Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism

As Americans take to the streets in record numbers to resist the 45th president, 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.

Selected Coverage of Direct Action:

“In 1971, the People Didn’t Just March on Washington — They Shut It Down,” excerpt from Direct Action on Longreads

“Whose Streets? The History and Future of Activism in America”: review by Sarah Jaffe in Bookforum

“How to Take Action and Stay Sane in the Trump Era,”  Interview for Rolling Stone

Paul Buhle reviews Direct Action for Portside

What Makes an Effective Protest Movement? Interview with NPR’s Here & Now

Why Protests Work: Interview for Vice

5 Important Insights About Successful Protest Movements: Interview for New York

What Can You Do? More Than You Think: Interview for Vogue

“This Kind of Strike Is Really Something New”: Interview for The Atlantic

How to Turn an Outpouring of Progressive Activism into a Winning Social Movement: Dialogue in The Nation

Protest in a Time of Political Polarization: Roundtable on KQED Radio

“L.A. Kauffman Gets the Goods”: Review in The Indypendent

“The Power of Activism and Culture”: Panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Protest in a Time of Political Polarization: Roundtable on KQED Radio

How Direct Action (and 10,000 Crickets) Saved NYC’s Community Gardens: “Theory of Everything” podcast with Benjamen Walker

“Is There Any Point to Protesting?”: Review essay in The New Yorker


Praise for Direct Action:

“[Direct Action] offers vital interventions, ready for a larger audience who, before November 9, might not have considered themselves radical but now see no alternative to joining the fight.” – Sarah Jaffe, author of Neccessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

“L.A. Kauffman’s book couldn’t have come out at a better time. With Trump just sworn in as president, millions of Americans – and folks around the world – are eager to organize and take action.” – Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Rolling Stone

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book. 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.” – Luc Sante, author of Low Life and The Other Paris

Direct Action is a movement tour de force. A must read for anyone who has committed themselves to the life of the mind and the life of struggle.” -Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Organizer and Theologian, Visiting Scholar, Stanford University

“This startling, inspiring book is for anyone who has ever felt the urge to put their body on the line for something they believe in.” – Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform

“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.” – Jim Hightower, author and activist

Upcoming Readings and Events

To book an event or interview with L.A. Kauffman, please use the contact form

Friday-Saturday, April 13-14:
Organizing 2.0 Conference, NYC

Tuesday, April 17:
Franklin and Marshall College

Sunday, April 29:
Bay Area Book Festival

Wednesday, May 2:
San Francisco State University

Articles by L.A. Kauffman

The State of the Resistance One Year Post-Election: November 2017 article for The Guardian

Women Are Leading the Resistance to Trump: July 2017 article for The Guardian

“Political Objects” at Hilobrow: On the political power of reclaiming space in the physical world

“In 1971, the People Didn’t Just March on Washington — They Shut It Down,” excerpt from Direct Action

“The Theology of Consensus”: The troubled history of an enduring activist practice

“A Love Note to Our Folks”: Extended interview with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza

“The Disruption This Time”: The extraordinary Black Lives Matter protests of late 2014




About L.A. Kauffman

L.A. Kauffman has spent more than thirty years immersed in radical movements, as a journalist, historian, organizer, and strategist. Her writings on grassroots activism and social movement history have been published in The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, n+1, The Baffler, and many other outlets.

Kauffman was a central strategist of the two-year direct action campaign that saved more than 100 New York City community gardens from bulldozing in 1999; she masterminded the campaign’s most notorious action, the release of 10,000 crickets in One Police Plaza during a city land auction. She served as a street tactician, direct-action trainer, and movement analyst during the turn-of-the-millennium global justice movement; her widely cited Free Radical column chronicled the movement’s upsurge and post-9/11 collapse.

Kauffman was the mobilizing coordinator for the massive February 15, 2003 antiwar protest in New York City, creating the event’s iconic “World Says No to War” poster, overseeing online outreach, and assembling the massive grassroots street operation that distributed more than 2 million leaflets in a matter of weeks. She continued in this role through the years of major antiwar protests, including those that greeted the 2004 Republican National Convention, crafting the coalition’s online and offline communications strategies.

More recently, she coordinated successful campaigns to save two iconic New York City public libraries from being demolished and replaced by luxury towers. She is currently involved in a range of projects to resist the Trump presidency.

Contact the author