direct action

First, activists use direct action to reduce the issues to symbols. These symbols must be
carefully chosen for their utility in illustrating a conflict: an oil company vs. an
indigenous community, a government policy vs. the public interest.

Then we work to place these symbols in the public eye, in order to identify the evildoer,
detail the wrongdoing and, if possible, point to a more responsible option. Frequently,
usually by design, the symbolism and conflict are communicated to the wider public,
using the media. This symbolic treatment of the issue is, in fact, at the core of action
strategy, and knowing this is key to understanding the tactic.

The most important, and therefore most difficult, thing about direct action is developing a sense of timing – when to seize a political moment. The second most important thing is creativity in designing an action, and fortunately that’s a bit easier.”Timing may not be everything, but it’s damn close.” Action skills such as climbing or inflatable driving are mechanical ones and people usually pick them up relatively quickly. A sense of timing and opportunity is harder to develop. When examining other actions as a source of ideas, always work to understand the timing behind them.

In essence you’re saying: “I want my target audience to do this: ” Is it the general public,
government officials, the mill operators, or the corporate executives you are trying to
affect? Too often we hear a defiant comrade declare: “I’m sending a message to all of
them.” Good intentions, but fuzzy politics. Such universal messages are very rare. If you
think you’re sending a message to “all of them,” it often means you haven’t thought
through your target audience well enough. Each action should reveal what we’re against
and what we’re for. We may be against several things: the mill, the Forest Service, and
the corporate suits. But each of these players should be held specifically accountable for
their specific actions. Nailing them on the specifics – who did what, and when did they do it – may be harder than issuing a grand indictment, but sends a clearer message. The
principle also applies when you’re thinking about what segment of the public you’re
trying to reach.

First, we have to avoid jargon – specialized language or concepts understood in an industry of a movement, but obscure to the general public. Second, if you want to campaign on these more complicated issues, you must take the time to establish the context before the action. There are many ways to do this. Releasing a report, holding a press conference or briefing, placing letters to the editor or advertising, can all help to establish context. Third and most important, it’s much easier – that is, more understandable to the public – to protest events rather than policy.

***

There is much debate over “hard” vs. “soft” action. You hear it at meetings, around
campfires, or read it in an eco-journal: folks advocating “harder” action and often
criticizing “soft” action as being “just symbolic.” This argument has at times even kept
groups on different sides of the divide from working together effectively. But this
argument shows a misunderstanding: all direct action is symbolic by nature.
When people say “hard” actions, they usually mean physical intervention or blocking. It
is thought that hard actions cost the object of the action “a real price” and often end in
arrests.

“Soft” action, on the other hand, is viewed as mostly symbolic – sometimes so non-
interventional that it is described simply as a presence or witness. Demonstrations and
vigils also tend to wear the soft label. But when facts are examined, distinctions blur.
Blockades always end; plugs come out; bladders give out. So is there a difference? You
can argue that the difference remains in the risk entailed by the action, or its difficulty.
This is, in the end, a red herring. All actions, “hard” or “soft,” have the same goal: to
make an objective change in the world.First, activists use direct action to reduce the issues to symbols. These symbols must be
carefully chosen for their utility in illustrating a conflict: an oil company vs. an
indigenous community, a government policy vs. the public interest.

Then we work to place these symbols in the public eye, in order to identify the evildoer,
detail the wrongdoing and, if possible, point to a more responsible option. Frequently,
usually by design, the symbolism and conflict are communicated to the wider public,
using the media. This symbolic treatment of the issue is, in fact, at the core of action
strategy, and knowing this is key to understanding the tactic.

The most important, and therefore most difficult, thing about direct action is developing a sense of timing – when to seize a political moment.

The second most important thing is creativity in designing an action, and fortunately
that’s a bit easier.

A close second is a commitment to stay at it until you get it right – hours, days or longer.
Brainstorm until you’re dry, then analyze what you’ve come up with and wait for your
creative well to fill again. Remember that formal indoor meetings are often the hardest
place to be creative. Vary the location for your strategy sessions. David Brower’s advice
is to close more bars. You’ll get your best ideas between midnight and closing time.

A colleague used to say: “Timing may not be everything, but it’s damn close.” Action skills such as climbing or inflatable driving are mechanical ones and people usually pick them up relatively quickly. A sense of timing and opportunity is harder to develop. When examining other actions as a source of ideas, always work to understand the timing behind them.

As environmentalists, we recognize that everything is connected. But we
can’t attempt to campaign on everything at once, because the public won’t hear us. You
must define the issues as clearly and simply as possible.

 

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About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on November 26, 2011, in research. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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