Culture » April 30, 2001
The days are long and the work is intense, but thanks to an outfit called Activists with Aprons, the food is plentiful and delicious. There’s oatmeal or Miso soup for breakfast and gooshy chocolate deserts at night, hand-made pasta and sauce, Thai and Mexican feasts–all prepared in a giant blue-and-white-striped tent emblazoned with a crossed fork and knife.
But we have not traveled from our far corners of the globe (besides students and organizers from all reaches of America, there are at least two Canadians in our midst, a group from Amnesty International’s London HQ and a young organizer from Zimbabwe) just for the fine vegetarian cuisine. Nor are we here to make friends, tussle with the stray puppy wandering about camp, or trade nervous jokes about the fire ants, coral snakes and alleged alligator on whose territory we are encroaching.
We are here for activist training, to learn how to effectively lay one’s self, as the Ruckus Web site would have it, upon the gears of the system. Over six full days we are shuttled through more than a dozen workshops: On Monday, we study the theory and practice of nonviolence; Tuesday it’s foiling the trickery of the corporate media; by Friday, we are mastering the fine art of U-locking our necks to the axle of a van.
“This is like the 101 program,” says Ruckus program director Han Shan. Given the wide variety of experience levels among participants–from direct-action veterans to earnest college sophomores fresh off their first petition drive–the idea is to introduce as wide a spectrum of activist techniques as possible. “We’re trying to offer a fairly comprehensive training,” Shan says, “on a whole range of issues.”
Every Ruckus camp is loosely organized around a theme, so that each training can be presented in the context of a campaign against a specific adversary. This time around, the bête noir is Citigroup, the world-girding institution founded in 1998 by the merger of Citibank and Traveler’s Insurance. “Citigroup is the No. 1 bankroller of fossil fuel extraction worldwide,” announces Ilyse Hogue of RAN, in one of the week’s many fiery speeches decrying the financial colossus. “They are number one in forestry operations, operations that see people and animals as things that need to be simply moved out of the way.”
And that’s just the top of the list. We learn of Citigroup’s predatory lending practices in America’s inner cities, its underwriting of the burgeoning prison-industrial complex and a laundry list of other sins against humanity and the natural world. Focusing on the mind-boggling perniciousness of a single corporation has two strategic effects on the camp. On the one hand, it fulfills Ruckus’ and RAN’s desire for a broad scope, to “show how human justice, the environment, are all [issues that are] deeply connected,” as Shan explains. Meanwhile, using Citigroup as a grand example is a constant reminder that we’re not just goofing around out here. The enemy is real, and if we learn these skills well enough we’ll be ready to go out and fight.
That means crash courses in everything from the technical challenges of walkie-talkies to the logistical headaches of a long-term campaign. In legal training, a veteran of multiple arrests instructs the uninitiated on what to say while being carted away, and we repeat dutifully after her: “I do not consent to this procedure! I will not answer questions! I want to see an attorney!” The blockades workshop shows the correct way to irrigate pepper spray from the eyes, and those aspiring to do tree sits and other lengthy direct actions are clued in on the importance of adult diapers: “Depends,” goes the mantra, “are your friends.”
And then there’s climbing. The Ruckus climbing course, constructed of scaffolding and many yards of thick, sturdy rope, looms at the heart of camp like an unfinished castle, dominating the physical landscape and collective conversation. I am an awful climber. My trainer is Ingrid Gordon, a former Greenpeace action coordinator and a remarkably humble and soft-spoken woman, considering she once successfully sneaked onto a French nuclear test site off Tahiti and delayed a test blast. For half an hour, I am up in the air, chafing in my harness, alternately dangling and fumbling, while poor Ingrid hollers up at me: “Now bring your right hand over. Your other right hand! Come on, dude.”
As thrilling as it is to finally achieve mastery of climbing (well, competence, at least), action camp’s truly memorable moments occur outside the trainings. Each night, after the last panel or roundtable discussion, there are campfires and keg beer, with all the giddy good cheer and easy familiarity of any week in the woods. The inevitable flirtation and gossip is counterbalanced by a sustained, oftentimes tense, group conversation about systemic patriarchy, beginning with an announcement one morning from a concerned community member that “at last night’s discussion, 38 men spoke and only nine women.” This leads to a series of “gender caucuses” addressing issues of sexism and heterosexism in the world of progressive organizing, a feature surely absent from concurrent festivities at Daytona Beach.
The Peace River gathering is only Ruckus’ second “alternative spring break,” but they’ve held dozens of actions camps since forming in October 1995. “We’re an enabling organization,” Shan explains. “We’re involved in aiding and abetting social change movements–providing technical support, logistical support, helping with media, helping to bring actions together.”
“We ripped a lot of the original ideas [for action camp] off from Greenpeace, their traditional form,” confesses Ruckus director John Sellers. “Though it’s certainly evolved a lot since then, as we’ve come into contact with a lot of different movements. We said, what is it that we have to give away? What do we want to share? We have this tactically led movement that is fascinated with tactics, but we’ve layered on strategy and critique–the everyday, down-and-dirty, stick-it-out work that truly radicalizes communities across different struggles.”
Shan calls it a “holistic” approach; Sellers reckons that the goal is “to feed the entire activist spirit and mind.” Call it what you will, it ain’t cheap. Shan estimates the total bill for action camp at between $40,000 and $50,000, and Sellers puts Ruckus’ annual operating budget up around $800,000. (Participants are asked for a $75 donation to attend.) Which explains why Sellers disappears for a couple days mid-week, long enough to pay a visit to Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s fame, one of Ruckus’ several wealthy backers. Other Ruckus supporters have included Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, Doors drummer John Densmore and Hollywood’s go-to progressives, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Ted Turner’s foundation gave until last year, when the multi-bazillionaire began to take issue with some of Ruckus’ targets. “As it turns out, Ted is a pretty big free trade fan,” says Sellers with a smile.
While Sellers is out shaking the money tree, I spend time getting to know my fellow campers. Some carry very specific political identities, ranging from various stripes of anarchism to committed socialists to Greens; more often they are ideologically young, just radicalized enough to suspect that the fundamental solutions to social and environmental injustice may not lie in the figure of Al Gore.
Early in the week I meet Gabriel, a gentle, articulate senior from NYU and a budding indy media activist. Like many camp participants, his life as an activist more or less began with the Battle in Seattle: “I don’t think it was just one second that ticked and I said, ‘I’m an activist,’ ” he says. “But when I saw [what happened in] Seattle, I was like, something big is starting … it turned everyone’s attention. It opened people’s eyes.”
Dana is a bright-eyed 20-year-old Cornell student and environmentalist by way of museums, outdoor education and science camps; Ruckus, she says, is “the first real activist training I’ve had.” Dana is delighted to have discovered such a vibrant community of fellow travelers: “It’ll be very difficult for me to keep the motivation going [for activist work] when I’m not at camp,” she figures. “But it’s so good to know that there’s people all over the country doing this.”
RAN’s Hogue would be glad to hear of it: She says for her, and other activists who’ve been on the line for a few years, one of the powerful advantages of the camps is taking “people who are aware and training them in the skills to get involved. The more we can share, the less we’re going to feel isolated and burned out.”
One night I hitch a ride up to the showers with Eddie, a union stagehand from Florida who is currently pursuing a master’s in history; at 42 he is one of the few campers who has decisively graduated from late adolescence. We chat about the curious lingua franca of the camp, a mixture of military vocabulary and therapeutic dialogue; in workshops we parse out the difference between a “strategy” and a “tactic” one moment, discuss the importance of “I feel” statements and creating a “safe space” in the next. Eddie notes a similarity between this sort of touchy-feely language–which comes along with a very slow, deliberate and heavily facilitated conversational process–and the speaking styles used in drug and alcohol recovery centers. “All this stuff about ‘checking your feelings’ and ‘vibes watching,’ ” he says, “is right out of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
It’s no coincidence. The anti-globalization movement, like the recovery community, sees its battle as against an addiction, one that has progressed into a disease. In one anti-Citigroup speech, RAN organizer Patrick Reinsborough sets up the analogy that the pursuit of capital has become a pathology, a cancer. “We live in a doomsday economy,” Reinsborough proclaims. “We’re the generation that’s going to decide: Are we going to live or die?”
“In addiction work you speak carefully while you coalesce around your pathologies,” Eddie suggests. “Now I see the radical community coalescing around capitalism, which is our cultural pathology.”
Whatever its origins, the camp’s coded language can seem arbitrary, and, at times, comical. A rapid-fire series of ideas is called “popcorning”; during large meetings we split into “dyads” or “triads” and then “debrief” with the group. Instead of applauding, people often signal assent by “twinkling,” which means raising both hands in the air and wiggling the fingers rapidly, as if playing an invisible toy piano. Paradoxically, this system of group-specific language helps to create a community while simultaneously erecting a barrier to its accessibility. Often, in sessions on campaign building or grassroots organizing, I find myself thinking, “You want to build bridges to other communities? Stop twinkling!”
I am not the only one who notices this problem, and several others along with it. Indeed, while learning, the group engages in a fair bit of soul searching. How does an idealist community deal with issues of class and gender? To what extent are we fundamentally committed to nonviolence? If we’re working to break the backs of racist institutions, how come the camp’s population–like that on the streets in the recent mass demonstrations–is overwhelmingly white?
To the last question, Shan offers one answer: “It has a lot to do with what Ruckus is and where we came from,” he says. “Ruckus and RAN have both really broadened their scopes, but that being said, we both came out of a radical environmental movement that is primarily white.” Nor does Shan see the camp’s whiteness as a problem, per se. “Our job is not to diversify,” he says. “Our job is to do the best work we can do, in solidarity with the people that are most affected by the problems we’re working on.”
If the camp does offer any solution to the race problem, it is to talk and talk about it, to replace any sense of white guilt with one of brotherhood, of taking part not in the beginning of a movement, but in one that has been happening for centuries all over the world. “We are the product,” announces one camper during his speech on the year he spent living and working with the Zapatistas, “of 500 years of resistance!”
Action camp climaxes on Saturday afternoon with a massive group demonstration, in which we are charged with overrunning a hypothetical university to protest an appearance on campus by Citigroup CEO Sanford “Sandy” Weill. Our trainers disappear to let us hash out a plan of attack; they will re-appear in character, as school administrators, campus security, local police and various other incarnations of The Man. Reinsborough, in high dudgeon, will take on the lead baddie role as Weill himself.
Forty-five minutes later it’s go time, and the young activists fan out across the pretend campus, some to blockade the entrance, some to demonstrate at the building where Weill is to speak, others to scale the walls of the administration building. Though we know it is a mock action, hearts pound and adrenaline flows. When the ruckus begins and I am interviewed by the fake media (appropriately, I’ve taken the role of press spokesman), I holler and shout, wild with the energy of the righteous; when my comrades are fake arrested and taken to fake jail, I am indignant that their right to free speech should so ruthlessly curtailed by the fake powers that be.
From the jail I rush over to the “administrative building,” actually the infamous climbing course. An enthusiastic crowd, ringed by pretend police, cheer on the team of six young activists who hang on ropes, waving their fists into the Florida breeze, alternately decrying the evils of Citigroup and demanding the release of those in lockup.
During the post-action debriefing, our trainers–reverted from jackbooted thugs–caution that, though we were successful in chasing the enemy off campus (“I never spoke a word,” says Reinsborough-cum-Weill), our message was mostly lost in the shuffle. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, we probably “lost the media war.” The climbing group is chastised for yelling dirty words from their positions on the ropes. Most of the “non-arrestables” managed to get themselves arrested, including our entire medical support team.
The action is declared a success anyway, and we head jubilantly for the campfire. The next generation of radical activists isn’t perfect. But they’re learning.
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