We are living in an important era: and with opponents like climate catastrophe and white supremacy to overcome, escalated and transformative peaceful resistance is crucial. Nonviolent direct action (NVDA) seeks to demonstrate that power flows upward from the people and our compliance is necessary for any institutionalized structure to function. When official, institutional channels don’t work in protecting people, direct action is used to demonstrate this people power, demanding justice from the bottom up when asking for it from those on top isn’t effective.
What does Nonviolent Direct Action Look Like?
NVDA is as limitless as the imagination — but all direct actions create awareness around issues which showcases public dissent in a powerful way. Mahatma Gandhi leading 100,000 Indians to illegally harvest their own salt in the campaign for independence against the British Empire is a notable example of direct action, though Gandhi called it Satyagraha: “soul force.”
Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes that supported the Mexican-American War and slavery is another example; he called it civil disobedience. The Greensboro Four sitting down at a segregated lunch counter, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the recent blockading of a flight meant for the deportation of 50 undocumented people at Heathrow Detention Center are all examples of NVDA. Bold symbolism is a facet of NVDA, bringing light to a larger issue by working with one part or microcosm. When 200 people, including several Sterling College students, risked arrest by successfully and peacefully shutting down both branches of the Montpelier TD bank in December 2016 to protest TD’s investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline, it was an effective example of symbolic direct action. When Greenpeace utilized a nearby crane to unfurl a 70 ft by 35 ft message to “Resist!” next to the White House in January, it was yet another form of symbolic direct action. When five brave climate warriors, the “valve-turners,” simultaneously shut down, through relatively simple means, every single pipeline bringing tar sands oil into the U.S. in October 2016, this was a hugely symbolic gesture as well as, in my view, an appropriately direct response to the urgent problem of climate change. Reuters called this action the “largest coordinated move on U.S. energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.” They are facing felony charges for their actions.
Why Risk Arrest?
In most direct actions, risking arrest is an intentional feature. When people stand up for justice and have the moral truth on their side, in a way which risks misdemeanour and, much less commonly, felony charges, police are faced with a “decision-dilemma” in which they could either let the disruption play out in full, or face backlash from the public for accommodating and enforcing immoral laws. Jane Palmer was arrested in 2014 by Burlington police for refusing to leave Vermont Gas Systems headquarters’ property, in response to them refusing to leave her property in seeking to build a pipeline on her land through eminent domain. The route has since been changed, though the fight against the Vermont Gas Pipeline continues. In stark contrast: the bringing to light of the violence of the state often comes at enormous sacrifice to those with truth on their side, especially and systematically if they are not white, as evidenced by the indescribable violence endured by peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock. It is important for white folks to put themselves on the line and use white privilege to take the resistance a step further by risking arrest, as they have the least to lose. At the very least, those with privilege have a responsibility to listen deeply to the concerns of frontline communities and respect the tactics deemed necessary and appropriate in the fight for their justice and the justice of all. In Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a brilliant response to critics of his direct action campaigns, he writes:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Direct Action as Community Resilience
Nonviolent direct action is transformative. It creates the change desired in the world immediately and positively, fortifying ourselves and our communities for the long haul; a successful direct action will not only work towards accomplishing the major goal, but contains and builds the characteristics foundational to a better world: calmness and resilience in the face of adversity, trust and kinship, strength, egalitarianism, problem-solving, dignity, and connection. Marla Marcum of the Climate Disobedience Center writes:
“We’re convinced that the kind of resilience that we need in the world going forward can be cultivated in doing this type of work together. And also, I am convinced that the best way to cope with the despair over what feels like an impossible challenge that we face everyday, is to take principled action with kindred spirits. Sometimes we are working and working on problems that seem intractable, challenges that make it seem like we really don’t have a chance to win, but we know we have to fight. And sometimes, if we just get together and put ourselves in the way, it can shift our own internal sense of power and our own group’s sense of hope about what could be done.”
Some relate working towards justice as a walk: slow, continuous, and perhaps without a clear endpoint. I was thinking about this concept recently while watching a compilation of video recordings from the civil rights era, and heard brave people, facing an oppressor far greater than I could ever know, sing Mavis Staple’s “We shall not be moved.” Though I knew many protest songs went back quite a ways, I was not aware of this song’s particular history while singing it many times at actions here in New England. Realizing the age of the song gave me chills; first from sadness in knowing that these injustices are still happening at full force, and then from the sense of hope in knowing that there is a lineage of justice-seekers stretching back farther than I can see, extending farther into the future than I can imagine, and I feel quietly the gratitude of being able to take this step on the path, so that those after me can take the next.
If you would like to learn more about direct action, The FANG Collective will be coming to Sterling’s campus from Rhode Island on April 22nd – 23rd to hold two trainings:
Saturday, April 22, 2017 from 12:30-7pm
Intro to NVDA: This in-depth workshop offers an introduction to the history of Nonviolent Direct Action and arts organizing/affinity groups within movements. We will cover implementation as well as examples of intersectionality within our community/movements, affinity groups and their formation, consensus decision making, strategy, various tactics, jail support, security culture, and a discussion on self-care and community care.
Sunday, April 23, 2017 from 10-5pm [Must attend NVDA training day before or have experience with NVDA]
Intro to Tactical NVDA: We will be building upon previous knowledge to delve deeper into tactical options and strategy within blockading for nonviolent direct actions. Equipment building, action formation, banner-making, and basic medic skills for actions will be included.
Sliding-scale suggested donation of $10-$100 for each day for non-Sterling-students. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
About the facilitators: The FANG Collective has been resisting Spectra’s fracked-gas pipeline expansions for three years. FANG was the first organization to carry out direct actions targeting Spectra’s “AIM” project in 2014. Since then, their group continued to grow and now host the following NVDA centric campaigns: StopSpectra, TakeOnTextron, NoDAPLSolidarity, NoNewPowerplant, NoLNGinPVD, as well as provide trainings — Intro to NVDA, Social Media in Action, Jail Support/Police Liaisoning, Security Culture, and Kingian Nonviolence.
FANG believes in empowering and supporting frontline communities to learn and develop the skills they identify as effective in their own campaigns. This has led to meaningful partnerships and collective resistance to fracked gas infrastructure along the East Coast.