The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (August 2023)
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Direct action is a term for economic and political behavior in which participants use agency—for example economic or physical power—to achieve their goals. The aim of direct action is to either obstruct a certain practice (such as a government's laws or actions) or to solve perceived problems (such as social inequality).
Direct action may include activities, often nonviolent but possibly violent, targeting people, groups, institutions, actions, or property that its participants deem objectionable. Nonviolent direct action may include civil disobedience, sit-ins, strikes, and counter-economics. Violent direct action may include political violence, assault, arson, sabotage, and property destruction.
Activities such as electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, and arbitration are not considered direct action because participants are elected or nominated, while practitioners of direct action operate with no public mandate.
Terminology and definitions
It is not known when the term direct action first appeared. Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote that the term and concept of direct action originated in fin de siècle France. The Industrial Workers of the World union first mentioned the term "direct action" in a publication about the 1910 Chicago strike. American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote the essay "Direct Action" in 1912, offering historical examples such as the Boston Tea Party and the American anti-slavery movement, and writing 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 categorized direct action with the struggle between worker and employer for economic control. Mellor defined it "as the use of some form of economic power for securing of ends desired by those who possess that power." He considered it a tool of both owners and workers, and for this reason he included lockouts and cartels, as well as strikes and sabotage.[full citation needed]
By the middle of the 20th century, direct action expanded, and the term's meaning became more specific.
Canadian anarchist Ann Hansen, one of the Squamish Five, wrote in her book Direct Action that "the essence of direct action [...] is people fighting for themselves, rejecting those who claim to represent their true interests, whether they be revolutionaries or government officials".
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Some sections of the anti-nuclear movement have used direct action, particularly during the 1980s. Groups opposing the introduction of cruise missiles into the United Kingdom employed tactics such as entering and occupying United States air bases and blocking roads to prevent the movement of military convoys and to disrupt projects.
Anti-globalization activists forced the Seattle WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 to end early via direct action tactics and prefigurative politics. Activists placed debris and their bodies between the WTO delegates and the building they were meant to meet in. Activists also engaged in property destruction to express their opposition to corporate culture.
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, they dropped a banner from Mount Rushmore, placing President Obama's face next to other historic presidents. The banner read: "History honors leaders. Stop global warming." Also in 2009, following the Power Shift conference in Washington, D.C., hundreds blocked the gates of the coal-fired plant that powers the US Congress building.
Human rights activists have used direct action in the campaign to close the School of the Americas (SOA). 245 SOA Watch protestors have collectively spent almost 100 years in prison, and more than 50 people have served probation sentences.
In the United States, direct action is increasingly used to oppose the fossil fuel industry, oil drilling, pipelines, and gas power plant projects.
Many campaigns for social change—such as those promoting suffrage, improved working conditions, civil rights, abortion-rights or anti-abortion, controls on gentrification, and environmental protection—claim to employ at least some types of violent or nonviolent direct action. Historical practitioners of direct action include supporters of the American civil rights movement, the global justice movement, women's suffrage, LGBT and other human rights movements, and certain environmental advocacy groups.
Direct action protestors may perform activities such as:
One of Greenpeace's tactics is to install banners in trees or at symbolic places like offices, statues, nuclear power plants.
Pranks may also be considered a form of direct action. Examples of direct action pranks include the use of stink, critter, and paint bombs. Protestors may pie their targets. The Yes Men practice nonviolent direct action through pranks.
Some direct action groups form legal teams, addressing interactions with the law enforcement, judges, and courts.
Violent and nonviolent direct action
Definitions of what constitutes violent or nonviolent direct action vary. Sociologist Dieter Rucht states that determining if an act is violent falls along a spectrum or gradient—lesser property damage is not violence, injuries to humans are violent, and acts in between could be labelled either way depending on the circumstances. Rucht states that definitions of "violence" vary widely, and cultural perspectives can also color such labels.
American political scientist Gene Sharp defined nonviolent direct action as "those methods of protest, resistance, and intervention without physical violence in which the members of the nonviolent group do, or refuse to do, certain things." American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote that violent direct action utilizes physical, injurious force against people or, occasionally, property.
Some activist groups, such as Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, use property destruction, arson, and sabotage and claim their acts are nonviolent as they believe that violence is harm directed toward living things.
Nonviolent direct action
American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who used direct action tactics such as boycotts and sit-ins, felt that the goal of nonviolent direct action was to "create such a crisis and foster such a tension" as to demand a response.
Mahatma Gandhi's methods, which he called satyagraha, did not involve confrontation and could be described as "removal of support" without breaking laws besides those explicitly targeted. Examples of targeted laws include the salt tax and the Asiatic Registration Act. His preferred actions were largely symbolic and peaceful, and included "withdrawing membership, participation or attendance in government-operated [...] agencies." Gandhi and American civil rights leader James Bevel were strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's 1894 book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which promotes passive resistance.
Violent direct action
Examples of violent direct action may include rioting, lynching, terrorism, political assassination, freeing political prisoners, interfering with police actions, and armed insurrection.
Insurrectionary anarchism, a militant variant of anarchist ideology, primarily deals with direct action against governments. Insurrectionist anarchists see countries as inherently controlled by the upper classes, and thereby impossible to reform. While the vast majority of anarchists are not militant and do not engage in militant actions, insurrectionists take violent action against the state and other targets. Most insurrectionary anarchists largely reject mass grassroots organizations created by other anarchists, instead calling for coordinated militant action to be taken by decentralized cell networks. Insurrectionists call for the creation of anarchist mass societies through the seizing and invasion of land from the state, such as in EZLN or Rojava.
While radical activism has been effective as part of the civil rights movement, forceful or violent environmental sabotage (FVES) can have a "negative impact on voter attitudes toward all environmental organizations", though that effect is contingent on the organizations' prior record.
In polls conducted in the United Kingdom, two thirds of respondents supported non-violent environmental direct action, while a similar percentage believed defacing art or public monuments should be criminalized.
The question of engaging in radical protest is known as the "activist's dilemma": "activists must choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and more extreme actions that succeed in gaining attention, but may be counterproductive to their aims as they tend to make people think less of the protesters."
- List of civil rights leaders
- List of peace activists
- Praxis (process)
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in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws and such other laws as a Committee
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