from being deported from the UK back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when one person stood up on his flight and refused to sit down. After a two-hour delay the man was arrested, but the pilot refused to fly with Rambo on board. Salim Rambo was ultimately released from state custody and remains free today.
In the 1980s, a California direct action protest group called Livermore Action Group called its newspaper Direct Action. The paper ran for 25 issues, and covered hundreds of nonviolent actions around the world. The book Direct Action: An Historical Novel took its name from this paper, and records dozens of actions in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Human rights activists have used direct action in the ongoing campaign to close the School of the Americas, renamed in 2001 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As a result, 245 SOA Watch human rights defenders have collectively spent almost 100 years in prison. More than 50 people have served probation sentences.
"Direct Action" has also served as the moniker of at least two groups: the French Action Directe as well as the Canadian group more popularly known as the Squamish Five. Direct Action is also the name of the magazine of the Australian Wobblies. The UK's Solidarity Federation currently publishes a magazine called Direct Action.
Until 1990, Australia's Socialist Workers Party published a party paper also named "Direct Action", in honour of the Wobblies' history. One of the group's descendants, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, has again started a publication of this name.
Food Not Bombs is often described as direct action because individuals involved directly act to solve a social problem; people are hungry and yet there is food available. Food Not Bombs is inherently dedicated to nonviolence.
In the United States, direct action is increasingly used as a tool to oppose oil drilling, pipeline, and gas power plant projects and against the influence of the fossil fuel industry.
How to improve
Right now, this article is very descriptive. On Activist Handbook, we try to write practical guides. Improve this article by focussing more on lessons learned and concrete steps to organise a direct action. In other words: turn it in to a ‘how to’ guide.
Some questions to answer:
What is direct action?
What are some examples of direct action?
What are the goals of direct action?
How is direct action different from other forms of activism?
What are the risks associated with direct action?
What are the benefits of direct action?
How do you plan and carry out a direct action?
What are the challenges of organizing a direct action?
What are the legal implications of direct action?
How do you know if a direct action is successful?
Take risks, but take care by Beautiful Trouble
Cultural disobedience by Beautiful Rising
Hauser, Luke (2003) Direct Action: An Historical Novel. Available at www.directaction.org.
Lunori, G. (1999) Direct Action. Available at sniggle.net.
Sparrow, R. (undated) Anarchist Politics and Direct Action. Available at Spunk Online Anarchist Library.
A Communiqué on Tactics and Organization to the Black Bloc, from within the Black Bloc, by The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (NEFAC-VT) & Columbus Anti-Racist Action, Black Clover Press, 2001.
The Black Bloc Papers: An Anthology of Primary Texts From The North American Anarchist Black Bloc 1988-2005, by Xavier Massot & David Van Deusen of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (NEFAC-VT), Breaking Glass Press, 2010.
Van Deusen On North American Black Blocs 1996-2001, by David Van Deusen, The Anarchist Library, 2017.
Non Violent Direct Action: Start Here by Holly Hammond
198 Methods of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp
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