By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
It is the first day of the Ruckus Society’s Democracy Action Camp, and the media are on edge. Having endured a 10-mile trek up vertiginous Malibu roads early in the morning, the swarm of notebook-toting reporters and camerapeople are stunned to learn that most of the day’s events will be closed to them, including a four-hour seminar on imperialism and diversity — an event that was sure to yield good copy. “I’m seeing some frustration here, some people shaking their heads,” says Celia Alario, a curly-haired Ruckus facilitator in shorts and sandals who trains participants in media politics. “Does anyone have questions?”
A tall, gray-haired man, smartly outfitted in golf shirt and khakis, shuffles his feet and clears his throat. “Couldn’t you have worked this out in advance?” he asks. “I mean, you knew we were coming.”
“Well, we’re trying to honor the participants,” Alario responds. “Some people have expressed discomfort with your presence, and we’re practicing true representative democracy by letting them have a voice.” With that, the gaggle of newshounds disperses, expressing among themselves varying degrees of discontent. One man objects to being rounded up with the media horde on the grounds that he’s an independent filmmaker; another laments that she won’t be able to write about her own personal experience training to be an anarchist. Another reporter is just plain annoyed: “The Republicans would never do this to us,” she mutters. “There’s a reason the other side’s winning.”
Such is the ambivalent relationship between the socially conscious and the seekers of soundbites, six months into this brave new era in which the mainstream, corporate media have suddenly picked up the scent of activism in America. The Ruckus Society has been holding training camps for half a decade, but not until this year were satellite-equipped news vans parked on the grounds and fuzzy microphones hovering over the proceedings. “Before Seattle, nobody cared,” one young woman told me, harking back to the protests held in front of the World Trade Organization convention last April. After Seattle, they cared too much; Ruckus camp, says 33-year-old director John Sellers, has degenerated into a “media feeding frenzy.” ABC is here, and NBC, and reporters from the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, the London Times and the Boston Globe. There are two book authors, a German television crew, and three teams of documentary filmmakers. Everyone is required to wear a yellow badge identifying their status. “We want the media here, we really do,” says Sellers, who with a stubble of blond hair on his head and a light goatee has the amiably rowdy demeanor of a soccer player. “But it’s gotten to such a crazy level that you can’t move.”
Worse, you can’t speak your mind. Alario complains that “people have been taken out of context and maliciously misquoted.” Another facilitator confided that the trouble with the media escalated when some paper spread a rumor that the Ruckus Society is teaching teenagers to make Molotov cocktails.
A nonprofit organization whose sole aim is to stage these camps, the Ruckus Society was co-founded in 1995 by Mike Roselle, an environmental activist of eccentric fame who pioneered direct-action tactics on environmental causes: Roselle is notorious for hanging a banner from Mount Rushmore protesting acid raid; he made himself into a minor legend spiking trees. Like Roselle, Sellers cut his activist teeth working for Greenpeace, and Ruckus modeled its camps after the action camps Greenpeace held until funding ran out in 1991. Ruckus now holds four to six camps a year, in various locations around the country, each at a cost of roughly $50,000. Funding comes from philanthropists and corporate foundations. Until recently, Sellers says, the Ted Turner Foundation was a major contributor. The site for this camp has been provided by local philanthropists who live on the land and have asked not to be named.
In a sense, the uneasy detente between Ruckus and the mainstream media is not unlike the tension between activists and mainstream America: Ruckus is having trouble figuring out how to present itself to the media; the activists aren’t yet sure how to market their message to the general public — or even if they want to. The leaders of this lowercase, disparate “movement” are gingerly negotiating the terms of how their causes will be defined and disseminated, how they will be effectively packaged and presented on prime time. Knowing that they have limited control over the presentation, they cultivate terminology like tender shoots of newly planted trees, correcting improper usage, examining etymology. The movement’s modus operandi, “Nonviolent direct action,” typically means hanging banners from buildings and forming human blockades around objectionable events; like-minded activists form “affinity groups” to pursue their aims; conveying ideas on the evening news is “messaging.” The too-rigorous attention to language can make some Ruckus people sound rarefied and airless. (“Bastardization!” I overheard one facilitator declaiming before two young participants. “I used the word bastardization! Why? Do I care who your father is?”) But it is also necessary, because a single misunderstanding can be ruinous: On a morning talk show, you don’t get time to explain that anarchist is not a synonym for violent.