Building a Direct Action Strategy for Real Resistance

By Andrew Dobbs

Anti-Imperialist Protests in Manila, 2016

Our political system is designed to channel mass frustration into rituals designed by the very folks that pissed us off in the first place. These rituals allow us to play at threatening them — which feels rewarding — without putting them at any risk whatsoever.

A growing number of people are realizing this. Where the correctness of attending the big march or supporting the inspirational candidate or “speaking out” was unquestioned just a few years ago, now more and more folks know that doing the same things we’ve always done and expecting different results is a waste of time.

We need an immediate strategy of direct action, with mass power unmediated through the mechanisms of our oppressors. We need new political processes that we can impose upon our enemies on our terms alone. Power means making people do what you want them to, and we need to build our power to make the ruling class submit to popular will until they finally go away once and for all.

This essay seeks to help concerned, frustrated people develop strategies of just this sort. The correct way to use this essay is to actually do the things it says — for real, in person, with others. Maybe this process will work, maybe it won’t, but if it compels some conscientious people to try something new it will be worthwhile.

First, Come Together

Think of this like a D&D night but for planning an actual war. The group should be large enough to contain a variety of perspectives and experiences, but small enough that you can speak frankly and feel secure. You should invite friends and comrades who embody the most important part of direct action: action. Who are the people who actually do shit in your community, not just talk about it? Invite them.

Don’t limit yourself to people who have been involved in politics. Invite them too, but the ones that already have answers before you start should be left to the system they secretly love.

Do not keep detailed notes and do not do this over the internet. Best practice would be to leave your phones and computers in your cars, and don’t do it in a home with the Google or Amazon listening devices. Do it in a park or on a camping trip or in a noisy bar or some other place where prying ears will have a hard time listening in.

Take all of these precautions, but still be extremely careful about suggesting illegal or dangerous actions. Snitches abound, and even if everyone in your group is rock solid you don’t want to put them into a position where they have to choose between betraying you or losing their freedom. The less you know, the less harm you can do in spite of yourself.

Topic One: What role does your community play for the ruling order? How does it serve the interests of the ruling class?

Every major institution in our society exists for the sole purpose of extending the power of the ruling class. This includes the city (and metro area, state, country, etc.) where you live.

If you can disrupt your community’s role in the ruling order, you can get the rulers’ attention. .

Here are some possible functions for your community:

  • a seat of government — county, state, or federal
  • finance
  • industrial production, cultural production, or technological production and innovation
  • education and research
  • a transportation hub
  • agricultural commodity production and distribution
  • Support for military installations
  • the health care industrial complex
  • leisure for the rulers or their privileged servants
  • a port or border crossing for international trade
  • a center for major penal institutions

This list is not exhaustive; there are many more.

Communities do several things, though often one or two of these are their core functions. Some used to have an important function but the function moved and so they no longer have a reason to exist. These places have crumbling infrastructure, no employment, and a variety of social ills.

Do a little research before you come together; the good news is that the ruling class communicates with itself through readily available publications: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg News, NPR, etc. Also, listen to local representatives of the ruling class as well: your Chamber of Commerce, mayor and city council, members of Congress, etc.

When you know what the ruling class needs your community to do on a regular basis, you have a chance to interfere with that role. That’s how we get leverage on the ruling class.

Topic Two: What are the institutions that carry out these tasks? Who are some key individuals in those institutions? Where are they physically located?

Power is the ability to make someone do what you want them to do, and that requires a will that can be imposed. Flesh and blood human beings wield it, but if those people don’t have a program they’ve agreed to or structures for sustaining their pursuits they can’t keep power very long.

Power is thus held by institutions: collections of people with organizational structure and a variety of material assets that hold them together and sustain their programs. If your community serves a specific role for the ruling class, then there are institutions that the ruling class has established or acquired within your community for carrying out those tasks. Those institutions exist in space and time, and they have individuals in them that are necessary for their ongoing function. These include businesses, governmental agencies, academic institutions, nonprofits, and many others.

What are these institutions? Where are they located? How do they bring in the resources they need to operate? How do they transmit their will across space and time? What public resources do they depend on, and how could you block them from those resources? Do they have important gatherings or special events? When and where are they held? Who are the decision-makers within the organization? Where do they live, and where do they spend their time outside of work? Do they belong to religious congregations? Do they have families? Where do they work or go to school?

Talk it all out and you’ll have figured out exactly where in space and time the ruling class operates in your community.

Topic Three: How might you use that space to disrupt the operations of those institutions? How might you coerce those individuals into doing what you want them to do?

Making it so that the institution can’t go where it wants to go in space or preventing it from being there when it wants to be there in time disrupts their exercise of power. If you can force their leadership to choose between doing what you want or putting up with your harassment you can eventually press their institution into submission.

That’s direct action, plain and simple.

There are two major factors to consider when weighing your options. First, what is your realistic potential capacity? How many people could you reasonably get together? What resources do they have? Consider your options if you have 10 people, 50 people, 100 people, 500 people, 1,000 people or more, with no budget or an unlimited budget.

Second, what risks are you willing to take? There’s almost always going to be a law that makes you stop doing whatever the institution doesn’t want you to do, so think about what you could do if you were willing to break the law. Start with safe and peaceful scenarios. Now what if you were willing to put yourself in danger? What if you were willing to break things? What if you were willing to use violence?

Consider these the two axes of your tactical brainstorming — capacity and risk — and identify a sweet spot with tactics that call for a capacity you can reasonably reach, a risk level you are willing to bear, and which your targets will never see coming. Make sure that you reach a little on both — make yourself grow, and make your people take risks. This sweet spot is the goal of your organizing.

Then: Recruit people. Train them. Encourage them. Mobilize them.

Now you are ready to recruit, train, and mobilize the people you’ll need for your strategy. You’ll need to encourage them to take risks and stick with the efforts, which means developing a vision and message.

As for demands, frankly we have that part down. We have bold demands floating out there already and while more revolutionary programs are necessary, a revolutionary movement will benefit from strong social movements built up around actually winning these demands.

No DAPL, Abolish ICE, Impeach Trump, Medicare for All, $15 and a Union, prison abolition, police abolition, Keep it In the Ground, Free Mumia, Free Palestine, No More Blood for Oil, abortion free and on demand, etc. We know what we want in the short run, but we have barely moved the needle whatsoever on any of these topics. It’s the targeting and tactics we need to change.

Imagine if 72 hours after family detention was announced or Kavanaugh got approved or the Paris Agreement cancelled major law firms and banks couldn’t open because their executives were afraid to leave the house and their employees couldn’t get in the building. Imagine if commercial air traffic was snarled and rail transport was frozen, if the ports were closed and schools shut down. Imagine if TV channels went off the air, trucks refused to run, and important construction projects across the land went up in flames.

All we need to get there are people and clear objectives; as we begin the process of recruiting, training, encouraging, and mobilizing we need to stay one step ahead of the masses around us, no more, no less. That’s what leadership looks like, and it’s how we’ll advance the struggle by attracting the largest number of the most ambitious people. Whatever the status quo and the comfort zone of active people in your community, escalate just beyond that.

If folks aren’t activated at all, a protest might actually be a good start. If you have protests somewhat regularly, break the law — don’t get a permit, or take a space you aren’t supposed to. If unpermitted marches and protests are already a thing where you live, consider causing some damage, or taking a space you really aren’t supposed to take. If militant demos like that happen sometimes, train to fight and maybe strike a more serious blow. Beyond that the sky’s the limit.

Next: Prepare to Defend Yourself.

Remember, however, that we don’t have direct action struggle like this today because the state violently suppressed past efforts to organize it. If you do everything suggested here you will be subject to state repression just like the Black Panthers, Occupy, #J20, and many others. The state may do this by looking the other way while fascist groups come to fuck you up. You need to prepare for this up front.

This, by the way, is why we tend to stick with the safe rituals of liberal protest. We feel like we have something to lose from taking greater risks. In truth, however, we are nearing the point when the threats we face by allowing the status quo to persist are much greater than the risks we face in overthrowing it. We must underscore this in our work always.

There are two major dimensions to political self-defense. First, the other side is never going to tell your story. You might be able to play the mass media or social media for a bit, but if the stakes get high enough you’ll need your own channels for getting your message out. Prepare those mechanisms up front.

Second, make the costs of attacking you greater than the costs of doing what you want. Their counterattack needs to be anticipated and met with an escalation that makes their leadership question whether it’s worth fucking with you. If they balk, you build your power to be able to withstand the real response later. Note especially that fascists tend to be cowards, and any amount of effective defense can cause them to scatter.

Third, combat isn’t about who has the bigger guns, it’s about who has the better politics. The victory goes to the side with greater unity, discipline, and strategy. Make these your organizing priorities from the beginning and you can beat our spoiled and decadent ruling class.

Most Importantly: Build institutions capable of sustaining a protracted struggle.

Remember that power can only be sustained by institutions, and the fight at hand is going to take years at least. As we find each other we need to struggle together to build something that can reproduce itself after we are gone. Ultimately we need a revolutionary party led by the oppressed and exploited, and this work should always keep that in mind.

In the meantime, direct action means finding the ways we can throw our lives against the machinery destroying life itself. It means daring to win. Find the people ready to fight and die and sacrifice their moral certainty and good names for an actual future with hope. Talk with them about these things and follow through. We may lose, but at least we’ll go down with a fight.

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