Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: Direct Action

The following review was done for the April 27, 2017 edition of GET LIT, a bookish show that broadcasts on 93.3 FM CFMU. Check out both the written and audio versions below.

[L.A. Kauffman. Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. London UK and New York NY: Verso, 2017.]

Hello, my name is Scott Neigh. I'm the host of Talking Radical Radio (my site, on, on SoundCloud), and I'm here today on Get Lit on 93.3FM CFMU to talk about Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, which was written by L.A. Kauffman and published by Verso.

For many people, the most direct association that they have with the phrase "social movement" is the now-vaguely remembered and much mythologized 1960s. And even for those who link that hazy past with more recent collective mobilizations like Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter, there is often little knowledge of what might have happened -- if anything -- in the 40+ years in between. Even many of us who are activists and organizers ourselves know a lot less about the histories of movements in the 1970s and later.

In Direct Action, Kauffman does some important work to fill that gap. She begins with one of the last great mobilizations against the Vietnam war in 1971 and traces a path through some of the most important movements in the United States between that point and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. The book's emphasis is on those movements that in one way or another employed direct action -- which she describes as "the fierce, showy tradition of disurptive protest employed by many of the era's most distinctive and influential movements" (x). To a greater or lesser extent, the book talks about the anti-nuclear movement, organizing against South African apartheid, Earth First! and other militant environmental groups, direct action AIDS and other militant queer organizing, the global justice movement, the great anti-war mobilizations around the US invasion of Iraq, protests at Republican and Democratic national conventions, and of course Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

History can sometimes end up being a bit of a stodgy read, and 40 years is a long period to cover, but Kauffman makes skilfull choices about when to zoom in and provide generous detail and when to pull back and give broader strokes. As well, the writing in Direct Action is lively, engaging, and thoughtful, and it strikes a good balance between capturing the intensity and excitement of people taking the streets with the often somber political questions that followed movements throughout these years -- from the challenge of staying active in the context of ever-more-powerful right-wing forces, to the ongoing need to challenge the racism that has so starkly divided movements on this continent.

There were a number of elements of the book that I particularly appreciated. I really liked the book's emphasis on recognizing the role of women, particularly queer women and women of colour, in driving some of the key political, theoretical, and practical innovations over this period -- something that is so often erased. I really liked its willingness to recognize problems with how movements have done things, but to do so in a way that is fundamentally generous rather than based in the more-radical-than-thou sniping that sometimes defines these conversations within movements. And most of all, I appreciated that beyond discussing specific actions and the political and practical dynamics in key moments, the book places a great emphasis on tracing the transitions between different moments and movements. That is, on talking about what was passed down, what stayed the same, and what was adapted and changed.

Of course, as with any book, it has limitations. It is, for one thing, very US-centric. I still think that Canadian readers can learn a lot from it, given that what happens here is always in tight dynamic relation with what's happening south of the border, but that's still not the same as it actually being about what happened here. As well, the lack of attention to the international context felt particularly grating during the discussion of Occupy in 2011, which perhaps more than any point since 1968 was clearly part of a global circulation of struggle.

Most disappointing to me, though, were some of the choices in the book in terms of covering the most recent era. So, for instance, there are certain movements that the book just doesn't focus on. The labour movement, for instance, is beyond the scope of what it covers, and I think that's just fine. But the relative absence of migrant justice organizing from the book, particularly in its coverage of the last two decades, feels like more of a problem, particularly given that movement's energy, its political significance, and the increasing adoption by certain groups within it of direct action tactics. As well, the attention to transitions -- to continuities and to innovations -- between moments and movements that was done so well in much of the book felt sparser and thinner for periods after the anti-war movement of the early 21st century.

Nonetheless, this is very good book -- great content and a lively, fun read. It does some valuable work in filling in our knowledge about important social movements of the last four decades and their use of direct action tactics. And I think it models important ways for thinking *about* movements that we can all learn from as we move forward into an increasingly frightening and uncertain future in which working collectively, audaciously, and creatively to change the world is becoming more and more urgent.

Again, I'm Scott Neigh and I've been talking about Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism for Get Lit. I encourage you to tune into Talking Radical Radio at 1:30pm on Thursdays on 93.3FM CFMU in Hamilton, Ontario, at various other times on community stations in different parts of Canada, and online at and

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site]