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Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism

A longtime movement insider's powerful account of the origins of today's protest movements and what they can achieve now

As Americans take to the streets in record numbers to resist the presidency of Donald Trump, L.A. Kauffman’s timely, trenchant history of protest offers unique insights into how past movements have won victories in times of crisis and backlash and how they can be most effective today. 

This deeply researched account, twenty-five years in the making, traces the evolution of disruptive protest since the Sixties to tell a larger story about the reshaping of the American left. Kauffman, a longtime grassroots organizer, examines how movements from ACT UP to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter have used disruptive tactics to catalyze change despite long odds.

Kauffman's lively and elegant history is propelled by hundreds of candid interviews conducted over a span of decades. Direct Action showcases the voices of key players in an array of movements – environmentalist, anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, feminist, LGBTQ, anti-globalization, racial-justice, anti-war, and more – across an era when American politics shifted to the right, and a constellation of decentralized issue- and identity-based movements supplanted the older ideal of a single, unified left.

Now, as protest movements again take on a central and urgent political role, Kauffman’s history offers both striking lessons for the current moment and an unparalleled overview of the landscape of recent activism. Written with nuance and humor, Direct Action is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the protest movements of our time.

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Reviews

  • “It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book. Chances are that even if you know something about the recent history of the left in America, you probably only know a few isolated parts. L.A. Kauffman has connected a vast field of dots to create an overview, and she has done so with dispatch, clarity, and elegance. Her book is essential reading for today, and will be for tomorrow.”
  • “As the new political reality settles in, resisters are asking a follow-up question: What else can I do? L.A. Kauffman’s new book Direct Action provides some answers.”
  • “L.A. Kauffman may have the best-timed book release in years.”
  • “A movement tour de force. A must-read for those who have committed themselves to the life of the mind and of struggle.”
  • “You could not ask for a better guide through recent social movement history than L.A. Kauffman. A champion of radical causes with decades of experience on the front lines of civil disobedience, she chronicles the fascinating evolution of a set of protest tactics today’s activists take for granted. Kauffman has done a tremendous public service: by helping us better understand the past, in all its glory and folly, we can be more effective dissidents and rabble-rousers tomorrow. This startling, inspiring book is for anyone who has ever felt the urge to put their body on the line and shut things down for something they believe in.”
  • “The lurid circus sideshow has seized center ring in Washington, making direct action by progressive agitators all across the country more essential than ever. Don't agonize, organize! How to do it? Kauffman's powerful book, drawing on our people's recent history, shows the way to create true justice for all.”
  • “If direct action is 'a laboratory for political experimentation and innovation,' as Kauffman argues in the introduction, then this is the lab report.”

Blog

  • Five Book Plan: History of US Political Organizing

    For May Day, we present our latest Five Book Plan: L.A. Kauffman, author of Direct Actionselects five essential histories of political organizing in the United States.


    Black Panther women, West Oakland, 1970.

    Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (ed. David J. Garrow), The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (University of Texas Press, 1987)

    Many people know that Rosa Parks was a trained and seasoned political activist before the famous day when she decided to stay in her bus seat. But few are aware of the large, well-organized network of black women in Montgomery that transformed her arrest into a historic campaign of mass noncompliance. This engaging memoir by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a key initiator of the Montgomery bus boycott, reveals the behind-the-scenes work of local organizers who had long been waiting and planning for the right opportunity to challenge racial segregation in their city when Parks was arrested. In an era when movements rely heavily on the internet to mobilize participation, there's much to learn from the extraordinary tale of how black women in Montgomery sprang into action the moment Parks was arrested, secretly distributing more than 50,000 leaflets throughout their community in fewer than 24 hours, and thus launching the boycott without tipping off the city's white leadership.

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  • MAY DAY FLASH SALE: 50% OFF

    Click here to activate your discount.



    May 1st marks International Workers' Day, a festival of working-class self-organization stretching back over 130 years. It was originally inaugurated to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago, where a bomb thrown during a worker's strike kicked off a period of anti-labor hysteria.

    To mark this significant date, we have 50% off a selection of books looking at policing, riots, Rosa Luxemburg, neoliberalism, revolution and rebellion. Click here to activate your discount.

    Plus, see all our May Day Reading from the Verso Archive covering care work, sex work, black liberation & more; from Angela Davis, Gail Lewis, Melissa Gira Grant, Isabell Lorey, and Kristin Ross. Read all the essays here

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  • Direct Action is 40% off this week only!



    In the wake of Trump's election and many outrageous executive orders, as well as the EU referendum and the rise of far-right political movements around the world, direct action tactics are needed now more than ever. We saw a huge turn out and a diversity of tactics for the March 8th International Women's Strike and Day Without a Woman campaign, and the largest rally in US history, along with global solidarity rallys, for the Women's March on Washington following Trump's inauguration. 

    The mass mobilizations we've seen recently are an uplifting reminder of the power of ordinary people to effect change. To guide us in our future struggles, we need to learn from the lessons of activist movements from the past.

    There's no better guide than L.A. Kauffman's new book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, which is 40% off through Friday, March 24 at midnight UTC.

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