The Symbolic Nature of Direct Action

There is much debate over “hard” vs. “soft” action. You hear it at meetings, around campfires, or read it in an eco-journal: folks advocating “harder” action and often criticizing “soft” action as being “just symbolic.” This argument has at times even kept groups on different sides of the divide from working together effectively. But this argument shows a misunderstanding: all direct action is symbolic by nature.

When people say “hard” actions, they usually mean physical intervention or blocking. It is thought that hard actions cost the object of the action “a real price” and often end in arrests.

“Soft” action, on the other hand, is viewed as mostly symbolic – sometimes so non-interventional that it is described simply as a presence or witness. Demonstrations and vigils also tend to wear the soft label. But when facts are examined, distinctions blur. Blockades always end; plugs come out; bladders give out. So is there a difference? You can argue that the difference remains in the risk entailed by the action, or its difficulty. This is, in the end, a red herring. All actions, “hard” or “soft,” have the same goal: to make an objective change in the world.

First, activists use direct action to reduce the issues to symbols. These symbols must be carefully chosen for their utility in illustrating a conflict: an oil company vs. an indigenous community, a government policy vs. the public interest.

Then we work to place these symbols in the public eye, in order to identify the evildoer, detail the wrongdoing and, if possible, point to a more responsible option. Frequently, usually by design, the symbolism and conflict are communicated to the wider public, using the media. This symbolic treatment of the issue is, in fact, at the core of action strategy, and knowing this is key to understanding the tactic. When someone criticizes your idea for a direct action as “just symbolic,” remind him or her that all are. Ultimately the debate over “hard” vs. “soft” action is only a distraction from the real question: could this action make an objective change in the world?

The most important, and therefore most difficult, thing about direct action is developing a sense of timing – when to seize a political moment.

The second most important thing is creativity in designing an action, and fortunately that’s a bit easier. Most of us are already creative in other areas, and this generally transfers well to direct action – especially when you’ve got a group of committed, focused activists with which to work and trade ideas.

There are a number of ways to practice creative brainstorming. Find out which one works for your group of activists. The most crucial factor in brainstorming, of course, is openness to new ideas from all quarters – action leaders must be ready to accept an idea that may come from a team member who has a “minor” role, or is not as experienced in actions.

A close second is a commitment to stay at it until you get it right – hours, days or longer. Brainstorm until you’re dry, then analyze what you’ve come up with and wait for your creative well to fill again. Remember that formal indoor meetings are often the hardest place to be creative. Vary the location for your strategy sessions. David Brower’s advice is to close more bars. You’ll get your best ideas between midnight and closing time.

Openness to new ideas also includes the ability to see good ideas in other quarters, and appropriate them. You can’t copyright an action, so don’t be afraid to steal good ideas. Become a student of the ways other groups or individuals are taking action. Pay special attention to direct actions by non-environmental groups, who are doing some of the most creative stuff today. ACT-UP, Queer Nation, the students at Gallaudet University, homeless activists, even Operation Rescue and the Wise Use movement, on the other side of the ideological spectrum, have added to the tactical development of direct action in recent years. Look for and at action as a tactic instead of specific issues.

Finally, remember timing once again. A colleague used to say: “Timing may not be everything, but it’s damn close.” Action skills such as climbing or inflatable driving are mechanical ones and people usually pick them up relatively quickly. A sense of timing and opportunity is harder to develop. When examining other actions as a source of ideas, always work to understand the timing behind them.