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Have a nice riot
A new generation of protesters has come out of a clear blue sky, thoroughly schooled in the crafts of direct action. Mick Brown learns how to make a ruckus.
The audience was hanging on the instructor's every word. "For the past two weeks you have been 100 feet up a redwood tree which a logging company is trying to cut down. 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. They 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.
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 80 kilometres) about 100 student activists from all over America had convened to learn the principles of direct action and civil disobedience.
There were people dangling on ropes from scaffolding 15 metres 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 program 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 '60s. 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 '60s: 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 these disparate 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.
In Washington last month they were on the streets again, 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 '70s specialised in covert "guerilla" 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 is about 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 '80s: 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 about 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 boatload of mahogany coming into Charlotte and we need to get 50 people out there to stop that ship unloading. 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. Another prominent Ruckus supporter is Elaine Broadhead, heir to a Chicago mail-order fortune, who has hosted two Ruckus gatherings at her 60-hectare Glen Ora estate in Virginia. 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 does 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 strong 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 bandannas and 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" and in the evenings there is "the issue stuff". Attendance at the tactical classes is mandatory. "But," said Roselle, "if people want to party in the evenings rather than discuss 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 day, there were the same alert expressions and pens poised over notebooks for a class on non-violent direct action. After a discussion of philosophies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr, 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!
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".
The lesson moved on to role-playing. The group were asked to act out a protest outside a Walmart store, with the object 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 camp tradition.
The class had been asked to volunteer definitions of themselves as activists: "insightful", "radical", "compassionate", "condescending", "elitist". Then to volunteer definitions of how other people might see them: "dirty hippies", "dangerous", "malcontents", "leeches".
YET these negative descriptions could not have been further from the truth. The students were the fruit of well-educated, affluent America; uniformly wholesome, healthy and dauntingly well informed. There were the sons of factory workers and 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.
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.
Non-violent direct action, said John Sellers, was "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, 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.
"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."
So who are the enemy? The tactical discussions and strategic workshops brought forth the obvious culprits: the oil companies which are pillaging the land and polluting the air: the logging companies which 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," boycotts supermarkets in favour of organic-food shops and refuses to buy books from 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, 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."
Jim, a veteran campaigner and one of the trainers, believes the 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 diehard Republican voter and 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 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 '60s 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..."
Have a nice riot is a play on the American 'Have a nice day'...
Regards from OZ
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 28, 2000
Interesting article, Pieter.
I engaged in a lot of altruistic causes myself in the 60's, but much like the young man in the article regarding books, I didn't fully LIVE THE LIFE, and STILL don't. This double-standard was common in the 60's, although not complete. I knew folks who were extremely environmentally concerned yet purchased TEAK furniture. OTOH, I worked at an oil company for many years and one of the guys there quit PURELY for the reason that he couldn't in all conscience work for an oil company anymore.
My children had problems with styrofoam entering the house, so if meat was packaged in styrofoam, I'd ask the butcher to remover the styrofoam and wrap the meat in paper. As the children grew older, they lost interest in meat, so my grocery-buying habits included more vegetables and less meat. I've never spoken to my children about meat. I LOVE meat, and their father is extremely carnivorous. The influence didn't come from protests, nor genes, but the influence is spreading nonetheless. Two weeks ago we had a couple for dinner and I didn't quite know what to fix, as I knew the female was a vegetarian. SO asked when he saw them next, and it turned out that she DID eat fish, so I barbequed some salmon, baked potatoes and corn- on-the-cob. Last night my daughter, a friend, and my mom came for a dinner of meatballs, potato salad, and vegetables. My daughter's friend is a vegetarian who doesn't like mayonnaise, so he finished off the huge bowl of vegetables.
My point is that it doesn't seem necessary anymore to riot or protest. When enough people decide that a product isn't worthy of the manufacturing process, etc., they will simply stop purchasing the product.
-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), May 28, 2000.
For me the radical sixties rolled into the seventies and now treasured memories of proactivities. Growing older though. Sheesh!
Regards from OZ
-- Pieter (email@example.com), May 28, 2000.
Eric, 20, a student from Minnesota who described himself as "a libertarian socialist and anarchist.
Can one person espouse Libertarian Socialism without imploding? Hey Deedah what say you?
BTW, I think it is fantastic there's a place to go to learn how to put one's activistic energies to best use. Oh, to be twenty years of age again. Not!!!
Always keep an eye on where the funding is coming from. A good piece of writing will state these sources. Nice job Spectrum.
Thanks for sharing the article Pieter.
-- Bingo1 (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 28, 2000.
"The engine of this revolution is the Internet, which has provided a worldwide grapevine for organising these disparate groups into a coherent force"
Flint had a thread about this some weeks ago, in which he asked if the internet could actually bring "disparate" groups together-I think most of the feedback was on the side of the internet NOT being able to do this. I find this interesting that in this case, the journalist thought the internet was a huge factor.
As for the actual protestors, hey, God bless them. I do not have to agree with what they oppose(though I probably would), but I admire anyone who stands up for what they believe. I have been in a number of David and Goliath fights in my life, and have been David on a few occassions. Nothing changes if nothing changes-so if you believe something must change, get up off your butt and act!
-- FutureShock (email@example.com), May 28, 2000.
Yesterday afternoon (Sunday) I was enthralled by a TV production about your Jefferson. This softly spoken man with the gift of stating the mind of the colonials was witness to the French Revolution. A quote from his writings/letters had him stating that society does better if every twenty years or so the common man arose to remind their rulers who actually was being served.
Amazing thought from an amazing man who helped bring the miracle of America.
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 28, 2000.