Notes on Nonviolence and Direct Action


"Those who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.  Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." 


            -Frederick Douglass, African-American abolitionist


A working definition of Direct Action: (Definitions of what a direct action is vary.) 

1) A direct action directly addresses a social, environmental, or political injustice. 

2) Direct action serves as a symbolic punctuation within the framework of a larger campaign.  Direct action can be a powerful leverage point to achieve a campaign goal because it changes the social norm around an issue or calls a practice into question very publicly.  However, it is not an end in itself.  It is a tactic. 

3) Some think of it as only civil disobedience (actions that risk arrest).  We believe that direct action can fall both within and outside of the law. 


Nuts and Bolts of Planning an Action:

            identify your issue

            know your audience

            set the context: choose a political moment

            scout the location & plan logistics

            perform the action: be creative!



Planning a direct action should be done far ahead of the actual event.  Organizers should have a clear sense of the political environment in which the action will take place, should be clear on the goals of the action, and should be sure that all people involved in the action know their roles and have contingency plans if things go opposite to the plan.  Organizers should not hesitate to cancel the action if the situation is not ideal to pull it off.  It’s better to cancel an action than to have it backfire and endanger the participants or the movement. 


The steps:

1) identify the issue. 

2) know the audience-- target the action to them.  

3) set the context-- decide when the climate is right for the action

4) plan the details for the action.  Everyone involved should feel that the action is relevant to their needs.  Participants should know their role, should have backup plans in case the situation changes, and the media should be alerted.  Get legal support if there is any chance the police may try to intervene. 

5 & 6) have fun with the action, celebrate, and debrief once you’re done.



Things to Consider:

            privilege: who can participate?            who is endangered?

            publicity: is the message clear?  will the media cover the event?

            result: will the action unify or polarize the public and the movement?


There are a number of important things to keep in mind when planning an event.  First, consider privilege when planning the event.  Be aware of who in your group may be endangered by the action.  People of color and people with non-traditional appearances may be the target of police brutality; non able-bodied people may not be able to participate; and people of immigrant status may risk deportation if they choose to be involved.  Think about who can be arrested if the action is unlawful.  Parents may want to avoid arrest, for example.  So might people with health problems or important personal commitments that they can’t miss. 

                  Second, be sure your message is made clear with signs, t-shirts, stickers, banners, and clear media sound bytes that everyone has rehearsed.  Then, be sure you get the media there so the event is publicized. 

                  Last, be sure you think about whether the action will unify public opinion around your cause, or whether it will polarize your movement from the general public.  Both can be useful at times, but be sure to plan for the predicted outcome of your event.  


Some Related Terms

Civil disobedience

• Henry David Thoreau coined the term — protested war taxes by refusing to pay

• Historically, refuse to obey immoral laws

Civil resistance

• Break “neutral” laws (such as trespass laws) as we act to create a better society

• Civil “obedience” to higher (moral) laws (defense of necessity)

Direct action

• Historically, doing what is right with your own hands, creating a new situation without relying on the power of the State (authority, police, military)

• Now often, acting personally rather than relying on a government representative — take personal responsibility for changing things


• Symbolic actions can show how we would like things to be

• Symbols and ritual are important to people — think of the symbols of weddings, holidays…

Nurenberg Principles

• International Law that recognizes the legal right/responsibility to break civil laws in order to prevent an human catastrophe.

Satyagraha (Gandhi’s “truth force”) — “We must struggle toward truth.”

• Attempt to find a mutual truth with opponents, not to coerce them

• Love opponents and be willing to shoulder any sacrifice involved — leave a face-saving way out for opponents

• Nonviolence seen as an integral part of one’s life, a moral necessity, intrinsically good, and a full substitute for violence

• Emphasizes systemic political change and long-term cultural transformation


• Nonviolent action is not

• Not peaceful, polite, cordial acceptance of the status quo — this is appropriate behavior for visits to rest homes, not for bringing about change

• Not just physically “disrupting business as usual” — after a short-term disruption, the power elite can easily re-establish the status quo so we must challenge the established order more deeply

• Not just “getting arrested” — we could get arrested for walking nude through town, but what would be the point? Getting arrested is not the same as nonviolent social change — it might be one consequence of a social change campaign, but it is not the goal

• Not just “making a statement” but “being heard” — if no one hears it, then why make a statement?

• Not just to feel powerful, but to be powerful


Nonviolence is (among other things) … Strategic

• Focus on problems and solutions

• We focus on the underlying sources of problems, not on the people who act them out

• We focus on positive change — to create a good society — not to blame people, express our rage, assuage our guilt, make ourselves feel good, or have a good time

• We condemn actions, not people

• Our actions are carefully planned in advance to be effective

• We choose when, where, and how our actions will be carried out

• Our actions don’t rely on spontaneous uprisings (but we do allow spontaneous activity and flexible responses within guidelines)

• Our actions are carefully designed to build support for us and undermine support for our opponents

• We choose battles we can win — our goal is to demonstrate how we can change things, not to demonstrate our powerlessness

• Our actions are targeted to affect important groups — ones that have the power to make changes or to resist effectively (like Congress, strategic workers, a respected leader, the army, a pivotal judge, etc.)

• Our actions are bold, exciting, dramatic, and far-reaching, not meek, boring, or repetitive


Some Assumptions Behind Nonviolent Social Change

• People are important — every one of us and every one of them

• People are smart and can run their own lives in a good way if given a chance

• People can decide for themselves what kind of society they want

• Everyone can make decisions for themselves and no one should be forced to do it another way

• We can offer alternatives to others, but we can’t force anyone to accept them — if we do, we are acting violently in our own way

• Powerholders have lied, propagandized, manipulated, and threatened people into accepting and supporting the status quo with all its destruction and injustice

• If we counter powerholder lies, demonstrate alternatives, and protect people from powerholder sanctions, then people will change society


A Nonviolent Approach to Social Change

• Hold tightly onto your truth, but acknowledge other truths … Once the behavior of your opponent has changed, forgive your opponents and forge a new relationship


Ways to Win a Nonviolent Campaign

Conversion — opponents realize the error of their ways and join us

Acquiescence — opponents are converted or worn down enough that they don’t stop us

Accommodation — opponents lose support from crucial supporters and accede to our demands

Incapacitation — opponents lose supporters and are rendered powerless or irrelevant (dethroned, demoted, defeated in an election, etc.)

Emotional coercion — we threaten something that opponents value enough that they concede (this is nonviolent only if we can do it without hurting them or threatening to hurt them) — example: threaten to remove them from office

Physical coercion — we physically force them to concede (this is nonviolent only if we can do it without hurting them or threatening to hurt them) — example: restraining people so they can’t hit and are forced to talk


Some Nonviolent Methods of Social Change

Social change means changing how things are done — preferably in a fundamental way so that they become institutionalized and stay changed.

Education and persuasion

• Talk with people face-to-face — table, leaflet, speak to groups, and convene study groups, rallies, educational events

• Present information and rational arguments that convince

• Tell your own experiences or tell anecdotes that can open people’s hearts and cut through propaganda

• Present theater, music, art

• Illuminate oppression, reveal other possible ways to be, and challenge people to work for change

• Use humor to make it easier for people to accept your position

• Sing, dance, have fun

• Demonstrate alternatives that work

• Create tangible alternatives that are difficult to refute

• Show these alternatives publicly

• Support, nurture, and counsel people

• Act in a way that makes people trust you

• Encourage, challenge, and support people to work for change

• Present your views through the news media — letters to the editor, guest commentary articles, events covered by the news: rallies, vigils, demonstrations

• Conventional media usually distorts the message

• Try to convey simple, clear, unambiguous messages

• Develop alternative media

• Research

• Investigate the situation and learn what is really going on

• Determine the pertinent facts and develop strong arguments by researching your subject thoroughly

Lobbying powerholders

• Write letters to powerholders asking them to change their positions

• Visit them and put pressure on them to change

Electoral work

• Support candidates that support your positions

• Encourage people who support your positions to run for elective office

Legal intervention

• Prepare lawsuits and sue

• Conduct an initiative campaign to place laws on the ballot

• Building alternatives

• Set up and patronize alternative institutions

• Through your attitude and actions, try to create “the beloved society” of honesty, cooperation, sharing, and mutual support

• By practicing, learn how to do live with others democratically, responsibly, etc.

Nonviolent struggle (or “nonviolent action” or “nonviolent conflict”)

• Undermine and/or replace the established order with alternatives

• Engage in a power struggle: defend yourself or your alternatives from attack, challenge injustice, undermine or bypass powerholders, or mutually negotiate to resolve a conflict

• Use social, economic, psychological, political, and maybe nonviolent physical power to effect change

• Work to end oppression without hurting the opponent (win-win, not win-lose)

• Work to resolve the conflict in a way in which violence will be ineffective or counter-productive

• Typical methods of nonviolent struggle

• Demonstrate opposition — political buttons, bumperstickers, armbands, banners, vigils, petitions, rallies, marches, picketing, fasting, prayers, die-ins, etc.

• Refuse to participate or consent — boycotts, strikes, embargoes, refusal to serve in military, etc.

• Directly intervene — sit-ins, blockades, etc.

• Undermine — ignore powerholders, withdraw, patronize alternatives

• Cooperate with others — build strong, powerful alliances capable of sustained struggle

Build support and power

• Spread the word to new people and encourage them to join you

• Build evolving relationships with people and communities … work to understand their needs.

• Build large, supportive change organizations — support groups, study groups, political parties, alternative institutions, nonviolent conflict groups

• Physically and emotionally support members of your organization





• Effective three-prong strategy

• Challenge the established order

• We refuse to consent to or cooperate with conventional (destructive) ways of doing things

• Our refusal to consent forces change (nonviolent coercion)

• Live the way we want people to live

• Our actions demonstrate the rightness of our cause and our commitment to truth (satyagraha — “truth force”)

• Our actions encourage others to dissent and resist

• We learn and practice how to live alternatives, show others, and encourage others to join us

• We perform services to the community that show we are responsible and loving

• Organize people and build sufficient power to triumph

• To win, we must be willing to take time to build relationships, alliance, and coalitions and to truly address the needs of people and communities in our struggles.

• The rightness of our cause and our loving, nonviolent, dedicated stance will aide us in organizing people whom our message speak to…even people and troops that formerly support the powerholders — their lack of cooperation then forces change

• We appeal to a larger audience who will force change through their power and connections (news media, government bureaucrats, liberal establishment, etc.) — their dissent forces change

• We are patient — meaningful change takes time and usually requires a long-term campaign


Steps in a Nonviolent Campaign (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Investigate — research

Negotiate — meet with opponents and try to reach a settlement

Educate participants, supporters, public, and opponents

Demonstrate — protest oppression, show alternatives

Resist — struggle against oppression and for alternatives

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s six key points about the philosophy of nonviolence.

First, it is not based on cowardice; although it may seem passive physically, it is spiritually active, requiring the courage to stand up against injustice.

Second, nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent but rather to win his understanding to create "the beloved community."

Third, the attack is directed at the evil not at the people who are doing the evil; for King the conflict was not between whites and blacks but between justice and injustice.

Fourth, in nonviolence there is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliating.

Fifth, not only is physical violence avoided but also spiritual violence; love replaces hatred.

Sixth, nonviolence has faith that justice will prevail.

Effective Actions for Social Change

You are initiating social change, so set it up to go the way you want — make sure your actions actually bring about progressive change.


• Part of a larger campaign that seeks to fundamentally change the power structure

• Focuses on real issues — ending injustice — not tactics in the “game” of politics

• Keeps our issues in the foreground, instead of the logistics of the demonstration or our behavior

• Focuses attention on the opposition’s policies and actions and our grievances with them

• Makes clear that the enemy is not a few bad people, but the whole system and focuses attention on that system


• Disseminate lots of information in advance — have a large number of supporters already on-board

• Should be visual, simple, and direct

• Should be timely and close to home

• Clearly expose the current situation, how it is harmful, and how it violates principles that most people embrace — expose the societal secrets

• Present an alternative and show why that alternative is superior

• Best if it can all be summed up in one picture — what message would a single picture convey to people who know nothing of your campaign?

Dramatic, but not shocking

• Most people should feel comfortable with our actions and behavior

• Start with fairly moderate tactics and demands, then build as more support grows — exhaust every other means

• Our actions should be consistent with our ends

• Get lots of people (and/or prominent and respected people) involved

• Explain in-depth why our actions are necessary

• Actions should seriously challenge the established order and force it to respond

• Dramatize the situation, propose an alternative, and boldly demand change

• Avoid useless reforms (co-optation), token responses, committees that will study the issue for years, etc.

• Push for structural change that allows for more democratic participation, encourages more rational decisions, and lifts up more people

• Inspiring and encourages people to question authority, think for themselves, trust their own opinions and act according to their own consciences (empowering)







Material in this document borrowed from The Ruckus General Direct Action slideshow compiled by Hannah Strange and from by Randy Schutt.