I have been to the revolution, and I have good news: It tastes
fantastic. To clarify: I have been to "action camp," a week-long
holiday for the dissenting set, sponsored by the Ruckus
Society, those modern masters of nonviolent civil disobedience
noted lately for their prominent role in the protests against the
WTO in Seattle, the IMF in D.C. and at the party conventions last
summer. Three or four times a year Ruckus picks a fairly isolated
locale, stakes some tents and digs in for a week's worth of training/community
building. In mid-March, I journeyed to Peace River campground in
Arcadia, Florida, to join Ruckus and invited guests--88 activists,
mostly of college age, 55 logistical and training staff, plus the
delegation from camp co-sponsor Rainforest
Action Network (RAN)--for the latest throwdown.
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
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.
Ruckus trainees rehearse
a protest dance.
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
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."
Action camp features crash
in everything from walkie-talkies
to pepper spray. And then there's
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
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
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
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.
Ben Winters is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
His e-mail address is [email protected]