Taking Action!

Compiled by Karen Wood

"What Can I Do?"

When faced with problems of seemingly huge magnitude, such as the logging without laws rider, we can easily feel despair and frustration at our apparent powerlessness to stop such an outrage. Action is the antidote to this despair. We must empower ourselves, as caring citizens, to effect the change that is so urgently needed. And we are not alone. I can feel around me now, the spirits of the civil rights marchers of the 1960's, the peace activists of World War II, the countless women who fought for their right to vote. Every day, ordinary people, just like you, make the decision to do something about it, whether "it" is toxic pollution of their neighborhoods or the continued deforestation of our public lands. You can do it too!


First, check yourself for these "Mind Traps" that can rob you of your empowerment. (From Clark W. Bullard, in his "Avoid Pitfalls that Line the Road to Effective Activism", in Protecting a Vanishing Ecosystem by Heather Diefenderfer)

Trap #1. Someone knows what to do and is in control.

Wrong! As the saying goes, "If not you, who? If not now, when?"

Trap #2. Even if I do my share nobody else will, so why bother.

This is the whisper of apathy, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Trap #3. I can't take the first step unless I know the whole route.

You can't learn unless you try. You're going to make mistakes, just like we all have. Just do it!

Trap #4. These are all long-term problems. Let's just ignore them and work on the short-term ones.

Long-term problems won't go away while we ignore them!

Trap #5. Disaster is coming anyway no matter what I do, so why bother.

Be one of the people who make the changes. Don't get hung up on trying to prevent disasters; just work on ways to make things better.

Trap #6. Don't worry; technology and the price system will take care of everything.

We are responsible for controlling our technologies.

Trap #7. I can't do it all, therefore I won't do anything.

Make up your mind to give a certain amount of time, money and influence. Something small enough that you can sustain the commitment. One of my favorite quotes, by Gandhi, goes something like this: Never do nothing because you feel it is not enough.

The Franklin River Blockade of the 1980's, which took place in South-West Tasmania in Australia, was one of the most successful and empowering actions for the environment the world has seen. The Tasmanian Wilderness Society organized this ongoing blockade of a dam to be built on the Franklin River, in the rainforests of South-West Tasmania. Thousands of people came to put their bodies in the way of the dam builders, and enough pressure was eventually brought to bear that a new politician was elected who fulfilled his campaign promise to stop the dam. The blockaders have this to say about empowerment (from their Blockade Handbook):

"The conventional view of social and political power is that it is something that some people have and that others do not have: that power resides with the Government, authority, in the ownership of wealth, the Police Force and soldiers, and in large institutions [such as the Forest Service or corporations].

"By contrast the assumption underlying non-violent action is that the power of any government depends on the goodwill, consent and co-operation of the people governed.

"In order to wield power governments must be able to direct the behaviour of other people, draw on a large pool of people and material resources, control some means of coercing dissenters (police force/army) and direct a bureaucracy which administers its policies.

"Clearly, without the agreement and co-operation of the community at large and the people who make up the state apparatus, the government is powerless. For example, imagine how the [Forest Service] would manage without the cooperation of [timber planners and silviculturists to design the timber sale], secretaries to run their offices, police to control demonstrators, etc. [The trees wouldn't be cut!]


How does non-violent action work? The Franklin River Blockaders, again:

"With the recognition that power lies with people, such power can be exercised to bring about social change using any, or a combination of three broad categories:

Non-violent action operates by producing power changes in two ways:

"Violence toward the police, [Forest Service workers, loggers], or damage to property would give the government the way forward to using violence towards us. The issue would rapidly become one of "law and order", the wilderness being lost in the confusion, in which case the publicity generated would not be the sort which will inspire people to take action to save [the forest].

"In addition, the use of violence is threatening and alienating to our supporters and potential supporters; so many who are uncertain and may be persuaded, won't, because they value peaceful means of change. If we lose our present active supporters, we lose our power.

Non-violent action may attain its goals in three main ways:

Often, a group will formulate a "non-violence agreement" that participants are asked to adopt. An example of this would be the non-violence agreement used by the Cathedral Forest Action Group during its actions against logging old-growth forests in the 1980's:


Here is an excellent explanation of affinity groups, which I found in the "Earth Day [1990] Wall Street Action Handbook" by the Central Vermont Greens and others:

"Since the huge Washington, DC antiwar sit-in on May Day 1971 and the large anti-nuclear power actions of the later 1970's, people have been encouraged to come to demonstrations not just as individuals, but as members of an affinity group. Direct action affinity groups usually range from about 5 to 20 people. Often, they come to an action together from a common home community, organization or circle of friends. Sometimes, people come together for an action preparation session ("nonviolence training") and choose to stay together for the action. People who do one action together often choose to stay together and work on local issues as an ongoing organizing collective. Affinity groups have become an important model of decentralized organization and embody the merging of the political and the personal.

"The concept of an affinity group originated with the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. In the late 1930's, affinity groups in Spain fought to take control over communities, factories and farms. Large portions of the countryside and much of the city of Barcelona were managed by citizens and workers directly, freed from all constraints of outside ownership and control. In the peace and anti-nuclear movements, affinity groups have often evolved as living and working collectives, creating models of cooperation and non-sexist relationships among people. By working in affinity groups, we begin to create in our daily lives the social and political foundations for an ecological society."

And from the Franklin River Blockade Handbook:

"Affirmation is as critical to group growth as it is to an individual. A group which is unable to recognize the positive attributes of its members and their accomplishments will be incapable of organizing effectively for change."

"To establish an affinity group, people should meet regularly.=20 It is a good idea if you can share a meal at different group members' houses and follow this with role-plays, theory discussion, games, etc."

"Try not to structure all your time together. Social gatherings are also important for getting to know each other. But, when you are discussing aspects of the action try to formulate agendas, times, brainstorms, etc. It is amazing how a little structure makes you feel your are getting somewhere."

"Group activities can include:

-eating together -[hiking] and camping -sharing: each person talks about their satisfying accomplishments for the week, what is special about the person on their left/right -meeting in each others' homes and getting to know more about the personal lives of one another [this helps build group trust] -do some work together that requires cooperation with one another, like garden work for one of the members, painting, etc."

During an action, some members of the affinity group may decide to risk arrest; if so, others will decide to support those "arrestees". These "support people" have a very important role. The Earth Day 1990 Wall Street Action Handbook gives these important guidelines for support people:

"Support people choose not to risk arrest for any number of personal, financial, health or emotional reasons, but are full participants in the action from the beginning. In fact, support people carry out some of the most essential, though often unglamorous, tasks necessary for the smooth functioning of an affinity group.

"Before the action: Support people should know everyone in the group and their tentative plans for the day. It is helpful to make a list (strictly confidential within the group) of people in the group, including who will risk arrest, whether people plan to give their name (or any name) upon arrest, special medical needs, contacts for bail money if necessary, people to call at home and other special needs. Facilitate gathering of food, supplies, etc." Also get keys to people's vehicles, and hold people's identification and wallets if they so desire. Make sure each person knows a phone number where you or another support person can be reached after the arrests. It is important that each "arrestee" memorizes this phone number, as the police will take any papers away when booking them, and they may be separated from each other.

"During the Action: Keep in touch with your group as long as possible. Keep track of changes in strategy, location, morale, etc. Know to what degree each person will cooperate with authorities in order to be released. Keep track of any incidents of rough handling by police, including names and/or badge numbers. [It is especially helpful to have at least one support person with a still or video camera at the action.] Be ready to follow police wagons or busses to find out where people will be processed, and follow the arrest and jail process as closely as possible, in coordination with other support people.

"After the action: In some cases, people in your group (especially noncooperators) might be held for several days. Follow up on people's individual needs, including calling people back home. Know how long each person is willing to stay in jail, so you can bring ID and/or bail money if necessary. You might want to call the media back home, too. If things go on for several days, there will be various emergency staff and "core support" needs to help fill. Each affinity group needs at least one support person who is willing to stay until everyone in your group is released."


The first step in taking any political action is to clearly define your individual and group goals. Defining your individual goals requires deep personal thought. It is important to take the time to think things through for yourself, as well as to seriously discuss goals with your affinity group.

Long-term vs. short-term goals: A long-term goal could be to achieve protection for all native forests in North America, or even for one particular place, like Warner Creek. Short-term goals have more to do with the particular action you are planning, such as stopping a logging operation for a week or a day, getting mainstream media attention on logging activities, or educating a community about the issue you are working on. One action can have several different goals, which should be prioritized. An affinity group should take the time to define these goals and prioritize them before planning an action; it will save you time later and give you a better action.


A non-violent action can take the form of civil disobedience, during which activists risk arrest, or it may take the form of a legal protest, or demonstration. The guidelines for organizing a demonstration form a good basis for organizing any kind of action, so I am including here, "A Few Notes on Organizing a Demonstration" by Mike Roselle, in Protecting a Vanishing Ecosystem by Heather Diefenderfer:

Planning: Call a meeting for that purpose. A well conceived plan is essential. The simpler, the better. Include scenarios for preparation, staging, media work and follow-up. Come up with a time frame in which specific tasks can be done. Make certain you have the help and resources to get the job done before you plan something which requires more time and energy than you have.

Outreach: Design a flyer or poster. Be sure to include the day of week, time, and place (directions if necessary). Also include a contact phone number. Distribute on bulletin boards, shop windows. Mail them to your network and to local activist groups. Call your network, and try to get other environmental groups to commit to contacting their networks. Design a public service announcement (short, usually 2 or 3 paragraphs on one side of a single sheet of paper, double-spaced, with wide margins). Get it out to local radio stations, weekly newspapers, the community events section of your daily newspaper, and community TV stations, at least two weeks in advance of the demo. Write a news release and send it to TV news rooms, the local newspaper, and radio news editors. Mail these out a week in advance and follow up with phone calls.

Staging: Think of the image and message you wish to project, and plan accordingly. You must be visual - use banners, signs, costumes, masks, theater, stunts. Think of your signs and banners as captioning your own photograph in the newspaper - what do you most want people to hear? Use dark colors rather than bright colors on signs and banners; they show up better in photos. Make your signs readable, rather than using fancy lettering or too much artwork.

Permits: You need to know whether what you are planning requires a permit, and what the legal restrictions are regarding any of your planned activities. For example, when planning a "tax- return burn" to protest the war in El Salvador, organizers checked into city ordinances regarding outdoor fires. You then can make an informed decision as to how far to push the law.


Most progressive action groups use the consensus method of decision-making, rather than traditional "majority rules" or hierarchical methods. The attached flyer on "Decision-making structures" illustrates the pros and cons of these different methods of decision-making.

Using consensus can be challenging and rewarding. In the case of actions involving arrests, it can be invaluable. Can you imagine someone in a group being willing to spend time in jail for an action they voted against? Learning the consensus process can take some time, but soon becomes almost second-nature. The attached flyer on "Consensus step-by-step" can help guide you through the consensus process, and the roles and tools used.

In order to use the consensus process effectively, it is recommended that your group receive training from a consensus trainer. Check with peace and social justice, and environmental activist groups in your area to see if they can provide such a training for you; otherwise, contact the Cascadia Fire Ecology Education Project or the Native Forest Council to help put you in touch with a trainer.


For further reading, here is a short list of references you may want to explore: