Direct action originated as a political activist term for economic and political acts in which the actors use their power (e.g. economic or physical) to directly reach certain goals of interest; in contrast to those actions that appeal to others (e.g. authorities); by, for example, revealing an existing problem, using physical violence, highlighting an alternative, or demonstrating a possible solution.
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Both direct action and actions appealing to others can include nonviolent and violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the action participants. Nonviolent direct action may include sit-ins, strikes, and counter-economics. Violent direct action may include political violence, assault, arson, street blockades, sabotage, and property destruction.
By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, arbitration are not usually described as direct action, as they are electorally mediated. Nonviolent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement but other actions (such as strikes) may not violate criminal law.
The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object, or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions (governments, religious organizations or established trade unions) are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants.
Nonviolent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mahatma Gandhi's Indian Independence Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Anarchists organize almost exclusively though direct action, this manifests as a varied set of actions, non-violent or violent. Direct action is used by anarchists due to a rejection of party politics, and refusal to work within hierarchical bureaucratic institutions.