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Why Direct Action Works

Direct action can persuade, it can inspire, and it can change circumstances on the ground.
Marchers enter the mall in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11th, 2018, one year after the violent white nationalist rally that left one person dead and dozens injured.

Marchers enter the mall in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11th, 2018, one year after the violent white nationalist rally that left one person dead and dozens injured.

The connection between voting and political change is straightforward: If you don't like President Donald Trump's policies, you vote against him and his party. If enough people join you, better people will get into office and institute better policies.

The theory of change behind direct action, though, is less clear. How does marching, or blocking a highway, or punching a Nazi, lead to change? To many critics, direct action seems like an outlet for expressing anger and frustration, rather than a considered strategy. "I'm happy to entertain arguments that incivility will help beat Trump," Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf wrote on Twitter this past June. "But most of it I actually see from the left strikes me as counterproductive politically but emotionally satisfying for them, not done regretfully because it works."

Even left-wing Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed discomfort with some forms of direct action. After a restaurant owner refused to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the senator said, "I think people have a right to go into a restaurant and have their dinner." He added that people who want political change should "take that anger out in a constructive way, and that means ... get involved in campaigns." Political change, in this account, comes through the electoral system—not through disruptive protest.

It makes sense that Sanders, a politician, is most focused on campaigning and elections. People who study and engage in protest, though, argue that direct action—even uncivil direct action—can be valuable and effective in a number of ways. Specifically, direct action can persuade, it can inspire, and it can change circumstances on the ground.

Persuasion is perhaps the most well-understood goal of direct action, and the one that is most accepted or embraced by the mainstream. "When it comes to direct action, the goals are this: to try to bring attention to a critical issue and get public opinion on your side," explains Robert Greene, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Carolina who studies the 20th-century American South. Greene points to the civil rights movement, in which young college students engaged in sit-ins or Freedom Rides to try to bring attention to segregation and racism, as evidence that direct action can bring about positive change.

Today, the civil rights protests are often held up as having been models of respectability and peaceful change. At the time, though, "many Americans disagreed with [the protesters'] tactics," Greene says. "Even leaders of groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People felt their legal-system strategy was more effective than direct-action protests in the early 1960s." Martin Luther King was viewed unfavorably by two-thirds of Americans in 1966—a lower popularity than Trump has right now. The civil rights movement did push people to make reforms. But its leaders didn't necessarily do that by making everyone like or agree with them.

So if direct action doesn't change opinions, how else might it create change? According to street medic Lirael Lowenstein, direct action can further a range of goals. "It might be to stir public conscience or draw public sympathy. It might be to polarize the public—you know you'll be making some opponents more resolute and alienating some fences-sitters, but you're expecting to also gain some fence-sitters, strengthen weak supporters, and mobilize strong ones. It might be purely to rally supporters. It might be to bring attention to a massively under-covered issue."

Critics like Friedersdorf scoff at direct action for being "emotionally satisfying," as though emotion is a treat or indulgence. But people facing oppression and violence need emotional sustenance if they're going to continue to resist. Rallying or marching isn't just a way to try to convince opponents to change their minds; direct action is also a way to reassure people that they are part of a community and a movement that is ready to keep up the fight. Direct action models moral commitment and moral engagement—for example, by refusing to serve food to people who are complicit in taking children from their families.

Organizing has the additional effect of building infrastructure for more organizing, Lowenstein adds. "An underrated purpose of direct action, and really most protest, is to build reusable movement infrastructure, whether that's networks of activists who know and trust each other, organized pools of people with specific, frequently needed skills (and now practical experience!), organizations, sustained relationships between organizations, logistics capability, etc."

In addition to influencing opinion and building community, direct action often tries to change facts on the ground. For instance, in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the "Unite the Right" rally in August of 2017, anti-fascist protesters wanted to undermine fascist organizing directly. "The goal was to prevent the Nazis from having any sort of platform unopposed," explains Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist and activist who demonstrated against "Unite the Right" in Charlottesville. At first, that meant working to try to revoke rally permits. But it also meant marching in counter-protests against the Nazis, and trying to protect people targeted by them, in some cases non-violently, and in some cases less non-violently.

The Charlottesville anti-fascist direct action was very successful in some ways. Confronted with resistance, the Nazis reacted with violence and hate, as Nazis will, and the public relations backlash severely damaged the alt-right. Leaders like Richard Spencer were de-legitimized, and plans for other, similar mass rallies never got off the ground. More directly, anti-fascist organizers were able to protect many protesters and bystanders from violence. The scholar and activist Cornel West, who helped lead a non-violent faith protest in Charlottesville, said, "We would have been crushed like cockroaches were it not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists."

Still, the action also had its failures. "We had a goal of making sure everyone came home safe, and we didn't do that," Gorcenski tells me. Instead, a number of people were injured, and an anti-fascist protester named Heather Heyer was killed by a Nazi agitator who ran her down with a car.

"It's hard to say it was a rousing success when we lost a member of our community because of what happened," Gorcenski says. "That is failure.

Direct action can result in defeats. But Gorcenski points out that voting is likewise a flawed instrument. "Some people say, 'All you need to do is just vote,' but then they also blame Russia for hacking our elections," she says. "Well, if our elections are so vulnerable, then voting is not a solution." Even setting Russia aside, Trump won the presidential election while losing the popular vote, thanks to an electoral college system that's deeply biased in favor of rural white voters. Furthermore, many Americans can't vote at all, thanks to felon disenfranchisement, voter-suppression policies, age, or the fact that they live in (say) Puerto Rico.

Protest can be disruptive and inconvenient; protesters sometimes slow traffic, or keep people from listening to a lecture, or block an entrance. That's part of the point of protesting in the first place, though. Protest is meant to shake people out of their everyday routines and make them think about the pain and discomfort of others.

Direct action is uncivil, disruptive, and sometimes ugly. It doesn't fit easily into visions of political change that prioritize the electoral system and polite persuasion. But it's often effective in dramatizing a crisis, rallying support, inspiring allies, and changing an intolerable situation. That's why activists have used direct action in the past, and why they continue to do so, despite politicians and pundits who would prefer that it go away.