Direct action is useless without the masses

Marches may not always bring visible results, but they are crucial for political change. Direct action can't be the work of a small, devoted group. A response to "When marches aren't news, and media stunts fail".

Daniel Slomka
3 October 2014
 Demotix/Antonio Melita.

Like this action against oil drilling in Sicily, successful campaigns appeal to the emotions. Credit: Demotix/Antonio Melita.

Sami Çapulcu's “When marches aren’t news, and media stunts fail” (22.8) is an important article, presenting very well the sincere dilemmas of every activist striving for social and political change. It is out of respect and empathy with the writer that I write this response, focusing on their methodological points.

It is not new for anyone that we live in the era of information. Recognition of media and–to a growing extent-–new media, is a central part of the work of any government, business or NGO. Due to this many organizations have become obsessed with “raising awareness”. The main problem with this is that at times raising awareness comes at the expense of actually doing something.

The problem is serious. Thousands of people take to the streets, march, protest, raise signs and shout, and at the end of the day go home satisfied with a feeling of catharsis and of “having done something”, but in fact, nothing has changed. Awareness has been raised, maybe there has been some media coverage, but the people reached are usually those who already care anyway, and the government avoids addressing the problem.

If at the end of the day nothing changes, Sami asks, what use are these protests anyway? Public awareness must be translated into public action, and when there is no action, then visibility is pretty much worthless – direct action is therefore the answer.

They write: “Even if you think pressuring the government to improve our world is a good allocation of movement resources (I don’t) then history makes it clear that you need the back-up of direct action. Governments profiting from a problem rarely listen to their people unless there’s an economic threat.”

But direct action is itself dependent on public awareness. To take Sami's example of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS): boycotting is a legitimate way of trying to tackle social and political injustices, but it is useless if it is not implemented on a massive scale.

If only a group of several dozens of devoted activists boycott certain products, the financial impact that this boycott has is insignificant. Then the direct action has no meaning.

Sami argues that protests don't translate into action or change. How do we solve this? The root of the problem is in the message of the rally. At pro-Palestine rallies, protesters' signs call for a “Free Palestine” and to “Stop killing children”.

What kind of direct action do these messages call for? What should people do? No action can be extracted from such protest. Even if a person has good will and wishes to join the cause, based on these messages there is no “manual” of what such a person can do.

But it does not mean that the protests and rallies are useless. Protests, marches and rallies are not the final product of civic participation – they are a platform that provides public attention and awareness. The organizers of such events must decide what goals they wish to achieve through this platform. The protesters' messages need to be refined.

Let’s imagine that instead of raising some dozens of signs saying “Free Palestine”, protesters gave out hundreds of thousands of leaflets with concrete information about Israeli companies that violate Palestinian human rights, with clear instructions of where their products can be found, and how they can be recognized and avoided.

In this case, the impact of the protest would be much stronger. Ideally, this direct action would not only be taken by several devoted individuals, but by a much larger number. This kind of action can only be motivated through greater public awareness.

To further understand how public awareness and direct action go together, let's look at two other activist movements: the 269 movement, which aims to reduce the consumption of animal products, and Greenpeace International.

At the heart of 269 is a very clear call for action: go vegan. There is no way to miss this message. Since the call for action is so well designed, it is easier for them to raise awareness, usually through an appeal to the moral and emotional. Their campaigns depict pictures of adorable cows and horrifying scenes of animal slaughter. These evoke different emotions in order to raise awareness, then lever it towards a simple task: to stop consuming animal products.

Greenpeace’s challenge is different. Environmental issues are complex, and their outcomes are rarely visible in the short term. Their awareness-raising and call for action is complex. Just as raising a “Free Palestine” sign does little for the cause, so it is with a tweet like “Stop global warming”.

How does Greenpeace solve the problem? It divides the overall problem into particular, often local, units, and creates problem-oriented calls for action, calling for public pressure on governments and firms on specific, burning issues, with an emphasis on those that are “doable”. The recent successful campaign against the clearance of the Mahan forest in India in favour of a coal mine is a good example.

Awareness and calls for action go hand in hand, and the most successful campaigns combine the two. To inspire people to believe in a cause, activists have to focus on doable goals, and give people clear instructions of what actions are being called for. Direct action is necessary, but it must be backed by a mechanism of raising public awareness. Mass participation without a clear action behind it is no good, but neither is extremely limited direct action.

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