The Return of Direct Action

From the Dream Defenders to the Dream 9, the spirit of the March on Washington lives on in youth-led direct action and strategic protest.

By Dani McClain Aug 21, 2013

Curtis Hierro speaks into the phone like he’s talking into a bullhorn. The passion the 26-year-old Dream Defenders field director has used to get himself and fellow occupiers through more than four weeks in the Florida statehouse is evident in his voice. He’s ready for their 30th (and what will turn out to be their final) night there, despite an announcement that the state will test the building’s fire alarms from 8 p.m. to midnight. That’ll make it hard to get a moment’s peace, let alone sleep. But Hierro takes it in stride, as he did when the "Star Wars" theme went blaring at dawn, the weekends when getting access to a shower was tough, and other challenges that make putting one’s body on the line to achieve a political goal a test of endurance.

"That’s expected in this work, and we’ve made sure that everyone who comes in this space knows our norms and that we’re nonviolent," Hierro said. "They’re trying to provoke us so they can discredit us and kick us out."

Since July 16–three days after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced–Hierro and between a dozen and 60 other Dream Defenders had camped out in Gov. Rick Scott’s office, demanding a special legislative session and the consideration of Trayvon’s Law, a bill crafted in collaboration with state legislators and the NAACP. The young Floridians are using the direct action tactics its founders honed in a previous takeover of the statehouse and in a march they organized after Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in an effort to turn this post-verdict moment into a movement.

In doing so, they joined others around the country who are turning to civil disobedience and strategic protest as a way to force change, or at least create the conditions for a new conversation about issues ranging from racial profiling to the death penalty, workers’ rights, long term solitary confinement and immigration policy. A spirit similar to the one that motivated 250,000 people to converge on Washington, D.C. 50 years ago this month is moving today. And much of that spirit is being harnessed and directed by millennials.

Young people are filling a role they’ve held in organizing throughout history, says Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political science professor and founder and director of the Black Youth Project. The students who led sit-ins at lunch counters and boarded buses to challenge segregation were part of that vanguard during the civil rights era. Today’s organizers who use direct action, from the Dream Defenders to the Dream 9, are part of that legacy.

"Young people don’t always have to think about mortgages and jobs and childcare and are freer to engage in a certain kind of risk that as you get older you’re less likely to get involved in," Cohen says.

People in their 20s and early 30s also backed Barack Obama by more than a two-to-one ratio in 2008, and now they’re frustrated by the pace of progress through institutional channels. But if North Carolina is any indication, that frustration hasn’t led them to stop believing in the power of the ballot box. Young people were at the forefront of some of the Moral Mondays demonstrations there, particularly those that called out the state GOP’s efforts to restrict access to the polls through a new law that requires photo ID, shortens the early voting period and ends the same-day registration option. More than 900 North Carolinians were arrested during the 13 weeks that Moral Mondays protests took place at the Raleigh statehouse, drawing attention to conservative attacks on abortion rights, wages and jobs. The intergenerational group of protestors had a clear effect, and approval ratings for the Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature are down.

Black Youth Project’s Cohen said the 24-hour news cycle and the speed at which information travels via social networks has given young people a new understanding and sense of urgency of how high the stakes are.

"Given that reality that’s in their faces and the infrastructure for mobilization that’s developing, there’s an opportunity for young people to engage in direct action in a way that is hopeful for all of us," she said.

Much of this infrastructure is dependent on what Daniel Maree, the 25-year-old lead organizer of last year’s Million Hoodies March in New York City, refers to as the democratization of technology. Using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and design techniques normally seen in corporate advertising, Maree and collaborators got thousands of people to Union Square in just two days. Despite the near absence of mainstream news stories about Martin’s death, images from the rally and Maree’s subsequent push of a petition demanding Zimmerman’s arrest helped get the incident onto the national stage.

In the days following the March 21st march, coverage of and Twitter conversations about the killing as well as signatures on a petition that had been started earlier that month skyrocketed. In June, the Pew Research Center reported that in the five years that it’s tracked weekly news coverage, Martin’s killing received more sustained coverage than any other story that was largely about race.

Maree, a digital strategist at an ad agency, worked with people such as Andrea Ciannavei, 38, a writer and Occupy Wall Street participant who offered up to help coordinate the mobilization. He hadn’t set out to position himself as a leader in the wake of the tragedy, but he saw a vacuum that needed to be filled.

"Every time I Googled Trayvon’s name, I didn’t see anything coming from any organization," Maree said. "I thought, ‘Nobody’s doing anything about this so I have to do something.’ "

This pattern–an expectation that an established progressive or legacy civil rights organization would already be responding to a crisis, a realization that those groups didn’t have a game plan or were being slow to implement, followed by a quick pivot to take the reins and a willingness to work with (but not for) whoever then shows up–came up again and again as I spoke with young organizers. For many, the first wakeup call came with an acknowledgment of the Obama Administration’s limitations.

Nelini Stamp, an advisor to Dream Defenders who also participated in Occupy said that she’d had high hopes that the president would use the power of his office to address issues like racial profiling and police brutality. As her expectations have shifted, she’s put her hopes in the power of young people, especially young people of color, to bring about change.

"Now you have a movement that is really strong," Stamp, 25, said. "We should push this man and this country to do better because that’s what we thought we were getting."

One characteristic of how these younger organizers push is a willingness to move at a fast pace, abandoning what’s not working and moving on to new tactics when demands aren’t met.

"I think people are escalating a lot quicker and a lot earlier," Stamp said.

No group demonstrates this fearlessness and righteous impatience like the Dream 9, the transnational activists who until August 7 had been held for more than two weeks at a detention center in Eloy, Ariz. In an effort to bring attention to the 1.7 million deportations that have taken place since Obama has been in office, the group of undocumented immigrants traveled to Mexico, then turned themselves in at the U.S. border seeking reentry on humanitarian grounds. This border crossing was broadcast via a Ustream live feed that attracted more than 10,000 viewers who cheered them on from around the world.

While the hashtag and rallying cry "Bring them home" shot around the Internet, the Dream 9 waited to learn whether they’d be granted return to the country they’ve known as home since they were children. Members of the group were isolated in solitary confinement, participated in a hunger strike and organized deportees inside the detention center, all in an effort to highlight the plight of many.

It’s necessary action that people at negotiating tables aren’t taking, said 27-year-old Mohammad Abdollahi, a member of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) and a coordinator of the action. Abdollahi said the NIYA maintains a broad view of what undocumented immigrants and their families actually need, and he echoes the sentiments of other organizers who see their work as the nimble and envelope-pushing counterpart to more plodding, bureaucratic processes that legacy organizations are often confined to.

"Our goal has always been for the greater immigration rights movement to catch up," he said. "Folks can have a trajectory of what’s possible in the movement and hopefully replicate or come up with more creative ways to do things themselves."

Dani McClain is a freelance writer living in Oakland.