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Direct and indirect action for change
To take direct action means using what power you have in your body to make an immediate change. This may mean obstructing activities you disagree with by physically getting in the way, damaging property or equipment to prevent it from being used, or setting up alternatives to systems you disagree with. Many of these strategies comes with risks, including arrest. The global union International Workers of the World (IWW) writes that “direct action, by definition, means those tactics workers can undertake themselves, without the help of government agencies, union bureaucrats, or high-priced lawyers” .
- Occupying (long-term, or as a temporary sit-in) a site to inhibit the work happening there. This may mean making human chains or “locking-on”, where activists attach themselves to parts of the site or equipment to prevent themselves from being carried away and it being used. Activists may also build shelters, platforms or other infrastructure to live in.
- Striking, either by withholding labour or money (e.g. a rent strike where tenants refuse to pay rent). Labour strikers may create picket lines to persuade workers or service users against entering the place of work. Strikes can be legal (if agreed upon by a legally-recognised union under conditions decided by the state) or illegal (known as wildcat strikes). In some European countries, Australia and the US it is illegal for workers to strike in solidarity with another union (for example, in a general strike). A large-scale example of a general strike happened in India in November 2020
Mutual aid is often used to mean helping yourself and others with the same problem, instead of appealing to someone else to help you. An example might be a community larder where residents can share food, as opposed to a food bank where those who have money give charity to those who have not. The idea in mutual aid is that the same people who contribute to the service use it – even if those contributions are in different forms and happen at different times. For example, someone may never be able to contribute food to the larder, but they might be able to tidy it occasionally or maintain it in other ways.
Those explicitly acting in the name of mutual aid often consider themselves to be creating alternatives to services controlled by the state, corporations or top-down NGOs. The anarchist political philosopher Peter Kropotkin popularised the term “mutual aid”, and describes the principle here:
… it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience — be it only at the stage of an instinct — of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own. 
For further explanation of mutual aid, and examples, watch this video from the writer, lawyer, trans activist and abolitionist Dean Spade:
Another way to act is to persuade a corporation, government or court to make a change by appealing to their better natures or desire for a good public image. Some examples are:
- Art and performance, for example subvertising, stickering, flyposting, guerrilla gardening, and street performances.
- Demonstrations such as marches, die-ins and banner drops.
- Civil disobedience may mean breaking laws to attract media or government attention to an issue. Recent examples might be road blocks intended to bring a city to a halt and draw attention to the climate crisis.
- Online actions such as social media campaigns, phone jams, twitter storms and “zoom bombing”.
- Legal challenges.
- Campaigning, including letter writing, film making, article writing, petitions or otherwise lobbying for change by communicating directly with the government or organisation.
- Consumer boycots.
Are there any terms you don’t recognise here? Are there actions you could imagine yourself taking part in?
This list is not exhaustive – traditional activism is not the only way to make systemic change. In the next steps, we’ll look at strategies for working within institutions.
The question of whether to make or prevent change directly or indirectly pressure others to change is not so often “either/or”. Think about movements you know about: it is likely that they used a combination of the above approaches. Often, it is not possible to identify one lone tactic which lead to success. With varied strategies there is scope for many different people with different skillsets, interests and comfort zones to participate.
- IWW. (undated) Effective Strikes and Economic Actions. archive.iww.com, Available at: https://archive.iww.org/about/solidarityunionism/directaction/
- Kropotkin, P. A. (1902) Mutual aid : a factor of evolution. New York: McClure Phillips & co., Available at: https://libcom.org/library/mutual-aid-intro
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