Civil Disobedience vs. Direct Action

Image: Julia “Butterfly” Hill spent 738 days living in an old-growth redwood tree to protest logging in the area.

I’ve noticed how the term “direct action” is being used very loosely by many activists.  I’ve heard protest marches called “direct action” and getting arrested while blocking traffic called “direct action”.  But neither of these are direct action.

I want to talk about three common activist tactics: public demonstration, civil disobedience, and direct action. There are other tactics as well, like education and organizing, but I want to focus on these three, because they are often confused.

Note, tactics differ from strategy.  “Strategy” refers to the big picture goals, whereas “tactics” refers to the nuts and bolts decisions to achieve the strategic goals.

These three tactics may be used separately or in conjunction with one another. Although they offered in the form of a list, there is no tactic that is better than another for all situations. Your strategy should dictate what tactics you use.

1. Public Demonstrations

Marchers make their way across Central Park South during the People’s Climate March on September 21 2014, in New York before the United Nations climate change summit

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand.” — Frederick Douglass (1857)

“Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.” — Barbara Ehrenreich

Public demonstrations include protests, rallies, and marches. They are Constitutionally-protected forms of expression. Demonstrations bypass institutional forms of communication, such as voting. Public demonstrations may be legal or illegal.  Demonstrations may be illegal for many reasons, from not having a permit to employing premeditated violence.

Generally, the goal of demonstrations is to influence a public official, to raise public awareness, or simply to express opposition or support for a public person or policy. Critics are wrong to say that symbolic action like marches doesn’t accomplish anything. Even when such actions don’t achieve concrete goals in the short term, marching and protesting raises awareness, focuses energy, and fosters solidarity.

2. Civil Disobedience

May Boeve, director, arrested
May Boeve, director, arrested outside the White House in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline

“The defiance of established authority, religious and secular, social and political, as a world-wide phenomenon may well one day be accounted the outstanding event of the last decade.” — Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience” (1969)

Civil disobedience occurs when a person intentionally breaks a law to place themselves in an “arrestable” situation.  The purpose of civil disobedience is to make a symbolic statement.  The form civil disobedience takes may have only an indirect connection or even no connection to the issue being protested, such as when activists block traffic to protest racial injustice. Civil disobedience relies upon state actors, like police and courts, to work.  Civil disobedience doesn’t work unless the police are willing to arrest you.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. explained, the purpose of sit ins, marches and so forth is “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”*

Anyone can participate in civil disobedience. But those who enjoy certain privileges, like being able-bodied and being able to afford a legal defense, should consider that direct action as one of the ways they can use their privileges to effect change.

You should not engage in civil disobedience with the belief that you will not be punished for breaking the law.  Many people defend civil disobedience by saying that the ends justifies the means.  This may be true, but such arguments do not always persuade judges or juries.  You should only engage in civil disobedience if you are willing to suffer the state’s punishment.

3. Direct Action


“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963)

“Direct action” is a narrow term which is often overapplied. Most protests, rallies, and marches are not forms of direct action. As the term implies, direct action involves attempting to achieve a goal through direct, rather than indirect or symbolic action. Examples direct action include strikes, blockades, and boycotts. Blocking traffic is usually not a form of direct action, unless what you are protesting is the traffic itself, for example, if abortion protesters block traffic going to an abortion clinic.

Direct action is distinguishable from civil disobedience, though both may lead to arrest. Like civil disobedience, direct action may help raise public awareness, but that is not the primary goal of the action. Direct action may or may not be very public. Unlike civil disobedience, the goal of direct action isn’t to get arrested, although that may happen. Unlike civil disobedience, direct action seeks to circumvent state actors.

The lunch counter protests during the Civil Rights Movement are a good example. While these actions did have a symbolic component, they were a form of direct action, because the law they were breaking the same law that they wanted to change (unlike most protesters who block traffic).  The Montgomery bus boycott is another good example of direct action, even though no one risked arrest by boycotting the buses. A recent notable example of direct action is the “Valve Turners”, five activists who together shut down 15% of the oil flowing into the U.S. in one day.

Direct action may be non-violent, like camping in a tree to prevent the logging of a forest, or it may be violent, like Antifa protester attacking fascist protesters.

An example from my own experience may help illustrate the difference between public demonstration, civil disobedience, and direct action:

In May of 2016, I and 40 other people were arrested when we crossed the property line of the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana and refused to leave after being ordered to do so by the police. Our actions were the culmination of a rally and march called Break Free Midwest, which drew about 2000 protesters.  Break Free Midwest was itself part of a larger campaign, called Break Free, organized by, which involved 20 separate actions against the petroleum industry, taking place on six continents over two weeks in the first half of May. It was the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate change movement.  All three tactics–public demonstrations, civil disobedience, and direct action–were used in the Break Free campaign. Some of the other actions included:

  • Protesters shutting down the UK’s largest open-cast coal mine for 12 hours.
  • Kayakers shutting down the world’s largest coal port in Australia for a day.
  • Protesters in New York and in Washington state sitting on train tracks to stop “bomb trains” from carrying oil to their destinations.

The three actions listed above were forms of direct action, because the protesters put themselves directly in the path of the fossil fuel industry and temporarily stopped a part of it.  In contrast, the action I participated in was a form of civil disobedience, not direct action.  Although we were on the refinery property, our action was primarily symbolic.  All of these actions were supported by other demonstrators who participated in rallies and marches, but did not engage in civil disobedience or direct action.

Here’s another example (This one is hypothetical):

  1. If you march in the street without a permit to protest the murder of Black men by police, then you are engaging in a public demonstration. Even if your march blocks traffic, it’s not civil disobedience unless you are trying to get arrested.
  2. If you block traffic with the intention of getting arrested, for the purpose of drawing attention to the murder of Black men by police, then you are engaging in civil disobedience.  It’s not direct action, because blocking traffic does not do anything to directly prevent the police from murdering Black men.
  3.  If you are a passerby to a traffic stop of a Black man, and you stop and advise the police officer that his actions are being watched and you will be a witness to any violation of the civil rights of the Black man who has been stopped, then you are engaging in direct action.  Even though your action will likely never make the news, this form of action is more direct than symbolic actions like public demonstrations or civil disobedience.

None of these tactics is necessarily better than the others.  All have advantages and disadvantages.  The question is what tactic or combination of tactics will best help you achieve your strategic goals.


* In the MLK quote above, King himself conflates civil disobedience with direct action.


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