Direct Action - your questions answered


This article addresses Direct Action in the context of the sometimes hysterical debate about the Grassroots Network Against War (GNAW) action at Shannon on March 1st.

What is Direct Action?

Direct action simply means acting for yourself without intermediaries. For example, with regard to the use of Shannon by the US military we could plead with TDs to plead with the cabinet to plead with the US authorities to move their operations to Germany. That type of action relies on other people acting on behalf of you.

Direct action is simply where you act for yourself. An example would be if thousands of people occupied the runway at Shannon preventing US Military from refuelling there.

Is Direct Action always Violent?

Nope, though they're not mutually exclusive either. Anyway violence against people (as opposed to property) usually originates from the state forces as they react (by batonning & imprisoning) demonstrators. The morality of violence is a separate though not unrelated question and, in my opinion, each use of force needs to be justified on its own merits.

Why publicise a Direct Action?

In the afterglow of February 15th it was reasonable to assume that a couple of thousand would show up at Shannon. The reason for publicising it was to encourage the maximum number of participants in the direct action itself. The plan to tear the fence down was dependent largely on numbers. The fact that the numbers didn't materialise was disappointing, and all the publicity, far more than expected, probably served to scare away people rather than attract them.

If people don't know about an event then they we can't expect them to participate. Open publication of the plan allows people to make an informed decision about the extent of their involvement. It minimises the chances of them being drawn into events they are uncomfortable with.

On the other hand, it could be fairly argued that direct action instigated by a few can be more successful than a pre-planned one. For example, the fence destruction at Shannon in October was a spontaneous action instigated by a few which led to a mass trespass. The very public plan on March the 1st failed in its objective and may even have appeared as a standoff designed to attract media attention. I think there's merit to both positions.

Does Direct Action frighten people off, particularly those new to political activity?

This argument is often connected to the cry 'let's build the movement' first. There are hundreds of thousands of people against this war. The movement is built. The question is what to do now?

There was no change in policy after February 15th. We can either sit back and hope that the government will change it's mind about refuelling in Shannon or we can try to stop it ourselves

The latter is the harder option and it's entirely possible that such attempts will be both unpopular and a failure, but a start has to be made. If direct action isn't appropriate at this time and on this issue then it'll never be.

Direct action also leads to people feeling empowered in the struggle as it has an achievable aim and does not rely on our 'masters' doing what we ask them.

If peaceful protesters are attacked by police then surely it's the protesters' own faults ?

In the run up to March 1st concerns were expressed that attempts to cause a security breach at Shannon would bring violent retribution form the security forces and therefore the action was inappropriate.

This highlights the degree to which some people, even anti-war supporters, are committed to the legitimacy of State violence even if such violence is used to continue an unethical policy in the face of peaceful civil disobedience.

The GNAW demo, whatever its organisational flaws, was intended to be entirely peaceful, as indeed it turned out. At its most extreme a fence was going to be torn down. This is so minor compared to punching someone in the face or an aerial bombardment that I'm embarrassed it needs pointing out.

The security forces on the other hand were prepared to violently resist this peaceful (or at most barely aggressive action) action by thumping people &endash; hence the batons &endash; and imprisoning them against their will.

Therefore any violence was likely to come from them and it is they and their masters who ought to be called upon to desist from acting violently, particularly as they were acting in the service of an unethical (and unpopular) war. Excusing the security forces because they're "just following orders" has a long and inglorious history.

Is DA is a Distraction ?

A distraction from what? The Green Party leadership disassociated themselves from the actions of the Catholic Workers and the March 1st demo partly because they considered such action a "distraction". In fact the opposite is true. Every time an action took place more attention was focussed on Shannon, the scene of the Irish State's complicity in the war effort.

Not only is direct action not a distraction it has had specific positive results, namely the withdrawal of some of the airlines ferrying the hardware to the Middle East.

Ireland's role in the war is minor and no doubt dispensable. Nevertheless it's our responsibility to stop that involvement. It's not up to us to stop the war, we can only change that which we have control over.

But you must admit that the cost to the State of securing the airport is a waste of taxpayers' money?

Defiantly true, the quickest way to stop it would be to prohibit the planes from using the facilities in the first place.

Aren't Workers strikes are the best form of direct action?

True again, and while we should do our bit to encourage and support them there's no reason to wait for them to do it. They mightn't be agreeable to the anti-war case or they mightn't have the confidence to risk going on strike. If we're going to call for them to take a risk we should at least be prepared to take a few ourselves. Workers' strikes and breaching security are not mutually exclusive tactics.

James O'Brian


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This edition is No75 published in March 2003

Blood on your hands