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Terms of Resistance 

Training at the Ruckus Society’s Democracy Action Camp

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
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Most of the people on Berrey’s end take their inspiration from the Zapatistas, or from recent political struggles in Central or South America. One man I talked to, 30-year-old Cliff Willmeng from Chicago, told me that he believed in nonviolence until he visited El Salvador and Guatemala, “where the system will not respond to ethical argument.” But there were just as many pacifists with Zapatista sympathies: “I’ve been to Chiapas,” reported one man. “And violence has not solved anything — not even there.”

In their defense, the activists argue that this is a discussion the police never have, and the police aren’t just damaging property, but living beings. Willmeng says he marveled at how readily the Seattle police resorted to force, and took it as evidence that the activists’ cause was right. “I thought, we’ve hit the nail on the head here. To me it was indicative of how much they had to protect.” Legal methods of subduing protesters — rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray — are without question physical force. Given the tenor of the official rhetoric, there is fear that the Los Angeles Police Department on DNC patrol will be even quicker on the tear-gas canister trigger. “I got my ass kicked in Seattle,” says Shan. “And I don’t want to get my ass kicked again.”

“We don’t need anyone falling off a building onto their face,” says climbing instructor Matteo Williford, dressed in a rock-climber’s vest, his sandy shoulder-length dreadlocks bundled into a ponytail. He delivers this caveat from a harness, dangling from the scaffolding Ruckus erects at each camp to teach banner hanging. He’s demonstrating the art of rappelling — an efficient, if tricky, method of lowering yourself to the ground. “Always have two points of protection, all right?”

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“And don’t drop anything,” adds Ruckus trainer Lynn Stone, lying prone on a platform one level up. “If you drop something, you get reckless endangerment instead of just trespassing.”

No one at Ruckus camp is secretive about their arrest record; like Thoreau, most activists consider it dishonorable to stay out of jail. But a felony could put an end to a protester’s career, and so much time is spent educating participants on how to remain within the bounds of a misdemeanor. (Rule one: Don’t deface federal property. Or, at least, don’t get caught.) Most of all, though, no one really wants to get hurt. And late in this Los Angeles summer, it’s reasonable to worry that someone might.

On Saturday night, state Senator Tom Hayden arrives to deliver a primer on Los Angeles politics, putting some of the authorities’ nervousness in context. Sitting on the stage in black jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, Hayden was at his casual, approachable best, and his audience was rapt. “The greatest concentration of wealth in the U.S. sits alongside the greatest poverty,” he explained. “This is the secret of this city, the shame of this city, and the boosters don’t want it exposed. They will resist anything that threatens to rip off the mask. To them,” he said, “you are vandals entering the Garden of Eden.”

“Tom Hayden, Democrat!” a voice shouted when the applause died down at the end of Hayden’s talk.

“Yeah,” he shot back, pretending to be insulted. “I’m an elected delegate to the DNC. Show some respect!”

At breakfast on the camp’s final day, I sat with a man named Scott Haws, a 33-year-old businessman from Dallas, who reminisced about how, while the newspeople trained their cameras on police arresting protesters in Washington, D.C., he stood with a group of people chanting “The whole world is watching!” And I wondered: What if it weren’t? What if the next demonstration turned out so peaceful, the police so tolerant, democracy so intact, that the corporate media lose interest?

So far, the print media that have visited Ruckus camp have been nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm; except for a badly written editorial in a Calgary paper making fun of the Ruckus Society’s efforts to galvanize the anti-petroleum activists in that city, few have come anywhere near critical; many — in The Wall Street Journal, even — portrayed the movement as the force that just might, in the words of Seamus Heaney, “rise up and make hope and history rhyme.” (“That was a love story,” Sellers admits of the WSJ article, and adds that Ruckus’ worst press came from a lefty paper in Anchorage, Alaska.) A search of the online Lexis-Nexis news library reveals instances of Ruckus Society near the words “Molotov” and “cocktail” only in articles effectively debunking a raid of a convergence center in Washington, D.C., in which police had confiscated a plastic jar with a rag in it, claiming it was a “potential Molotov cocktail.” In every report, the cops looked like fools.

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