My first call to Direct Action was sparked by the scores of undocumented immigrants from Central America that ICE has been shipping to Phoenix. An AZ Central article reports that “The Border Patrol says about 400 migrants were flown from Texas to Arizona because of [a] surge in migrants being apprehended in Texas.” This mass relocation has been going on for over a month now. The process itself breaks up families and is intensely disorienting for the apprehended. By the time they’re dropped at the Greyhound station, they’ve been kept in a cell for up to twelve days without showers or a change of clothes. When they do eat, they are periodically kicked (literally kicked) awake for small meals.
Hearing that all this was going down just blocks away from where I live, I joined up with some of my local activist friends at a union hall to help out the victims any way I could. When we arrived at the station, we were met with a long line of exclusively adult female immigrants, some holding the hands of small children. Clothes, water, and the use of a cell phone to call family members were the three big items in demand. ICE drops them off at the station without a change of clothes or a bus ticket, so they’ve got to find a way to get clean, hydrated, and procure a ride all in the space of a few hours. The amazing volunteers who helped out that day managed to provide them with all of the above and more, and even though most of the immigrants were limited to washing off in the Greyhound bathroom and forgoing a meal on the bus ride back, they couldn’t have been more appreciative and kind.
This was my first time volunteering with a radical community, and if I wasn’t already convinced of the potential of Direct Action, this experience did it for me.
The very phrase “direct action”- being a deliberate term associated with anti-authoritarian movements – conjures up scenes of aggression and violence against state institutions: Black rows of masked protesters wielding molotovs, improvised raids on animal testing facilities, even communist attempts to “disrupt the flow of capital” are all valid instances of direct action. But to limit the phrase to only its most dramatic manifestations is a mistake. Voltairine de Cleyre said of Direct Action circa 1912:
Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.
This all-encompassing conception of Direct Action is the most meaningful, because it acknowledges how peaceful, voluntary cooperation toward a given goal can best achieve desired outcomes.
To examine the efficacy of this direct approach, consider the steps one must take to achieve something within the confines of the political system. For instance, you could always vote for the most promising presidential candidate. Going this route, if you’re very lucky, your vote has a “1 in 10 million chance of determining the national election outcome.” Even if you’re one of the lucky few, your candidate will most likely break his more appealing promises, whether he vowed to free political prisoners or you’re reading his lips about “no new taxes.” Aside from the purely theatrical ritual of voting, the very systems underlying politics cause blockage. Bloated bureaucracy and red tape backs up the process and absorbs any genuine attempt at meaningful change. Party members, even at the local level, must “play the game” and play up to special interests if they want to survive the cutthroat world of corruption and nepotism. If there ever was any genuine intent to begin with, it is quickly swept under the rug to make way for “moving the needle forward” and other such nihilistic rallying cries of Whiggish progress for progress’s sake.
The spirit of Direct Action is inherently anti-authoritarian as it bypasses the arbitrary thresholds of negotiation and concession that come packaged with politics. There’s no need to beg politicians for a drink when you can, as David Graeber puts it, “dig the well yourself”.
But behind the tactical and ethical consistency of Direct Action in community volunteering, there’s the invaluable bonus of personally connecting with those in need. The sheer sincerity of helping others is a humbling experience, and for me, the Greyhound station was a sharp moment of clarity when my anarchist principles were more than words bound to the page by logic and rhetoric: They took shape in a way that brought vastly different individuals together for a crucial cause. I went hoping that I could be a part of that cause – I never knew it would become such a big part of me.