Activists have used direct actions to spur significant social change, such as the occupation of the all-white lunch counters during the sixties, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the anti-Vietnam and Gulf War protests, and the American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee. Many famous activists have participated in civil disobedience, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Rosa Parks. These actions have brought attention to many injustices and led to the growth of progressive movements.

So what is "direct action"? Direct actions are primarily defined by their confrontative, public, disruptive and possibly illegal nature. They can be done with large or small groups of people. They are most effective when carefully planned, when they focus public attention on injustice in a compelling way, and when other avenues for change have been exhausted.

Before your campus group engages in direct action, carefully consider:

  • Will an action advance or set back your cause?
  • Will you have broad support?
  • Can you convince others that it is necessary?
  • Are you ready to handle the difficulties of any backlash?
Let everyone talk about their ideas, fears, and past experiences. Before doing any action you should refer to other action guides mentioned in the bibliography. If after all of this you still agree that direct action is needed, then here are a few guidelines you may wish to follow:
  1. Focus the Action - What aspect of your issue do you want to highlight? On whom do you wish to focus public attention? If you want to oppose, a law like Prop 187, do you pick a state house or a senator's office? Make sure that any building you plan to visit will be open, that any people you want to address will be in, and that you have mapped out where all doors, exits and offices are. Refrain from unproductive actions.
  2. Timing an Action - Don't do actions that aren't timed right for maximum effectiveness. You may want to spend your time building a strong enough base for a successful action later. If you are in negotiations, this isn't a time for direct action, unless negotiators are stalling on your requests and giving you problems. Students asking their university to endorse the United Farm Worker's Grape Boycott demonstrated after the university refused to meet with them, ignored scientific data on pesticides, and failed to give a statement as promised. Organizing on an issue the public knows little about can backfire. Organizing around a long standing community problem will increase your numbers, media coverage, community support, and chance for success.
  3. Compile Facts - Research your opposition and your issue for education and publicity. This can take time, especially for Freedom of Information Act requests.
  4. Know Your Rights - It is imperative to know your legal rights and possible penalities. Consult a sympathetic lawyer. A few simple legal points you should know are: you absolutely have the right to leaflet and you do not always have to have a permit.
  5. Event Planning & Preparation - Talk about your goal, how long to stay, and whether to disburse or risk arrest once authorities arrive. Pick a date, time, location, and location for your action. Keep in mind that many effective actions are perfectly legal. If you plan to occupy streets or want to use public facilities, try filing for a permit with the proper police department. Do not meet at the action site, but at an alternative site nearby where you can wait until your numbers are sufficient to move to the action location. What will you do at the action? Prepare chant sheets, get a bullhorn, and ask people to speak or do a skit. to arrive. Bring banners, signs, flyers and food, beverages and blankets to keep warm. Have enough events to fill your action time.
  6. Network - Talk to organizations who support your work and who may join your action. Ask progressive media to cover the event. Do extensive outreach to gain more support. Call people with direct action experience for advice or a short presentation or training. This will make people who are inexperienced with actions feel more assured and knowledgable.
  7. Media Promotion - Send a press to the media, both campus newspapers and community press. Do not tell the press your complete plan; just give them enough information to interest them in covering it.
  8. Stay Focused - Once you have organized a plan, stick to it! If you must make changes to the intitial plan, inform everyone at one time. Authorize a few (preferably experienced) people to make immediate decisions and deal with the police, if need be, at your action. Women protesting a beauty pageant in Michigan were able to remain in front of the building all night, even though they had no permit and should have been much farther away, when one women who had experience with direct action was able to effectively negotiate with police. Meet once before the action to solidify all plans and deal with last minute problems. The main organizers should not be making changes as they please.
  9. Problems That May Arise - Even though your action may be legal, the police may cite violations or arrest. Be prepared for this. If you have a permit, although they are not usually used for direct action, have it ready and have numerous copies. You may experience people trying to impose their agenda at your action. Plan how you will deal with this. A good idea is to ask them to comply with what has been planned and if they refuse ask them to leave. Encourage people to avoid hecklers, doing anything illegal or hitting anyone. Tempers flare, but stay unified! Remind people they will be photographed and may be in the news. When you leave do it in groups, if not all at once.
  10. Follow-up - Appoint people to specific follow-up tasks. Someone will need to speak with the media immediately so that the authorities aren't the only ones communicating your reasons for acting. Have people coordinating the legal aspects of your action. Others should be working on having your demands addressed or implemented. As a group, collectively critique what happened and start your future planning.
Good Luck!