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Study for Struggle: Direct Action

Following the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, L.A. Kauffman consistently offered some of the most insightful writing about the global justice movement. In the early 2000s, I was excited to hear that she was working on a much-needed book about the recent history of direct action politics in the U.S., and I’m so glad that it’s finally out! As far as social movement histories go, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, published by Verso, is unique and uniquely helpful. Rather than focusing on one movement, Kauffman traces the development of a set of direct action organizing practices from the tail end of the New Left through gay liberation, the nonviolent direct action movement, the anti-apartheid movement, ACT UP, the Central American solidarity movement, Earth First!, the global justice movement, the anti-war movement, occupy, and the movement for Black lives. Importantly, she foregrounds the work of women, especially queer women, in carrying and modifying these practices across movement experiences. Kauffman also brings refreshing clarity and nuance as she discusses both the contributions and limitations of direct action politics. This is a marvelous book, full of insights and lessons for transformative movements today!

Here’s one gem from Kauffman:

Waves of activism always recede, for one reason or another: because they succeed; because they fail; because movements sabotage themselves, or are sabotaged from the outside; because the organizers who create them burn out, or sell out, or become discouraged, or win something real and move on to another fight. The activist style that was so novel and edgy in the late eighties ran its course by the mid nineties, but the movements that created it transformed the practice of radical organizing in the United States in lasting ways. Their bold imagery, sophistication, daring, and political flair found their way into everything from the hip-hop criminal justice activism of California’s Third Eye Movement to the blockades that famously stopped the WTO meetings in Seattle. Most importantly, their concreteness and radical pragmatism showed that even relatively powerless outsiders could win meaningful victories when their actions were strategic rather than simply symbolic or expressive.

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