Seven years ago my older daughter Isabell was arrested, along with 420 other people, protesting at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. She didn’t even get a chance to protest: she was standing on a sidewalk with a walkie-talkie in her hand before the protests began. In the end virtually everyone arrested was acquitted, but the police’s aim to silence, or at least inhibit, dissent had been accomplished. At least in the short term.
In the longer term, however it failed. Isabell is still out there making her voice heard, as are many of the other people who were arrested in Philadelphia. And now so am I. My world view was shaken to its roots when we got the call that Isabell was in jail. The political system, the justice system, the social system that I had always thought of as flawed but essentially fair had showed another and much more troubling side. A lot of questions began for me that day.
Isabell spent the next couple of months off and on writing an explanation of her beliefs to distribute to her family and friends to help answer the questions that I and others were asking her. She has allowed me to reprint her explanation of direct action here.
I have come to believe whole-heartedly in direct action myself. And the more deeply I understand it, the more broadly I define it. Direct action is not only about participating in a protest, or even only about confrontation. It simply means acting under your own agency and by the dictates of your own conscience, and not waiting for permission or direction or for “them” to take care of things. Everyday direct actions can be as simple as picking up trash on your walk, or stopping to speak to someone who looks disoriented, or talking honestly with a friend about something that’s bothering you. We all do it all the time. And every time we do we shake things up a little, we create a little ripple of surprise in the fabric of everyday life, even if its just in our own private sense of what’s possible. We make a space for chaos. We become the Trickster.
People considered radical in their own time brought us the eight our day and the weekend, the women’s vote, the abolition of slavery, the end of segregation, the beginning of this country, the end of child labor at US companies in this country, free breakfast programs in schools, and the list goes on.
I want to do more than just talk and write about what I believe. I want to act. I believe in direct action to bring about change. Every single one of the movements that brought about the changes mentioned above used direct action. Direct action means “speaking truth to power”, as the Quakers say. It means directly confronting problems to solve them, rather than appealing to the aid of others. It is a tactic to use when moral appeals, reason, discussion, and mediation have not worked. When two groups’ interests are opposed, and one group has much less power than the other, oftentimes the only way to get the powerful group to change is by using direct action. Strikes, riots, civil disobedience, flooding an office with phone calls, property destruction and taking a protest to the street are all examples. The Boston Tea Party is a classic case. There were two groups: the colonists and the British monarchy. Their interests were opposed: the colonists wanted permanent settlements, the monarchy wanted a colony to make money. The colonists had much less power: they were taxed without representation, they could not elect their own governing bodies, they had very little control over their own affairs. The colonists wrote letters explaining what they wanted, what they felt was unfair. No moral or logical appeal changed the king’s actions. The colonists got fed up and a few radicals held the Boston Tea Party. They believed so strongly in their ideals, and saw that the king would not change through talk, so they needed action. This famous event was the spark for an already growing social movement for independence and the founding of this country.
Of course life is never simple, it was these colonists who imported slaves and murdered thousands of indigenous people. Slaves, former slaves and their ancestors as well as indigenous people have used direct action to combat their own oppression. As the IWW motto said “Direct Action Gets the Goods”.