Gina Lunori on What Direct Action Really Means

I’ve been participating in meetings of a group discussing “direct action,” and I’ve been reflecting on how that phrase means different things to different people. For some, it’s a synonym for illegal protest techniques or violent opposition. I was reminded of this essay which came out shortly after the WTO protests in Seattle and which made a good case for one definition of “direct action.”

Direct Action

by Gina Lunori

Demonstrators in Seattle who hoped to practice peaceful protest found themselves banned from even non-violent protests in a 50-block area. Is there any hope for peaceful protest?

If you see clearly that the path to a better world happens to go through a minefield of obstacles set up by those who are made wealthy and powerful by the current system, and if you want to encourage people to start on this path despite these obstacles, frustration is inevitable.

On the one hand, people see that, as in Seattle , peaceful protest — the right to “petition… for redress of grievances” that our government was supposedly designed to encourage and defend — can be declared illegal and crushed by the police the moment it threatens to amount to anything.

On the other hand, any attempt to go beyond holding signs and chanting slogans and submitting gracefully to arrest and prosecution is considered counter-productive, and otherwise thoughtful activists accept hook-line-and-sinker the government’s line that “violent” and “anarchist” protesters are to blame for its crackdown on everyone else.

“Direct Action” is advocated by frustrated radicals, and feared by the activist groups who hope (probably with good reason) that the least objectionable groups of protesters will be the first to be placated with some token reform when it finally comes time for the ritual show of benevolence on the part of the rule-makers.

What is this “Direct Action” and why is it so feared by liberal activist groups? Chances are that you practice direct action all the time. If you use your conscience, and test yourself by it without cheating, and act on what your conscience tells you — you’re practicing “Direct Action.”

If you come up with a plan to do something and then do it, or convince others that you have a good plan and cooperate with them to carry it out, without going to some government or external authority to ask them to do it for you or to give you permission — you are practicing “Direct Action.”

If you have a disagreement with someone, or feel like someone did you wrong or cheated you, and you go directly to that person to try to resolve the problem before trying to appeal to some judge, law, attorney or external enforcer — you’re practicing “Direct Action.”

Essentially: if you search your heart with honesty and integrity for the right course of action, and then follow through unflinchingly on what you find without insisting on approval from politician or talk show host — you’re practicing “Direct Action” and thank heavens you are.

Most of the evil of our century has been practiced not by people disregarding the law and following their conscience, but by people surrendering their consciences to the law and getting approval from the state for murders and tortures so vicious that only pathological sadists or run-of-the-mill institutions could approve.

Let me be very clear: you cannot rent out your conscience to another person, army, government, corporation, majority or law-book. Anyone who tells you that you can is a lying coward. If you perform an action, you and you alone are responsible for justifying that action. This principle is the basis for what is known as “Direct Action.”

Direct action, then, isn’t necessarily a violent protest, or even a protest at all, but the spontaneous decision-making and living of people who know that letting institutions make their moral decisions for them is dishonest and dangerous. Direct Action is action taken with the conscious knowledge that you and you alone are responsible for guiding your own conduct.

But, of course, people conscientiously living their lives frequently come into conflict with governments and others who would like to do their thinking for them.

On our postage stamps and in our history textbooks we find many examples of people whose illegal direct action we are encouraged to admire, but never emulate. How many Americans who have memorized that slavery is evil would break the law and muddy their carpets to invite an escaped slave into the guest room, I wonder.

I’ve described direct action as personal and day-to-day, but it has a political dimension. People practicing direct action, sometimes peaceful and sometimes not, have aroused the human conscience to the need for political change.

Non-direct political action within the existing system is almost never “direct” action, but a series of tactical compromises. Perhaps this can help, but more often than not, the compromises only serve to compromise the integrity — and the more dirty your hands are, the harder it is to take real direct action. Most real progress in increasing human freedom and dignity has come after individual rebellion in the service of forthright integrity has inspired mass rebellion and has then forced the hand of the politicians. Direct action initiates the crisis that encourages people to assess their own lives and to join the call for change.

Is there any doubt that change is necessary? Not only in Seattle but everywhere in the world where the very mixed blessings of Civilization have taken hold. The parasites in suits who are busy trying to govern the metabolism of the global economy at the WTO are just a subset of the crooks who think that stealing someone else’s livelihood by devising a clever law is nothing to be ashamed of.

Which brings us to the much-maligned anarchists. Because the anarchists are so hated, they naturally attract the devotion of the same kids who aren’t going to settle for anything less revolting than Marilyn Manson to try and reach out in the classic adolescent manner to their difficult-to-offend parents. And because anarchism is such the popular fashion statement for the rebellious teen set, it’s pretty much guaranteed that nobody else is going to take it seriously. Should we?

The anarchists have made a couple of points we need to pay attention to.

First: government serves as a terrific excuse that people use to do things that they know are wrong. Murder is wrong, but if I’m a soldier or an executioner I can kill and pretend that the government will take the sin off my shoulders. Kidnapping and torture is wrong, but if I’m a prison guard, police officer, judge or prosecutor I can capture someone for holding a protest sign in a curfew zone, spray that person with pepper spray and hold them in a cell and pretend that I don’t have to think about whether it’s right or wrong. Theft is wrong, but if I’m a tax collector or government agent, there’s a law that makes it right when I do it.

Second: government everywhere and always has worked to give more power and wealth to those who already have more than their share. The only times this process has been temporarily reversed have been when people have directly and illegally attacked the government. Anarchists are right when they say that liberals who want to try to reform but preserve the system are living in a fantasy land.

I must confess that I don’t have much hope for the protests in Seattle. The many groups and individuals who are currently united against a common foe will be easily bought off, I think. They have limited agendas that have more to do with trying to influence the powerful to smile on their constituencies than in trying to reduce the illegitimate power of the powerful. They haven’t learned that there really is a single common struggle against those who have appropriated the earth, the money and the machines.

How long will it be, do you suppose, before Al Gore will come forward with a plan that, by the time it gets through Congressional committees and gets interpreted by the courts, will be seen to have had the sole effect of dispersing the crowds of protesters and gaining Gore a percentage or two in the polls. And dozens of “leaders” of the protest, who ought to know better by now, will drop everything to plead that their own pet interest gets a paragraph in the impotent legislation.

These spokespeople and self-described leaders may be good for prime time news and political negotiation, but they don’t actually lead anyone whose life is based on uncompromising and responsible direct action. For us, our first leader is our own relentlessly self-criticized conscience. Any other leader we have doesn’t have to have a title or an office — those leaders will be leaders only because they have impressed followers with their integrity and leadership. They don’t demand allegiance by pointing to the top of a leadership pyramid or by winning an election, but command respect by appealing to the conscience and communicating an urgent plan for action.

What does direct action have to do with violence? People who advocate “Direct Action” often seem to be using the phrase as a code word for violent action, and people who are frightened by direct action are as likely to think that they are acting out of principled pacifism as they are to be genuinely afraid of acting on their own consciences.

I’ve tasted five flavors of thought about the recent violence in Seattle:

First, there’s the most mainstream, voiced by Bill Clinton and protest leaders of various stripes and copied in the concerned voice of television commentators and newspaper editorials: How sad that such a potentially noble protest was marred by a bunch of violent anarchists, and how nice it would be if we just had sit-ins and choruses of “We Shall Overcome.”

No mention of the violence on the part of the police, except perhaps to imply that the speaker is in principle opposed to draconian crackdowns on the freedom of expression but doesn’t want to actually do anything that might prevent them.

Second, there are the heads-in-the-clouds ninnies who look at the violence on both sides and say “oh, why can’t we just get along?” With enough visualization, pleasant thoughts, lullabies and prayers, they hope people will stop hitting and gassing each other.

Third, there’s the principled pacifist of the Gandhian school who may believe quite strongly in direct action, but whose own ethical scheme prohibits violence in any form either because the ethical price to pay for violent behavior is too high, or because violent means are seen as less practical. If there is going to be violence in Seattle, they say, it will be against them or without them and they will stand proudly as examples of non-violent action.

Similar to, but in loyal opposition to this view are those who see well-chosen, but illegal, destructive and violent opposition to the current evils as an appropriate and practical answer to the current crisis. This fourth group looks to the gains that have been won by violent opposition to evil and says, “now is the time.” If the machines of evil are grinding down human beings, there’s more to be said for destroying the machinery than for linking arms and bearing witness as you’re being crushed. If violence is going to be used, this group will not stand by and let the government monopolize it.

A fifth group consists of those who are frustrated and angry at the current system and want to vent that anger through violence. They are joined by people who get a thrill out of breaking glass and participating in mob-protected mayhem and want to think of themselves as romantic heroes of the barricades, but who accept no more ownership of the results of their own violent acts than do the thugs with badges. The relationship between this group and the violent police could also be described as “loyal opposition” — the two groups justify and require each other.

The first group I described consists partially of self-interested finger-waggers who are happy to encourage non-violent protest since it’s usually easy to ignore and otherwise easy to crush. The rest of this group are those who collect their opinions from politicians and other talking heads for the purpose of being able to regurgitate them on appropriate social occasions. This first group practices direct action of a sort, but really only a well-dressed version of the selfish acts of the looters.

The second group has lost sight of their consciences over the distant horizon and is hardly worth considering — they’re as dull and dangerous as a stormcloud, and just about as susceptible to reason.

The fifth group, the righteously furious and the common criminal, are useful to the protester and the state alike. To the state, they are the justification for escalating violence and repression; to the protester, they are the “bad cop” to the peaceful demonstrator’s “good cop” and help push the state to the negotiating table. The common criminal will always be with us, and sees large-scale demonstrations with the same joy that pickpockets see public executions or toy stores see Christmas. The righteously furious can be tamed into clarity and tactics, but likely not by this essay.

This essay is for people who wonder if it’s time to join in with the straightforward and alive direct actors — either of the Gandhian or non-pacifist camps.

If you are reading this, you’re probably curious about direct action and are trying to decide if you have it in you to be a direct actor. It’s my opinion that you can’t avoid it — direct action isn’t just a good idea, it’s the only life there is. Unless you’re a zombie or in a coma or the obligatory “free will” hypothesis turns out to be wrong after all, you’re practicing direct action with every decision you make.

The decision is not “should I be a direct actor?” but “what kind of direct actor should I be?”

Once you realize that it’s a cop-out to loan out your conscience to your employer, your neighbor, the majority, the Constitution, or the editorial page of Newsweek, you’re faced with the awesome responsibility of testing and developing your conscience against the demands of real life, and then living according to the standards that you reveal.

You are your own best and most qualified judge. If you ignore your own conscience you’re committing a particularly dangerous form of suicide — killing off your soul, and leaving behind the sort of dangerous robot who swerves from cradle to grave building gulags and genetically engineering more evil forms of smallpox.