A Manual for a New Era of Direct Action


28 July 2017 | George Lakey | Waging Nonviolence

“Movement manuals can be useful. Marty Oppenheimer and I found that out in 1964 when civil rights leaders were too busy to write a manual but wanted one. We wrote “A Manual for Direct Action” just in time for Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Bayard Rustin wrote the forward. Some organizers in the South told me jokingly that it was their “first aid handbook — what to do until Dr. King comes.” It was also picked up by the growing movement against the Vietnam War.

For the past year I’ve been book touring to over 60 cities and towns across the United States and have been asked repeatedly for a direct action manual that addresses challenges we face now.

The requests come from people concerned about a variety of issues. While each situation is in some ways unique, organizers in multiple movements face some similar problems in both organization and action.

What follows is a different manual from the one we put out over 50 years ago. Then, movements operated in a robust empire that was used to winning its wars. The government was fairly stable and held great legitimacy in the eyes of the majority.

Most organizers chose not to address deeper questions of class conflict and the role of the major parties in doing the will of the 1 percent. Racial and economic injustice and even the war could be presented mainly as problems to be solved by a government that was willing to solve problems.

Now, the U.S. empire is faltering and the legitimacy of governing structures is shredding. Economic inequality skyrockets and both major parties are caught in their own versions of society-wide polarization.

Organizers need movement-building approaches that don’t ignore what animated many of the supporters of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump: a demand for major rather than incrementalist change.

On the other hand, movements will also need the many who still hope against hope that the middle school civics textbooks are right: The American way to change is through movements for very limited reform.

Today’s believers in limited reform can be tomorrow’s cheerleaders for major change if we craft a relationship with them while the empire continues to unravel and politicians’ credibility declines. All this means that to build a movement that seeks to force change requires fancier dancing than “back in the day.”

One thing is easier now: to create virtually instant mass protests, as was done by the admirable Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. If one-off protests could produce major changes in society we would simply focus on that, but I know of no country that has undergone major change (including ours) through one-off protests.

Contesting with opponents to win major demands requires more staying power than protests provide. One-off protests do not comprise a strategy, they are simply a repetitive tactic.

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