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Direct Action: What It Is and Why We Use It

A brief introduction from an Earth First! organizer

In 1998, I found myself traveling among Earth First! activists and living in an Oregon road blockade. Beyond the blockade were a series of treesits designed to protect an ancient forest from industrial logging. It was the first movement that I really felt a part of, though I have to admit that I was skeptical about any potential for victory. But the feeling was right, so I stuck with it. Today, you can go to where that grove of giant Douglas fir trees near Fall Creek is still standing and see the results of our actions for yourself.

Tar Sand blockadePhoto by Elizabeth BrossaThere has been a visible rise in direct action campaigns against energy corporations and their infrastructure.

The same is true for a dozen-or-so other timber sales that were contested in the area. And in places where native forests were lost to the saws, we made sure they were not forgotten – images of us standing on massive stumps became burned into brains around the world. Rather than stifling us with sadness, these losses became fuel for our fight. It was only in hindsight that I realized our publicity generated through daring protests also played a role in changing the actual language people were using to talk about ecosystem protection, and as a result, the public policy surrounding forestry.

More than that, our experience in the backwoods gave us the skills, analysis, and affinity groups we needed to descend on Seattle a few years later and derail the global economy's WTO meeting with blockades throughout the city center.

A very similar scenario is playing out across the US right now, visible in the rise of direct action campaigns against energy corporations and their infrastructure. The clearest example I can point to at the time of writing this is a tree canopy occupation on Andarko's proposed fracking site in Pennsylvania's Loyalsock State Forest. But that campaign, which has been playing out in various installments since summer, is one of many where radical activists have recently taken to the woods and stood in the way of pipeline construction, fracking wells, tar sands and coal mining sites.

Many of these folks are organizing under various organizational banners today, but experiences of working with Earth First! (EF!) have continued to be uniquely valuable to the direction of the environmental movement. I would like to share some insight here on ecological direct action gained through the past 15 years of on-the-ground EF! organizing experience. 

Defining It

While the term civil disobedience is something people tend to be familiar with, it has long been considered merely one of the myriad tools in the toolbox of what social movements have historically called direct action. But direct action is something that is easier to describe through the sensations and stories that accompany it than through technical explanations. In a most bare-bones definition, using direct action means recognizing what efforts we – as individuals or affinity groups – can take which will result in achieving our goals without awaiting permission from authorities. In a money-driven society, that most often means diminishing the profit motive of our industrial opponents and threatening the political structures that prop them up.

Despite years of experience and knowledge now spanning generations, it's still a challenge to describe exactly what sort of actions fall in this category. Generally accepted on the list are endless varieties of blockades, occupations, and sabotage of all shapes and forms (what we refer to as monkeywrenching); though things like mass marches, home demos, banner hangs, costly administrative petitions, and pro-se legal challenges (or paperwrenching), political pranks and miscellaneous deviltry also often make the cut – depending on who you're talking to.

There have been debates ad nauseam about which actions actually have a direct impact and which are merely symbolic. As assorted activists, organizers, and revolutionaries have quickly realized, this is a false dichotomy. Most every action taken has both direct and symbolic effects, and it’s entirely possible that the supposed “symbolic” effect will far outweigh the immediate physical impact.

Take, for example, an average Earth Liberation Front (ELF) arson or Earth First! road blockade aimed at stopping development plans in the protected habitat of an endangered species. Either of these actions would likely cause a temporary delay in work progress and could cost a company or government agency tens-of-thousands of dollars in immediate financial losses. Mass media coverage of these events could drive the cost much higher. For one, contracting public relations firms to clean up a company's tarred image is really f--ing expensive. Add to that increased insurance premiums and security costs that accompany bad publicity and you are easily in the hundreds-of-thousands range, if not millions.

More often than not, the story itself becomes the battleground. Not just on a moral or feel-good level, but on the impacts to a company's bottom-line, and a state agency's creditability.

Using It

photoname Photo by Brendan SchererHigh profile civil disobedience actions like these can result in quick arrests.

Blocking access to the roads needed for mining, occupying the offices they make their plans in, burning the equipment needed for logging – these few tactics alone would ideally stop our opponents dead in their tracks. Occasionally they have. But the records show, sadly, they usually don't. High profile civil disobedience actions like these can result in quick arrests, and sneaky sabotage can lead to long prison sentences.

While we have the police state to thank for that, simply complaining about the cops doesn't tend to get us much closer to our goals either (though a good old-fashioned riot can go a long way in applying some pressure, as it did on a few occasions for suffragists, labor, civil rights…) This unfortunate reality of a system that is armed to the teeth against us means that our efforts need to be more dynamic, resilient and effective at using all the story-telling media we can access.

All this doesn't change the fact that the best long-term strategy for the environmental movement, or any movement, is to plan direct actions with a vision of what could achieve the most successful results if the police were removed from the picture. It might sound a little far fetched, but it makes our story so much stronger to honestly say “If the police state would stop siding with these corporations, we could shut down this facility that's poisoning us for good, today.”

And some times it works. Take the infamous Love Canal campaign, a foundational moment for the modern environmental movement, for example. Did you know it was founded on a successful direct action event?  It's true.

On May 17, 1980 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the result of blood tests that showed pollution-related chromosome damage in residents of the neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, indicating that they were at increased risk of cancer, reproductive problems and genetic damage. Two days later, residents held two EPA representatives hostage and challenged the White House to relocate all families by May 21 at noon, with then-president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, Lois Gibbs, saying "What we've done here today, will look like a Sesame Street picnic compared to what we'll do then." The White House promptly agreed to evacuate all Love Canal families. (Wouldn't you love to see that quick of a response in your local campaign – preferably before your family is dying of cancer?)

In the time that I've been involved with grassroots organizing and direct action, I've not only been a part of having logging plans canceled out in the West. Where I live, I've watched as plans for thousands of homes to be built over farms and wetlands that our group fought got scrapped. I've seen plans for gas storage facilities and pipelines we opposed be abandoned. I've celebrated as permitting for coal and nuclear power plants were shot down. And I've laughed as blueprints for a biotech city (animal testing labs and all) sit on hold for close to a decade – despite near a billion dollars in subsidies – thanks to our actions.

I have EF! organizer friends across the US who can tell similar stories. We didn't usually achieve these victories on our own. Most often, it was a combination of direct action, broad opposition, and environmental lawsuits. But sometimes it really was just our rag tag direct action crew. And on more than one occasion, our reputation preceded us enough that their plans were canceled before we ever had a chance to throw up a first blockade!

But these are all topics for other articles, books even. My goal here is to merely give you a sense of what we have pulled off so far. Ultimately, direct action isn't about hoping for change, it’s about making a commitment to fight for your family, friends, and the planet you depend on for life.

Panagioti Tsolkas
Panagioti Tsolkas is the program coordinator of Human Rights Defense Center’s burgeoning Prison Ecology Project. He is also a former editor of the Earth First! Journal, a father and a community organizer based currently in Lake Worth, Florida.

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