What Does Direct Action Do?

Grassroots groups too often focus on maximizing the visibility and media impact of direct actions. This approach neglects their potential to help grow an organized base of members—an impact that lies in the planning process itself.

Photo by  Umberto .

Photo by Umberto.

We’ve all had it happen: standing in the middle of a huge protest with a successful turnout, thinking, what now? 

This problem plagues grassroots movement groups all the time. It’s an inevitable consequence of putting all planning effort into making the direct action as big as possible, without putting enough thought into the post-action absorption of new members. This article describes two key ideas: (1) direct-action planning in itself can serve to grow the movement, while (2) providing the chance to prepare for future movement growth—effectively channeling momentum after successful protests.

In the face of tremendous economic and political power exercised by an elite class in the United States and globally, the rest of us have one option: organize social movements capable of exercising greater influence.

When we organize, we grow movements. We bring in new people, educate the public, plan events, get involved in elections, form intersectional bonds across issue groups, and more. One key tool of social movements is direct action: a disruptive public demonstration which conveys a political message aiming to impact the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the public, politicians, other leaders, the media, and various other entities. 

When deciding to plan and then actually planning direct actions, many groups focus on maximizing the visibility and media impact of the action itself. We’re taught to think this; observers and potential protest attendees always question the actual effect such an event might have. But this approach neglects one crucial benefit of direct actions: their potential to help us grow an organized base of members. This impact lies in the planning process itself.

Organizers refer to the growth of movement groups as “absorption”—the intake of new people motivated to participate in the movement. The Sunrise Movement and Momentum (which trains organizing groups) both describe how absorption works as part of a cycle of activities: a group (1) takes some action (often direct action), (2) absorbs new members, (3) trains new members, (4) repeat.

A successful cycle needs to consider how the process of planning direct actions can achieve significant movement growth. For a group to grow, it needs more people outside the existing group to know about it, then be motivated to attend a meeting. As the traditional understanding of the aforementioned cycle implies, actions are great ways for telling the public a group exists, and often for motivating people to join. However, during the planning stage prior to actions even happening, a group is able to have purposeful conversations with potential movement allies about joining the movement to aid in the planning for a concrete action. 

The importance of contributing to a concrete goal (i.e., ensuring a successful action) cannot be overstated. Direct actions are excellent ways for educating and inspiring, but when someone joins a movement group after an action, they usually don’t join knowing concretely what they might actively contribute to in the future. But when new people are pulled into movement groups in the planning of direct actions, they contribute toward something very tangible. And through that participation, they take on responsibility (something that can feel quite empowering), confront their true motivation for their involvement and better understand their stake in the fight, and form social bonds with fellow group members (also a powerful “glue” to movement groups). 

An absolute key to movement growth is ensuring the existing group is ready to absorb new members, train them, have tasks ready, and keep a campaign moving while expanding the capacity for individuals to actively contribute. The direct-action planning process is both an opportunity to bring new people in while thinking and preparing the plan to further intake more new members immediately after an upcoming direct action. The quicker new people are trained, in the action-planning process, the quicker those same new members can prepare to help the group absorb even more new people after the action.

In the fall of 2018, I saw one example of this play out first-hand, when the Yale undergrad-led Endowment Justice Coalition planned a sit-in in the University Investments Office, continuing to send the message that it’s unethical to profit off investments in fossil fuel companies (i.e., cause of the climate crisis) and Puerto Rican debt (i.e., an effect of the crisis), demanding divestment from both. The sit-in planning process took months—but crucially, it provided a route for potential movement members to plug into a group task force, get to know people, and work toward a goal, immediately. The sit-in eventually lasted a full day and garnered national media attention. Prior to the action-planning, meetings had roughly 20-30 attendees. At the sit-in, 48 people got arrested, even more participated without risking arrest, and an additional, previously-planned march and rally met the protesters risking arrest, once the police forced them to leave the building. 

Why is this aspect of direct-action planning important to consider? Organizing groups are faced with moments when they must decide what to do next. Should we educate a constituency via a teach-in? How about simply bringing more people to the next meeting? How about improving our relationships with fellow leftist political groups? Should we canvass for an electoral candidate? Or… maybe plan a direct action?

In making strategic discussions about what’s best for movement growth and impact, we should more often consider the impact of member-absorption of the action-planning process. Recruiting and plugging new members into concrete actions is an opportunity we should continually create, via prioritizing direct actions as strategic choices more often than we currently do. 

This isn’t meant to say that the execution of successful direct actions isn’t a way to attract way more attention and inspire people to join movement groups—that’s certainly often true. And we need to prepare to welcome new group members who are inspired to join after a successful protest. Moreover, there are clearly micro-strategies about how to have conversations with individuals and small groups, persuading people to join in collective political action. Improving those kinds of conversations—while talking to people like fellow human beings, not just trying to use them for their labor—is also vital to movement-building.

This thinking can certainly apply to coalition-building as well: when multiple groups get together to plan actions with some shared political goal, it can possibly have greater, scaling effects—not only will individual people who might join one of two groups be more likely to join, but the concrete project of the two groups could have the effect of more likely bringing in a third, fourth, etc. group into the coalition, given the concrete task at hand. 

Overall, more consistently planning direct actions—really any kind of “action” that’s concrete, inspiring, and has the chance to be effective—is a useful way to grow political groups while strengthening bonds within them. In addition, it’s the perfect time to prepare to take in even more people after the successful future action. 

Let’s face it: it’s almost always a tiny proportion of people in capitalist economies who are, at their baseline, going to put in serious work on radical, volunteer-based political activities aiming to reorder society. This is a force we’re always fighting against. And given the vice grip on power that elites hold, we can’t waste a moment in figuring out how to grow grassroots leftist movements at increasing rates.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher.

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