Direct action occurs when a group of people take an action which is intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue. This can include nonviolent and less often violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participants. Examples of non-violent direct action (also known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance) can include sit-ins, strikes, workplace occupations, hacktivism, etc., while violent direct action may include political violence, sabotage, property destruction, blockades, assaults, etc. By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitration are not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent 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.
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.
Non-violent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mohandas Gandhi's Indian Independence Movement and the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
Direct action tactics have been around for as long as conflicts have existed but it is not known when the term first appeared. 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 US Civil Rights Movement, the Global Justice Movement, the Suffragettes, revolutionary Che Guevara, and certain environmental advocacy groups.
American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote a famous 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. However, by this time the US anarchist and feminist Voltairine de Cleyre had already given a strong defense of direct action, linking it with struggles for civil rights:
- "...the Salvation Army, which was started by a gentleman named William Booth was vigorously practising direct action in the maintenance of the freedom of its members to speak, assemble, and pray. Over and over they were arrested, fined, and imprisoned ... till they finally compelled their persecutors to let them alone." (de Cleyre, undated)
Dr. Martin Luther King felt that non-violent direct action's goal was to "create such a crisis and foster such a tension" as to demand a response. The rhetoric of Martin Luther King, James Bevel, and Mohandas Gandhi promoted non-violent revolutionary direct action as a means to social change. Noteworthy, Gandhi and Bevel had been strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's 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. Most campaigns for social change—notably 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. Direct action on climate change gained more support in the early 2000s in the United States after Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore urged young people to engage in direct action to stop the construction of coal plants.
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 Mt. Rushmore, placing President Obama’s face next to other historic presidents, which read “History Honors Leaders; Stop Global Warming.”  Overall, more than 2,600 people were arrested while protesting energy policy and associated health issues under the Barack Obama Administration.
In 2009, hundreds blocked the gates of the coal fired power plant that powers the US Congress building, following the Powershift 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 non-violent 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.
Nonviolent direct action
Non-violent direct action (NVDA) is any form of direct action that does not rely on violent tactics. Mohandas Gandhi's teachings of Satyagraha (or truth force) have inspired many practitioners of nonviolent direct action, although the use of nonviolence does not always imply an ideological commitment to pacifism. In 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. described the goal of NVDA in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
One major debate is whether destruction of property can be included within the realm of nonviolence. This debate can be illustrated by the response to groups like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, which use property destruction and sabotage as direct action tactics. Although these types of actions are prosecuted as violence, those groups justify their actions by claiming that violence is harm directed towards living things and not property. The issue of whether sabotage is a form of violence is difficult to resolve in purely philosophical terms, but the use of sabotage as a methodology can be contrasted with minor property damage that is a small but necessary part of a non-violent campaign methodology such as breaking locks and fences to gain entry to a site.
In the United States, the term has largely come to signify civil disobedience, and protest in general. 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 non-violence.
Violent direct action
Violent direct action is any direct action which utilizes physical injurious force against persons or property. While groups such as Animal Liberation Front and Sea Shepherd claim that destruction of property is not violence, US and international law include acts against property in the definition of violence. Examples of violent direct action include: destruction of property, rioting, lynching, terrorism, political assassination, graffiti, freeing political prisoners, fighting against wartime occupation, interfering with police actions, self-defense, and armed insurrection.
The environmental direct action movement in the United Kingdom started in 1990 with the forming of the first UK Earth First! group. The movement rapidly grew from the 1992 Twyford Down protests, culminating in 1997.
There are now several organisations in the United Kingdom campaigning for action on climate change that use non-violent direct action, including Camp for Climate Action, Plane Stupid and Greenpeace. This has resulted in environmental campaigners being labelled as extremists by the Ministry of Justice.
- Active citizenship
- Citizen journalism
- Civil disobedience
- Civil resistance
- Direct democracy
- Direct Action Day
- Dual power
- General strike
- Independent Media Center
- List of anti-war organizations
- List of civil rights leaders
- List of peace activists
- Nonviolent resistance
- Propaganda of the deed
- Sabotage and/or Ecotage
- Security culture
- Tax resistance
- Tree sitting
- Tree spiking
- Some groups which employ or employed direct action
- Anarchists Against the Wall (Israeli group)
- Animal Liberation Front
- AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)
- Camp for Climate Action
- Campus Antiwar Network
- Committee of 100 (United Kingdom)
- Code Pink
- Confederación Nacional del Trabajo
- Cop Block
- Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg
- Direct Action Committee
- Direct Action to Stop the War
- Earth First!
- Earth Liberation Front
- Food Not Bombs
- Homes Not Jails
- Industrial Workers of the World
- Landless Workers' Movement
- Lesbian Avengers
- MindFreedom International
- National Bolshevik Party
- National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam
- No Border network
- Not Dead Yet (group)
- Occupy Wall Street
- Operation Save America
- Plane Stupid
- Reclaim the Streets
- Rising Tide North America
- Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
- School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch)
- Sons of Liberty
- Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
- Squamish Five
- Students for a Democratic Society
- Take Back the Land
- Trident Ploughshares
- War Resisters' International
- Vetëvendosje! - Movement for Self-determination in Kosova
- The I.W.W.: Its First Seventy Years, 1905-1975, Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, 1976, page 46.
- Voltairine de Cleyre."Direct Action"
- De Cleyre 2004, p. 50
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. (16 April 1963). "Letter from Birmingham Jail".
- Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (2010). Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel. Exeter: Imprint Academic. p. 19
- Michelle Nichols, "Gore urges civil disobedience to stop coal plants", Reuters (Sep 24, 2008)
- “”. "Gore: 'It Is Time For Civil Disobedience'". YouTube. Retrieved 2010-07-29.
- "First Day on the Job!". Grist.org. Retrieved 2013-08-09.
- "Greenpeace Scales Mt Rushmore – issues challenge to Obama". Grist.org. Retrieved 2013-08-09.
- Alyona Minkovsky, Kevin Zeese (24 May 2011). More activists arrested under Obama. RT.com (The Alyona Show).
- Percy, John (June 2008). "Direct Action – two earlier versions". Revolutionary Socialist Party. Retrieved 15 June 2009.
- Taylor, Matthew (26 January 2010). "Ministry of Justice lists eco-activists alongside terrorists". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 1 May 2010.
- "FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS". Food Not Bombs. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- de Cleyre, Voltairine. (1912) Direct Action. Available at Spunk Online Anarchist Library.
- 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.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Direct action.|
- DA! (Direct Action) Gallery. Direct Action in Londons Art scene.
- Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching
- Direct Action News from Germany
- ACTivist Magazine
- Civil Disobedience Manual from ACT-UP/NY
- ReclaimingQuarterly.org features photo-coverage of contemporary nonviolent direct actions
- DirectAction.org offers online organizing resources
- Greenpeace encourages its activists to use Non-Violent Direct Action
- The Citizen's Handbook
- The Boston Direct Action Project
- IWW Organizing Department
- libcom.org/organise - organising direct action at work, in the community or anywhere else tips and guidelines
- War Resisters' International
- The Scouring of the Shire: Fairies, Trolls and Pixies in Eco-Protest Culture by Andy Letcher (2001)
- Video clips of some direct action
- A bi-lingual database on all known direct action news in Greece since September 2007
- www.direct-action.de.vu German Direct-Action-Site