Innovative “Direct Action” Key to Occupy Wall Street

NEW YORK (Frameshop) – One of the more vexing issues for people looking at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) from the outside has been the movement’s reluctance to adhere to the norms of established politics–in particular, the refusal to elect spokespeople who communicate a set list of demands.  If we ask why this is the case, the answer brings us to the idea of “direct action,” a concept which should be examined a much greater length than it has been by the media thus far.

A core concept emergent from anarchist political philosophy and practice, “direct action” can be defined in general terms as: political engagement that takes place outside conventional political activity.

Take a simple example like communicating to an elected official.  Imagine you wanted to you were frustrated about the price of heating oil or U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan or the use of hormones in cattle production, and you decide to share what is on your mind with your member of Congress.   Following conventional channels, you might write a letter to your Representative, call your Senator’s office, show up at a town hall meeting and voice a concern, vote against an elected official whose positions on these policies did not match your own views, and so forth.  All that would be conventional political activity because it would involve political channels that exist precisely for this purpose.

Direct action, by contrast, would go outside these channels, and might include: participating in a protest march to raise awareness about high oil prices, convening a public event to launch a boycott against industrial meat production or hosting a sit-in to protest against the war in Afghanistan.  Direct action takes politics directly into the channels where it might not otherwise exist with an explicit goal of growing public consciousness in order to drive political change.

Thus far the definition has been consciously anodyne in an effort to forestall the kind of cognitive shut down that often happens when Americans see the phrase “direct action.”  That is to say: while non-violent instances of direct action exponentially outnumber violent direct actions, public memory always seems to gravitate towards the bombs, bullets, and burning cars.

Innumerable films filled with crazy-eyed anarchists and their plots to assassinate kindly, well-dressed princes and princesses at the opera are also a hurdle to having a real discussion about direct action, not to mention the fact that U.S. history was scarred by an example of direct action that took the life of President McKinley.

As The Guardian’s Karen McVeigh explains, however, non-violent direct action is not just a feature of OWS, but one of the keys to the movement’s success:

The direct action committee lies at the heart of this success. Numbering anywhere between 35 and 50 activists, the committee is “empowered by the general assembly” to plan action. The committee includes campaigners, community activists and those with relevant organisational skills, some of whom live in collectives and already base their lives around a communal system.

In other words, the direct action committee may be an example of the egalitarian, leaderless organizing style characteristic of OWS, but the nucleus of the committee is a group whose lives have already been shaped by their commitment to alter-globalism emerging from anarchist philosophy and practice since the 1990s.

But what about violence vs. non-violence in the OWS results to come out of the direct action committee so far?

Thus far, there has been nothing from OWS that one would categorize as violent direct action.  No bombs, no burning cars.  Violence has been the response coming from police, but not a tactic chosen by the OWS members.

As Nathan Schneider explains in an excellent piece on the role of direct action in OWS, the reason for the lack of violence is not necessarily because the direct action committee has reached a consensus on non-violence.

According to Schneider, while OWS direct action has been non-violent, the group is in fact guided by an anarchist principle called “diversity of tactics.” Citing a definition from George Lakey, Schneider explains exactly what this phrase means:

“Diversity of tactics” implies that some protesters may choose to do actions that will be interpreted by the majority of people as “violent,” like property destruction, attacks on police vehicles, fighting back if provoked by the police, and so on, while other protesters are operating with clear nonviolent guidelines.

Violence, in other words, is not off the table when “diversity of tactics” is an agreed up on principle for direct action because consensus in anarchist movements often includes coalitions between people with differing views on and definitions of what constitutions self-defense.

“Diversity of tactics” being used by OWS direct action organizers, as Schneider explains, also indicates a carry over from prior direct actions, most notably the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.  Bringing together a broad coalition of groups engaged in the fight to reclaim a sound definition of globalization (often called the “alter-globalization” or “anti-globalization” movement), “diversity of tactics” allowed consensus to be reached while empowering participants in the protest to make their decisions as to how best to proceed.

As David Graeber points out in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography, European anarchist movements have historically seen more instances of violent direct action than in United States.   Recent events seem to support this conclusion, in that the only images of violence to emerge from recent OWS activities took place in Rome, Italy, ostensibly by groups affiliated in some form or another with Black Bloc anarchists who see violent direct action as the key to social change (e.g., breaking windows and burning cars).  Even there, there was only one instance, indicating that OWS in general is dedicated to non-violence even if it has kept “diversity of tactics” on the table.

As for how this balancing act has been managed, the OWS direct action committee has produced a set of guidelines for participants:

  1. Stay together and KEEP MOVING!
  2. Don’t instigate cops or pedestrians with physical violence.
  3. Use basic hand signals.
  4. Empowered pace keeps at the front, back and middle of every march. These folks are empowered to make directional decisions and guide the march.
  5. We respect diversity of tactics, but consider how our actions may affect the entire group.

What we see here is an egalitarian approach (a) to protecting OWS participants during direct actions and (b) to keeping the focus on movement and visibility.  The potential that some participants may decide to engage in property damage if provoked–or even unprovoked–is neither forbidden nor encouraged.  Rather, it is allowed with the warning that doing so may have negative consequences for a group action initially decided through consensus.  You break a window, you’re on your own, but that may cause problems.

As Schneider points out, the direct action committee’s definition of “diversity of tactics” does not simply mean that people are open to commit acts of violence if they choose, but also that each collective direct action by OWS is actual conducted by multiple affinity groups of 5 to 20 people.

At any given time, an affinity group may choose to stray from the decided upon path defined through consensus in advance by the direct action committee.  And when that happens, the results can be problematic, painful, and even beneficial for the goals of the movement.

If we remember back to the initial definition of “direct action,” the problem can arise that authorities become so good at anticipating publicly planned marches, that organizers must remain open to spontaneous, breakaway actions by affinity groups to achieve the overall goal of raising public awareness.

When a small number of affinity groups split off from the main group during the September 24 OWS march at Union Square, for example, they managed to stray from the plan enough such that the police no longer felt in control.  The result was excessive violence from the police against protesters–which in turn created a media storm raising both sympathy for OWS in general and growing the ranks of the movement.

Diversity of tactics–non-violent in this case–was the key to the success of an OWS direct action.

Inevitably, the tactical lesson learned by the OWS direct action committee after the Union Square pepper spray attack by the NYPD was that non-violent spontaneity may in fact prove to be more useful in future activities than had previously been thought.

From the outside, as more and more details emerge about how OWS understands direct action, it becomes clear that this is a movement not marked by chaos and lack of leadership–as has been the stereotype promulgated by the media–but by a kind of planning so detailed and flexible that it even takes into account the social and political consequences of improvisation.

Such subtle organization offers testimony to the ability of anarchist practice to adapt to new of situations and still be effective, not to mention the collective skill of a group of people sleeping under nylon sheeting for almost two months in a concrete urban park.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Lynne Vestal,

    Having participate Nationald & led many “Actions” with ADAPT both local and National, I beliieve you have hit the nail on the head. I particularly appreciated your observation that

    #OWN has realized how powerful non-violence can be. I know first-hand how
    powerful it is. I have been hoping Movement would remain non-violent. And so far, it has.

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