Direct action tactics have been around for as long as conflicts have existed but it is not known when the term first appeared. The radical union the Industrial Workers of the World first mentioned the term "direct action" in a publication in reference to a Chicago strike conducted in 1910. Other noted historical practitioners of direct action include the American Civil Rights Movement, the Global Justice Movement, the Suffragettes, revolutionary Che Guevara, and certain environmental advocacy groups.
American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre wrote an essay called "Direct Action" in 1912 which is widely cited today. In this essay, de Cleyre points to historical examples such as the Boston Tea Party and the American anti-slavery movement, noting that "direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it."
In his 1920 book,
Direct Action, William Mellor placed direct action firmly in the struggle between worker and employer for control "over the economic life of society." Mellor defined direct action "as the use of some form of economic power for securing of ends desired by those who possess that power." Mellor considered direct action a tool of both owners and workers and for this reason, he included within his definition lockouts and cartels, as well as strikes and sabotage. However, by this time the US anarchist and feminist Voltairine de Cleyre had already given a strong defense of direct action, linking it with struggles for civil rights:
...the Salvation Army, which was started by a gentleman named William Booth was vigorously practising direct action in the maintenance of the freedom of its members to speak, assemble, and pray. Over and over they were arrested, fined, and imprisoned ... till they finally compelled their persecutors to let them alone.
— de Cleyre, undated
Martin Luther King felt that non-violent direct action's goal was to "create such a crisis and foster such a tension" as to demand a response.
The rhetoric of Martin Luther King, James Bevel, and Mohandas Gandhi promoted non-violent revolutionary direct action as a means to social change. Gandhi and Bevel had been strongly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which is considered a classic text that ideologically promotes passive resistance.
By the middle of the 20th century, the sphere of direct action had undoubtedly expanded, though the meaning of the term had perhaps contracted. Many campaigns for social change—such as those seeking suffrage, improved working conditions, civil rights, abortion rights or an end to abortion, an end to gentrification, and environmental protection—claim to employ at least some types of violent or nonviolent direct action.
Some sections of 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 US, 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.
Environmental movement organizations such as Greenpeace have used direct action to pressure governments and companies to change environmental policies for years. On April 28, 2009, Greenpeace activists, including Phil Radford, scaled a crane across the street from the Department of State, calling on world leaders to address climate change. Soon thereafter, Greenpeace activists dropped a banner off of Mt. Rushmore, placing President Obama's face next to other historic presidents, which read "History Honors Leaders; Stop Global Warming". Overall, more than 2,600 people were arrested while protesting energy policy and associated health issues under the Barack Obama Administration.
In 2009, hundreds blocked the gates of the coal fired power plant that powers the US Congress building, following the Capitol Climate Action were Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, Phil Radford, Wendell Berry, Robert Kennedy Junior, Judy Bonds and many more prominent figures of the climate justice movement were in attendance.
Anti-abortion groups in the United States, particularly Operation Rescue, often used non-violent sit-ins at the entrances of abortion clinics as a form of direct action in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
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. The goal that they had, shutting down the meetings, was directly accomplished by placing their bodies and other debris between the WTO delegates and the building they were meant to meet in. Activists also engaged in property destruction as a direct way of stating their opposition to corporate culture—this can be viewed as a direct action if the goal was to shut down those stores for a period of time, or an indirect action if the goal was influencing corporate policy.
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 deported 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.
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.
Human rights activists have used direct action in the ongoing campaign to close the School of the Americas, renamed in 2001 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As a result, 245 SOA Watch human rights defenders have collectively spent almost 100 years in prison. More than 50 people have served probation sentences.
"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 is also the name of the magazine of the Australian Wobblies. The UK's Solidarity Federation currently publishes a magazine called Direct Action.
Until 1990, Australia's Socialist Workers Party published a party paper also named "Direct Action", in honour of the Wobblies' history. One of the group's descendants, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, has again started a publication of this name.
Food Not Bombs is often described as direct action because individuals involved directly act to solve a social problem; people are hungry and yet there is food available. Food Not Bombs is inherently dedicated to non-violence.
A museum that chronicles the history of direct action and grassroots activism in the Lower East Side of New York City, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, opened in 2012.