Why 2021 needs more direct action
Back in the first week of June, 2020, soon after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, I found myself once again in the streets marching in the streets of Oakland, CA and taking action for black lives. I’d been here many times before after the murders of Michael Brown, Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling. Beyond that, I’ve been organized and partaken in campaigns, direct actions and mass protests on a myriad of issues from the war in Iraq to knocking Wall Street banks for their financing of fossil fuels to the Indigenous uprising around Standing Rock for decades.
But that night felt different. The crowd has a ferocious energy. It trashed corporate banks and retail outlets. It tossed back teargas canisters launched by the Oakland police. It stood its ground as the police shot flashbangs. We established a temporary “cop free” zone at 14th and Broadway. When I returned home that night, I saw social media reports coming in from all over the country with similar images. I realized the ferocity was not unique to the Bay Area. A full scale uprising had erupted against various versions of the state — the police state, the corporate state and the federal state, particularly the malignant policies of the Trump Administration.
I’ve known for a long time not to believe the false rhetoric of good liberals like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. In rare moments, we’re able to draw a stark contrast between “I feel your pain” and the devastation that their policies bring to our communities. These policies have included the austerity of public services, racialized crime bills and a loving embrace of the Wall Street elite. Not to mention a foreign policy that uses drone warfare and free trade to wage literal and economic war on the world’s poor. Not only are they not going to save us, they are actually much of the problem. This, combined with the Democrats haplessness in the domestic political arena, has allowed a vicious libertarian right to establish footholds in the institutions that govern our daily life and well-being.
Now as Joe Biden is being inaugurated, in the wake of the attack on Capitol Hill by Trump’s racist supporters, the ferocious movement that put over 27 million people into the streets last June still has much work to do.
Right now, things are getting worse, much worse. We’re in the midst of a number of real crises resulting from our liberal democracy capitalist system crashing into one another. As I type, almost 400,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States. Our healthcare system is already overwhelmed by COVID-19 and the lack of competence by those we elected to manage it. Recently, the New York Times reported studies showing that coronavirus patients being discharged from hospitals in the pandemic’s early months were being re-hospitalized within a couple of months. Boris Johnson has closed the United Kingdom down again as the new virulent coronavirus, known as B117, rampages through his nation. Now, B117 has spread into the U.S. with 76 cases in 12 states, as of this week.
Similarly, the “greatest economy in the history of the world,” built by Trump, has crashed to Great Depression levels. According to the New York Times, more than four million people have left the U.S. workforce since the pandemic began in March and not returned. Long term unemployment, or people out of work for 27 weeks or more, continues to rise. Unemployment rates among people of color are higher than unemployment for whites. In particular, unemployment rates for African-American men (11.3%) exceed unemployment rates during the Great Recession of 2008–2009 (10%), and are significantly higher than rates for white men (6.2%). Households experiencing food scarcity and housing insecurity continue to rise. While there are indicators of the economy bouncing back from the pandemic, the inequities of our modern Gilded Age are leaving behind those most marginalized by the existing system.
The climate crisis also continues to worsen. The past seven years (2013–2019) have been the hottest years on record. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season broke new records in terms of fatalities, economic loss and infrastructure paralysis. 2020 had a record number of thirty named storms from September to December. It included two catastrophic hurricanes that devastated Central America One of those, the category five Hurricane Iota, was the largest storm recorded in the history of the Atlantic. In the U.S., hurricane season included the Category Four Laura hitting southwest Louisiana. But every mile of storm impacted coast, from Texas to Maine, was under some version of hurricane warning.
Western wildfire season hit hard too. In California, Colorado and Oregon, over 5.9 million acres burned collectively in those three states. The 4.2 million acres burned in California’s 2020 fire season are the most in a single year since CalFire began keeping records, and more than the last three years combined. While fires burned in Oregon, right-wing paramilitaries seized the moment by setting up armed checkpoints in rural areas harassing those fleeing fires. They also spread rumors that antifa had planned to commit widespread larceny that led many to stay in their homes facing dangerous wildfires.
To further continue climate and environmental crises, fossil fuel, logging and agribusiness companies have been given carte blanche by the Trump administration to run roughshod over America’s natural resources, most marginalized communities and resistance movements. Trump, in fact, dedicated himself to remove the term “climate change” from the vocabulary of every agency under his control.
Finally, the fourth crisis of the 2020s is the political crisis created by Donald J. Trump and the rise of the far right. Two weeks ago, that crisis was put on display when an unruly mob of Trump supporters and far right groups attacked Capitol Hill with the intention of stopping the certification of the presidential election results by Congress. The subsequent riot resulted in five deaths. While Trump has taken advantage of the growth of reactionary and white supremacist forces in the U.S., the roots of the far right politics predate his appearance on the national stage. The root causes of the rise of the far right include racism, austerity, right wing media and libertarian politics. Trump and his cabal have merely taken advantage of it.
As vulgar capitalism and the politics of greed have eroded a quality of life established by previous generations, and sparked the convergence of these three crises, we’re also seeing the return of movements quite determined to fight back with righteous direct action on the streets.
Direct action is an umbrella term used to describe a do-it-yourself people-powered approach to making change. Direct action is both a spiritual practice, as well as a community trying to making change in the world. Direct action practitioner Lisa Fithian said “Change can come, but only if we’re open to creatively, lovingly, and strategically standing up, sometimes at great risk to ourselves, to protect what we love”
Historically, it has been most closely associated with labor, civil rights and environmental movements. The term first emerged during an International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, strike in Chicago in 1910. The suffragists embraced a direct action philosophy dedicated to “deeds, not words.” From the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King said, described it as seeking “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Redwood Summer organizer Judy Bari described direct action campaigns during the West Coast Timber Wars as, “we did it with the intention of pushing their buttons, to counter their, what we thought were shocking tactics, by giving them a taste of their own medicine.”
Defining the transformative power of direct action, long time direct action organizer, and Choosing Democracy co-founder, George Lakey contrasted the powerful effect of the “rebel energy” of direct action with more legitimate elections and lobbying work, “You can’t pull off powerful nonviolent direct action without rebel energy. You’ve run this campaign as a conventional lobbying operation and you can’t — at the last minute — switch gears and become a nonviolent protest movement!” Author LA Kauffman said “Those that have taken part in direct action know that it’s a profoundly embodied and personally transformative experience.” Radical organizer Brad Will, described it as “a conduit, like electricity. It moves through you, not just into you. You’re not a battery, you’re a wire.”
Direct Action, Here and Right Now
If any term described the essence of what we saw in 2020, it was “direct action.” Early on the pandemic, we saw the emergence of “mutual aid” throughout the country. Mutual aid is direct action. Direct action is not just about protest, it’s also about providing food, rent money, temporary housing and more for those displaced and in precarious situations by the crippling effects of capitalism.
At the beginning of the pandemic, hundreds of mutual aid groups emerged to provide community-based support for those hit hardest by the coronavirus and the subsequent economic meltdown. From sharing resources, running errands, providing financial support, and emotional care for those most impacted by the crisis. Various mutual aid networks helping houseless people, the elderly and infirmed and others at higher risk with the delivery of groceries, hand sanitizer, and other essential supplies.
As Jasmine Arauja, a co-founder of the mutual aid group Southern Solidarity in New Orleans, said, “One can no longer turn a blind eye to exploitation. The pandemic has revealed that your own well-being is tied to that of the most oppressed. If your well-being is dependent on the well-being of the most oppressed then we are all connected and capitalism clearly fails us an economic and political system.”
Likewise, workers have been standing up, sitting in, walking out and staying home in defiance of corporations, bosses and union bosses for decades. More recently, we’ve seen an explosion of “wildcat strikes.” Wildcat strikes are strikes not just defying employers, but defying the unions under which they are organized and hold contracts. Wildcat strikes made a comeback when public school teachers in places like West Virginia and Arizona struck, but 2020 saw the largest number of wildcat strikes since 1946.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been over 1100 wildcat strikes of workers in grocery, delivery, fast food, healthcare sectors, etc. demanding PPE, better workplace health and safety conditions, paid sick leave and much more. Walkouts, sickouts and other actions proliferated across the country in many “essential” sectors. Furthermore, following the uprisings around the police murder of George Floyd, workers and union members walked out and struck calling for racial justice.
And as environmentally devastating practices like pipeline construction and logging were deemed “essential,” we’re also seeing pipeline fighters and forest defenders practice their own version of “essential” work in the form of direct action.
For seven years, pipeline fighters have fought Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and the banks that fund it. The fight against Line 3 hasn’t been put on hold on that campaign at all. After the election, the governor of Minnesota signed the final permits allowing Enbridge to begin constructions. This has led to an Indigenous-led direct action campaign pulling out all the stops to stop the pipeline in COVID-ravaged Northern Minnesota in the depths of winter.
Early in 2020, we saw hundreds of First Nations across Canada occupy rail lines and put the country into a crisis in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en fighting to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline from being built across their territory. The camps opposing the pipeline are still there and the campaign targeted financiers of the pipeline asset manager KKR and JPMorgan Chase.
In Humboldt County, despite the shelter in place orders, the state of California is allowing logging of Redwood forests to continue in Humboldt. A small group of scrappy forest defenders are responding with tree-sits and other backcountry direct action, which they see as “essential.” As one Humboldt tree-sitter said “Habitat destruction is not essential business. In the midst of COVID-19, Green Diamond should cease all operations and support their employees and contractors by allowing them to stay home with full pay.”
In Appalachia, tree-sitters marked the second anniversary of the Yellow Finch blockade against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Up the West Coast, new forest defense campaigns near Olympia, WA have emerged as well.
After the police murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Lexington, KY and others, we saw mass uprisings on a scale of resistance not seen in the U.S. in generations. It’s estimated that over 27 million people were in the streets of the U.S. in June and July. It has spread from coast to coast, and increasingly around the world, with real resistance (not the Democratic establishment led #resistance) against police, police unions and political leaders, and included riots, direct actions, mass marches, city wide shutdowns, defiance of curfews, and the forced removal of the symbols of white supremacy.
In places like Portland, OR and Washington DC, the Trump administration responded with an extra-judicial militarized force that included law enforcement kidnappings, or “snatch squads,” of activists, enhanced non-lethal weaponry, targeting of journalists, medics and legal observers, deployment of U.S. military forces and, of course, the now infamous clearing of Lafayette Square for Trump’s Bible in hand photo-op in front of a church.
In many cities and towns, large and small, right wing militia groups appeared, bent on violence, to attack the masses of Black Lives Matter and other liberatory causes in the streets. While they were much smaller in numbers, they showed up armed with live ammunition and hateful rhetoric. This led to the deaths of an estimated 25 people, including Garrett Foster in Austin, TX, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber in Kenosha, WI and Michael Reinoehl in Portland. This all occurred with cheers from Trump’s Twitter feed, while craven liberals spent more time condemning and undermining defund the police and anti-fascist movements.
But also the violence directed at social movements prompted responses from groups like Shutdown DC, who showed up on early mornings to the DC residences of DHS chief Chad Wolf in solidarity with Portland and Kenosha.
In the lead up to Election 2020, as the Democrats turned out record breaking numbers of voters, elements in civil society prepared to protect election results from possible fraud by Trump and the Republicans. Unprecedented coalitions in the institutional left (i.e. non-profits, unions, churches, etc.) prepared for waves of action in the wake of a Trump victory. Groups like Choosing Democracy emerged to train and organize thousands in non-violent direct action in the event of a “Trump Coup.” Disruption was planned across the country targeting tech companies that allowed Trump and the right to spread false information, law firms attempting to overturn results in swing states and elected officials from both parties unaccountable to their constituents. While high level operatives connected to the Biden campaign sphere attempted to halt days of action organized to protect the results, actions continued to target key players.
Again, why 2021 needs more direct action
But why do we need more direct action in 2021 when we’ve voted out Trump, restored the centrist Democratic coalition of the Obama-Biden salad days and hold slight majorities in the House and Senate?
We’re in an unprecedented time, people are still suffering from the pandemic, real threats of being without a home, crushing healthcare costs, wildfires, oil spills, armed far right vigilantes and the myriad of crises we’ve seen go from zero to six million this past decade.
Furthermore, the corporate Democrats, the left Sanders-AOC wing of their party, the Beltway, the faux pundit class (Jimmy Dore-Jacobin-Young Turks) and their performative politics continue to not only fail us, but ignore the power being created by “boots on the ground” organizing. As my podcast co-host Prof. Robert Buzzanco suggested recently, “the Left continues to be hung up on electoral politics, despite not just its shortcomings but clear inability to make any kind of effective change.”
The answer is simple. What is needed is to build power. Direct action and organizing build power. When street movements have momentum and power, political leaders tend to pay attention, not vice versa.
We may live in dark times, but those ferocious movements challenging the power of the “state” continue to shine a light through it. Now is the time, for our communities and movements to continue escalating in the streets, the corporate offices and, if need be, to the front doors of the ruling class.
Scott Parkin has been a movement organizer and practitioner of direct action for over two decades. Follow him on Twitter at @sparki1969.