Direct Action Campaigns: Questions to Consider

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As we’ve written in other places (here and here), direct action campaigns require a great deal of time, resources, and planning. Direct action campaigns need to win. When we set an unachievable goal or fail to follow through on a campaign, we tell our opponents that we will go away if they just wait us out. An unsuccessful campaign is not only a drain on resources and demoralizing for a group, it also makes future campaigns more difficult. Choosing not to do a direct action campaign is a hard thing to do. It can often take a long time to get to a point where you can say no to doing a campaign. This is because all activists want to do good and it’s frustrating to admit our limitations. Ultimately, though, these considerations need to happen. The animal rights and animal liberation movement is weakened by wayward and unsuccessful direct action campaigns. We see higher rates of burnout when people commit to campaigns that will likely be unsuccessful.

Below are some of the questions that should be considered before launching a campaign:

  • Should we start a direct action campaign?
  • Does it clearly fight for animal liberation (end oppression, exploitation, and victimization)?
  • What is our goal? Is it measurable?
    • The goal should be very clear. For example, force ____ fur store out of business, force ____ circus to stop using animals, etc. If it’s not measurable and specific, go back to the drawing board.
  • Is it winnable? Is it realistic?
    • Consider the resources available to you (time, people, money, skill, base of support, geographic location, experience, and group’s reputation/past history of successful action that can be leveraged) and whether the resource you have are enough. It is absolutely possible for a small group of activists to shut down a fur store or small animal circus. It less possible for that same group on their own to end sealing in Canada. We need to be honest with ourselves. This is the only way we can begin to work towards more effective action.
  • How long will it take to win in the best and worst case scenarios?
    • Best case: you correctly estimated the resources and response of your opponent. You correctly estimated the resources available to you. You prepared adequately. You didn’t run into significant legal issues. Your group is stronger and feeling accomplished. For shutting down an average fur store, the best case is likely 2-3 months.
    • Worst case: you underestimated the resources available to your opponent. You overestimated the resources available to you and your group. You lose some of the group’s most dedicated activists. You run into legal issues. You lose public support. Are you prepared to continue the campaign for 2+ years? Certain targets have less severe ‘worst case scenarios.’
  • Can I commit the time and resources to finishing (winning) the campaign even in the best/worst case scenario?
    • If the goal of a campaign is to get ______, you should realize it is either _____ or nothing. There is no middle.
  • Am I able to deal with any negative backlash?
    • Such as: legal issues, in-fighting, negative media attention, burnout, harassment from your opponents, lack of support from the rest of the movement, financial issues, etc. Consider these possible outcomes and imagine how you would deal with them. Put measures in place to prepare yourself and your group for these.
  • Can I capitalize on the positives that arise?
    • Will you have the time, resources, and energy to use the momentum from your successful campaign to launch another campaign? Will you use your success to train other activists? Will you be able to take time to celebrate your victory with your group? Will you have the time to spread news of your win to other groups/organizations/activists?
  • Often the price of a successful campaign is a viable alternative. Do I have one?
  • Does the campaign set a precedent and make future similar campaigns easier?
  • Will I be willing to change my strategy and use any tactics required to accomplish the goal?
    • It is often helpful to develop a timeline beforehand detailing the different strategies and approaches you could use. These should be planned out beforehand to ensure that you have everything in place for it. If you’re doing a full-time campaign to shut down a fur store, you are likely going to be exhausted; strategic planning is best left to before the campaign begins.
  • Will doing this campaign stop/hinder me from doing other actions (direct action or outreach) that are important to me?
  • Have I given myself more than enough time to think and discuss this?
  • Have I researched the history of similar direct action campaigns?
  • Have I properly researched the target? Do I know who the main decision-maker is? Do I know their financial state?
    • For example, if you’re targeting a local business that exploits animals, find out as much as possible about:
      • who the owner is
      • whether their business is seasonal or year-round
      • who works there
      • what dead animals are sold there
      • approximately how many customers they have and their busy times of year and day
      • the demographic of their customers
      • the surrounding neighbourhood (business or residential; progressive attitudes or conservative values; the business’s connection to the neighbourhood, etc)
      • how long the business has been around
      • their suppliers
      • its financial state
      • its weaknesses, its strengths
      • the business’s property lines
      • any secondary and tertiary targets associated with the business
  • Will the campaign advance the movement for animal liberation more than if I spent equal time on outreach?
  • If I don’t do the campaign, will people do other actions or will they remain passive?
    • For example, a direct action campaign can give activists something productive to do in the winter when outreach is harder. But a campaign against the circus that runs during the summer months will detract from effective outreach that could be done. The campaign may nonetheless be effective, but this should still be considered.
  • Can I accept failure and the discontinuation of the campaign?
    • If your answer is yes, you shouldn’t start.
  • Does the campaign provide a pretense in which to do effective outreach?
    • For example, a campaign to ban meat, dairy, and eggs from a university’s cafeteria allows for vegan outreach to be done as part of the campaign. Note: this doesn’t mean that the people screaming into megaphones should be handing out leaflets and expecting folks to be receptive. It means that outreach could be done before the campaign or as one of the actions. See more about the difference here.
  • Do I have the resources (money, connections, and emotional stability) to deal with potential legal issues?
    • Legal issues can be mitigated with proper training, research of local bylaws and applicable criminal laws, and implementation of certain procedures (like audio and video recording all interactions with police). Even so, legal issues are always a real possibility. Activists should be prepared for possible charges, fines, and lawsuits, and should have contingency plans in place.
  • What will the planning stage of the campaign look like? What is the basic strategy of the campaign? What creative tactics can I use?
  • How will I work to sustain myself and the other activists involved? How will I work to avoid and potentially deal with burnout?

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