Direct action is an underused and underemphasized means of political and social change. Rather than advocate change through wealthy political representatives, direct action promotes acting to advance your interests yourself. It means using you and your community’s own means to advance your political, social, and economic interests instead of appealing to existing power structures.
Direct action can include many things, including but not limited to community outreach, community projects, protesting, occupying, and squatting. Mainstream discourses constructed by corporate media advocate voting, calling representatives, and public testimony as the ultimate activism. They ignore or condescend to other means of social, political, and economic change like direct action as brutish. Despite constant emphasis and investment, working through congressional representatives will not disrupt structures of white-supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. To challenge social, political, and economic issues at their roots, we need to use direct action.
Unlike representational politics, direct action can address imperialism and so-called “green” development. You and I have no sway in US backed right-wing violence against Bolivia’s democratically elected leader Evo Morales, or its connection with Tesla’s need for Lithium. US sanctions against Venezuela, which have killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans, are not up for critique on the senate floor. In this way, US-perpetrated and US-supported violence in the Global South are the grim underside of a capitalist green energy movement that is central to the democratic platform. These examples show how the capitalist and colonial interests shape what is acceptable to hold a vote over and what is simply ‘reality’. They show how voting is incapable of addressing the gross violations of human rights and sheer violence of US imperialism.
Disenfranchisement also weakens the influence of voting. Criminalization of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities repeals and/or creates more barriers to these groups’ right to vote, sometimes permanently. On a single day in December, 2020, 1 in 301 white men and 1 in 53 Black men were incarcerated. Indigenous and hispanic people are also disproportionately incarcerated. This data shows how voting is a racially exclusive means of political participation. You might ask, what should we do if not vote and lobby for change? This is not a call for nihilistic withdrawal from politics or a justification to be idle. This illustration of the innate flaws of American “democracy,” shows how it cannot address your material interests, because it is designed to facilitate the interests of the ruling class. Rather than invest more in American “democracy,” we should use the most effective tool available – direct action.
Direct action is the most effective way to change the conditions of our communities. Just last month, Enei Begaye and other members of Alaska-based Native Movement created a physical blockade after work started on an agricultural project that was proposing to expand a road through Nenana traditional territory, hunting, and fishing grounds. Members of Native Movement and the Nenana Native Association and Village Council effectively organized and physically blockaded the road before any equipment was able to move through. This is direct action. Anchorage’s first community fridge opened this past May joining a national grassroots movement to fight food insecurity through a neighborhood refrigerator filled with fresh food that community members can access without any paperwork or identification. This is direct action. Rather than solely pleading with representatives, the community fridge and Native Movement organizers use their own means to physically block access to the road and distribute food to people in hunger.
Larger national examples of direct action include Stonewall Riots of 1969 when patrons of a gay night club in New York refused to comply with police overreach, harrassment, and a raid, sparking LGBTQ groups across the nation to organize and mobilize laying foundations for LGBTQ rights. Similarly, Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) took direct action by occupying Alcatraz Island from November 1969 – June 1971 during a time that Native American cultures were being attacked by termination policies that terminated the status of over 100 tribes whilst seizing millions of acres of Native Land. IOAT’s occupation was rooted in liberation theology with hopes of sparking a global indigenous rights movement. The occupation served as direct action by using the group’s own means to create a better city and community that honored indigenous land, autonomy, and self determination.
Rather than lobbying or pleading with representatives, these examples highlight the power of direct action to create the material changes our so-called “representatives” deny us. By directly meeting needs and attacking colonial, white-supremacist, imperialist, hetero-patriarchal, and capitalist structures, we can help build communities and institutions that meet the needs of all people rather than serving the ruling class. Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes “abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Direct action is how we address colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism and build life affirming communities and worlds.