The experience for this article was drawn from a direct action workshop at the 1997 Young, Loud, and Proud queer youth activist conference. It was written for neofeminism.org that year.]
What is Direct Action?
Direct action is what you do when you need attention drawn big and drawn NOW. It's fun, it's educational, and it gets media coverage.
So isn't direct action just any form of immediate activism you can think of?
Not exactly. "Direct action" is specifically "in your face" actions, stuff that makes most people recoil and start whimpering about bad publicity. The more creative, the better. A group of Lesbian Avengers in San Francisco organized a direct action around queer-bashings: they dressed up as alarm clocks and gathered on a busy street corner to read off statistics of recent local hate crimes, in order to wake everyone up to the violence in their community. More simply, the Global Community of Women organized a rally for March 8, 2000, where women in every village were to "yell, scream, whistle, honk, bang pots and pans, shout, sing, chant, etc. Women at each local village can decide what variety of visible, loud actions they would like to contribute to the global rally." They say they chose this form of action because "women have been silent too long."
Direct actions try to make the punishment fit the crime. If you want to bring attention to the snow-blind education children are getting at your local elementary school, you could have balloons printed that say "Cleopatra was Black," "Columbus Didn't Discover America - He Invaded It," and "Q: If February is Black History Month and March is Women's History Month, What happens the rest of the year? ........A: Discrimination." A similar action could be organized to raise awareness of child abuse.
So is it just about getting attention?
The point of direct action is to bring a taboo out into the open and build a public dialogue about it, not to change people's minds. That can come later. Because your purpose is to make a statement and follow it up later with solid arguments once the dialogue has been opened, direct actions can be very short. You might decide to take over a news station for just long enough to get someone onscreen sharing a shocking fact about the massacres in Chiapas before getting kicked out, or you might spend a whole day performing simple street theatre and handing out pamphlets encouraging passersby to support bilingual education.
How do I plan something like that?
No matter what sort of direct action you design, there are several crucial questions to be answered:
- What's the goal of your action?
- What group or company are you targeting?
- What's your message?
Everyone involved in the action has to have the same expectations and have the same answers for those three questions. If reporters show up, (and you should call the press beforehand to make sure they do, if you want to reach the general public with your action), everyone involved must be able to give the same explanation of your action and your group's mission. Reporters will jump on disorganization and disunity, and your action will at least partly fail because your message will not reach everyone clearly.
Students in Bay Area high schools learned that when the Oakland Tribune covered a massive student protest with the headline, "Teens march for bilingual classes: Many knew very little about purpose of rally." The reporters did their best to hunt down students who were not glowing examples of knowledge about the rally's purpose.
What if I get arrested?
In any direct action, there is the possiblity of violence. Depending upon the attitude of your local police force, you may be in danger with a very direct, outspoken action. Before going out, make sure you know your rights. In case you're arrested or detained, don't bring anything with you, have money laid away beforehand to get your group members out of jail, and have some volunteers who will get away quickly if the police show up and who will keep a list of anyone who is arrested so they can be bailed out. Usually you won't be doing anything that would get you arrested, but know whether you are arrestable or not. Review your local laws, so when someone comes out and threatens to call the police on you, you can let the police come and clarify the law to your opponents. If you're smart and if you're not doing something dangerous like taking over five minutes of a news program, you will call the police beforehand to tell them about your action and make sure they don't have any objections and know all the details. Remember, you're not doing anything wrong: you're just exercising your right to assemble and your right to free speech.
I see. That's very interesting. Any last words?
Some people will argue that direct action is dangerous because it makes your group look crazy, unprofessional, and just weird. This is the "freak factor;" it's the little voice inside all of us that says, "I don't want that kind of attention! Everyone will hate us! Why can't we just organize a nice conservative petition instead?" Well, sometimes a petition is just the thing for your cause, if you're tackling a legal issue or trying to coax a business over to your side. But if you need to do a direct action to wake your community up, don't be afraid of looking freaky. Every movement needs to have groups in the middle of the road AND on the edges, both for balance and so that the midroad groups can look more normal by contrast. Your job is to keep pushing the edge of the envelope so your movement doesn't stagnate. Remember, your neighbors just paid ten bucks to see Terminator 3; they should be glad for some free entertainment for a change.
a moment of historical perspective: when i first wrote this, instead of "ten bucks to see Terminator 3"
it was "six bucks to see Godzilla"!