Camp Ruckus

Ben Winters April 30, 2001

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 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.

Ben Win­ters is a jour­nal­ist, arts crit­ic, and play­wright liv­ing in Brooklyn.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH