In a recent diary about the training that The 99% Spring is doing this coming week there was a comment someone made that I've seen all to often. The point here isn't to call out the commenter, because it clearly wasn't meant to be a deep insightful comment, just a quick throwaway line.
To paraphrase the comment was this: "Voting is the only Direct Action that matters"
Now any of you who know me can probably disagree with that, but there's a more important mistake there. Voting isn't direct action. Direct action is a very specific thing and I see that phrase used more and more to describe things which frankly are nothing like direct action.
So what is Direct Action?
Simply put, direct action is when individuals or groups take actions that directly address a social or political problem. If there are hungry people they go out and feed them. If there is something being built they go out and physical stop it from being built. This is in contrast to things like voting or using the judicial process which is action by proxy. If I sue a company in court to stop them building a freeway through the local wetlands I'm relying on the resources of the government to stop that freeway. Ditto if I vote for a politician who promises to stop the highway.
Another common misconception, and misuse of the word, is to refer to civil disobedience actions as direct action. Sometimes they are, sometimes not. If you take Thoreau's original Civil Disobedience then you'll see a direct action. He didn't think people should have to pay religious tithes through the state so he didn't and was arrested for it. Rosa parks is another good example. As is Gandhi's salt march. The arrests at the capitol building in protest of Keystone XL were not a direct action, they were symbolic action. As are almost every protest.
None of this is to say that direct action is necessarily better than other sorts of actions, only to clarify what it actually means.