Direct action gets a bad rap. It is bold, attention-seeking, and thrives on media coverage. But without it, there would have been no Suffragette movement, no women’s vote, no Indian independence, and no black power movement in the United States — to name a few examples. DA is a powerful method of communication and it can inspire people to take part in a protest movement like nothing else can.
1. Direct Action Does Not Have to Be Violent.
If Mohandas Gandhi was alive today he would be labelled as a terrorist, criminal activist, and disturber of the peace. But without him, India would not have attained independence in 1945. He was a key figure in the movement despite advocating only non-violent methods of civil disobedience. On 12 March, 1930 he led his fellow Indian nationals on a Salt March to protest the British-imposed salt tax. They walked for 24 days to reach the sea in order to make their own salt, to demonstrate that it belonged to the Indian people and that they should not have to pay a tax on it. The message was simple. Thousands followed, were beaten, and imprisoned for taking part. Yet the movement grew in strength and numbers.
Gandhi believed in peacefulness and truth. He ate a strict vegetarian diet, fasted, and meditated in order to lead the Indian people through unsettled times. In a time of conflict between Muslims and Hindus he inspired the warring sides to put aside their differences and unite with the vision of an India free from British rule. Gandhi was imprisoned many times. He not only won the Indian people the rule of their own nation, but also their hearts and minds.
2. Direct Action Can be Creative, Fun, and Funny.
Here I am (seated, meditating, far left) with an affinity group taking part in a direct action in Scotland. We dressed up as ‘tar sands monsters’ by donning black bin bags, covering ourselves in treacle, and visiting a Royal Bank of Scotland branch in Edinburgh while reciting phrases such as ‘RBS, keep feeding us..’, since the bank funds tar sands extraction. Our aim was to educate RBS customers and staff members in a fun and creative manner about the link between the bank’s investment in tar sands, and the hugely destructive impact this has on the environment. As the bank manager swiftly evacuated his customers, and fellow protesters who were stationed outside the bank sang an amended version of Lady Gaga’s ‘Pokerface’, RBS employees couldn’t help but laugh.
And so did the police. Instead of arresting us, they empathized with what we were doing, and told us they would ‘let us off’ if we took our sit-in outside. We had not expected this. A chant broke out of ‘who polices RBS?’, and the police officers present- over 20 of them- began to laugh. Then we hugged. And laughed some more. Could we have done this if we hadn’t been creative about our direct action, and dressed up as ‘monsters’ oozing with sticky treacles? Probably not. Yet amidst the chaos, hearts and minds were won, and the message about a serious issue was conveyed to officials and onlookers alike. Following this and other similar protests, tar sands extraction has become a mainstream, widely covered issue.
3. Direct Action Can be Powerful.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on a bus in Alabama, in December 1955, she was knowingly breaking the law, which stated that black passengers had to give up their seats to white people when none were available. She was an African-American at a time of racial segregation, and this single act of direct action, which led to her arrest, also led to a powerful movement. Through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, black Alabamans united in crippling the racially-unequal bus system. The campaign lasted over a year and ended with the United States Supreme Court overturning the ‘unconstitutional’ race-based laws. Rosa Parks is now recognized as a civil rights champion and a woman who gave others faith to stand up in the face of racial inequality, and speak out.
4. Direct Action is Needed Now.
The marches against the Iraq War involved some of the largest protest gatherings in history, but the soldiers marched on, and the invasions continued. Faith in humankind, and in the act of protest, rapidly dwindled.
A decade later, the Occupy movement sprung from the loins of a mass collective activist body that had tired of the old chants and marches. They intended to do something direct and active- to camp; to ‘Occupy’. Beginning with Occupy Wall Street, the form of protest spread across the globe as others stood in solidarity with its political aims: to challenge social and economic inequality, to challenge the power of the voices of a few in favor of the majority or ‘the 99%’. No single person led the people with the nonviolent Occupy movement, but the movement was based on the choices of the people, as it was based on a system of participatory democracy.
Arrests were made as Occupiers blocked roads, staged sit-ins, arrest and were generally harangued by the police officers who had to police them. The press were divided — should they love or hate these protestors, who were impossible to pin down to the usual stereotype of hippies/tree-dwellers/anti-war activists, and who on the one hand stood for everything that was wrong with the political system, but on the other hand were clearly breaking laws and taking part in terrorist activist activities? Either way, they couldn’t stop talking about them, and with publicity the movement grew. In today’s world, direct action speaks volumes.
If you fear the idea of taking part in a direct action, consider this. When Gandhi marched to make salt, he was knowingly breaking the law. When Rosa Parks stayed seated on a bus in Alabama, she was breaking the law. Yet, when RBS spends taxpayer money on extracting environmentally destructive tar sands, they are not breaking any laws. When the 1% live in luxury while the rest of us live on hand-outs, starve, or just scrape by, they are not breaking any laws. The common theme here is that laws are not always just, and they must be directly challenged in order for them to change. But you no longer need to break laws to get your voice heard. Thanks to the power of online media, it has never been easier to meet like-minded people, organize and develop creative (and legal) ways to take a stand in the real world.
So, the next time you want to fight for an issue that matters to you, consider taking a step beyond signing an online petition. Use your body to take action, whether you’re standing up for human or animal rights, or staging a sit-in for the Earth. Who knows, it may inspire a movement that will change the world!
Image Source: David Shankbone/Flickr