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What is Direct Action?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Direct action refers to political activism which is intended to immediately make a difference in a situation, through a variety of means. Unlike indirect action such as participating in elections, this type of activism often has an immediate impact through obstructing planned activities or business practices, and it also publicizes the issue at hand. There are numerous ways to engage in this type of action, ranging from participating in legal demonstrations to illegal sabotage. Activists of all ages participate in direct action of various forms.

The concept has been around for quite some time, but it really began to take off at the turn of the 20th century, when it was adopted by the labor movement. Labor activists participated in strikes for more rights, sabotaged companies who were abusive to workers, and tried to educate the general public through marches and demonstrations. Other political movements carried on the tradition of direction action; the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, and environmental movements, for example, all use direct action as part of their strategy.

There are a number of different forms of this type of action. Nonviolent action such as sit-ins, peaceful strikes, and permitted protests is quite popular, and embraced by a number of political movements. Organizations which use nonviolent action as a mode of expression believe that peaceful demonstration is an excellent way to present themselves as rational groups with valid concerns. Nonviolent action is also less alienating than more destructive forms, which encourages people to join the organization and participate in its activities.

Sabotage, vandalism, guerrilla warfare, and squatting are also forms of direct action. In these cases, the action is usually illegal, and almost always destructive in some form or another. Often, the destruction is to property alone, and some groups which participate in things like sabotage argue that they should be classified as non-violent because they do not harm people or animals. Groups which participate in more radical forms of action are often anarchist in nature, and they may have a focus on overthrowing conventional social beliefs and governments.

Participating in direct action is intended to accomplish several things. In the first sense, the action encourages people to think about the world, possibly reforming practices such as buying goods made by companies which use child labor. In the second sense, the action may create an immediate change in how a government is run, or how companies do business. In all cases, direct action is supposed to have a lasting impact while converting people to the cause.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Sporkasia — On Dec 17, 2014

I am not in any way advocating violence or sabotage as a means of direct action protest, but when you look back at history you notice that many of the gains made by protesters were directly related to violence or the threat of violence.

The powers that be are usually more willing to deal with moderate groups when there are more radical groups fighting for the same rights. The peaceful non-violent civil rights movement in the United States was definitely aided by more radical movements seeking to achieve the same goals . The same can be said for countries like South Africa and Northern Ireland.

By Feryll — On Dec 16, 2014

@Laotionne - I try to be environmentally conscience, and one summer when I was in college I answered one of the ads like you wrote about. According to the ad, I would be taking direct action and making a sizable contribution to the improvement of our environment.

I needed a job and the pay advertised sounded like fair wages. I don't remember how much, but the pay was so much a day. I can't say the job was a scam, but a day was usually closer to 16 hours than eight, so the pay wasn't particularly good. We went around neighborhoods asking for donations and we handed out bumper stickers and signs.

This was not a fun job. Knocking on people's doors when they are not expecting you can be intimidating, and some of the people were not happy to see us, and they let us know this. All things considered, I wouldn't do the job again.

By Laotionne — On Dec 16, 2014

I often see ads for positions as environmental activists. The job openings usually are under the heading, Make a Difference and Help Protect the Environment, or some similar heading. Anyway, I never pay much attention to them because the ads seem like they might be scams of some kind. Does anyone know the ads I am talking about?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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