Direct action can include nonviolent and violent activities, with a blurred intermediate area of attacks on properties. Nonviolent activities include strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins, demonstrations, sabotage, vandalism and graffiti. More violent actions include riots and revolutionary/guerrilla warfare. Direct actions are often (but not always) a form of civil disobedience and thus often violate criminal law. For example, vandalism is illegal, while demonstrations are usually not illegal in most constitutional democracies. Less confrontational forms of this definition of direct action include establishing radical social centers, and performing street theatre.
Utilizing resources within their power, direct action participants aim to either:
By the middle of the 20th century, the sphere of direct action had undoubtedly expanded, though the meaning of the term had perhaps contracted. Most campaigns for social change—notably those seeking suffrage, improved working conditions, civil rights, abortion rights, an end to gentrification,and environmental protection—employ at least some types of violent or nonviolent direct action.
The anti-nuclear movement used direct action, particularly during the 1980s. Groups opposing the introduction of cruise missiles into the United Kingdom employed tactics such as breaking into and occupying United States air bases, and blocking roads to prevent the movement of military convoys and disrupt military projects. In the U.S., mass protests opposed nuclear energy, weapons, and military intervention throughout the decade, resulting in thousands of arrests. Many groups also set up semi-permanent "peace camps" outside air bases such as Molesworth and Greenham Common, and at the Nevada Test Site.
Anti-globalization activists made headlines around the world in 1999, when they forced the Seattle WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999 to end early with direct action tactics such as blocking traffic and destroying property.
One of the largest direct actions in recent years took place in San Francisco the day after the Iraq War began in 2003. Twenty-thousand people occupied the streets and over 2,000 people were arrested in affinity group actions throughout downtown San Francisco, home to military-related corporations such as Bechtel. (See March 20, 2003 anti-war protest).
Direct action has also been used on a smaller scale. Refugee Salim Rambo was saved from being flown from the UK back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when one person stood up on his flight and refused to sit down. After a two hour delay the man was arrested, but the pilot refused to fly with Rambo on board. Salim Rambo was ultimately released from state custody and remains free today.
Nonviolent direct action (NVDA) is any form of direct action that does not rely on violent tactics. Mahatma Gandhi's teachings of Satyagraha (or truth force) have inspired many practitioners of nonviolent direct action, although the use of nonviolence does not always imply an ideological commitment to pacifism. In 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. described the goal of NVDA in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: "Nonviolent direct action seeks 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."
One major debate is whether destruction of property can be included within the realm of nonviolence. This debate can be illustrated by the response to groups like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, which use property destruction and sabotage as direct action tactics. Although these types of actions are often viewed as a form of violence, supporters define violence as harm directed towards living things and not property.
In the United States, the term has come to signify civil disobedience, and protest in general, particularly where the organizers are not concerned with preventing violence. In the 1980s, a California direct action protest group called Livermore Action Group called its newspaper Direct Action. The paper ran for 25 issues, and covered hundreds of nonviolent actions around the world. The book Direct Action: An Historical Novel took its name from this paper, and records dozens of actions in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"Direct Action" has also served as the moniker of at least two groups: the French Action Directe as well as the Canadian group more popularly known as the Squamish Five. Direct Action was also the name of the magazine of the Australian Wobblies. The UK's Solidarity Federation currently publishes a magazine called Direct Action.