Direct action that POPS!

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves…and the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Howard Zinnmau st ps

Our time is one of global uprising in the face of increasing economic injustice, war and environmental disaster. I feel that the most important thing we can now do is empower each other to participate in the movements that will eventually supersede these challenges. We know how to create the change we need – the lessons of history teach us: the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the equal marriage movement and many others show us the way. There is already a strong wave for change across the globe – Arab Spring, European uprisings… It is our job here in the vital economic power centre of London to be engaged and to engage others in our community to participate in this global time of change and make sure London continues to stand up and be counted.

I have a particular method for designing and enacting direct actions which I will begin to outline here.


A useful person once said, “All the world’s a stage.” I take that very literally. For an eye-popping direct action you need:

script – stage – cast – costumes – props

Any work that I have been involved in has always been a team effort. An action almost always takes more than just one person to create, so tip 1 is have a great team!

Here I am describing only one particular skill set – the particular aspect that I usually want to help contribute to an action. Other extremely important skills and talents include: online activism and hacktivism, research, PR and press, legal observation, documentary making and live-streaming. You also need to consider how any direct action fits into your wider objectives and history as a whole. I am not discussing that here…I am discussing how to CONSTRUCT the DRAMA of an action for GREATEST EFFECT.

You need:

Script: What do you want to achieve and why? Is your messaging clear? Are you trying to raise awareness or achieve a particular objective? Do all the other elements (below) support and feed into your message? Who is likely to be inspired or motivated by the work you are doing? How do you want to speak to them (methods and tone)? What are the likely criticisms of what you are doing? Can you back up your argument? If you do a good job you are likely to find yourself under fire from the press in the aftermath so you will need to be clear in your message!


Also, very importantly, how does what you are doing fit into the wider narrative: the immediate cultural context and the historical context? Know the field as it stands and then take aim. You have to start from where you are and work with what you have…where are your chess pieces on the board right now and how do you shift them in the direction you want them to go?

Written documents you will need may include: statements, strategically constructed petition/s, flyers, sound bites/key phrases for media and banners, call-out to invite people i.e. Facebook page or website…etc.

Stage: For me, the stage is the next most vital element of any action. It is your foundation, bedrock and the mother and protector of your action as it unfolds. I am talking about creating political theatre for the world stage, a historic venue is key to that. My advice is: pick a famous land mark or historical place that is easy for press and public to reach. (Obviously St Paul’s Cathedral was a gift, but I think it’s been done ENOUGH now so I’m not suggesting it!) Things like: Big Ben, Parliament, Downing St, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, London Bridge, Nelson’s Column, London Eye, Piccadilly Circus…Apologies if you’re not working in London – this will work just as well anywhere in the world; the more prominent or appropriate to your message a place is, the more POP it will give your action. Events such as famous sporting, public or entertainment events may also be very useful, or locations important to certain industries…

Cast: Your cast is made up of several elements.

1)      Core group / People ‘in the know’: Direct actions usually have to be kept secret otherwise the police or others may well prevent you from doing what you intend. So the first element of your team is the people who are ‘in on it.’ Keep this group as small as humanly possible while still being a feasible size so as to be able to fulfil your aims. The more people who know, the more likely it is that you will be discovered and your action may be prevented. This group of people must be as reliable and experienced as possible, but it’s amazing what inexperienced people can achieve sometimes. Don’t be intimidated, everyone starts somewhere and you learn best by doing.

2)      Headliners: Prominent people are very useful. They might be politicians, celebrities, leaders of institutions, bankers…anybody who makes sense in terms of being either for or against your message, or fence-sitters who you would like to move! These people may be ‘in the know’ or they may not! For instance, if you perform a citizen’s arrest for war crimes on Tony Blair outside Downing Street you obviously won’t forewarn him! Or you may be working with sympathetic rock stars that will play once you’ve all managed to scale up onto the roof of Westminster Abbey to aim better karma at Parliament. (Amps? Hmmm. Good climbing team!)

3)      Public and police: Part of the excitement/problem of doing this kind of work is that there is only so much of it that is within your control. You cannot control how the public or the police will react to what you are doing.

Often you will find that the public don’t react at all – people often think that you are ‘meant to be there’ if you act confidently! Be calm and assertive with anyone who engages you. If people are angry don’t join in, unless that’s part of your methodology and overall picture.

Dealing with the police is a separate topic that we don’t have room to cover here. Often the best thing to do is stay calm and know your rights. If you’re practiced at ‘consensus decision making’ or simply have good, clear communication in your group, you can make decisions about what to do that respect all group members’ positions and feelings.

Police can be useful cast members. For instance if, when we were chained in St Paul’s, police had tried to physically force us to move we would have got pictures of chained women in white being dragged out of the cathedral, which would have told our story very well and looked bad for the police and the cathedral. So they pretty much had to leave us and negotiate. Win/win!

The public and police are a factor that can be used strategically as well as just managed. Do you need/want a large crowd? How large? If the answer is ‘massive’ you might have to arrange a march and use stars or great messaging/social media strategy to attract a large amount of people to a pre-publicised action…and then do something cheeky as a DA on top of it. Or stage your action where there is already a large crowd…

4)      Costumes: Many, many more people will see and respond to the picture of your action rather than anything you write or say. Make the picture tell a thousand words. If you have Obama at a landmark relevant to America’s imperialist foreign policy and you are about to block the road, for god’s sake wear orange jump suits! Tell the story with your body and your clothes.


NB the physical risks of being involved in direct action must be considered. Especially when prominent people or targets are involved. Finding out what the likely policing and security contingent is in any situation is very important. It is also important to understand that police and authorities react differently to people of different races, social classes, genders and for many other reasons, and some group members may be targeted before others.

4) Props: As above. Make your props tell your story. Make your main message readable in any pictures that will be taken. Write it on your face or body or hold a sign close to your face or body. Make your sign out of something ingenious. Banners disguised as all sorts of things that can be sneaked into places and then produced and held up quickly are very useful. For instance, umbrellas in covers can be taken into places where you would never get a traditional banner. Paint your umbrella, put it in its cover, tuck it under your arm and then unfurl it at the crucial moment.

If you have the right people in the right place with the right message and the right appearance at the right time, you’ll get something that pops.

Don’t forget to consider the possible legal ramifications of your action. Are you ‘arrestable?’ If so, what might you get charged with and what are the possible consequences of that? Legal Obsevers can help with this are and can be requested from Green and Black Cross.

There is some kind of alchemy manifested that captures the public imagination when this work is done well – the story of history is literally being played out. A black woman sitting down on a bus? A suffragette under the King’s horse? These are the kinds of images that can be created that epitomise pivotal moments of change-making in history. It is very unusual for these things to happen by chance, they arise from the planning, work and courage of people working together – whether that’s on a global scale or in a local campaign.

This subject is so involved I think I might have to right an ongoing blog about it, but here are the bare bones.

Direct action is like a play and everyone can do it – tell your story.


ali and tammy