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The Art & Science of Actions: Shutting Things Down to Open Things Up

Change is about transformation – personal and political – at an individual, group, community, institutional,  national, or international level.  I have chosen direct action as my primary strategy for change because it is more effective that any other strategy I have used.  It is a rapidly and radically transforming process that has had proven success over the ages.

So much of organizing has to do with SPACE — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual space. We can reclaim it, transform it, occupy it, liberate it, shut it down, open it up, shift it or just be present in it. It is the art of knowing when and where to take it, to move into it or through it, then acting without hesitation, in that moment, because you know that if you do not do it now, the opportunity may not come again. Teaching ourselves to relate to political space in this way is fundamental to transforming power relationships.

“We take action to educate” – John Johnson, LA ACORN

People are taught to obey and thus to be afraid of taking action.  So many think we need to educate first before people will act.  In fact it is often the other way around.  Actions, done well, are full of life and power and people want more of that.   Experiencing our individual and collective power can be liberating and having an embodied experience can help one fully integrate information and lessons.   By taking action we learn.

Actions are the containers for our tactics.  Our tactics help us win and must be chosen wisely based on our  goals and resources.   Advance planning can make all the difference in your success.

Action Basics

  • Is it Symbolic or Direct? Public or Secret?
  • Vision Counts -Details Matter
  • Need Beginning, Middle and End
  • Action Logic – does it make sense in people’s minds
  • “Inside” or “Outside” strategy
  • Strong Visuals to tell a clear message –make sure the picture tells the story – big stickers, classroom in the streets,
  • Colorful, inspiring, life affirming, fun, strong, dramatic attract people and capture their imagination
  • Cover basic needs – food, water, bathroom, transportation, communication/information
  • Support people at all levels – emotional, physical, mental, spiritual – before, during and after
  • Using weapons of fear or violence against living things will almost always backfire if popular support is part of your strategy. There are other ways to let your opponents know that you can cost them,
  • Organizing effective actions, which achieve short and long-term victories, growing movements that build culture and transform society.

This simple chart helps explore the impact of your tactic which can be useful when assessing how to achieve your goal.

Action Type



Legal Protest Vigil on Sidewalk Phone Zap – mass call-in to clog phone lines
Civil Disobedience Blocking 1/3 gates of a coal plant Blocking all 3 gate

When planning an action  I like to spending a lot of time at the front end, becoming very clear about what I am trying to accomplish and how.  This can make a huge difference in your actions success.  I do all I can to have everything and everyone thoroughly prepped, with a common vision and clarity on everyone’s role, schedule and timing in advance.  Once the action begins it’s time to let go and trust that what happens is what needs to happen!

Click here for the  Action Planning Template

Two Main Ways Direct Action Works:

  • Interfering with the operations of injustice: examples: WTO blockade, burning draft cards, stopping troop trains, pulling up genetically modified crops
  • Embodying an alternative: Address a problem legally or illegally: Examples: Squats, Needle Exchange programs, feeding the homeless.

Components of Empowered Direct Action

Empowerment: Empowered direct action aims to transform the structures of domination and control, and to radically change the way power is conceived of and operates. Empowerment is our  ability to create, to make choices, to have a voice in decisions that affect us. When we act together in an empowered way, we develop collective power. Through personal and collective empowerment, we can fight against, dismantle and transform the systems of domination that perpetuate oppression.

Interconnectedness: Empowered direct action sees that all of life is interconnected, and that empowerment arises from our connections to the web of life. Every act we take affects the whole. All systems of oppression are also interconnected.  We might choose to focus on one issue at a given time, but we must ultimately dismantle the whole system of domination.

Radical Imagination: Empowered direct action envisions and prefigures the world we want to create. We use means consistent with our ends. We expect to win, and our strategies, tactics, and organizations are designed to be the foundation of our new social structure. We value creativity, bringing art, music, dance, drums, magic, ritual, masks, puppets, drama and song into action. We refuse to be boring, tedious, dreary or doctrinaire. Solidarity: We know that the structures of domination cannot be undermined without risk. Through solidarity, we share the price of our resistance and attempt to mediate the violence of the systems of oppression. While we may incur suffering as a result of our actions, we don’t embrace suffering for its own sake. Our goal is to alleviate suffering, and our solidarity extends to all who suffer under political and economic repression.

Choice: Empowered direct action understands that every situation offers choices to be made. We do not let structures of force limit our choices, nor do we let fear control us. We learn to stay centered in the midst of chaos, and retain our ability to make conscious choices in any situation. We pose new choices and craft dilemmas for our opponents. We learn how to de-escalate tension and potential conflict in order to expand our options in any situation. We fight against institutions, structures, and acts of domination, but we hold open the possibility that the individuals caught in those systems can change. We craft our strategies and tactics to make change easier for our opponents.

Inclusiveness and diversity: Empowered direct action values diversity, and seeks to expand our movement and increase opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds, needs and life situations to take part. We respect our own differences, needs, cultures, life circumstances, politics and views as well as differences of gender, race, class sexual orientation, age, physical challenges, and others. The patterns of oppression also exist within us and within our movement, and we are willing to transform ourselves as well as the structures we oppose.

Direct democracy and horizontal organizing: Empowered direct action creates ways of organizing and acting that allow all people involved to have a voice in decisions that affect them. We create the minimum structures necessary for our actions and organizations. Decisions are made from the bottom up, not from the top down. We encourage everyone to take leadership in the sense of stepping forth and proposing directions for the group: but we allow no one to direct or control the group.

Dialogue: Empowered people will not all think alike. Our movement contains great diversity of ideas, visions, strategies, and principles. We honor these tensions, and engage in ongoing discussion and dialogue to further our collective growth. We recognize that decisions made without adequate discussion will not hold.

Freedom and Passion: Empowered direct action values passion, emotion, freedom, spontaneity, and surprise. We honor rage as a sane response to oppression and a potential creative power. We are willing to love deeply and fearlessly, and we fight not just against what we hate, but for what we love.

“The power of the action is in the reaction” – Saul Alinsky

Direct Action Can:

(From the Ruckus Society)

  • Directly stop a social, environmental or political injustice
  • Assert of defend positive right despite consequences
  • Show a willful refusal to cooperate or participate in an injustice
  • Sound the alarm – alert folks to issue
  • Create a community-based solution
  • Amplify people’s voices, build people power

Types of Direct Action

  • Protest – registering dissent. Rallies, marches, teach-ins, pickets
  • Non-cooperation – withdrawing your power. Boycott, labor strike, walkouts, tax resistance
  • Intervention – directly intervening in the functioning of the system
  • Creative Solutions – developing alternative community based systems /collectives

Points of Intervention

  • Point of Production – where harmful items are created
  • Point of Destruction – where resources are extracted, pollution released, natural resources destroyed
  • Point of Consumption – where products reach consumers
  • Point of Decision – where plans for the future are crafted
  • Point of Assumption – where social norms are developed and held
  • Point of Potential – when cultural or historic moments become actions opportunities