Non-Violent Direct Action Anyone Can Do (That Everyone Should)


It’s been a while since I last posted (and in fact, even since I last wrote an entry on my personal blog), and this entry is about part of the reason why—and that if you’re reading this, you should take up similar pass times. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the distinction between so-called “peaceful” actions and non-violence, I’d suggest you keep a stopper on that query until a later date, when I will answer that question for you in another piece of writing. In this piece of writing, I am deliberately choosing not to talk about “peaceful” anything; however, I am also not talking about aggressive behaviour or confrontation of any kind, while focusing on a specific form of non-violent direct action. As for the term “direct action”, this generally means, as an activist of any kind, taking matters into your own hands. Direct action is often associated with aggressive behaviour, confrontation, hostility, and violence, whether or not the actions taken even are violent (i.e., police and sometimes even military tend to be responsible for the escalation of direct action to the point of violence, as is being seen in New Brunswick right now, where non-violent protesters in a road blockade are being arrested for laying tobacco on the highway). For instance, I’ve written before about effective grassroots protest methods including the formation of a Black Bloc, and generally speaking, any community of activists can reasonably anticipate infiltration by undercover police if they are effective at anything they are doing (i.e., one more reason for the Black Bloc). Violence is often rather paradoxically mis-characterized as well, in that many see vandalism of inanimate property such as vehicles and buildings as violence, but fail to acknowledge or even recognize systemic oppression such as poverty (a direct and necessary product of capitalism) or racism (a direct and necessary product of cultural chauvinism, cultural imperialism, and white supremacy) as violence. For that matter, most people fail to recognize the inherent violence of the very existence of those buildings and vehicles themselves — environmental violence. I’ll be addressing that further when I write about the distinction between “peaceful” and non-violent some other time.

Now that all of that is aside, I bet you’re wondering what the actual fuck I’m talking about — what is the non-violent direct action anyone can do and that everyone should? Well, it started with a strong curiosity about a certain bird (I’m kind of nuts about birds, as anyone who knows me personally can tell you). Then it became very long walks in the forest. And then the marsh. And recently, the beach too. Most often, these walks have been a solitary activity, but on a few occasions, I’ve had human company. Over the past few months, it’s become the (technically illegal) gradual discovery, extraction, and disposal of several hundred pounds of trash by yours truly from former Coast Salish village sites, forests, marshes, and beaches. And you could (and should) be doing it too.

I don’t know about any of you reading this, but I like being outside. I enjoy taking long walks in the forest and on the beach, following ravens and eagles around, having staring contests with Great Blue Herons and mute swans, watching ducks waddle around, and being used as a perch for squirrels, chickadees, and sparrows (yes, that actually happens—no, my name is not Snow White). But I also feel disgusted, angry, and emotionally injured on some level when my walk is interrupted by the presence of cigarette butts all over the ground, used facial tissues and wetnaps tossed carelessly aside, abandoned butane lighters partially decomposing into rust, and plastic bags that have been trampled over by people and animals alike for at least several consecutive days. Neither the forest floor nor the beach are ash trays or trash cans to be used at the whim and fancy of everyone who simply can’t be arsed to take the shit they brought in back out with them when they leave. So a few months ago, I answered this distress by making piles of the trash I was finding within mere inches of the sidewalk adjacent to Pipeline Road (which cuts directly through Vancouver’s Stanley Park — a former Coast Salish village site), for Vancouver Parks Board employees to pick up. I hadn’t brought my own bags on that particular occasion, but I came back with an entire roll of them (and a box of gloves) when I went back again within a matter of days. I have been bringing bags with me every time I return ever since.

Soon enough, I also felt a growing responsibility to bring my bags and ambition to Vancouver’s most popular clothing-optional beach. There is a system of trails that winds all the way around the west point of Vancouver, which is engulfed to the north, west, and south by the Strait of Georgia. Currently, this area is home to the University of British Columbia, but it was once a Musqueam village site all the way up until just over a hundred years ago, at which time the deliberate spread of smallpox and malicious amendments to The Indian Act forced the Musqueam out of their last remaining villages throughout their traditional ancestral territories (which includes 125 other locations in Vancouver and several other municipalities, many of which are now home to the wealthiest districts in the area—not even remotely a simple coincidence). Now this clothing-optional landmark attracts people from all walks of life, many of whom have no notion of the history of this place or the dignity and respect it deserves, as they come to the bottom of the 1,000 stairs on this furthest west-facing beach, and leave nearly everything they brought down with them. The very same people who think vandalism of inanimate property is violence.

Between these two places, which I feel are very important and yet, I see being subjected to an equally important amount of apathy and environmental violence, I have gradually removed several times my own body weight in trash over the past several months. I’ve made and maintained a weekly commitment to the beach (regardless of weather conditions) for a couple of months already, and have made up for the inconsistency of my visits to the forests in Stanley Park by staying longer and disposing of more trash when I do make it there. However, it is important to note that, rather paradoxically, if I were caught in the act by an employee of Vancouver Parks Board (depending on exactly what I was caught doing, where, and by whom), I could actually be subjected to a fairly monumental fine. Though I am removing refuse abandoned by other people, I am actually violating at least one municipal by-law that carries a maximum penalty of $2000 (and I am very likely violating several other by-laws as well). It’s a risk I’m willing to take to ensure that these places don’t gradually become landfills, and it’s a risk I encourage every reading this to assume, where ever they call home, as well. When you could actually be penalized for doing your part to take care of the land, resistance becomes duty. When you finally begin to recognize this responsibility, you stop seeing the overturned police car at the Oka crisis as violence; and you start seeing the laws themselves — that punish people for respecting the land — as institutionalized violence.

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  1. mythbri says

    Every time I go hiking I bring a used grocery bag to pack out other people’s shit that they feel free to just toss all over the place when they’re out enjoying our precious natural resources. Smokers are some of the worst offenders. Seriously, people. Quit littering/causing forest fires.

    Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

    And here is an adorable letter from a little girl to the park rangers of Yosemite National Park:!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/yosemite1n-2-web.jpg


    Dear Park Rangers,

    I am a Yosemite Junior Ranger. I went to Yosemite recently and accidentally brought home two sticks. I know I’m not supposed to take things from the park, so I am sending them back. Please put them in nature.

    Thank you,

    Evie [Redacted]

  2. intransigentia says

    Let me guess: the bylaw you’re violating hasis used primarily for punishing bottle pickers and the like from going into posh neighborhoods. i.e. the deliberate criminalization of poverty

  3. great1american1satan says

    I saw a great blue heron dooky one time and it was like someone tossed a mug of liquid paper out of its feathery tuchus.

  4. jesse says

    I love this. You know why? Because

    a) it shows something anyone can do without being an “activist” — the kind of thing that people who don’t see themselves as “movement” can get on board with.

    b) it gives me a much better idea how to answer the question “what are you FOR?” as opposed to “what are you AGAINST?” because the former makes me think of good things to do, the latter just makes me despair that humanity is worth saving.

    (When I think about it, talking about all the things I am against can be gigantically de-motivating. YMMV and all that, but for me, I’m old enough to remember when progressive movements felt like they had a lot more immediate and tangible victories to build on. “We may win this in a few decades” = “You’ll go to heaven when you die” — at least for me).

  5. says

    I too dislike structuring my activism around things I am against. I don’t put myself into the streets in some half-baked knee-jerk reactionary state (e.g., what slutwalk is). If I’m in the streets over something, it’s because I’ve had a long time to think about it, and no one else’s politics are my master (e.g., I structure my pro-choice activism around the issue of bodily autonomy, rather than some “reply” to pro-life “arguments”).

  6. lirael_abhorsen says

    I have my own thoughts on tactics and nonviolence, which seem to be considered heretical by all major sides of this debate (I think that window-smashing is violent, for instance, but that poverty is also violent, and black blocs and protective gear are not (at least not intrinsically), and drawing on things with markers is not (though I think it’s generally a poor idea in US activism).

    This sounds like a great idea! Even though I shouldn’t be, I’m surprised it’s illegal, if only because at various times in my life I’ve been part of groups (who were not activists or trying to commit civil disobedience) doing cleanup at these sorts of places.

  7. Brandon says

    That’s a remarkably long winded way to say that picking up litter is a good thing to do. Do you feel as though there are people there’s widespread societal opposition to picking up litter? Most people are probably too lazy to bother with it, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone state that it’s a bad thing to do.

  8. says

    Dude, people glare at me as if I’m some homeless person, and I’ve been heckled as I walked out of the forest carrying trash strapped to my back.

    I’ve also had what amounts to a search party sicced on me when I was spotted in the process of picking trash up.

    When was the last time you actually DID ANYTHING other than sit there on your mighty steed as a keyboard warrior, criticizing an article of one thousand words’ length for being too long for your tastes?

  9. Brandon says

    When was the last time you actually DID ANYTHING other than sit there on your mighty steed as a keyboard warrior…?

    I suppose earlier today. Work and such.

    So someone was a jerk to you. I’m not shocked by this development, people are arbitrarily jerkish all the time; people are jerkish to me when I’m driving, riding a bike, walking. I don’t take that as a message that society abhors movement, I take it as an individual being a jerk.

    Do you think there’s widespread societal pushback against picking up litter?

  10. jesse says

    leaving aside the jerkishness, I was sort of curious about the local laws where you are. I know in NYC if someone was picking up litter the cops wouldn’t do anything — there are people homeless and not (seems to be a lot of Peruvans?/ Bolivians? people in traditional Andean clothing, anyway, lately) who go through the trash for the bottles.

    In fact, the bottle bills in many states in the US were designed precisely to encourage people to do just that. As a kid I used to do it all the time (back when $2.00 was significant LOL). Heck, even in college we would save the bottles to get the few bucks off the next beer run and it wasn’t unusual for us to pick bottles up and add to the collection. Nobody seemed to care.

    So I was curious offhand if there is a bottle bill equivalent where you are? I mean, don’t you have people with the big bags of bottles and cans headed over to the Costco (or Canadian equivalent?) It just seems so weird, I’m not saying I don’t believe you.

    Also, they don’t ever have one of those “pick up litter with the school group” things? Like I said, it just seems the strangest thing like some bad Kafka joke. Who thought these laws up?

  11. Holms says

    I don’t take that as a message that society abhors movement, I take it as an individual being a jerk.

    ‘Being a jerk’ to someone that is picking up litter may simply be individual jerkishness, but what about making it illegal? Seems to be a societal level thing there.

  12. Pen says

    Odd that picking up litter should be against the law. We’ve always picked up litter near our home in one of France’s regional parks and in the US, they used to give my daughter junior ranger badges for filling a plastic bag of the stuff. In London, I have a friend who picks up recently dropped litter and politely hands it back to its original owner. How’s that for activism?

  13. savagemutt says

    Without telling us what laws you’re breaking its difficult to justify supporting your actions. For all I know you’re walking in an environmentally or archaeologically sensitive area; which would make any law against removing items entirely reasonable.

  14. jesse says

    I guess I am feeling kind’a dumb, then, I mean aside from bringing a brass band with you and harassing every person on the beach or forest about it and such (and you honestly don’t seem like someone who goes out of her way to be a jerk to folks), I just have trouble envisioning how walking through a park an picking up trash would get any attention at all except harassment from people who thought you were homeless (which I totally get is ridiculous and illegal and a whole structural issue itself). If that’s what you’re talking about it makes more sense to me. (

    By the way I am not against politely pointing out to people that littering on a beach or forest is wrong and illegal. I’ve done it once or twice here on a beach that is way less pristine than the ones you walk on, but New Yorkers have a bit more “possessive” feelings about their beaches and parks since outdoorsy stuff is more precious here.)

    But even so, like I said, I see people doing what I think you’re doing all the time and most folks try assiduously to pretend they don’t see it.

    I don’t want to sound like I am being obtuse, but I don’t live in Vancouver and am not familiar with the various modi vivendi that people have there w/r/t littering and stuff. But here in NYC the attitude is a bit different maybe. (Sometimes your posts might have to begin with “this is city X in Canada and this is what the law is” for those of us dumb USians )

  15. jesse says

    Also, I mean, if you were doing what I think you are describing here, you’d be on NY1’s “New Yorker of the Week” easily, you know? TV time with the Mayor (or at least the boro president) and all that. But again I might be missing something really important.

  16. says

    I don’t do it for attention. In fact, it would bother me to receive that kind of attention. I do it to set an example for others to follow and start doing of their own volition. If people see it being done (especially with the excessive amounts I wind up strapping to my back just to get to the trash bin without missing a bunch in between), then perhaps they will think about doing it themselves.

  17. says


    I’ll take that to mean you’re missing the point entirely, and are unreasonably suspicious that I am equally as insensitive towards indigenous history as I am conscious of it. That’s several kinds of stupid at once in my books.

  18. Holms says

    I’m not sure if I’m missing something here. It seems plain to me that your phrasing ‘picking up trash’ usually means ‘picking up trash’, yet several others have made comments that seem to doubt this interpretation. While I think we can safely dispense with savagemutt’s insinuation that you might actually be stealing archaeological relics (lolwtf), is my reading of ‘picking up trash’ actually incorrect?

  19. says

    No, you are not grossly misinterpreting the meaning of the phrase “picking up trash”. I am reminded of a time I told an able-bodied person how the presence of a cement staircase can convey a sense of “your kind isn’t welcome here” to those who are not able-bodied, and that this is literally a concrete example of a structural barrier against disability. The guy said “what are you adding to the definition of empathy here?”

    I don’t have enough face to facepalm. I’d need to borrow his.

  20. jesse says

    By the way — understand the reason I wanted to understand what laws you were breaking ( aside from some context) is because if some law that is similar we’re proposed here – or maybe even already extant – I’d want to know how to recognize it. Remember I am not from where you are and haven’t got a complete Vancouver legal code in my head nor have I had the same experiences you have.

    And I understand you not doing it for attention, but do you understand why the experience you describe of running afoul of the law by picking stuff up sounds odd? O r at least kafkaesque?

  21. says

    On every single Vancouver Parks Board trash bin, is a sign that reads “maximum $2000 fine for domestic garbage”.

    Use your imagination, and might I suggest leaving Kafka out of it, because I have no idea why this has even been introduced into the conversation.

  22. jesse says

    Sorry, I just wanted to make sure I understood exactly what was going on. Now I do. Remember I am not the social justice activist you are, nor are a lot of people I’ll wager. While I like what you write a lot I sometimes feel that I am being dropped in medias res, you know? And it isn’t because I am being deliberately obtuse, it’s because I want to be dead sure I know what you are talking about.

    Anyhow, we have the same thing in NYC where they say you can’t put your household stuff in the trash bins outside. But I don’t think the fines are as high as that. Must check.

    Still seems ridiculous on the part of the local law enforcement, hence the Kafka reference. “We don’t want you to litter but you can’t pick it up and put it in the bin if you find it” — does sound like something he would have dreamed up.

  23. rapiddominance says

    . . . I have gradually removed several times my own body weight in trash over the past several months. I’ve made and maintained a weekly commitment to the beach (regardless of weather conditions) for a couple of months already, . . .

    It sounds like you’re getting some good exercise. How many pounds have you lost?

  24. says

    Unfortunately if you’re looking for diet and exercise tips, the best I’ve got is a three-step:

    Step one: become homeless

    Step two: become the target of domestic violence involving nearly being murdered over absolutely nothing

    Step three: make your escape into a new succession of abusive relationships with people who secretly think it’s your own fault

  25. rapiddominance says

    Wow!!! I’m sorry to hear about that.
    I wasn’t actually looking for exercise tips; I was just thinking that trash pick up at Crommunist’s level expended a lot of energy.
    You said in one of your earlier comments that you clean up (at least in part) as an example for others to follow. My guess it, it probably IS working and you ARE having some effect. However, we don’t always see the impact we make on people with our own eyes. So, just for conversation’s sake, have you noticed any change in the people around you in which folks are starting to follow your example?

  26. says

    Well I made the suggestion that a group who wanted to meet for a walk through a former village site (also just called a tourist trap now, rather than by its actual history and/or traditional name) take bags and gloves with them to help clean it up, and that was received well.

    However, the “people around me” until the past week or two have been antagonistic, passive aggressive, angry, hostile, and very nearly violent, in addition to bailing out on this type of commitment prior to that intolerable increase in tension. I’d like to think that other people I know are seriously considering taking the initiative for projects like this, but I don’t actually think they do until someone like me tells them to.

  27. ildi says

    However, it is important to note that, rather paradoxically, if I were caught in the act by an employee of Vancouver Parks Board (depending on exactly what I was caught doing, where, and by whom), I could actually be subjected to a fairly monumental fine. Though I am removing refuse abandoned by other people, I am actually violating at least one municipal by-law that carries a maximum penalty of $2000

    Well, this is the case in many areas where people want to avoid individual fees for garbage collection/disposal by taking their household waste and dumping it at a public facility. It would be pretty easy to tell from the type of garbage you’re dumping whether it came from the park or a household.

  28. Sara says

    This reminds me of that episode of “My Name is Earl” in which he tries to make up for taxes he didn’t pay by filling a pothole, and then some official dude shows up and tells him to undo it because it’s illegal.

  29. says

    Well so far the one incident in which I was certain to be caught, I called a three-digit number and explained what I did without giving my name, and let the city clean it up.

    I had spent two days packing up about 300lbs of trash in the middle of the woods.

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