Direct Action in Our Movement

[This was originally posted on It’s Getting Hot in Here by Juliana Williams on March 18, 2010]

A good friend (and talented organizer) recently told me that direct action wasn’t going to accomplish change on the scale that we need.  The point is that if we want national (and global) change, solutions need to be applied across the country, not in a piecemeal fashion.  For example, it’s a lot more efficient to fight for national vehicle mileage or emissions standards than trying to do the same thing state by state.  A national renewable standard would build on the successes of over half of the states in the US and apply to those states that for various reasons lack a renewable standard, creating market certainty for the growing but tenuous renewable energy sector.

Much can be accomplished through policy venues.  But we should not delude ourselves that policy alone will solve the problem.  Good policy is nothing without good implementation.  But what happens when implementation fails, when the structures we have created are broken?  What recourse do we have?  As far as I can see we have two options: 1) reform/transform political structures through further policy change and 2) take direct action to stop those failures.

These options are not and should not be exclusive; they are both necessary.

Direct Action is a safety net between well-intended policy and political failure and corruption.

The Wikipedia definition of corruption is “utterly broken.”  It further defines political corruption as “the abuse of public power, office, or resources by government officials or employees for personal gain” and corporate corruption as “corporate criminality and the abuse of power by corporation officials, either internally or externally.”

Likewise, it defines Direct action as “politically motivated activity undertaken by individuals, groups, or governments to achieve political goals outside of normal social/political channels.”  It is important to note that while many direct actions involve civil disobedience, not all do.  Actions that disrupt daily habits or social norms can be just as effective at drawing attention and applying pressure as those that break the law.

In the 1980s the first Reagan EPA sought to dismantle environmental protection laws.  In response, Congress placed stricter requirements and timelines on the EPA, in essence forcing them to fulfill their mission.  Additionally, environmental advocacy groups began training lawyers and activists to bring citizen suits against the EPA and polluters.  While lawsuits are legal in nature, I consider them direct action in this context because they had never really been used to force government implementation of its own laws before.

I want to take a look at the relationship between corruption and direct action in West Virginia and Utah, two of the most fossil fuel dependent states in the country.  When Massey CEO Don Blankenship ousts WV a Supreme Court Justice who rules against Massey and then parties on tropical islands with other justices, and when WV Department of Environmental Protection employees are afraid to do their job because of the fear of retribution from the coal industry, we have corruption.  When the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining bypasses county authority to speed the development of tar sands near Moab by a foreign company, we have a system that is broken.

In these situations, legal recourse has a very long shot at being effective.  Powerful interests are entrenched and will exercise their power to prevent change.  While it is possible that lawsuits, elections, referenda and laws may enact change, direct action can increase their likelihood of success.

Direct Action creates political space for champions to promote change.

Traditional organizing strategies of electoral mobilization, building public support or disapproval and advocating for policy change all take time.  This change does not come quickly.  And yet, there are situations where time is in short supply.  In the Coal River Valley, WV, activists with Climate Ground Zero are physically stopping mountaintop removal blasting through direct action.  At the same time, their allies around the region are working to end mountaintop removal through policy change.

Likewise, at the end of 2008, the Bush Administration attempted to sell off huge swaths of public lands for oil and gas drilling in Utah.  Local organizations were filing lawsuits against the process, but were not sufficient to stop the auctions.  Instead, Tim DeChristopher intervened in the auction to prevent the oil and gas industry from purchasing these parcels.  Eventually the Department of the Interior under Ken Salazar voided the transactions, but Tim’s actions both prevented immediate harm from drilling and generated attention and political pressure on the DOI to take action.

Direct action can capture public attention more vividly than policy.

Policy changes are not particularly sexy to the mainstream media.  Reclassifying the term “fill” to be included as “waste” may not hit headlines, but it could halt most mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.  Young and old people chaining themselves to mining equipment not only presents a striking visual, but attaches a human face to our work.  The broader attention to direct actions can increase the political pressure for change.  Of course with all direct action, but especially acts of civil disobedience, we must be careful to control the message.

Direct action very much has a role in our organizing, and is often most successful when paired with traditional organizing tactics.  As an organizer, I’ve been trained to pursue strategies that will be successful with the least amount of confrontation.  The premise is to avoid making enemies as long as possible.  Do not provoke opponents needlessly.

Where lobbying works, do it.  Where creating local energy solutions is possible, do it.  Where forming partnerships with business, government and civil society creates lasting agreement, do it.  Direct action is not always essential.

But there are places in this country (and world) where those options are not working.  There are places where our government has been corrupted or broken, there are places where policy doesn’t prevent exploitation.  In many of these places, victories do not come easy and expanding the grassroots base is difficult.  And it is in these places that direct action is most necessary.

The question that remains, is how badly broken does a situation need to be to warrant direct action?