Non Violent Direct Action: an Introduction

Jul 02, 2001

Direct Action

What is direct action?
Direct Action is a term which is used fairly loosely to describe a range of political actions.

Generally these are actions taken to directly confront or highlight the issue or authority you are trying to address. It can take many forms, from street theatre, to symbolic actions, sit-ins, trespass actions, blockades etc.

Direct Actions are often disruptive and/or confrontational, and can be arrestable, depending on the type of action taken. They are also used as media ‘stunts’ to gain attention for the particular campaign they are part of. It is usually best to explore other ways of campaigning for change before you do a direct action.

As direct action is confrontational, it can alienate people fairly easily, especially if you haven’t explored other ways of getting your issue addressed first. Sometime, however, direct action can be useful as a first recourse, especially if your action is aimed at a particular event or day, and/or not part of an ongoing campaign.

It is important to think carefully about what you are wanting to achieve, and the possible implications, when you are contemplating organising a direct action. You should probably try to talk to someone who is experienced in organising these types of actions early in the organising process.

Direct action can be useful:

  • as part of a demonstration or rally. For example through using street theatre, you are able to visually explain what you are on about and attract a larger or different number of people to take notice of what you are doing;
  • as an alternative to a mass rally or demonstration if you are a small group and don’t want to organise a big event;
  • if you want to disrupt or confront a particular event or person. This is useful to try to force action to be taken, and to get media coverage;
  • as an empowering action, to make a public statement of opposition.

Non-Violent Direct Action
Nonviolence is a way of living and a system of politics that depends on ordinary people actively creating justice and peace in their lives and communities. It can be viewed as either being either a tactic or technique.

Nonviolence is translated into direct political action through a powerful and deliberate refusal to cooperate with injustice. The refusal is taken as a matter of individual commitment and conscience, and finds expression in collective organising.

Recent examples of the use nonviolent direct action include the organising of unions by American farmworkers, the desegregation of public facilities, the campaign to end to war in Vietnam, and successful efforts for independence in Ghana and India.

Nonviolent Direct Action is a way of acting which involves a refusal to act in a violent manner. There have been ongoing debates within the activist movement about what is violence (is defacing property, or yelling at police violent?), when and if violence is ever justified, and whether Nonviolent Action as it has been developed and constructed is the best way of organising and acting. However, it seems that generally, nonviolent principals are a useful strategy to use or at least be aware of.

Basically nonviolent action involves both a refusal to comply with injustice, and a refusal to act in a violent manner which perpetuates the violent system we are trying to change. These actions can still be very powerful and involve direct and arrestable actions. It is the way which the people involved act and to a certain extent the way in which the action is presented to the media which is important.

Through using Nonviolent Direct Action, groups are seeking to build a society in which people are not forced, physically or mentally, to do things they don’t want to do. The real causes of oppression which are being sought is to remove are the economic and political institutions and practises which support injustice, not the individual human beings who are often trapped into carrying destructive purposes of these systems.

Four Basic Principles

  • Define your objective.
    There is much injustice and violence around us. A single campaign or action will not remove it all. Focus should be on a specific injustice; it should be possible to discuss in fairly simple and uncut terms. Decision-making and negotiation during the campaign will be helped immensely if the idea is clear of the short-range objective (for example, planting a symbolic “tree of life” on a military base) and the long-range goal (for example, complete and general disarmament in the United States).
  • Be honest and open-minded. Part of your goals is to win the opponents’ respect. Individuals must conduct themselves in a way to encourage it; let them know by your own scrupulous care for the truth and justice that you merit this respect. A crucial part of nonviolent direct action is understanding that no one knows about the issues at hand. Openness to what your opponents and others may have to say about the campaign is very important in the pursuit of the real truth about injustice.
  • Love your enemies. No matter how deeply involved in unjust and violent systems people are, your goal is to stop them from wrongdoing. Real justice is established when people refuse to maintain oppressive systems, not when the people in them are destroyed.
  • Give your opponents a way out. By using nonviolence you are showing a kind of strength that overcomes injustice, which can only be maintained with violence. Don’t be self-righteous with your opponents. Recognise their weakness and embarrassment. In a specific confrontation, and in the larger campaign, find a way to let them participate in the solution when it comes. Give them options to respond to, not final ultimatums. Make it as easy as possible for them to accommodate to your position without having to concede defeat.


Five Stragegic Steps

  • Investigate. Get the facts. Clear up any possible misunderstandings right at the start. If you are sure that an injustice has been done, be equally sure who or what is to blame for it. Your ability to explain your case with facts rather than support and prevent many understandings.
  • Negotiate. Go to your opponents and put the case to them. Maybe a solution can be worked out at this point. Maybe your opponents have a grievance that you don’t know about. Now is the time to find out. If no solution is possible, let your opponents know that you intend to stand firm to establish justice, and let them know that you are always ready to negotiate further.
  • Educate. Keep your group well informed of the issues, and spread the word to the public. This may involve issuing simple flyers or printed pamphlets. It may also call for street speaking, door-to-door personal visits, phone calls, and police releases. Talk to the editor of the local newspaper and explain your position. Organise a letters-to-the-editor campaign and similar campaigns of letters to government officials. Always stick to the facts, avoid exaggeration, be brief, and show good will. Remember that the feelings of community people about your campaign can have an important effect on its outcome.
  • Demonstrate. Picketing, vigiling, mass rallies, and the handling out of leaflets on the street are called for at this stage. All of these make more impact on your opponents, the public, the press, and law enforcement officials if conducted in a well-organised manner. The people who are demonstrating should be informed, cool headed, able to endure possible heckling and to withstand possible violence without panic and without resorting to violence in return. It is most important to maintain discipline at this stage and to “keep cool under fire”
  • Resist. Non violent resistance is the final step, to be added to the other four as a last resort. This means a boycott, a strike, the defiance of an unjust law, or other forms of civil disobedience. Planning must be carefully done and nonviolence training is a valuable asset. Discipline must be firm to avoid making your resistance vulnerable to violence. Every provocation must be answered effectively and with out retaliation. The general public as well as the direct action participants will be moved most favourably by a well organised, orderly expression of resistance.

Some Practical Advice

  • Be creative. Nonviolent direct action does not mean being all of or failing to act. You must act creatively in all stages of your campaign.
  • Train your participants. Detailed preparation, especially for demonstrations and resistance actions, will contribute to a sense of purposeful community and set everyone at ease with a clearer sense of what is going to happen. It will also help you cope effectively with possible emergencies, and often point up unnoticed details of the demonstration which need further attention.
  • Be thorough. In the intense and excitement of a demonstrations or a resistance action, it is sometimes easy to forget that people still need to be told what your campaign is about and that communication channels to your opponents must be kept open. For the overall success of the campaign, it is crucial that some amount of negotiation, investigation, and education continue even when you are clearly concentrating on demonstrations and/or resistance.
  • Control incidents. The success of demonstrations is always enhanced if disruptive incidents are handled in a quiet effective and loving way. Hecklers can be talked with; scuffles can be isolated from the demonstration; and persons unexpectedly arrested can be given support and assistance, all without diverting the attention from the overall demonstration.


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