Power and Direct Action: A Primer

By Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance

This year’s Fourth of July week grew in horror as it passed. Each day brought new nightmares that struck me at a dizzying pace. By the end of the week, after I decided I was sick of weeping, I turned off the television, shut my Facebook tab, and remembered that the best antidote for despair is action.

My week started hopefully enough in Eugene, Oregon where I participated in a training hosted by members of Deep Green Resistance called Extraction Resistance: A Three Day Training in Direct Action. One of the goals of the event was to normalize direct action tactics, and I was asked to write a primer on the topic. This is that primer.

When I got home from Eugene, I found a video news story from Karachi, Pakistan showing men digging mass graves in anticipation of the number of heat-related deaths caused by soaring summer temperatures. The ghosts of people not yet dead climbed from trenches dug in the dry Pakistani dust. I could almost see the bodies piling in the grave-diggers’ shadows.

The next day I watched as two white police officers pinned Alton Sterling, a black man, to the ground, put a pistol to his head, and shot him execution-style. I went to bed wondering how the cops were going to get out of this one only to wake to see Philando Castile slumped over in the seat of a car, blood seeping through his clothes, as his fiancé, Diamond Reynolds, explained in a video that Castile was just shot four times by a police officer in a routine traffic stop.

Then, during an otherwise peaceful rally protesting the murders of Sterling and Castile, twelve cops were shot, five of them fatally, and two civilians wounded by Micah Xavier Johnson, a military veteran who had served in Afghanistan. The Dallas Police Department then killed Johnson with a robot bomb.

Now, I am white, and I will not comment on the efficacy of Johnson’s actions. I will, however, direct a suggestion to white people who benefit from the white supremacism that the United States is founded upon and perpetuates. Let me suggest that the same culture producing climate change is the same culture producing the cops who murdered Sterling is the same culture producing the cops who murdered Castile is the same culture that trained Johnson “to shoot and move” is the same culture that employs police departments who possess robots with bombs that can be remotely controlled to kill citizens.

Let me suggest to those white people who are truly interested in undermining racism and stopping white supremacy that to do this we must dismantle the dominant culture. If we want to live in a world where Pakistanis are not digging mass graves for the victims of climate change, if we want to live in a world where people of color are not being murdered by cops, if we want to live in a world where veterans are not sniping from parking garages, if we want to live in a world where humans are not made into veterans in the first place, then we must look to the roots of the problem. Finding those roots, we must dig this poisoned tree out.

And, how do we dig these roots out? The answer begins with serious, militant resistance movements that correctly identify the dominant culture’s sources of power. Once those sources are identified, resistance movements must engage in direct action to undermine the dominant culture’s power.


First, we need to understand power. Quite simply, power is how the powerful do what they do. Power is how the cops murder and get away with it. Power is how corporations extract fossil fuels, burn fossil fuels, and drive the planet ever-closer to runaway climate change.

Power is best understood as a physical phenomenon. Power is not merely a mental event. Power is not simply an emotion. Cops may or may not personally hate the people of color they are murdering. Corporate decision makers may or may not personally despise the Earth that gives them life. What matters is that cops are armed with real batons, real pepper spray, real tasers, and real guns and they are supported by an entire governmental system that can protect them with even more batons, pepper spray, tasers, and guns. What matters is corporations are armed with real machines, real poisonous chemicals, real labor forces, and once their projects have been granted permits by the government, they can call on real cops with all the real weapons I’ve already described to protect their projects. What matters is physical power in the real world.

There is perhaps no person on Earth who has spent more time understanding the importance of power in contemporary politics than Gene Sharp. There is also perhaps no person in the world responsible for more successful revolutions than Sharp. This is no coincidence.

Sharp describes his theory of power in his brilliant book, How Non-Violent Struggle Works. His work helps us identify the dominant culture’s sources of power and provides insight into how those sources of power can be undermined.

Sharp begins by explaining the central importance of power, and writes: “Power is inherent in practically all social and political relationships. Its control is the basic problem in political theory and in political reality. It is necessary to wield power in order to control the power of threatening adversaries.” In short, the goal of any serious resistance movement should be to undermine the opposition’s power while enhancing the movement’s power.

Sharp defines political power as power “which is wielded for political objectives, especially by governmental institutions or by people in opposition to or in support of such institutions. Political power thus refers to the total authority, influence, pressure, and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power-holder.”

According to Sharp, the sources of political power are authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, material resources, and sanctions. These sources of power are interconnected and benefit and build off each other. Increasing power through one of these sources often enhances power in all the sources. This truth, while scary, also highlights weaknesses in the dominant culture’s power. If a resistance movement can undermine one source of power, it can deal a heavy blow to the others.

Sharp quotes Jacques Maritain to define authority as “the right to command and direct, to be heard or obeyed by others.” Taking this idea deeper than Sharp does, I want to point out that rights mean nothing if they are not enforceable. On the surface, it is easy to confuse the right to command and direct bestowed upon elected leaders, in the United States, as being derived from the results of an election. This is not completely true. Think, for example, what would happen if Barack Obama refused to yield the Oval Office to the winner of this year’s presidential election. Eventually, a governmental decision-maker would order police or soldiers to remove Obama at gunpoint.

Sharp describes how power is derived from human resources with, “The power of rulers is affected by the number of persons who obey them, cooperate with them, or provide them with special assistance.” These human resources come with the next source of power: skills and knowledge. Sharp writes, “The power of rulers is also affected by the skills, knowledge and abilities of such persons, and the relation of their skills, knowledge and abilities to the rulers’ needs.” Understanding this point, we see why the dominant culture is so obsessed with developing science and technology. It uses science and technology to enhance control. We see, too, why Western science has been a disaster for life.

Next, Sharp describes intangible factors as “Psychological and ideological factors, such as habits and attitudes toward obedience and submission, and the presence or absence of a common faith, ideology, or sense of mission.” To illustrate this point, imagine if rulers could convince people that this world isn’t real, that the sacred exists in an abstract sky God, and that the point of life is to suffer in this world to prove your devotion to this abstract sky God so you can join him, after death, in his abstract sky kingdom.

For material resources, Sharp writes, “The degree to which the rulers control property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, communication, and transportation helps to determine the limits of their power.”

To supplement Sharp’s analysis, here, we see one reason why the dominant culture is hell-bent on ecological destruction. Resource extraction yields power. Industrial agriculture – which requires the displacement of indigenous peoples, the extermination of animal populations, the theft of water from natural communities, deforestation, and the destruction of the world’s most important carbon sinks (grasslands) – yields a controllable food source. Mining – which also involves the displacement of indigenous peoples, the extermination of animal populations, the poisoning of groundwater, and mountain-top removal – yields energy sources for industrialization. And these are just two examples.

Sharp quotes John Austin to define sanctions as “an enforcement of obedience” and writes, “Sanctions are used by rulers to supplement voluntary acceptance of their authority and increase the degree of obedience to their commands…Violent domestic sanctions, such as imprisonment or execution, are commonly intended to punish disobedience, not to achieve the objective of the original command.”

We see, here, one of the primary roles of the police. Police exist to enforce obedience. Part of enforcing obedience is the performance of violent domestic sanctions like imprisonment and execution. To understand how this works think about a saying from the battered women’s movement: “One beating a year is enough to keep a woman down.” For a battered woman, it’s enough to keep her down that she merely be threatened with violence once she has experienced a man’s violence. The same is true for would-be resisters. After seeing videos of police murdering citizens, it only takes the threat of police violence to keep us in line.


Understanding that power is physical and identifying the material roots of the dominant culture’s power is only the first step. Now, we must act to physically dismantle those sources of power. Physically dismantling power requires direct action.

So, what is direct action?

The term “direct action” has been used so often within environmental and social movements in so many different contexts that it is in danger of losing its meaning. It is difficult to find a clear definition of direct action in activist literature rooted in a radical analysis, so I have formed my own. It has three parts: First, direct action involves a clearly defined and obtainable goal. Second, the success of that goal is demonstrable by a quantifiable reduction in the opposition’s physical power. Third, it is primarily the actions of those engaging in the direct action that produce the desired goal.

It is important that a proposed action begins with a clearly defined and obtainable goal because an action involving a poorly-defined goal makes it difficult to determine the scope of the action. And, proposed actions with unobtainable goals will be, by definition, ineffective. Planning to change the world through an educational program designed to illustrate the evils of the fossil fuel industry, for example, is neither clearly-defined nor obtainable. What does it mean “to change the world?” And, how will you possibly reach enough people to effect this change? Planning to delay the construction of a pipeline for a day, however, is both clearly-defined and obtainable. Resisters can, without too much imagination, envision a successful action.

Once a clearly-defined and obtainable goal is established, the direct action must reflect an understanding of power and be designed to materially affect the opposition’s physical power. Let’s say activists come up with a plan to drop a banner that says “Stop the Tarsands!” from the rafters of the Utah State Capitol. The plan is both clearly defined and, with some clever security dodging, obtainable. This action cannot be considered direct action, however, because there is no way to quantify how, or even if, the banner affects those in power’s ability to destroy.

Let’s look at another hypothetical plan: Activists plan to blockade, for 24 hours, trains carrying oil through the State of Washington where they will be loaded on to tankers to fuel the US Navy in Hawai’i. This plan has a clearly defined and obtainable goal. The goal also reflects an understanding of where the dominant culture gets its power. The US Navy, one of the weapons the United States uses to perpetuate imperialism, literally requires oil. Depriving the Navy of a little oil for one day may not be a big hit to its power, but it is quantifiable.

It is primarily the actions of those engaging in the direct action that produce the desired goal. Another way to say this is: There is a clear causal link between the direct action and the desired goal. If the goal is to block the construction of a pipeline, for example, then the planned action must literally stop the pipeline’s construction. If the goal is to liberate individual children from human trafficking networks, then the planned action must literally involve the means to escort children from human trafficking networks to safety. Yet another way to say this is: direct action does not leave it to external decision makers (governmental, corporate, or otherwise) to produce the desired goal. Direct action is not an appeal to those in power. It does not rely solely on moral persuasion, shame, or economic cost-benefit analyses.

A lawsuit, then, that is filed to gain protection for a species that lives on land where a mine is planned to be dug in order to stop the mine has a clearly defined and obtainable goal. If the lawsuit is won, then it will materially affect one of the dominant culture’s sources of power. But, this lawsuit is not direct action because it relies on a favorable ruling from a judge for its success. The actions of the lawsuit’s planners are necessary, but ultimately the planners themselves cannot produce the desired goal.


I’ve called this essay a “primer.” One definition of primer is “a short informative piece of writing.” Another is a “compound used to ignite an explosive charge.” I hope that this essay serves as both. We need to see the problems we face clearly and we need a spark to ignite the change that is so drastically needed.

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