Home / General / LGM Review of Books: L.A. Kauffman, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism

LGM Review of Books: L.A. Kauffman, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism


Like many professors, I will occasionally assign books in my classes because I’ve heard something good about them and haven’t had time to read them. This is the second consecutive fall that I have taught a course for our Honors program titled “Protest and Resistance in America” that is a crash course in both the history of American protest and in analyzing the effectiveness of various resistance tactics in the present, with plenty of time me telling stories about this and that. This is a course that inherently has to change a lot between years and even within the semester based on the great unknown of what sort of students you will get as well as current events. So this fall, I decided to replace a historical overview of the last 80 years with L.A. Kauffman’s discussion of the recent history of radicalism, not quite knowing what I was going to get.

To say the least, I am very happy to have assigned this. Kauffman, a long time activist and writer herself, takes an interesting strategy to this history. Taking the current versions of intersectional activism as her lodestone, though not one revealed until the end of the book, she looks back at how activism moved from the heavily top-down centralized movements of the 1960s to the decentralized, relatively leaderless activism of today. In lesser (and less interesting) hands, this would be a paean to anarchism, leading to a romanticization of Occupy with its People’s Mics and consensus decision making. But that’s not what she is doing. Kauffman takes a highly critical view of the movements of the last half-century while also salvaging what they did that was useful.

Notably, Kauffman avoids the Greatest Hits package of activism. Her four chapters center the largely forgotten 1971 Mayday protest against Vietnam, the 1976 anti-nuclear plant campaign at Seabrook, New Hampshire, the protests at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and the 1995 shutting down of New York bridges to protest Giuliani’s racism. There are of course many other actions that you have heard of discussed, but the point is that this is a deep dive into one of her core points–that individual protests might succeed or they might fail, but that this is not the most effective way to analyze activism. Many of these smaller protests created activists that found their way into different movements, met people like themselves that created later generations of activism, and learned from their successes and failures.

Of course larger activist movements are part of this–the anti-apartheid movement, Earth First, the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. But what’s really important to Kauffman about all of this is how the decentralized, direct action tactics of the 1970s and 1980s were also explicitly white tactics. Over and over again, she notes the extreme whiteness of these movements. Even the anti-apartheid movement was primarily led by white college students and, in one of the most revealing parts of the book, when local black activists asked for solidarity from the anti-apartheid folks, those people often resisted, restrained by an unwillingness to exam their own privilege and feeling the liberal guilt that drives a lot of white liberal actions or inactions. Of all things in the book, watching anti-apartheid activists be racist in their own lives was probably the most shocking to at least some of my students.

The ideas to challenge authority by getting arrested also meant something far different for white and black activists. The police treated them differently at the protests but also the massive incarceration of African-Americans in the 1980s and 1990s meant that many activists already had criminal records and that the courts would not be as merciful to them when the case came up. Choosing to get arrested can be a major act of white privilege and few white protestors even recognized this.

Similarly, Kauffman repeatedly notes how the direct democracy tactics of consensus decision-making also could alienate African-Americans. These have a cousin in the mainstream political realm: the caucus, which might resonate more with LGM readers. The endless hours of debating fine points, the ability of just one or two people to block all action, the silencing of voices who do not want to object because they don’t want to hold up everything, the fact that consensus-based groups develop their own rigid hierarchies of power and control: all of this can be alienating to more than just people of color, but traditionally was quite alienating to them.

Even movements that really did have some significant numbers of non-whites could divide over race. ACT-UP is a great example, where you saw a lot of the wealthy whites who were also dying of AIDS have absolutely no interest in questioning the parts of privilege they still held on, especially when confronted about poorer or non-white allies. And as for the movements that did not have large black constituencies–the anti-nuclear movement, for instance–they would bemoan this fact, but then basically blame black communities for not being interested in what they personally were fighting for.

This is not to say that Kauffman spends the book lambasting white organizing. What she is doing instead is tracing the rise of intersectionality in the modern left and how this has slowly crept up as a prominent thing through the last few decades. This is why the book ends with Black Lives Matter. There is quite a bit that BLM took from the previous histories of organizing over the last several decades. It is not a top-down movement with a SCLC or CIO-type structure running the show. It is quite democratic and decentralized. But as it says, it is not leaderless, it is “leaderful.” In other words, it is a democratic activism rooted strongly in black organizing traditions, including the church.

Kauffman tracing the development of all these tactics while also charting the racial politics of these organizations is a really valuable service. The short version of this for white activists is that if your movement doesn’t center people of color and do active outreach to them and listen to them, then the problem is on you. Democracy within social movements is important, but democracy is also not just a bunch of white people sitting around debating. It’s about action and it’s about real organizing and movement building that has to reflect a multiplicity of positions and create intersectional alliances that build toward long-term change. There really isn’t another way.

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