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“Should be required reading in every classroom.”

Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater

Take risks, but take care

Contributed by

“Martyrdom is a fascist tendency.”

Gopal Dayanenni
In Sum

Needlessly endangering the safety of you or the people around you hurts the movement. Don’t sacrifice care of self or others for the sake of being “hardcore.”

Direct action is a tool that oppressed people have used to build their power throughout history. When communities don’t have billions of dollars to spend, they leverage risk. They put their bodies, freedom, and safety on the line.

Direct action carries some inherent risk. That’s the whole idea. Designing an action is therefore about minimizing that risk in a way that is accountable to participants, the community, yourself, and the movement. When activists let the romance of confrontation overshadow meticulous care in action planning, they may put others in harm’s way, or may leave the movement to deal with the consequences of their risky behavior.

A good action planner distinguishes between the risks she can (and should) control and the ones she cannot, and clarifies to all participants what the potential consequences may be. Thorough action planning is a responsibility you have to the people around you. Even if you plan well, if action-day comes and the situation is not what you expected, don’t be afraid to call it off. Better to hold off and execute the action well another day than get into something your group is unprepared for.

The Ruckus Society pamphlet,  A Tiny Blockades Book, outlines a number of key considerations you should keep in mind in planning your action:

• Not everyone is taking the same risks. Race, class, gender identity (real and perceived), age, appearance, immigration status, physical ability, being perceived as a “leader,” all change your relationship to the action; i.e. the risks of violence and arrest by the police and the potential legal and economic consequences of the action. Also remember that there are power dynamics within your action group. Pretending that they do not exist or ignoring them “for the good of the action,” can compromise your ability to execute well, increasing risks…

• Some devices increase the risk of injury simply by design: U-locking your neck to a fifty-five gallon drum filled with concrete means that any attempt to move the drum could snap your neck. That is the point — you create this situation on purpose, or not at all…

• This kind of gear increases the “staying power” of your action by creating a deep decision dilemma see PRINCIPLE for the opposition… But if you are lying down in front of a truck and the driver is not aware that you are there, then there is no decision dilemma, and no action logic see THEORY: Action logic. That is not direct action, it is an accident waiting to happen.

• …The best actions are the ones where we get to stay as long as we want and the action ends on our terms — not in arrest or injury.

• Practice. Practice. Practice. The more you practice, the safer you will be and the more effective your action will be.

Some tactics should never be attempted without a thorough safety plan and skill-level assessment, such as a technical (climbing) banner hang where a fall can often prove fatal. Direct action is not a game.

Be humble. Understand that Beautiful Trouble is intended to be a broad toolkit, not a direct action training manual. If you want to design a direct action, get the proper training (see the attached list of groups).

Potential Pitfalls

Some schools of civil disobedience (for example, Gandhian civil disobedience) emphasize that “our suffering can touch the hearts of our adversaries,” and therefore build prolonged jail sentences or physical harm into their action logic. This is a planned orientation to the action, and not a license for recklessness or martyrdom.

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.

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