Source: electronic telegraph 15/04/00
Have a nice riot
For the past two weeks you have been 100ft up a redwood tree which a logging company is trying to cut down,' said the instructor, his audience hanging on his every word. 'You are giving an interview to the media on your mobile phone, and you are asked "the toilet question". What do you reply?'
Seated in a circle in a clearing in a Florida forest, the group of student activists mulled this over. These were fresh-faced, wide-eyed, idealistic young people who wanted to change the world; people who cared about the environment, human rights, sweatshop labour in Indonesia and Mexico, dressed in a range of T-shirts that told you exactly where they stood: 'People not Politics', and 'Why Do We Kill People Who Kill People To Show That Killing People Is Wrong?' Who gives a damn about the toilet question?
The answer is that the media will give a damn, and the quick-thinking activist's answer to the toilet question should be this: 'My waste is not the issue; the waste of the environment is what we're talking about.'
There were nose-rings and dreadlocks, star-spangled combat trousers, cowboy Stetsons and multicoloured pixie hats.
On the first morning, they had been invited to form a circle and to step forward one by one to announce their names and special areas of interest. There were Vegans, Earth Firsters and Wobblies. There were activists from Ethical Treatment for Animals, Food Not Bombs and the People Over Profits Coalition. There were people committed to the defence of hardwoods, the ozone layer, and the U'wa people of the Colombian cloudforest. A woman representing pagans and witches stood near a man wearing a 'Live Like Jesus' T-shirt. There were people fighting for bootworkers in Minnesota and for hog farms in Missouri (or maybe fighting against them). The last person to introduce herself received the loudest applause: 'I'm Catrina and I'm here to wash your dishes.'
The student 'spring break' is an American tradition. Each March, thousands of students converge on the beach resorts of Florida to bask in the sunshine, get drunk, moon passers-by and generally behave badly. But the week-long Ruckus Society Alternative Spring Break was different. At a campsite beside the Peace River in the Florida wilderness (nearest beach resort 50 miles) around 100 student activists from colleges all over America had convened to learn the principles of direct action and civil disobedience.
There were people dangling on ropes from scaffolding 50ft high - the closest available thing to simulate a high building, bridge or crane - learning the basics of abseiling and banner-hanging. Nearby, another group sat in an attentive circle listening to a lecture on the principles of non-violent protest. The afternoon programme promised an 'effigy workshop' and how to blockade a department store.
The symbol of the Ruckus Society is a set of mechanical gears jammed by a monkey wrench. Ruckus has been running courses dedicated to the principles of what its director, John Sellers, calls 'excellence in action' for five years. But it can be said to have properly come of age last November in Seattle, in the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation.
The events in Seattle constituted the most visible act of public dissent seen in America since the landmark rallies against the Vietnam War in the Sixties. It was a protest that seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. What made it all the more extraordinary was that the target was a bureaucratic organisation of which relatively few Americans had ever heard, and fewer still would be able to explain.
Few of the 50,000 protesters who took to the streets of Seattle had even been born in the Sixties; they belonged to a generation usually characterised by political apathy, alienation or naked ambition. This was a demonstration not against a war but against a way of life. Seattle, says Sellers, was 'the coming-out party for the anti-corporate movement in America'. The demonstrators represented an extraordinarily diverse coalition of interest groups, all finding common cause against what Sellers describes as 'this hostile corporate takeover of the planet'.
The engine of this revolution is the internet, which has provided a worldwide grapevine for organising this disparate assortment of groups into a coherent force. The demonstrators of Seattle were far from being a disorganised rabble. For months, a dozen or more groups, including Ruckus, had been planning the protests, working under the umbrella of the Direct Action Network, united by a commitment that the demonstrations remain non-violent.
This weekend, they will be on the streets again in Washington, demonstrating at the spring meeting of the IMF and World Bank. And the US presidential elections in November will provide plentiful opportunities for a similarly high-profile series of actions. As Sellers observes, while on one hand corporate capitalism is a somewhat nebulous enemy, on the other it provides 'a target-rich environment'.
'Direct action,' said Mike Roselle, 'is like a drum beat. You may not hear the first or the second beat, but after a while you know something's going on and you start to pay attention...'
A big, bear-like man with greying stubble and a barking laugh, Roselle founded Ruckus five years ago after a lifetime spent in environmental activism. He was one of the founders of Earth First, which in the Seventies specialised in covert 'guerrilla' operations against logging companies in the Pacific north-west; and he was later the first national direct action co-ordinator for Greenpeace.
In 1987 he became a hero of the environmental movement when, as a protest against acid rain, he scaled Mount Rushmore to hang a gas mask on George Washington. He was rewarded with four months in jail, 40 days of it in solitary. Now 45, his tally of arrests stands at around 40, 'although I try not to get arrested as much as I used to. When you've got a record like mine, judges start looking to go to the max.'
The techniques of direct action taught by Ruckus were first developed by Greenpeace in the Eighties; but Ruckus has tuned them to a high-pitch of professionalism.
In the past five years some 2,500 people have done Ruckus training, and around 300 have become trainers themselves, running their own direct action workshops. The result, according to Roselle, is an America-wide network of trained activists available at the end of a telephone. 'Say we've got a boat-load of mahogany coming into Charlotte and we need to get 50 people out there to stop that ship unloading,' he says, 'that's a pretty difficult action, but we could do it. We can do bridges, cranes, large buildings and pretty much anything that moves.'
Ruckus employs three full-time workers and scores of volunteers. Its funding comes from private individuals and bodies such as the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the Turner Foundation, established by media magnate Ted Turner and which is the group's single largest donor. Another prominent Ruckus supporter is Elaine Broadhead, the heir to a Chicago mail-order fortune, who has hosted two Ruckus gatherings at her 150-acre Glen Ora estate in Virginia, where John F Kennedy relaxed in 1961 after being elected president. Pondering the spectre of radical chic, Sellers says he is confident that Ruckus can 'weather this storm of approval'.
Ruckus stages four or five training camps a year. The camps are free, with as much vegetarian food as you can eat, and usually 'themed' to specific issues: they have focused on human rights, forest activism and Tibet. The Alternative Spring Break camp had the theme of global warming, and was co-sponsored by the environmental groups Ozone Action, Rainforest Action Network and Free the Planet.
'America teaches its children to be good consumers, not to be good citizens,' said John Passacantando, the executive director of Ozone Action. 'And in many ways the establishment doesn't want us to be good citizens. They want us to be complacent, cynical citizens, wired to buy, buy, buy.
'The ruse that we learn in civics class is that democracy just trundles along and all we have to do is vote once in a while. But that isn't the way it works. The way it has worked throughout history is that a small group of people of conscience push - whether it be on civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, anti-war. And the power lies with young people, as it always has, because young people have the strongest conscience; they are uncorrupted and they can't be bought off.'
Mike Roselle describes Ruckus as 'a university in direct action'. To pursue the analogy, its core curriculum includes basic training and safety procedures for banner-hanging or sit-down protests. There is what might be called activist deportment and etiquette. 'We don't like bandanas and ski masks,' said Roselle. 'They look scary to the average person. And the police know who you are anyway; they've got computers.' Of course, it includes media training too. For if the long-term objective of direct action is the collapse of the corporate state, the shorter-term objectives are front-page coverage in the New York Times and heavy rotation on CNN.
'You know the conundrum, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it really fall?' asked Roselle. 'My version is, if a tree falls in the forest and there wasn't a hippie chained to it and a camera crew filming it, did it really happen?'
The week is carefully structured. Days are given over to what Roselle calls 'tactical stuff' - abseiling, banner hanging and blockading, workshops in non-violence and the media. In the evenings there is 'the issue stuff': tracing the threads of corporate power which connect oil companies to ozone depletion; global retailers to sweatshop labour. Attendance at the tactical classes is mandatory. 'But,' said Roselle, 'if people want to party in the evenings rather than discussing the issues, they can do that.'
Nobody did. On one evening a Catholic nun, Sister Pat Daley, from an organisation called the Interfaith Centre for Corporate Responsibility, addressed the meeting on 'the sin of passivity' and the fine details of corporation stockholding and pension investment. (She was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt showing a cartoon of the star of Bethlehem hovering over the stable, with the caption 'It's a girl!') Her talk did not wind down till 10.30pm, but people were still scribbling notes at the end and gathered round to ask questions.
At 9am sharp the following morning, there were the same alert expressions and pens poised over notebooks for a class on non-violent direct action. After a discussion of the philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the class moved on to role-playing. In direct action, do not adopt an aggressive body posture. Use a talking rather than a yelling voice. Do not clench your fists or make threatening gestures. Keep your hands open. Smile!
'Direct action is not about arrest machismo,' said the trainer, Sarah Seeds, an intense, grey-haired woman in her 40s. 'Non-violence is a moral principle, but it is also a tactic. They have the guns and the money; we have the one weapon they don't know how to deal with.'
The class were asked to volunteer definitions of themselves as activists, both favourable and critical: 'insightful', 'radical', 'compassionate', 'condescending', 'elitist'. Then to volunteer similar definitions of 'the clerk at the 7-11' and 'the wife of the guy who works at the defence plant': 'normal', 'confused', 'powerless', 'patriotic', 'law-abiding'. And to provide definitions of how the clerk at the 7-11 might see the activists: 'dirty hippies', 'dangerous', 'malcontents', 'leeches'.
The idea of the exercise is 'to find common ground', as the trainer put it, 'between us as activists and the people whose communities we're in.'
The group were then asked to stand in a line and respond to a question by moving to one end or the other: 'In direct action, how important is it to look mainstream and respectable in order to make it acceptable to ordinary Americans?' At one end, a lanky youth with dreadlocks suggested that looking 'overtly different' offers a 'psychic challenge to Americans to tap into their revolutionary spirit'. At the other, a rival voice argued that 'square-looking people taking radical action is more radical than radical-looking people taking radical action'. People shuffled good-humouredly from one end of the line to the other, playfully berating friends who had taken opposing positions.
There was a knowing laugh when the trainer raised the question of property destruction: 'Does it hurt or help our cause?' The majority shuffled to the end representing the view that it could be justified on the grounds of 'principle' or as a way of 'focusing public attention on an action'.
At the other end, a crew-cut boy offered an alternative view. One of the most ubiquitous media images of Seattle, he pointed out, was of a youth throwing a rock through the window of a Nike store - while wearing Nike trainers. 'What kind of message does that send out to people?
And who pays for the damage? The executives aren't going to take pay cuts. It's the low-paid workers who don't get a raise that suffer.' There was a movement of people from one end to the other as the arguments sank in.
The lesson moved on to role-playing. The group were asked to act out a protest outside a Walmart store, with the objective of turning away customers. People were allocated specific roles: the protesters, their media spokespeople, police liaison and 'direct support'. Another group played the police, security guards, bystanders and media. 'One of the things I want to stress in this exercise,' said the trainer, 'is that the cops and security people are not all assholes.'
A burlesque protest ensued, the protesters forming a circle, linking arms and chanting the Seattle chant, 'This is what democracy looks like', the 'police' moving in to disperse them. Afterwards the exercise was picked apart. Did the people in the circle feel threatened or 'empowered'? How did it feel to be a policeman with the responsibility of breaking up the protest?
The protesters' media spokesman had a question: 'I was trying to brief a reporter on what was going on, but I couldn't hear a word I was saying. I wonder, could people keep their voices down when they're chanting?'
You knew it was lunchtime because the air was suddenly rent by a blast over the PA system of some screaming heavy metal by AC/DC - a Ruckus camp tradition. 'It's Pavlovian,' said one trainer, standing beside me in the queue for food. 'Whenever I hear that song on the radio, I want to eat.'
Twenty yards away on the river-bank, a camera crew, covering the camp for local television, had shifted their attention away from the nuts and bolts of political activism to the more media-friendly spectacle of students skinny-dipping.
'Dirty hippies', 'dangerous', 'malcontents', 'leeches' - the students' choice of words to describe how the world at large might see them could not have been further from the truth. They were the fruit of well-educated, affluent America; uniformly wholesome, healthy and dauntingly well-informed. There were the sons of factory workers and the daughters of university professors. They knew about the relationship between college sports apparel and the implausibly low wages of sweatshop workers in Indonesia. They knew that Al Gore is a major shareholder in Occidental Petroleum, whose drilling plans threaten to destroy the Colombian cloudforests. And if they didn't know, they wanted to, and to do something about it.
They had a language all of their own. The 'Care Bears' were three
perpetually smiling girls with love hearts stencilled around their
belly buttons, on hand to counsel anyone with 'gender or aggression
issues'. The 'Dorothys' were on hand to replenish lavatory paper and
Wholesome people doing wholesome things: from left,Kathy NiKeefe, a climbing and non-violence trainer;
John Sellers, director of Ruckus; Care Bear Cathie Berrey, on hand to counsel 'anyone with gender or aggression issues'|
People talked about direct action as a way of 'challenging the prevailing paradigm', or - a particular favourite - of 'talking truth to power'. There were references to 'locking-down' - padlocking yourself to a piece of machinery or a block of cement - and 'getting kryptonited', a reference to the kryptonite bicycle locks which are the activist's principle stock-in-trade. ('They sell more kryptonite locks to activists than they do to cyclists,' said Roselle.)
Wally, the camp cook, told me how he had once locked down to the bumper of a police car in Idaho. Unable to break the lock, the police simply removed the bumper, with Wally still attached. He was arrested and taken to the station wearing it; he took it with him to the shower; slept with it, ate breakfast with it, finally removing it only when some friends arrived with the key to bale him out.
Non-violent direct action, said John Sellers, is 'like tenpin bowling. You get better with practice. What we're trying to do is impart the ethic of excellence in action, and to let people know that it's not a question of money, but of commitment and hard work, and the level you honour the action by preparing for it.'
The son of schoolteachers from Pennsylvania, Sellers, who is 33, studied sociology and anthropology at university before becoming involved with Greenpeace while travelling in the South Pacific. 'My uncle managed the largest oil refinery in the southern hemisphere. While I was staying at his house in Sydney, Greenpeace was in the harbour plugging his outfall pipes. That's when I decided I wanted to get involved.'
Sailing with the Rainbow Warrior, he was blown out of an inflatable dinghy in the Bay of Biscay by a stun grenade fired by the French navy. More recently he almost died when a banner he was hanging from Chicago's 110-storey Sears Tower caught in a gust of wind, tangling him in his safety harness.
Sellers epitomises the new breed of media-wise activists; exuding bonhomie and enthusiasm, and with a happy knack for boiling the complex iniquities of advanced capitalism down to one succinct, punchy soundbite.
'In nursery school we're taught to share, to co-operate and be nice to each other. Then in business school we're taught to rip each other's throats out. There's some kind of disconnection there. But I think more and more people are realising that the way we are living now is simply not sustainable. We're not opposed to globalisation, we welcome it. But we want it to be a just, humane globalisation.'
At 33, Sellers himself is too young to have experienced the last great outpouring of American radicalism. Like most of those at the camp, his experience of the Sixties was limited to what he learned in social studies classes.
'We're standing on the shoulders of giants,' he said. 'But I think one of the major differences from the Sixties, and one of the things we are working hardest to correct, is that we don't want to have this revolution without our parents. We don't want to turn our backs on society; we want to invite them to join us. It's an empathetic revolution.'
So who are the enemy? The tactical discussions and strategic workshops brought forth the obvious culprits: the oil companies who are pillaging the land and polluting the air; the logging companies who are decimating the forests; the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank - 'the Three Stooges of the Global Economy', as Sellers put it.
But the longer the discussions went on, the more apparent it became that there was nothing that wasn't tainted by corporatism, from the air we breathe to the coffee we drink to the Gap combat trousers where I kept my notepad and pencil (Gap being much criticised for its use of Third World labour). How do you fight the corporate state when it's everywhere?
Eric, 20, a student from Minnesota who described himself as 'a libertarian socialist and anarchist,' told me he boycotts supermarkets in favour of organic-food shops and refuses to buy books off Amazon.com 'because I've seen what they've done to local booksellers. Although,' he added sheepishly, 'I've shopped there once or twice when I couldn't find the book anywhere else.' He shrugged. 'As activists we have to accept a level of hypocrisy when we're engaged in changing a system we're all so intimately involved in and conditioned by. But then again, if I could live my life in a way that was always in line with what I believe, I'd have nothing to struggle against.'
The banner-hang is direct action's equivalent of the Olympic diver's triple somersault with pike. The summit of the activist's showboating art; the advertising hoarding of revolution; a way, as Sellers says, to 'tweak the system' and 'culture-jam' the enemy by turning their corporate logos against them.
A screen had been erected in a clearing and one evening Sellers conducted a slideshow: great banner-hangings of our time. There was the banner which three Ruckus activists, including Sellers himself, had hung from a crane, 250ft above the WTO meeting in Seattle, featuring two arrows - one marked 'WTO', the other 'Democracy' - pointing in opposite directions. The image gave way to a photograph of a huge winner's rosette hanging from a Dupont chemicals tower, bearing the message 'Ozone Destroyer - 1st'; and then to a slide of an activist dangling from a Shell petrol station sign, a noose around his neck, his head covered, as if he was being hanged. 'Great culture-jamming,' said Sellers, to a whoop of approval from the audience.
The next morning, the entire company assembled in the shadow of the scaffolding for a demonstration. Two trainers dangled from the top, preparing to unfurl a banner. Two more were 'locked down' at the foot of the scaffolding. Without warning, an estate car pulled up behind the crowd, disgorging a number of Ruckus trainers, led by Sellers, dressed as police. Sellers strode to the front of the crowd, bellowing through a bull horn and squirting water from a container - a playful surrogate for pepper spray.
Momentarily bemused, the students suddenly got the point. The spectacle had become a training exercise. As 'the police' grappled with the demonstrators a chant went up: 'The whole world is watching.' Somebody was dragged towards the estate car and unceremoniously thrown inside. A voice shouted, 'Blockade the vehicle!' A dozen or more people threw themselves behind the rear wheels, locking arms and chanting. Another chant rose up: 'We're non-violent! What about you?!'
What had begun as a lark had suddenly become unnervingly authentic. To an almighty cheer, the two climbers abseiled down from the scaffolding, unfurling a banner bearing the Ruckus slogan, 'Actions Speak Louder Than Words'.
Sellers blew a whistle. 'OK! You guys win!' But five minutes later, they were still chanting. 'We're non-violent! What about you?! We're non-violent! What about you?!'
One veteran campaigner watched it from the sidelines. He'd done more than 100 protests, he reckoned, and lost count of the number of his arrests. He'd seen it all before.
'These kids have good hearts and all the hope in the world,' he said with the faintest glimmer of a smile. 'But the real test of their idealism will come when they get their first Visa card.'
Jim, a climb trainer, took another view. 'This training is like farming. You plant seeds in the spring and hope some of them grow. I think we might have a future president in this group and I'm sure that when she is elected this country will change.' I think I spotted her. CJ was a gamine-looking 23-year-old, the sharpest tool in the box: the first to ask questions in the workshops and strategy groups, the first to volunteer answers. Her father, she said, was vice-president of a chemical company; her grandfather, a die-hard Republican voter and gun-toting member of the National Rifle Association. The best private education money could buy had invested her with a burning commitment to the causes of labour organisation and human rights.
Her family, she said, had told her she would 'grow out of it'. And what did she think? CJ looked me up and down meaningfully. 'I actually feel very blessed to have been born after the Sixties because I can see what's happened to a lot of old hippies from the era and how they've been grafted into the establishment. I really hope I can learn from that.'
'I expect to see you in the White House in 20 years time,' I joked. CJ was too smart to fall for that one. 'I really hope so,' she said with a dazzling smile. 'Being arrested...'