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Why Direct Action Is the Most Powerful Advocacy Tool and Writing Letters is a Waste of Time

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direct-action-advocacyThere are several tools that, as advocates and activists, we use to be effective in our work. Most of us tend to use what I refer to as the “nice” tools – letter writing, meetings, action alerts and – quite often – policymaking, which is crafting public policy or legislation to address or resolve an issue.

In fact, in the disability advocacy world, policymaking is a favorite tool, as it is considered “safe”. It is used almost exclusively by the large “mainstream” disability organizations. Some even offer training on policymaking for their employees and other disability rights advocates.

Advocacy and policy training are great and necessary but there is a tool in the toolbox glaring all in the face, yet the advocacy and policy types don’t want to discuss or utilize it—it’s called direct action.

What is direct action?

It’s what activists call “taking it to the streets” and can include marches, vigils, protests and civil disobedience.

All the civil rights that we enjoy today were gained by direct action, then, the policy stuff came into play.

Hundreds, even thousands of people, including children, marched, protested and were jailed fighting for civil rights for African Americans. Some people even gave their lives. Many, many suffragettes were beaten and dragged to jail for fighting for the right to vote.

In the arena of disability rights, every major piece of disability legislation or rules were gained by direct action by grassroots groups and movements.

There are veteran disability rights activists who participated in the 504 actions and sit-ins demanding that children with disabilities have the right to an education. I was a small child back then, but it had a direct effect on my life – I was not only able to attend school, I was mainstreamed, meaning I was able to be in regular classes in an ordinary elementary school, rather than a segregated “special school.” ADAPT, the national, grassroots, disability rights group that I have been a member of for 27 years of its 30-year existence, is well known for nonviolent civil disobedience that often results in arrests.

Being nice has its place. Meetings have their place. Policy discussions are definitely important and there are times for those, as well.

There comes a time, however, when advocates must realize that they’re being strung along, bamboozled, screwed or when an opponent simply says no. That’s where direct action comes in.

When, during a meeting at the White House, President Obama told ADAPT members “no” to including provisions for long term care in the Affordable Care Act, we didn’t shrug our shoulders, hang our heads and go home to pray. We walked out of that meeting and 99 of us chained ourselves to the White House gate and were arrested. That eventually led to the inclusion of the Community First Choice Option in Obamacare.

Direct action isn’t for everyone or for every group. Some groups, due to their funding sources, particularly if they receive federal funding, cannot engage in such activities.

I also understand that direct action isn’t always warranted; it, too, has its place and time, and doesn’t always have to include civil disobedience or arrests.

Avoiding direct action simply because “it’s not nice”,   “our reputation will be ruined” or “that is so passé” only serves to perpetuate the status quo.

Even though fear of retaliation is a very valid concern, that fear cannot stop a group; that is what the opponent wants. Direct action, when used correctly, can be a powerful and effective tool in the advocacy and activist toolbox, particularly when all of the “nice” measures have been tried, to no avail. Even if it isn’t used eventually, it should be part of advocacy training as a viable option.

My point is this: One cannot talk about the sacrifices of advocates in our movement and community without acknowledging the work of those of us who went all the way and went to jail for our resolve, for fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the policy folks in our community DON’T want to do. They forget that our civil rights were not gained by policy, alone, but by a combination of advocacy tools, most notably (and dramatically), direct action. Besides, at least in ADAPT the strongest, fire-in-the-belly activists can make excellent policy folks. I know – I’m one.

Related: Meet Anita Cameron: After 118 Arrests, She is Likely the Most Passionate Disability Rights Advocate (you read that right)

More From This Author: We Don’t Want A Stinking Cure – We Want Equality

See Also: A Life Lesson About People With Disabilities For Parents Everywhere

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About Anita Cameron

Anita Cameron hails from Chicago and holds a degree in biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle and a degree in computer information systems from Community College of Denver. In 1986, Anita joined ADAPT, a national, grassroots disability rights organization. In 27 years of involvement, she has risen to a position of national leadership. She helped to write a piece of legislation that is part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), was invited to the White House on two occasions, has met three sitting U.S. Presidents and two Vice-Presidents, helped to organize a national March and was published in a book by the late award-winning writer and historian, Howard Zinn. In 2004, while in Washington, DC, Anita trained to become a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) member. In 2008, she helped to form the first CERT class consisting of people with disabilities in Rochester, New York. After joining Denver CERT in 2011, Anita became the first visually impaired CERT instructor for the State of Colorado in 2012, and in 2013, became a CERT Program Manager for the State.


17 Responses

  1. avatar Bob Williams-Findlay says:

    You make a passionate case for Direct Action, pointing out along the way that the reformist route of policy negotiation rarely brings about social change on its own. I would argue against this observation, however, I would claim it is incomplete.

    In my opinion, Direct Action, is a form of protest/struggle – a means to an end, a tool to be used, a way of exercising power in order to achieve an outcome. Too often I’ve seen activists mistake Direct Action as self- empowerment and as a result transform the means into being an end in itself. Alongside direct action, no matter the form it takes, there has to be an objective; something to measure against, otherwise it can easily be dismissed as posture politics.

  2. Bob, I understand where you’re coming from, so I’ll try not to take offense. I assume that the vast majority of advocates know, and have tried all of the “be nice” methods before direct action is used. Certainly, in ADAPT, that is the case. I’m sick and tired of our efforts being dismissed or suggested to be “posture politics” by people privileged enough to not worry about basic stuff. No one is posturing when it comes to fighting for civil rights and freedom! If I’ve offended you, please understand where I’m coming from. Thank you

  3. avatar Bob Williams-Findlay says:

    I’m certainly not suggesting “be nice” methods; the gloves are off and we are in a life or death struggle. As a disabled activist for 40 years, I’m not easily offended and I’ve a great deal of respect for ADAPT comrades, but my comments aren’t from someone who is ‘privileged enough not to worry about basic stuff’ – the comments are from the perspective of seeing the Disabled People’s Movement in the UK derail itself by losing sight of our ultimate goal – the transformation of society.

    I’m all for employing measures, including direct action, that produce results. Anita, finally, there was no intent to cause offense – free exchange of ideas and acknowledged differences of opinion are the bedrock of securing our freedom.

  4. avatar Jaki Rundle says:

    Wish we had you in the Uk. This kind of thing is greatly needed here at the moment.

  5. Bob, I am pretty uneducated when it comes to the Disabled People’s Movement in the UK. Please give me some background on it, and how you see that it is derailing itself. I’m always keen to learn about other movements around the world. It seems that disabled folks in the UK are put under pressures that we here in the US cannot imagine.

  6. Jaki, I’d love to hear your perspective, too. I’ve been reading on the bedroom tax, but it seems that there are other things going on there that we here in the US cannot fathom, nor would we accept.

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