Direct Action in Hard Times: Activist Strategies from Brazil to Wisconsin

People in the US are looking to South America for inspiration in occupying homes and factories.


Kari Lydersen is an author, journalists, and educator based out of Chicago, Illinois. As a journalist she has written for a variety of outlets including In These Times, People, The Washington Post, Bitch, and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, her latest is Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Her work has covered topics such as immigration, globalization and free trade, environmental racism, human trafficking, the sex industry, and civil liberties. To find out more about her, visit her website at

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America for the Guardian Unlimited, The Nation, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia and Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America. He is the editor of, a progressive perspective on world events and co-founder of, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Dangl teaches South American history and globalization at Burlington College in Vermont and can be reached by email at bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.


JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: In a recent segment on The Real News, we looked at how Brazil’s Porto Alegre participatory budgeting experiment has been emulated in more than 1,000 municipalities across the world, including Chicago’s 49th Ward. But it’s not just budgeting that people in the United States have picked up from South America. We spoke to journalist and author Ben Dangl about some of South America’s direct action strategies that people in the US have made their own.

BEN DANGL, AUTHOR: In the economic crisis of 2001 and 2002 in Argentina, unprecedented amount of people were left in the streets without work. They didn’t have access to their bank accounts. The economy crashed and went from being one of the most powerful economies in the region to one of the weakest almost overnight. And people, when faced with this crisis, banded together and organized neighborhood councils, barter fairs, alternative currency, and worked with each other to create a better world in the midst of this crisis. And one example of this was workers, unemployed workers throughout Argentina, when fired from their jobs, occupied factories, occupied hotels, book publishers, balloon factories, and formed them into workers cooperatives, worker-managed industries that have been successful and exist today. There are many hundreds of examples of this in Argentina today. So this tactic was useful here in the US as well. In Chicago in 2008, in December 2008, workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory, when faced with unemployment, occupied their factory and demanded that their back wages be paid to them, that they be paid their vacation wages. And this tactic of direct action and occupying factories was successful to them. And when speaking with worker organizers linked to the occupation, they said to me that they learned directly from the worker cooperatives in Argentina when meeting with them at World Social Forums in Venezuela and Brazil. During the occupation, they even showed the documentary The Take by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, which is about worker cooperatives in Argentina.

FREESTON: Journalist Kari Lydersen reported from the Chicago occupation for In These Times Magazine and The Washington Post, eventually publishing a book entitled Revolt on Goose Island about her experiences. She says that while the union leadership was aware of international examples, much of the workers’ participation was spontaneous in nature.

KARI LYDERSEN, AUTHOR: The workers I talked to, it sounded like, weren’t necessarily very familiar with factory takeovers in Argentina. Most of them I spoke with, this was really the first time they’d been in any sort of struggle or direct action.

FREESTON: In Argentina, the occupations quickly spread to a wide variety of businesses, from ceramics factories to luxury hotels, many of which, such as the Hotel Bauen, are still operating as cooperatives today.

LYDERSEN: After the Republic Windows occupation, after the victory where Bank of America and Chase agreed to give the workers the money that they were due and the company stayed open, thanks to the workers’ struggle and the fact that that attracted the attention of a California company that bought the factory, people were hoping and assuming or wondering if this would launch, you know, sort of a wave of factory occupations around the country. And two years later, there haven’t been a rash of successes of the type that there was at Republic Windows and Doors. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. The Republic Windows struggle, it wasn’t so much the physical act of holding the workplace and the equipment hostage or under their control that won the workers their victory, but really the way that became a symbol for people all around the country of how people were losing their jobs and how the banks had been bailed out and that wasn’t trickling down to regular people.

FREESTON: The national mood of the time was such that no politician dared speak out against the workers. Even then, president-elect Barack Obama sided with the illegal occupation, saying, “I think they’re absolutely right and understand that what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across the economy.” Lydersen says that other workplaces attempted the same tactic but didn’t get the same support.

LYDERSEN: About six months after the Republic Windows struggle, the same union, the UE, used some similar direct action and strategic tactics at another factory that was closing at the Illinois, Iowa, border, called Quad City Die Casting. And in this case, the strategy and the effort and the passion of the workers in the union and some of their community supporters was probably all equivalent to Republic Windows, but some of the other factors out of their control just weren’t there: it was a different time of year; it wasn’t Chicago–it didn’t have all the unions and community groups and labor-friendly politicians right there; this was a smaller town. So despite, you know, a lot of effort and a really similar situation, where Wells Fargo bank was sort of cast as the villain in the same way that Bank of America had been with Republic Windows, the factory did close, ultimately.

FREESTON: One direct-action tactic that has spread around the United States is land occupation. Perhaps the most visible national affiliation is Take Back the Land, which began in Miami in 2006 when 50 people who otherwise would’ve been homeless built the Umoja Village shantytown on a piece of unoccupied land. Take Back the Land founder Max Rameau told The Real News that the organization has drawn inspiration from South Africa’s anti-eviction campaign and Brazil’s landless workers movement, known as MST by its initials in Portuguese. Brazil’s landless workers are often referred to as the world’s largest social movement.

DANGL: The landless movement works to occupy land, create cooperatives, and settle land, build schools, health clinics, on land that is unused or underused, and it’s their constitutional right to do that. They’ve used direct action to do this, in some cases after using direct action and occupying land, working with the government to, you know, gain legal access to that land. And they’ve been incredibly successful, settling millions and millions of families across Brazil, which has one of the biggest, most unequal distribution of land in the world. They use the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce”, and that’s been the formula that they’ve applied for decades now, and it’s been incredibly successful. The Take Back the Land movement in Florida occupied vacant lots in Miami, and most recently homeless families with foreclosed homes.

FREESTON: Take Back the Land chapters and similar organizations, like Picture the Homeless in New York City, are currently doing this kind of work around the United States. We spoke to Monica Adams, an organizer with the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter of Take Back the Land.

MONICA ADAMS, ORGANIZER, TAKE BACK THE LAND – MADISON: The objective of Take Back the Land is to elevate housing as a human right. We believe that housing is a human right and we believe that the only way to achieve that is to have community control over land.

FREESTON: Just like the workers at Republic Windows and Doors, Take Back the Land is targeting the country’s largest banks.

ADAMS: The majority of big banks have gone to the government to receive some sort of federal bailout, basically, because they messed up, pretty much. The banks, however, profit doubly: not only do they take the federal tax money, the tax payers’ dollars, but they also kept the land, they kept the houses. And so they continue to foreclose on people, continue to kick people out of homes. And so one of the ways that we achieve or elevate housing as a human right is using direct action against foreclosed properties, or specifically owned by banks, which means we identify houses owned by banks that received bailout money, such as, like, Freddie Mac, US Bank, Chase Bank, different banks like that. And we liberate those homes, we move homeless families into those homes, and those homes becomes theirs, because as we see it, that is public housing.

FREESTON: According to the latest estimates from the US Census Bureau, there are almost 19 million vacant homes in the United States today, representing 13 percent of all homes, this after the United Nations special rapporteur on housing released a report condemning US authorities for doing little to address the roughly 4.5 million people who experienced homelessness in 2009, more than 1.5 million of which were children.

ADAMS: We intentionally break the law of the land. And the reasons why we do so, like considering, you know, 40, 50 years ago it was illegal for blacks to go into spaces that say “whites only”, much the same way that the civil rights movement organizing tactics were with direct action, meaning that folks were purposely and very intentionally and strategically breaking laws to draw attention to how immoral they were, essentially, just like Rosa Parks. It was illegal for her to do what she did, as well as other folks who were organizing sit-ins and so on and so forth. It was illegal for them to be doing those things. However, it was moral. And because of that very moral attack on institutional oppressions, biases, so on and so forth, they’ll always be able to be changing. In that same spirit, in that same way of organizing, we use nonviolence, direct-action organizing to draw attention to our immoral laws.

FREESTON: Desiree Wilson and her two children occupied a Bank of America-owned home in Madison with the help of Take Back the Land and other community organizations.

DESIREE WILSON, SQUATTER, MADISON, WI: We’re making history. We’re doing a great thing here. It’s helping me now, but it’s going to–it’s paving the way for so many more people [inaudible] have or be able to have a house of their own.

FREESTON: Adams credits Brazil’s landless movement with inspiring much of their work in Madison.

ADAMS: So MST has been amazing. They have principles that we adhere to and think is very important in our organizing work here. One of them I kind of mentioned is centering the leadership around those most affected. Here, it looks like low-income communities of color, specifically women. But in Brazil, they had a similar model, centering leadership with those most affected, but it was youth, children of rural folks, of farmworkers. Another thing that they had was autonomy from groups there. That doesn’t mean that they ever didn’t–that doesn’t mean that at different points there perhaps weren’t partnerships around obtaining or getting certain objectives met, but large–but they were autonomous from governments.

DANGL: Lula has been incredibly slow on his land reform policies, and in some cases he’s been virtually ineffective, totally, in meeting many of the landless movement’s demands. So in this case the landless movement, instead of following Lula’s lead and saying, okay, we’re going to stop occupying land, we’re going to just work as a movement in support of the political party, they maintained their autonomy, maintained their militant tactics, and continued occupying land throughout the years of Lula’s time in office.

FREESTON: A common criticism of the work of groups like Take Back the Land is that if everything is considered a human right, then there is no incentive for people to build the things that everyone has a right to. Adams rejects this.

ADAMS: Freedom of speech is a right. Right? It does not mean that as a society, as a community, that we’re not all responsible for holding each other accountable to that. It doesn’t mean that because you have the freedom of speech, that you can go around inciting riots and just kind of doing all of these other things. Correct? However, it is a right [snip] if people have control over land that folks who have been displaced, the folks who have gone without, folks who have been poor would actually have more pride in the land, in housing. And what we do know is that folks who are really disenfranchised have been the workers of the land. So we have absolutely absolute faith in them being able to maintain homes, which a lot of them fix and build anyway. We have absolute faith in them being able to grow food, which a lot of them grow anyway.

FREESTON: Take Back the Land type organizations have been formed in more than 15 US cities. And organizers like Adams expect that number to grow as people become aware of their effectiveness and as the economic and homelessness crises deepen.