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Direct action is a political activity that bypasses "normal" political channels, often because those channels have excluded (allegedly, at least) the participation of the people engaging in the campaigns in question. Direct action can often take on a violent tone, especially when working against violent regimes, as was the case in the fight against apartheid, the struggle against institutionalized American racism, or anti-colonial liberation movements. Individuals and groups who wish to disassociate themselves from violent actions refer to their activities as "non-violent direct action."
Violent direct action may be directed against individuals or against property. In democratic countries it is often carried out by political activists who have been unable to convince the general public of the viability of their views, such as anti-globalization protesters, pro-life and animal rights activists. The only real difference between direct action and terrorism is the opinion of the observer - one man's freedom fighter is another man's violent criminal, and vice versa.
More recently, far-right activists, being excluded from the political process either by law (as in Germany) or simply because they cannot hoodwink a voter-base any longer (mostly everywhere else), have started to resort to direct action. These persons are generally referred to as "terrorists." Examples include the militia movement, Posse Comitatus, and various neo-Nazi organizations, such as The Order, Aryan Nations and Combat 18.
Why direct action?
Activists engage in direct action for different reasons. These include, but are not limited to:
- They find themselves opposed to some group who has massive force at their disposal, who freely employs it to their own ends and who will recognize no other manner of interaction.
- They are disenfranchised and therefore political action would be useless.
- They hold a minority view and feel that this is the only way to express their opinions.
- Their views are highly esteemed, enjoyed and appreciated by most people in whatever community they are acting in, but for a variety of reasons they seek anonymity. The well-known "talking statues" in Rome were/are an example of this.
- They understand that "tweeting" or posting Facebook memes about Obama's drone strikes are not revolutionary acts.
- They see social justice as not already being brought about at a bearable pace.
- Also occasionally, some just get into it to wow their friends or shock their parents. This group is strongly condemned by more serious activists, who are condemned by more serious activists. It's a vicious circle.
Advantages and disadvantages
Direct action has been a valuable tactic for people who have been excluded from the regular political process. The anti-apartheid struggle, the American Civil Rights movement and anti-colonial movements across Asia and Africa can demonstrate how disenfranchised people have used direct action to bring down truly whacked-out political systems.
Direct action campaigns are more problematic in democracies. That they even exist there speaks volumes about how a state's governing ideals can be at wide variance with how they are put into practice, and how widely people's interpretations of said governing ideals can vary.
Although direct action campaigns can be excellent tools to expose corruption or de facto disenfranchisement in ostensibly democratic societies (e.g., the denial of the vote to blacks in the American South in contravention of the spirit of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), in societies where the regular political structures can accommodate and address more of the legitimate complaints, direct action tends to be practiced only by smaller and more extreme groups, and the line between direct action and outright terrorism is blurred.
Objections to direct action (or at least violent direct action) include:
- In a democracy, a minority should not attempt to violently impose its views on the majority.
- In a country which is governed under the rule of law, no individual has the right to act violently simply because they disagree.
- Attacking people is a violation of their human rights.
- It can be counter-productive as it may alienate potential supporters of the cause.
- People will hit you back. Which people depends on who you've angered the most.
- Social and political change should occur by degrees with full respect to the traditional sociopolitical order. Edmund Burke denounced the French Revolution on these grounds.
Notable individuals who have engaged in direct action
Note that none of these people could have done it alone, and there are vast ranks of largely anonymous people behind them.
- Muhammad Ali
- Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)
- César Chávez
- Eldridge Cleaver
- Eugene V. Debs
- Mahatma Gandhi preached civil disobedience (And rigid adherence to the caste system. Very shitty anarchist when you think about it.)
- Bobby Hutton
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (felt that non-violent direct action's goal was to "create such a crisis and foster such a tension" as to demand a response, Nobel Peace Prize winner)
- Huey P. Newton
- Rosa Parks
- Bobby Seale
- Daniel De Leon
- Malcolm X
- The women of Greenham Common
- Bill Ayers
- Dennis Banks
- The Bellecourt Brothers
- Menachem Begin, was involved with terrorist activities against the British. (Nobel Peace Prize winner, for reaching a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt later in life)
- John Brown
- Nelson Mandela (Nobel Peace Prize winner) was the leader of the ANC's armed wing, though the ANC took unusual-for-guerillas care to minimize harm to civilians and he later repudiated the ANC's former violent tactics.
- The United States' "Founding Fathers"
- Jim Gilchrist's Minutemen
- Timothy McVeigh
- Bhagat Singh
- José Bové - French alter-globalization activist and cheesemaker, convicted of bombing a McDonald's (although no one was injured), now a member of the European Parliament.
- Emmeline Pankhurst - founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Great Britain. She and others suffragettes crusaded for women's right to vote via "deeds, not words." They avoided hurting people, preferring to make themselves heard through hunger strikes and vandalism.
Organizations which presently engage in "direct action"
The following organizations, among many others, use direct action as a means to obtain their ends.
- Civil rights groups
- Labor unions
- Radical Student groups (SDS and the like)
- Gay rights groups
- Political groups far from the mainstream
- Anti-racist groups
- Racist groups
- The militia movement
- Anti-abortion extremists
- Animal rights extremists
- Extreme religious groups
Specific examples include:
- The Black Panthers, who were founded to defend black communities from brutality and intolerance, and who ran numerous social and charity programs.
- Black Bloc, an anarchist tactic used at demonstrations, ostensibly for self-defense but more often used to commit property destruction.
- Antifa and other anti-fascist/anti-racist groups, who dedicate most of their time to beating up skinheads.
- The Red Army Faction, a Communist group which was very active in West Germany during the 70s and 80s. They assassinated CEOs and former Nazis in government and dabbled in a hijacking. Often worked with the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).
- Combat-18, an infamous Neo-Nazi terrorist group very active in the United Kingdom and Continental Europe, most famous for murdering Christopher Castle in 1997, and later moving on to high ranking positions in the British National Party.
- Westboro Baptist Church, infamous nutjobs who protest just about everywhere, against such grave injustices as homosexuality and Sweden.
- Aryan Nations, a radical white supremacist group known to have committed at least 150 killings, and accused of many more. The RAND Corporation named them "The first truly nationwide terrorist group in the USA."
- The Hard Green movement (ELF, ALF, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and the like).
- The Animal Rights Militia whose letter bomb campaign left one woman without an eye.
- The Army of God and other anti-abortion campaigners who applaud the actions of convicted murderer Paul Hill.
- The IRA (needs no description).
- The Basque separatist group ETA which killed some 800 politicians, police and ordinary citizens in Spain in its campaign for an independent Basque country, including Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco (Spanish Prime Minister and dictator Francisco Franco's heir apparent; his assassination helped consolidate Spain's transition to democracy after four decades of fascist dictatorship).
- Occupy Wall Street camping out at in large numbers on the homes of people who are facing foreclosure to help fight said foreclosure.
- Food Not Bombs, a decentralized group of collectives that highlight food waste and hunger by providing free meals to the public using surplus food. They were investigated by the FBI because reasons.
Notice that direct action is simply a tactic which can be employed by any group, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.