Although each action is different and in its course takes on a life of its own, there are a series of more-or-less standard steps to develop one. These steps presume that you are developing your action within the context of an ongoing campaign:
- Issue Identification and Clarification
- Picking the Audience
- Setting the Context
- Performing the action
Issue Identification and Clarification
The public has a brief, shifting attention span and a limited ability to absorb new information. That is why you as an activist must keep your campaign and action focused and on message. You must be able to answer three questions: Presuming your overall campaign goals are clear, ask yourself again: Why is an action warranted at this particular point? Does the proposed action have a reasonable chance of benefiting the campaign – of sending a message, moving the debate or raising its profile? What about the political follow-up to the action: Will you be able to exploit the political opportunity your action seeks to create? As environmentalists, we recognize that everything is connected. But we can’t attempt to campaign on everything at once, because the public won’t hear us. You must define the issues as clearly and simply as possible. For instance, your campaign might be against the Forest Service in general. But what are you going to focus on right now? Clearcutting, endangered species, habitat and clean water are all good issues, but you can’t make a coherent statement about all of them in one action. So decide which aspect of your campaign you’re going to emphasize right now. Then work to make everything about the action – location, banner slogan, even what your activists are wearing – speak to that. A word about anger: A lot of us have been fighting the Forest Service, or nukes, or whatever, for a long time, and sometimes we build up a fair bit of righteous anger. A little anger can be a good thing. It puts a passion in the work. But seek in your action to go beyond expressing your anger. Let them – and the public – know why you’re angry. People sometimes get impatient with this arduous process of issue clarification and message development. But it is an absolute prerequisite to the next steps. Only with a clear understanding of your campaign and the issue can you pick the target audience, set the context, and scout, plan and execute your direct action.
Picking the target audience is the next step in your action’s development. It flows directly from your understanding of what needs to happen in the campaign at this point. In essence you’re saying: “I want my target audience to do this: ” Is it the general public, government officials, the mill operators, or the corporate executives you are trying to affect? Too often we hear a defiant comrade declare: “I’m sending a message to all of them.” Good intentions, but fuzzy politics. Such universal messages are very rare. If you think you’re sending a message to “all of them,” it often means you haven’t thought through your target audience well enough. Each action should reveal what we’re against and what we’re for. We may be against several things: the mill, the Forest Service, and the corporate suits. But each of these players should be held specifically accountable for their specific actions. Nailing them on the specifics – who did what, and when did they do it – may be harder than issuing a grand indictment, but sends a clearer message. The principle also applies when you’re thinking about what segment of the public you’re trying to reach.
Before making decisions about the place of action or other tactical choices we should pause and ask ourselves: Will the action be understood? It’s an important consideration. Actions don’t occur in a void. They occur in a particular context, and being sensitive to the context increases the chances that your action will be understood. Do you want to do that hard-hitting action just before Christmas, for example, when folks don’t like receiving bad news? As activists we often have a more sophisticated understanding of an issue than the general public. Polls have consistently shown that only about 15 percent of the American public is “interested and informed” on any given issue. This has several consequences for direct action campaigning. First, we have to avoid jargon – specialized language or concepts understood in an industry of a movement, but obscure to the general public. Second, if you want to campaign on these more complicated issues, you must take the time to establish the context before the action. There are many ways to do this. Releasing a report, holding a press conference or briefing, placing letters to the editor or advertising, can all help to establish context. Third and most important, it’s much easier – that is, more understandable to the public – to protest events rather than policy. In the IWC example cited above, an action directed at a possible policy shift would be very difficult to understand. An action directed at the Russians after they actually changed their vote would be much easier for the public to understand. Another example: You might want to send a message that the President’s nuclear policy is an ongoing disaster for the planet. In trying to protest these policies keep your eye open for event opportunities – a presidential visit to a nuclear research site, an accident at a government nuclear facility, etc. Finally, for all actions, remember the KISS rule: Keep It Short and Simple. The public has only a limited capacity to absorb new information over the short term.