Direct Action: What to Do When Marching Isn’t Enough to Stop Injustice


Poster reading "No matter the results in November we keep fighting"
Design by Josh MacPhee

The Internet is a buzz right now with talks of marching, should Rosenstein be fired by the Trump administration. I see two narratives around this: “we have to march!” and “marching isn’t enough—we need violent revolt!”

The truth is that marching is merely symbolic. Marching doesn’t force anything, it is merely a show of force. It says, “look how many supporters we have,” but it doesn’t do anything with those supporters. Sometimes a show of force is enough to scare power to change. But as long as marching is all that is done, the marchers can be ignored. The March for Our Lives didn’t stop gun violence, for example, nor did the Women’s march stop patriarchy, despite the historic size of those actions.

However, the angry fist-shakers are also wrong that the only thing one can do with that force is violent insurrection.

Marching Won’t Stop Tyranny, so What Will?

There is a middle way. In fact this middle way is what got us most workers rights in this country, from the eight-hour day, to the end of child labor, to desegregation, and more. Most every right you have comes from this form of protest. That path is called direct action.

What Is Direct Action?

Direct action is a form of protest wherein the protestors act to instigate change themselves, rather than relying on a politicians or other institutions to act on their behalf.

Ideally direct action moves away from symbolic efforts towards actions that tangibly affect the thing being protested.

The most elegant forms of direct action involve proceeding as if the world already is the way that the protestor wishes for it to be. But it can also mean standing in the way of injustice taking place.

There is a famous speech from the launch of the Student Movement in the 1960s from Mario Savio:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

—Mario Savio, Speech, Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley (1964-12-02)

This is what direct action is all about: not merely a show of force, but acting to prevent injustice from taking place. If you intend to prevent the cogs from turning, you must understand the clockwork. It takes more work and organizing than a march—after all, to march all you have to do is decide where to show up and get people to go there. Direct action requires planning, creativity and strategy. For direct action you need to have a better understanding of the clockwork of injustice. Who is profiting from this? Where do those people go to work every day? Not only the people at the top, the day-to-day cogs, the people “just following orders” and the the people whose jobs affect the injustice in a tangential way. This makes it harder to pin down. It’s obvious what a march looks like, but direct action, by its very nature, looks different depending on the answers to these questions.

However, do not think that these complications are disadvantages. On the contrary, these are important questions that every activist should be asking about every action they organize. A rally at the corner of a street that is far from the nexus of power is not likely to be very effective.

An Example of How Direct Action Overturned an Unjust Law

My favorite definition of direct action comes from Utah Phillips, the union history folk storyteller (and pa of the Dixie Chicks). He recorded an album with 90s folk goddess Ani Difranco, with a track called “Direct Action.” I’ll summarize below, but it’s much better in his words:

In summary, in response to union activists soapboxing, the local government outlawed free speech. So, the wobblies all took their turn on the soapbox, hundreds of them, giving speeches not for the effect their words would have on the crowd, but to fill up the jails. They used the power of numbers, of so many people filling up the jails, that the law became impossible to enforce. The jails filled up with free speech activists, so there was no time and money for the police to prosecute anything but free speech, and no room in the jails for anyone but activists. So the rule had to be overturned.

The workers acted as though it were not illegal to speak freely. And in doing so, the law could not be enforced.

So you see, they used the power of numbers—of people’s physical bodies—to prevent injustice from taking place. They did not ask permission or advocate to overturn the law. It is the opposite of symbolic action, it is direct action. But it doesn’t have to mean getting arrested, it doesn’t even have to mean breaking the law (but remember, in an unjust society if you are being effective, they will likely arrest you anyway!).

Forms of Direct Action

  • "Power concedes nothing without demand" --Frederick Douglass

There are many forms of direct action, many ways to participate. Direct action can include:

  • sit-ins

A common example of this in American history is the desegregation movement, wherein activists sat in whites-only spaces where blacks were not permitted. They proceeded to act as if that law did not exist by sitting at the counters and ordering food. If they merely stood outside holding signs, this would be less effective. Instead, they responded to being told, “you can’t sit here,” by sitting there. Simple and effective.

  • building occupations

A sit-in need not target those denied service. It can also be a way to take up space, so that those committing injustice are incapable of following through. If a senator can’t get into a building to make an unjust vote, because every inch of floor is filled with protestors, they can be prevented from taking action against the people.

  • blockades

If someone is out to do something terrible, then it makes sense for us to put our bodies in the way of that action. If the boss wants to hire scabs, not only take over the building but lock the factory doors. If someone wants to cut down that redwood you love, chain yourself to the tree.

Often those who don’t care about an issue will complain about protestors blocking traffic, “how inconvenient, and to what end?” A poorly-organized street blockade will accomplish nothing (again, remember the questions above—who benefits and what action might we take to stop them?), but if that blockade is to stop corrupt criminals from reaching their destination, it can be effective. We can throw our bodies into the buildings at the sit-ins, and once the buildings are full to the brim, we can block traffic so they can’t even get into the buildings.

The blockade is also an economic strategy. For example, the teamsters union, which organizes truckers and port workers, is very powerful because if they stop imports and exports from leaving the port they can stop commerce for various parts of the economy. If a corrupt official is profiting off of a particular company, preventing that product from being shipped and sold can decimate their profits and leave them at the mercy of the people.

  • strikes

The strike is one of the most powerful and effective tools of direct action; you’ve probably heard of it. We are all part of the machine of capitalism, so by refusing to work until our demands are met, we can stop those who profit from injustice.

Usually strikes are targeted at particular companies whose workers have had enough, but if the entire society hits a breaking point, we can have a general strike. The general strike is when everyone goes on strike, no matter the industry, effectively grinding the entire economy to a halt. One of the side-benefits of any march is that people often take off of work to protest, and this economic impact is like a junior general strike. Thus, if you are scheduled to work during a protest, think of it as advantageous—by calling in sick, you can have a bigger impact.

  • workplace takeovers

Different kinds of direct action
Shut It Down by Nicolas Lampert

In a strike people stop working, but in a workplace takeover, the underlings takeover the business of the corrupt institution and run it themselves. While most people think of this in the context of factories, I suggest the example of teachers. During the student movement when professors went on strike many continued to teach classes. Instead of the curriculum, they taught classes on organizing, activism, the history of unions, or other topics that relate to the subject being protested.

A workplace takeover can be effective when those who would strike perform a very-necessary service, such as doctors or firemen. It can also be effective in response to those who claim strikers are lazy, just wanting to stay home from work. This argument is nonsense because going on strike takes a lot of work to organize, and going without pay is usually a great hardship, since people don’t strike until they are desperate to begin with. Regardless, the strike is more effective when accompanied by some kind of positive action like teach-ins.

The workplace takeover is an extremely effective tactic, because it reminds those in power: we don’t need you. We can run this place without you.

  • boycotts

I think of boycotts as a form of direct action, though some activists disagree. By choosing to buy one thing over another, you are directly affecting the profits of those in power. Perhaps the least-visible and least-effective form of direct action on this list, nonetheless it still has more power to make change than a march with a thousand people. Ultimately, again the question is, “who profits from the injustice we aim to change?” If your dollars are going to those people, you are acting in favor of that which you despise. Boycott is the answer.

Boycotts are actually most effective when the product is something you simply can’t live without. It does little good for people who rarely purchase shoes to boycott Nike. Returning to the Civil Rights movement, think of the Montgomery bus boycotts organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and SNCC. It took a great deal of organizing to pull off those boycotts, because the impoverished black citizens were reliant on buses to get to and from work. The more it hurts your day-to-day life to go without something, the more likely it is that company is reliant on you for profit.

If it is the government rather than a company that one seeks to change, it can be useful target:

  • companies that benefit from the legislation you are fighting
  • companies donating to those politicians
  • what media is helping to spread lies about this legislation (e.g. boycott Fox News advertisers)

Often it is the case that there are an overwhelmingly large number of companies involved. The boycott needs to be targeted, so it does no good to boycott everything. In that case, pick the most egregious violators and make an example of them. In the eighties, school children were upset about the non-recylable Styrofoam used to package package fast food. It would not have been effective to target all fast food, rather the children organized a boycott of McDonald’s, as the largest source of the problem. Even though they focused on one company, this successful boycott ultimately lead to all the fast food restaurants abandoning Styrofoam packaging.

  • civil disobedience

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resigns his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

Civil disobedience is any sort of direct action that violates the law. As Thoreau once said, “In an unjust society the only place for a just man is prison.” In Thoreau’s case, he was doing a particular kind of boycott—refusing to pay a government tax that went towards an unjust war. The idea, you see, is not simply to break any old law, but to break the law when the law itself is unjust, so as not to contribute to it.

  • sabotage and property destruction

Most citizens object to any form of property destruction, but as it is a form of direct action; it would be disingenuous of me to leave it out. There is much hand-wringing about whether or not property destruction is immoral, but truly it is simply another form of civil disobedience. The question of whether or not it is moral comes down to whether or not the law being broken is more immoral than the act of destruction.

One example of sabotage is slaves who under-performed their duties. They were not empowered to go on strike, but they were able to sabotage their own work performance in small, unknowable ways.

Another famous act of sabotage is People’s Park in Berkeley, California. When the students decided that they didn’t like how the university planned to use a plot of land, not only did they occupy the space, they sabotaged the construction and built a park instead. People’s Park still stands to this day, a testament to the power of direct action.

As to property destruction, imagine a weapon that will be used against non-violent civilians. Is it immoral to disable a tank, if that tank intends to roll over innocent people?

Why Direct Action Should Give You Hope

It’s easy to be cynical these days. If the largest marches in history could not bring change, what hope is there? But it doesn’t take thousands of people to successfully pull off a direct action campaign. In many cases it can easily be done with under a hundred people. Twenty devoted participants can make change, when that change is direct, rather than symbolic. Since the nature of direct action is to act, or to prevent others from action, it is more visible than marching. The public can more easily understand the intent of well-organized direct action, because it is not symbolic and doesn’t rely on a middle man, such as a politician, to bring about change. No matter how much money the other side has, money is a symbol and therefore can never be more powerful than the power of the people.

So make your signs, attend your rallies, and march if you must—but remember it is through direct action that most change comes about.

UPDATE 11/8/18:

Print this Direct Action Flyer to Pass out at Protests:

What to Do When Marching Isn’t Enough Flyer

Succinct description of direct action that fits on one page, with black and white graphic with the Frederick Douglass quote, “power concedes nothing without demand.” Clicking will open the PDF, save it wherever you want and print copies to hand out at protests. It helps to have a conversation about direct action, and what next steps we can take beyond marching.

Recommended Readings on Direct Action

If you want to know more about direct action, you can’t go wrong with Henry David Thoreau or MLK. Here are several short works that will give you a sense of what direct action is all about:

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The above link has both audio and text versions of the essay.

“On Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau

Read it online or download it to your e-reader or listen on YouTube.

“Direct Action” by Voltairine de Cleyre

text of “Direct Action” on Project Gutenberg.

Fellow Workers – album by Utah Phillips with Ani Difranco

Listen on YouTube.

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Direct Action: What to Do When Marching Isn’t Enough to Stop Injustice

by Karma Bennett time to read: 11 min