Why Protests Work

The author of a new book on direct action says the main goal of demonstration is to make people in power uncomfortable.

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Feb 23 2017, 5:00am


At the end of her new book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, the journalist L.A. Kauffman notes that she "experienced a good deal of the history recounted here first-hand." For nearly four decades, Kauffman has participated in anti-apartheid rallies, ACT UP actions, dyke marches, Earth First! "backwoods encampments," direct actions against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and massive anti-Iraq War protests in the early 2000s. "I've been an activist, and immersed in multiple worlds of American radicalism, since 1980," she writes. "My first protest arrest was in 1992, and I've planned or taken part in more direct actions than I can count."

That hands-on experience, combined with exhaustive research, lends authority to this wide-ranging survey of protests, tactics, ambitions, internal disputes, victories, and setbacks on the left in the last 45 years. Readers are taken behind the scenes of the "largest and most audacious direct action in US history" (the Mayday anti-Vietnam War protests of 1971), learn about the 1987 protester who lost his legs while blocking a train loaded with munitions headed for Central America, trace the origins of now-familiar phrases like "intersectionality" and "identity politics," and hear analysis of why the mass protests at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle worked so "smoothly and brilliantly." If direct action is "a laboratory for political experimentation and innovation," as Kauffman argues in the introduction, then this is the lab report. And it couldn't have been released at a better moment. I recently spoke on the phone with Kauffman about what direct action is, why protest matters, and how her work applies to the era of President Donald Trump. 

L.A. Kauffman. Photo courtesy of Verso

VICE: How do you define "direct action"?
L.A. Kauffman: There's not a single consensus on what direct action is. I tend to define it as any form of organizing or activism that's outside the authorized channels of participation in our government. So voting would be the most classic form of authorized participation. And any form of protest, whether it be a simple rally or all the way to a lockdown blockade where people have embedded themselves into lockdown devices and are blocking a bulldozer—I see a huge spectrum covered by direction action.

You can get into a lot of semantics, like, "Is a march where there's a permit from the authorities direct action, or is that an authorized form of protest?" For some people, direct action is very narrowly defined as something that immediately stops an injustice in its tracks. So direct action would be blocking a bulldozer, but it wouldn't be holding a protest outside the office of the representative who voted for the pipeline.

I'm interested in a more expansive view [and] interested in more inclusive and expansive movements. I don't like to define what we're doing so narrowly that only a privileged few who can take great risks can be involved.

Your book ends with Ferguson and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. If you were to write a chapter on the Trump-related resistance, what might you say?
When Reagan took office in 1980, it came after a period of decline on the left. And the contrast with this new president is that he took office after years of rising activism, starting with Occupy Wall Street and the many groups that kind of spun off from the energy of Occupy, including Black Lives Matter [and] the Standing Rock Sioux and the pipeline protests. So what I'm struck by is how much the character of the resistance is shaped by what came before. You have a movement of movements; it's a model of decentralized, networked resistance where there's no single leader or single handful of organizations that people would point to as being primary. There are many, many different groups, and many, many different networks... that are working together and relating to each other in ways that people might not always realize.

For example, when you think about the airport protests [in opposition to the executive orders on immigration and Syrian refugees]. The New York Times said they "came out of nowhere." Wiser reporters reported that there were immigrant rights groups that had been around for a long time that organized them, and called them, and activated their text-messaging loops and so forth. But very few people realized for instance that Black Lives Matter was heavily involved in those protests and mobilized its own network. The Dakota Access pipeline protest networks were mobilized and involved. So there are these many, many different centers of organizing, but it's like a web of resistance.

"People need to think about this as a long-term process and not burn out in the short run."

What are some dos and don'ts that organizers should consider going forward?
There's a way in which people can burn themselves out with activism that's purely expressive, where you're essentially just outside buildings yelling, "No!" And there is a quality to that now where, because we're kind of reeling from crisis to crisis as people are trying to respond to the various actions of the current administration, there's a risk of burnout in keeping the volume of resistance and opposition high, at this fever pitch. So I would certainly give the advice that people need to think about this as a long-term process and not burn out in the short run.

On the other hand, I applaud the fact that there's been enough energy for people to essentially have contributed to the Trump administration being in a state of crisis ever since the inauguration. The basic move of direct action is to create a crisis for decision makers, whoever they are and whatever case and whatever circumstance you're dealing with. And creating a crisis isn't the same thing as, for instance, thinking about how to retake Congress in 2018 or 2020, right? Those are different projects. But right now there's no question that, in creating a crisis for the Trump administration, the resistance movements have already had effects beyond what we can measure.

"The basic move of direct action is to create a crisis for decision makers. In creating a crisis for the Trump administration, the resistance movements have already had effects beyond what we can measure."

If somebody asked you, straight up, if direct action works, what do you say?
Yes. That doesn't mean that every single protest that people have ever organized works. Protests are like tools. There are a lot of different kinds of protests, and some work better for some jobs than for others, the same way that you wouldn't want to use a hammer when you really need a screwdriver. But, by and large, the most basic lesson that I take from looking at the history of grassroots movements is that movements that use bold protest tactics win more and succeed more than movements that don't [and] than movements that limit themselves to things like letter-writing campaigns or polite meetings with their legislator.

One of the most memorable parts of the book is when you describe how after the anti-Apartheid campaigns in America in the 1980s, particularly on college campuses, Nelson Mandela came here and delivered a speech in Oakland in which he said, essentially, "Thank you. You guys played a part in this." It's remarkable to read.
Yeah, it kind of puts chills down your spine. I mean, the ways that direct actions work or the way that protests work, you can't always see immediate cause and effect. You rarely have a case where the people who are organizing the protest are the same people who then will be in, to quote Hamilton, the "room where it happens," the room where the deal is cut and whatever arrangement is made to resolve the crisis. So these moments when there's clarity about that and it's acknowledged are extremely powerful. Because, a lot of times, the people who work out the deals and then claim victory are very different from the people who maybe put the issue on the agenda in the first place. That's part of what you do: You put an issue on the agenda that was on the back burner.

There is a passage in the middle of the book that felt particularly relevant to today. You write, "The activists of this post-60s generation were typically radicalized by the sense that their future was being foreclosed: by the threat of nuclear annihilation, ecological catastrophe, or government insolvency; by the erosion of abortion rights or the ravages of AIDS." Do you think that is, in a sense, a description of what's happening in 2017?
I do. And it's interesting. When I wrote that, I didn't necessarily think that's the way the world was going to look when the book came out. Like many of us, I assumed Hillary Clinton would be elected, and I thought the book would be coming out in a time when people were mobilizing and trying to push her to the left and achieve more on every issue. It's striking that the timing of this book—I read the final proof the day after the election.

And, yeah, the deep resonance of those experiences of dealing with marginalization and defeat over and over again, particularly in the Reagan years, just really hit me hard. That is so relevant now, and that sense of looming catastrophe is mobilizing people in a different way now than it [was], because I think the movements in that period that that passage sums up tended to be in the minority and see themselves in the minority. And a big difference now is I think that this broad, sprawling resistance, in some very fundamental way, represents the majority in this country now. There is simultaneously that sense of possible impending doom and catastrophe, along with the sense that millions and millions of people are with us.

"Movements that use bold protest tactics win more and succeed more than movements that don't."

What a mind-blowing idea, that the resistance can be the majority.
Yeah! That's kind of where we are though, right? Everybody's heard stories of places that are not Berkeley, California, or Brooklyn, where there has been a huge turnout of people to town hall meetings, and people are really angry, and they're being really forceful. There's a sense now of a lot of people who are much more liberal or moderate, who would not consider themselves as radicals of leftists or anything, in the landscape that I write about, who are embracing the broad legacy of nonviolent resistance movements right now out of urgency and desperation.

I was in DC for the inauguration, and there was a [memorable] moment on the 21st [at the Women's March]. I was with a couple of other very longtime organizers, and we had made our way through the crowds and finally gotten to a place in the middle of the mall and got up on top of something. And, between us, one or the other of us had attended all of the largest protests of the last 30 to 40 years. And we stood and we looked around, and there was this moment of realizing, This is a larger crowd than I have ever been in in my life. And I've been in some of the largest in US history. It was just startling.

Even as I talk about the many continuities, the influences I see from the organizing that came before, there's something happening now that is special and different and extraordinary. A lot of other organizers who I know are feeling this same mood now where, at the same time that we're terrified about what's coming down the pike, there's just an extraordinary sense of hope in how many people are stepping outside of their comfort zone—doing things that they've never done before; stretching themselves, politically, organizationally and tactically to fight for our basic rights and freedoms right now. So it's this terrifying and yet incredibly inspiring moment.

Follow Philip Eil on Twitter.

Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism by L.A. Kauffman is available in bookstores and online from Verso.

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