[Hpn] Direct Action in a Democracy

Coalition on Homelessness, SF coh@sfo.com
Mon, 31 Jul 2000 17:15:01 -0700


Saturday July 29, @03:36PM

Direct Action in a Democracy

By George Lakey, Unconvention Issue 1

Whether I'm leading workshops in Russia, Thailand, South Africa or the
U.S., the same question comes up: What's the role of direct action in a

If a society has representative institutions like a parliament or
congress, why go beyond institutions and into the streets? Established
institutions become, over time, The Establishment - set in its ways,
unresponsive, controlled by the elites of wealth and privilege. Ask any
member of ACT-UP whether AIDS would have been addressed by the
government in the '80s, or even the early '90s, if The Establishment had
not been confronted over and over again in the streets and in the

Here are just some of the movements in the United States that were
resisted by the powerholders: abolition of slavery, women's suffrage,
child labor laws, desegregation of public facilities, the right to
organize unions, civil rights ordinances for lesbians and gay men. None
of these reforms could have happened simply through established

We know the names of Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar
Chavez - but here in Philadelphia how many know that our city's founder,
William Penn, was jailed for civil disobedience in England? He and other
Quakers were jailed and some even killed for direct action in witnessing
to the truth as they saw it. Republican Convention delegates can look to
the statue on top of City Hall tower and realize that, in Philadelphia,
boldness in the face of injustice is an old, old tradition.

What does direct action actually do? Direct action dramatizes an issue.
Many traditional injustices are simply overlooked: refusing to serve
food to African Americans at the lunch counter, refusing to marry a
loving couple of the same sex, allowing poor neighborhoods to have
inferior schools, allowing corporations to put profit over the well
being of their workers or community. When Mexican Americans stopped
picking grapes and Philadelphians picketed supermarkets, the injustice
to farmworkers suddenly was dramatized. Direct action creates a problem
that requires a response. Even if an injustice is perceived as an issue,
the government often refuses to respond because it's easier not to.

President John F. Kennedy found it convenient to put off King's urgings
to take a stand. However, when the industrial city of Birmingham, Ala.,
was dislocated through the militant nonviolent action of thousands,
Kennedy suddenly discovered the advisability of acting, and a civil
rights bill was passed. Plenty of causes are nurtured by veteran
activists who bring the wisdom of experience and a conscience honed by
decades of reflection. The new generations of activists are often
attracted by the straightforwardness, clarity and expressiveness of
direct action.

What makes direct action work best? Vision makes a difference. If ACT-UP
had not had activists doing their homework and developing alternatives,
the street actions could not have had their full impact. It's OK to rail
against something we dislike; what really attracts allies and builds the
movement (and helps us to sustain ourselves) is creating positive
alternatives. Clarity about strategic nonviolence does just this.

Direct action is inherently confrontational; it brings conflict to the
surface, and it can be chaotic and scary. The fence-sitters therefore
often watch what we do more than they consider what we say. When we
aren't clearly nonviolent, our message itself can get lost. Potential
allies find themselves talking about a smashed window of an office
building rather than what the corporation inside that building is
actually doing to hurt people.

Direct action can sometimes be useful even when it lacks vision and
clarity about strategic nonviolence. The national conventions of both
the Republicans and Democrats will see various experiments in direct
action. Hopefully, the turbulence will encourage fresh thinking about
the injustices that haunt our society and that the major parties avoid

George Lakey is the author of six books including A Manual for Direct
Action, a handbook on the civil rights movement. He is executive
director of Training for Change, a Philadelphia-based group that trains
activists. For info call: Training for Change, 215-729-7458. E-mail:

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