Protest is a form of direct action. I’m not going to try and give a solid definition for direct action, except to say that in my eyes, it’s taking matters into your own hands to deal with an issue or transgression — organizing, protesting, fighting back with your fists if necessary.

Direct action, then, is as much a marching protest as it is bricks hurled through the windows of big businesses by rioters. Direct action can be crying, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” in a group and showing the riot gear-outfitted cops your empty palms, but it can also be throwing your fist into the air and approaching the line even though you were told not to through a megaphone. It can be publishing an article on sustainable living or chaining yourself to heavy drilling equipment. The list goes on. It all falls under direct action.

Lately, there has been a tendency within the establishment left to identify the first action in all of those sentences as the only one that is truly direct action or the only acceptable form of direct action. Similarly, the media will turn around and use the latter of those sentences to portray direct action as just rioting and meaningless property destruction, effectively demonizing the left. It’s all a mess, really.

The response to this from the establishment left is to turn on itself. They say that these people who participate in a more militant form of direct action are wrong for what they are doing, and that they aren’t affiliated with the left — much like anyone who has more than a passing interest in the socialist school of thought and political system will try and distance themselves from the atrocities carried out by communist dictators whispering, “No relation,” and scooting away slowly while Lenin and Marx sit in the corner playing Jacks, and Stalin looks on menacingly with that evil smile of his.

What the establishment left doesn’t seem to be getting here is that this other, less acceptable form of direct action is just as valid as standing around with signs or getting involved in the political system itself by running for office or writing local officials.

As it stands, these two approaches are both valid because the reason they’re needed in the first place is because a problem has been identified, and in the search for solutions to the problem, people find either violent or nonviolent approaches to suit their cause. We all know why the nonviolent road is the one that is usually taken, but to understand why others choose violent tactics, we have to understand the situation they are in, and try and see it their way.

Illustration by Emily Keniston.

We live in a world, a country, a system, that is so all encompassing and so easily corrupted. It is everywhere all at once with its tentacles in everything, and anyone who wants to can game it or milk it or use it to enact policies that hurt people and benefit them. People are mostly oblivious, or are well off enough or too busy, to give the system much thought. The ones who have are often doing so because the thing that was supposedly there for them either fell out from under them, or turned on them and put them in a desperate situation. Like a thief who steals to feed himself and his family, a person who participates in violent direct action has run out of options and is taking their fate into their own hands.

They may have watched for years as their votes never actually changed anything and became fed up with it. Every candidate promised something that was wanted, desperately needed even, and didn’t deliver or turned out the exact same as the last guy. No longer able to trust the leaders and those who are supposed to help, they decide they have to stand on their own two feet and try to enact change themselves through force.

It seems easy for some of us, especially those on the left, to condemn this. We hear of bricks through bank windows or unmanned cop cars on fire and we shake our heads. We see ourselves as the ones who are right, superior in that we don’t have a temper and aren’t angry enough to break things. We liken ourselves to Gandhi and wag a finger at our brothers and sisters who are hurting and angry instead of reaching out to them, instead of realizing that something has made them very upset and trying to find a solution that works for them, too.

I’m not saying that I condone violent protest, but I don’t condemn it either. Sometimes, revolting is the only option. It gets people’s attention. Destroying oppressive institutions can even be an act of creation. However, if the world wants to condemn it, they first need to understand why the use of violence has become necessary for these groups, and try their best to fix whatever became so broken in the first place that someone stopped writing that letter to the mayor, clenched their fist and picked up a brick instead.