By Olivia Laramie
The Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst hosted a panel on the “Theory and Practice of Direct Action” at the Cape Cod Lounge in the Student Union on Thursday, September 17. Five activists and organizers from the area sat on the panel to talk of their personal experience with direct action.
Dan Clawson, a professor of sociology at UMass, moderated the event. Dan posed two questions to think about during the discussion: “Why do people engage in direct action?” and “What form should direct action take?”
The first speaker of the evening was Vanessa Gonzalez, an Afro-Caribbean queer activist and social worker. Although Gonzalez has been involved in many activist groups including Justice for Ayyub, Prison Birth Project, and the Western Mass Coalition for Palestine, her main topic of the night was her involvement in the Black Lives Matter 413 movement.
She gave her critiques of the movement from the perspective of a member who is a person of color, discussing the ways in which the movement could improve in reference to direct action.
She noted that the “BLM413” movement needed to have open meetings, more community membership, and to rid itself of the mindset that, “if it works in Ferguson, it will work here,” referring to the idea that all movements of the same name or concept are identical. She stated that action in the Pioneer Valley had to be different than the direct action in Ferguson, because they are different places, atmospheres, and climates.
The second speaker was Randy Kehler, who began his life of activism when he participated in the March on Washington in 1963. Kehler refers to himself as a participant in “active nonviolence” and has been imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience such as his refusal to cooperate with the Vietnam draft, and he and his wife’s refusal to pay federal war taxes.
Kehler spoke about his opinion on direct action. “Direct action can involve the creative arts in all sorts of ways, from impromptu speak-outs, hanging banners on buildings, sculptures, you name it,” he said. “Though usually a key element in social or political change, [direct action] is rarely able to pull off fundamental change on its own. It is, at best, an element, and often a key element, in a broader strategy of all kinds of things: neighborhood organizing, public education, use of the media, and initiated conversation with public officials.”
Kehler finished by relating to one of the points Gonzalez made. “There is always a risk in direct action, but the risk is always greater for people of color, for women, for poor people, than it is for people like myself – white, male, privileged people – and that needs to be always recognized.”
Paki Wieland, the next speaker, has roots as a social worker. Wieland, a mystical activist, is inspired by the Native American proverb, “When the grandmothers speak, the land will heal.”
Wieland was joined by her singing/activism group, the Western Mass. Raging Grannies who, decked head to toe in scarves, leis, and large floppy hats, sang a song about the Keystone XL pipelines, to the tune of “Home on the Range.”
Oh, give us a home
Where the gas lines can’t roam,
And there’s no fracking under our land.
Where pipelines are banned
And our children can stand
Free from harm...that’s our simple demand.
Although Wieland considers herself to be in retirement, she spends her free time protesting war and injustice through direct action.
“I want to note for a moment what I see as direct action and that’s any number of things. It’s sometimes sitting in and sometimes marching, and sometimes walking, and sometimes just standing,” she said.
She recollected a time when she was standing with one of her [black] sisters during Black Lives Matter and she asked her friend what she wanted from her in that experience. Her friend responded by saying, “Well, sometimes I want you to stand with me because your whiteness will protect us, and sometimes I just want you to walk behind me.” Wieland said that what’s most important is that “we let those who are suffering the most, who have the least privilege, [be] the ones we finally listen to.”
The final two speakers were representatives from Springfield No One Leaves (SNOL). The group’s website states that they are a member-led organization. “We organize residents most directly impacted by the housing crisis and economic equality to build collective power, defend against displacement, and win long-term community ownership and control over land and housing.”
Karen Gladden and Rose Webster-Smith were both affected by the housing crisis. Gladden has been fighting for her home since 2008, while Webster-Smith’s house was foreclosed on in 2011. They both reiterated that “houses are for people, not for profit.”
“I saw the banks having no humility or compassion and putting children, elderly, and ultimately, families out on the streets, making more homes vacant on our streets,” Gladden said. Her first direct action came after she heard of a family being displaced whose members included, but were not limited to, a two-year-old child and an elderly, disabled grandparent. In May, Gladden and a few others performed an eviction blockade. They gathered at the home and found the bank’s attorney driving back and forth taking pictures of them. Later that day, a sheriff arrived and handed the family their eviction notice. They then received a call from the attorney saying that their peaceful blockade put the bank at risk and thus, the bank was unable to complete the eviction.
Webster-Smith finished the conversation with some valuable statistics. “In the city of Springfield, we have over 1,300 vacant homes, and 68,000 people in the state of Massachusetts have lost their homes.” She has participated in sit-ins and peacefully blocked two evictions, as well as helped to organize national mobilizations against mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The event concluded with a Q&A portion with more direct conversations between the panelists and the audience.