When was the last time you felt you made a difference at the ballot box? Or by writing a letter to your elected representative? In 2003, two million people marched in London against the UK’s involvement in a war in Iraq, and still the government did not listen. Over seven million people participated in the global climate strike on 20 September 2019 – and yet governments are failing to take action to prevent climate catastrophe.
This isn’t a reason for us to give up hope, it’s a reason to raise our game. Direct action is common sense. If you see someone being mugged in the street you do not set up a petition to ask the mugger to leave.
We live in a world that assumes we need leaders and laws to keep us in check, that we’re incapable of making hard decisions and implementing them without being told how to. Direct action is a way of defying these myths and challenging the people who think that money and status buy them the right to do what they like to the rest of us. It means refusing to accept the power those people hold and taking responsibility yourself for the things that you know need to change.
Direct action means sorting something out yourself, rather than asking others to fix it for you or make better decisions on your behalf. For many people this is not just an effective campaign tactic, it is also the philosophy that underpins how they live. For example, you might not only obstruct building work on the new supermarket in your town, you might also start up community allotments so that you no longer depend on those supermarkets for your basic needs.
The use of direct action in ecological and social justice campaigns has proven successful all over the world. People have succeeded in stopping mines, infrastructure projects, and other industrial construction works. In the 1990s, a variety of direct actions and land occupations in the UK caused the government to cut its road building programme by 80 percent when it cancelled around 500 schemes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s people pulling up genetically modified (GM) crops from test fields stopped the commercialisation of GM in the UK in its tracks, and helped remove GM products from shop shelves, despite pressure from the world’s most powerful seed and chemical companies. In Germany, the clearing of the remaining Hambacher Forest for the extension of the Hambach coal mine was stopped by people occupying the forest, sabotaging machinery, and organising civil disobedience mass actions – as well as simultaneously engaging in legal actions.
What about the consequences?
It is natural to be concerned about the consequences of taking action. The authorities rely on it! The state provides other avenues for our frustration and desire for change that are legal. If enough of us buy the right stuff or vote for someone different at the next election, it will all be OK. Yeah right! If you believe that these approaches will create real change, you’d better prepare to hold your breath for a very long time, waiting for it. Do we have that long?
Direct action does not have to involve breaking the law. However, if you want to challenge powerful vested interests such as corporations and governments, you can be sure there will be laws in place to protect them. If we are going to be effective, some people will have to break these laws.
The law says war and exploitation of people and planet are fine, but dissent through peaceful protest is not. The law is an ass. Many of the world’s most celebrated people are ‘criminals’. Martin Luther King, the suffragettes, Nelson Mandela – all of them are well known individuals representing the thousands who made their struggle work by taking all sorts of actions. People just like you and me.
Of course, it is easier and safer for some people to break the law than for others. Some people – especially working-class people of colour – are subject to much more severe police violence and repression than white and/or middle-class activists. It is difficult to predict precisely the legal, economic, and social consequences of taking part in direct action. One thing we can be sure of is that they pale into insignificance compared to the consequences of no one taking action at all.
Many different groups offer advice, support and ideas about the likely personal outcomes of different actions, depending on your circumstances. Always find out your legal rights before taking action. Knowledge is power, don’t let the authorities get one over on you because you didn’t do your homework. Getting arrested should never be an end-goal in itself and other types of direct action are just as important.