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.
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's many, many different groups, many, many different networks… that are working together and relating to each other in ways that people might not always realize.
What are some dos and don'ts that organizers should consider, going forward?
"People need to think about this as a long-term process and not burn out in the short run."
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.
If somebody asked you, straight up, "Does direct action work?" what do you say?
"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."
Yes. That doesn't mean that every single protest that people have ever organized works. Protests are like tools. There's 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.
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.
What a mind-blowing idea, that the resistance can be the majority.
"Movements that use bold protest tactics win more and succeed more than movements that don't."
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 liberals or moderates, 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, I see and 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 that 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.