Direct Actions in Social Change Movements

Direct Action is the collective use of immediately effective acts such as protests, strikes, blockades, occupations, and sit-ins to achieve a social or political end and challenge an unjust power dynamic. Direct actions are strategic, creative, and build on people’s power and capacity.

Why is direct action important, and how can it be used in a social or political movement?

Direct action brings immediate attention to a critical issue and catalyzes analysis among the general public through disruption of daily or perceivably “normal” life. It helps create dialogue around the dining room table, in classrooms, workplaces, talk shows and everyday life about issues that are often absent from the public discourse. It helps make the invisible visible. Direct action takes regular political dissent to another level, which means it is not always lawful, comfortable, or polite.

What are some effective direct action tactics?

  • Directly stopping a racial, social, economic or political injustice
  • Assert or defend a positive right despite the consequences
  • Show willful refusal to cooperate with or participate in injustice
  • Sound the alarm; alerts folks to an issue, problem, or idea
  • Create a community-based solution
  • Amplify people’s voices, build people power

What are some examples of direct actions?


Banner drops



Flash mobs







Street theatre

Direct Action Roles

There are many roles in an action. Some of them overlap, or multiple roles may be filled by the same person. Some actions may not have all or any of these roles.

Tactical leadership: coordinate the action, making sure adequate training and preparation happen as well as responsible for major decisions during the action

Security: ensure, to the best of their ability, safety of all people participating in action. Not a replacement for police or responsible for controlling individual people, but rather responsible for supporting the success of the action with as little unnecessary violence and harm as possible

De-escalators: intervene in situations of hostility or confusion between demonstrators and the general public. Responsible for de-escalating violence and addressing confusion while supporting the goals and message of the action

Police liaison/handler: designated point of communication between police and demonstrators

Media outreach: sends out media advisory or press release

Media spokesperson: designated to speak to media upon request before, during and/or after an action. Skilled at brief, clear messaging that reflects the goals and message of the action

Comms/Social media: posts photos, quotes, videos and calls to action on social media before, during and after the action. Main purpose is to generate online presence and participation for the action

Chant leaders: with or without micro/mega phone, leads the demonstration in chants reflecting the emotion, messaging and energy of the action`

Medical support: handle medical issues/emergencies as they arise during the action

Care bears (for red actions): address general wellness needs for people risking arrest

Legal observer(s): observe and document police activity, paying close attention to police violence

Legal and jail support: holds and conveys information about people being arrested, especially conveying messages between those arrested, their emergency contacts, and the legal team

Centering Blackness, Situating Whiteness

How can we act in solidarity with Black and people of color (POC) organizations when protesting? For those of us who are white and participating in Black or POC-led actions, what is our role?

Being in solidarity means carrying ourselves in ways that center Black and POC leadership. For those of us who are white, it means challenging our own internalized white supremacy. When we don’t hold that front and center, things we do can undermine, appropriate and usurp that leadership.

What does this mean? Unless told otherwise by the leadership of the action…

  • Do. Not. Talk. To. Cops. Practice non-cooperation with police. If necessary, stand between police and POC.
  • Listen to the leadership of POC. Follow the tone that has been set. Turn down the volume of whiteness. Don’t occupy all, most or significant space at the cost of space of POC.
  • Stay outside the frame of the media (even if solicited). If possible, direct media to designated spokespeople.
  • Don’t step in and negotiate terms and therefore usurp leadership.
  • Speak from your position.* Don’t appropriate Black messaging or culture by equating it with your experience (I can’t breathe; I could be next; Don’t shoot).
  • Don’t take the bullhorns!
  • Protect anonymity. Ask consent before taking and/or sharing someone’s image.

*A Note on Signs: Protest signs and banners are great tools to keep grounded in an action and convey your message in the process. In addition to speaking from your position and not appropriating Black messaging and culture, signs should also employ the above tactics. Don’t sexualize, commodify or make a joke of the experiences of Black people to make a point, even if you are being sarcastic. Some sign themes to avoid:

  • Police are human and flawed. This is not the time to offer up tips on how police can do better or appeal to them in any way.
  • Colorblindness; we are all one race, the human race. This trivializes the experiences of Black people and all POC.
  • Protesting and anti-racism is sexy. This is off-message and distracting.

Being Ready: Preparing for Direct Actions

Arrest Risk Levels of Actions*

  • Green - no anticipation of arrest risk
  • Yellow - possibility of arrest risk (for all or some)
  • Red - arrest risk likely and/or intended

*There can be and usually are more than 1 level within an action, and sometimes the risk level can change within an action.

Security Levels of Actions

  • Secure Action - actions organized secretly or with secret elements
  • Openly/publicly organized actions

Action Planning

Before going to an action, decide what your level of participation would ideally be. This will affect what you decide to wear and bring, and what preparations you will make.

Know the law and know your rights: What facility could you be detained at and for how long? What are the personal risks including local laws or policies concerning police/ jail/ ICE treatment of transgender and/or undocumented folks?

Prepare home/family responsibilities for possible arrest risk: If you can, request time off from work, make sure your kids/pets are taken care of, and that your car is at home or in a location where it will not be towed/ticketed, etc.

If you can, know the roles of the various people in the action. Make sure you have emergency contacts who know where you are, and that your jail support team has your emergency contact information. Always have at least one buddy at the action who is the same risk level as you. Before going to the action, write the legal support number on your body (usually the National Lawyers Guild).

General Rule: Bring as little as possible. If you are arrested, police can retain your belongings. Don’t bring anything that you would be sad if you didn’t get back or that can be used against you or your comrades (personal information, photos, etc.). Whether you plan to risk arrest or not, you should bring:

  • ID with your current name and gender
  • For transgender folks, copy (not original) of name change proof if current name is not on ID, and possibly letter from a doctor/therapist regarding your transition (if correct gender is not on ID)
  • Water, quick energy food, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, hat, ear plugs, cash
  • Sturdy, comfortable shoes and layered, comfortable clothing
  • NO big earrings, preferably no jewelry, and no valuables
  • Prescribed medications, pain relievers, allergy medicine, etc all in their original bottle
  • Glasses NOT contact lenses to protect face from tear gas or pepper spray
  • Bandana, N95, gas or other type of mask to protect face from tear gas or pepper spray
  • Liquified antacids for treating tear gas or pepper spray in the eyes

When you arrive at an action, it's good to do the following, even if you are not planning to risk arrest:

  • Check in with organization reps, affinity group, etc., and find at least 1 buddy. Better yet, arrive with a crew or a buddy.
  • Scope the space, assess escape routes, and pay attention to tone of action and tone of cops.

If you are arrested, don’t talk to cops other than “Am I free to go?” or “I am going to remain silent” or “I do not consent to this search.” You should give the police your name and your date of birth if you are arrested.

Protectors or Pigs?: Demystifying Our Interactions with Police 

Today, police remain a force of control, violence and terror in the Black community. They have earned deep distrust from that community and other POC communities. Meanwhile, many white people have bought into the “Officer Friendly” image and generally believe that police follow the rule of law. White privilege and white supremacy lead many white people to believe that, “police exist to protect people and ensure safety.” This is a false and dangerous narrative. Black and Brown folks, trans folks and queer folks decoded the myth of “protect and serve” long ago. It is a myth that papers over the brutal reality of white supremacy, racism and inequality in the US.

White Folks Trust in Police

Police academies train recruits in the intricacies of the law. Police understand the legal parameters of their actions and are acutely aware of when lines are crossed. One of the main ways that police obtain information that can later incriminate people is to use our ignorance of the law to their advantage through a variety of subtle - and not so subtle - techniques.

Even for those of us with an analysis of the role of police in enforcing and maintaining white supremacy, our acquiescence to police authority is still deeply ingrained. Since white people are socially accustomed to acceding to this authority, refusing to cooperate with police is difficult.

The gap between police overreach and public ignorance of the law allow police to operate at a level of impunity that few white people recognize. Familiar rules of engagement can be thrown out the window at any given moment when police interact with Black people, POC, LGBTQ folks and anyone who is in vocal support of human rights. Police do not fear reprisal under the current system, because it rarely holds individual officers accountable for their actions.

Even though it is possible for white folks to have positive interactions with police due to the privileges endowed them in a white supremacist system, it is imperative to consciously choose solidarity and camaraderie with POC when it comes to police.  

From the state’s oppressive regulation of protest, to police arrests, to instances of media arrests and abuse, we are experiencing a new period of intensified repression against those fighting white supremacy. This is why we need to commit ourselves not to cave in to police intimidation. This is why we all need to demystify our interactions with the police. Although it may be difficult, this is why we need to stand our ground and refuse to cooperate with them.

The Three Tiers of Police Encounters

Police are trained in the use of "Three Tiers of Police Encounters". It is important for us to understand these tiers when dealing with the police.

Tier 1 - Consensual Police-Civilian Encounter

This is as if you and the cop were any two people. An officer can say hello, engage in casual conversation, ask you what you are doing, what others are doing, etc. You have the right to engage or *not* engage in this encounter. Under this tier, the civilian is free to leave at any moment.

Tier 2 - Investigative Detention

Police can detain you without making an arrest, based on "reasonable suspicion." They can legally detain you to question you or determine if you have been involved in a crime that has either already happened, or may be being planned. Detention can be an attempt to gather information without an arrest, or a prelude to arrest.

Under this tier, police can legally search your outer clothing if they have a "reasonable suspicion" to believe that you are armed. You can invoke your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. You do not have to speak to the police besides giving them your ID.

What to do: Ask, “Am I free to go?” If you are being detained, police will say, "No." After a detention, they must release you if there is insufficient evidence to make an arrest. Investigative detention can last from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours or longer.

Tier 3 - Arrest

The Third tier of police-civilian encounter is the arrest. According to law, it must be based on probable cause, which is the belief, based on facts, that a crime occurred and that a particular person committed that crime. This is generally where the officer handcuffs you and puts you in their police car, although you may be cuffed during detention as well.

What to do:  You can invoke your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. You do not have to speak to the police besides giving them your ID. Police should read Miranda rights at the time of arrest, but many times they won’t. Either way, it is up to you to know these rights and exercise them to your advantage.


If you take one thing away it is this: Don’t speak to the police! Besides giving them your name, and an ID, you do not have to tell them anything. Don’t try to outsmart them, don’t try to glean information from them. Even seemingly innocuous information may get used against you, movement leaders, organizers and supporters. The less you say to them, the safer everyone is.

Remember that in any interaction with police, your “go to” question is “Am I free to go?” If the answer is “yes”, then leave immediately. If the answer is “no”, it means that either you are being detained for questioning, or are under arrest. In either of these last cases you may be handcuffed, put in a police vehicle, on the ground, etc. The police don’t have to tell you if you are under arrest or any charges they intend to press.

Jail Solidarity: Inside & Out

Prepping for Arrest

  • When possible, know who your Jail Support contacts are. Before going to the action, write the legal support number on your body. (@MassLibAZ is posting legal support numbers on Instagram for the Summer 2020 protests.)
  • Actions often have organized legal observer teams that will observe and document arrests. The National Lawyers Guild (usually wear neon green hats) is an association of lawyers, law students, and legal workers dedicated to people's struggles for economic and social justice and ending racism and all forms of oppression. Other organizations like the ACLU (and Puente Human Rights Campaign in Phoenix) train legal observers to support actions.
  • Ideally, provide any important information about yourself to the legal support team: medical needs, immigration status, if you’re under 18, out of state ID, ID in a different gender, warrants, etc.
  • Notify your emergency contacts (a friend or family member) prior to the action.
  • Make any necessary arrangements: Request time off from work, make sure your kids/pets are taken care of, you have any needed meds with you, car is at home or in a location where it will not be towed/ticketed, etc.
  • Make sure you have at least 1 buddy.

Getting Arrested

  • Deal with fear or other emotions:
  • Know that others are out there in solidarity.
  • Don’t let fear turn into rage; don’t forget your place in the action.
  • Carry an image or sign; sing or chant; focus on why you are there. This can create a sense of purpose and will be grounding. Breathe.
  • Do. Not. Talk. To. Cops.
  • Dropping weight, sitting down, and/or passive resistance is an option.
  • Depending on the circumstance, you may be Cited and Released on the spot.
  • If you do get brought to jail:
  • You may get to make 1 phone call. Even if you don’t, if you are part of a coordinated action, your jail support team should know what’s happening and will be working to get you out.
  • Prepare for any medical issues that you may have.
  • You may be held overnight or over the weekend depending on the time of your arrest.

Jail Solidarity

  • Provide support for each other while inside, being especially aware of the treatment of those who are the most vulnerable (POC, trans folx, genderqueer folks, folks with disabilities, folks with vulnerable immigration status, with medical conditions, with injuries, etc)
  • Depending on the action and situation, there may be a jail support team that can help you get out and with your case afterward.

Resources List