|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.
Although environmentalism still thrives in the Ruckus ranks — the camp’s solar power comes courtesy of Rainforest Action Network, and saving the old-growth forests is still among the camp’s most visible issues — it has expanded far beyond those young, white, middle-class tree-hugging origins. Of the 100-some participants at this Los Angeles gathering, culled from a field eight times that size, there are delegates from Global Exchange (leaders of the Gap anti-sweatshop campaign), Direct Action Network, the East L.A.–based Youth Organizing Communities (Y.O.C.), Just Act!, Third Eye Movement, Chicago Recycles, Compassion for Animals, Art and Revolution, and an unnamed coalition from New Mexico fighting for the civil rights of Black Yaqui Indians. Several young Latino activists retain a connection to the Catholic Church (which sometimes makes “hippies trip out,” says 21-year-old Just Act! education director Malachi Garza); others, both white and black, work on staff with the American Friends Service Committee. Participants range in age from their teens to their 50s, and their causes include everything from economic globalization to the erosion of public education to “the prison–industrial complex.” Efforts to diversify this movement are not focused only on skin color — the most atypical people at Ruckus are a well-heeled married couple from Texas who remind me that this year, Houston outdid L.A. in air pollution. In a video about the Seattle protests shown several times during the camp, a heavy-set brunette in a Teamsters jacket claims that she belongs among the hippies: “The people who exploit natural resources,” she declares, “are the same ones who exploit human resources.”
When I flippantly use the word anarchist to Ruckus program director Han Shan, he flashes me a brief but unmistakable look of alarm. “You do know that we’re not the window-breaking kind of anarchists, right? We’re the peace-love-and-hippie kind.” I want to call him paranoid, but at the same time I know his fears are not unfounded: On the camp’s opening day, July 13, the Los Angeles Times printed an editorial by Mayor Richard Riordan, “A Fair Warning to All: Don’t Disrupt Our City,” in which the mayor warned of “international anarchists” who attend “training camps where they have learned strategies of destruction and guerrilla tactics.” Never mind that such histrionics are rendered absurd by a cursory tour of Ruckus camp, with its wholesome vegan meals, solar-powered cell phones and serious atmosphere of social responsibility. It’s Riordan’s description, the activists fear, that the news media will reinforce if participants and facilitators practice what one activist called “radical honesty.” As civil as this disobedient band might be, they are not expressly forbidden from breaking a window, “pieing” a corporate offender or pulling up a genetically engineered crop. And such strategies are not easy to explain to the press. Not here, anyway: In France, cheese farmers might tear down the walls of a McDonald’s to public applause and in full view of a family picnic, but in the United States we take a dim view of such tactics, “and it only takes getting misquoted once, getting misrepresented once, to make someone look like a brick-throwing nut case,” says Sellers.
For all that official reticence, however, many at Ruckus camp embrace their celebrity with an enthusiasm that verges on grandstanding. One young man proudly shows me a photo album containing several pictures of him getting arrested, and while Sellers and Shan struggle to diffuse controversy, other facilitators provoke a little more of it. Cathie Berrey, a perky redhead in her 30s who has been depicted in news stories clamping a Kryptonite bike lock around her neck (the better to form a human blockade) brags to the participants in her nonviolent training workshop that a Philadelphia paper described her as “one part earth mother, one part drill sergeant.” When someone asks her how window-breaking qualifies as nonviolent action, Berrey is coy: “When we have no media here,” she answers with a wink, “we’ll have a little fireside chat about that.”
It’s hard to view that remark as anything but provocative, but even if it isn’t — even if Berrey thinks she’s really keeping the secret, it’s too late: The movement’s internal debate over the appropriateness of property damage has been released into the environment, and like the DNA of a genetically engineered seed, it cannot be recalled. At the end of the workshop, Berrey and co-facilitator Sarah Seeds ask everyone to come forward and form a “Spectrogram” — a line in which people take a stand, literally, on violence. Seeds stands at one end, representing the position that violence is never an appropriate strategy for achieving social change. Berrey is at the other, where the use of force is considered a viable and necessary tactic. Seeds asks people to arrange themselves along the spectrum according to their view of violent action; there is a noticeable bulge at each end.
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?”
“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.
If the keepers of this movement have not yet accepted the risk of being misunderstood for the sake of candor, they are well on their way. Before a workshop on mass-action tactics — during which protesters will bind themselves together with handcuffs (a “lockdown”) — Sarah Seeds asks for a consensus meeting about media access. Sellers turns her down. “If you don’t want to get filmed, then say you don’t want to get filmed,” he says. “But I think we have to make an effort to be transparent, to let people know that we are preparing for nonviolent protest in L.A. — that we are on the safe side, the responsible side in the inevitable confrontation between good and evil.”
But that confrontation may not be so obvious in Los Angeles — especially after such massive arrests in Philadelphia have effectively silenced so many of the demonstrators. On August 2, after a day of conflicts between street protesters and police during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, John Sellers was taken into custody by police, who identified him as part of a “cadre of so-called leaders” bent on damaging property and “harming police officers.” Bail was initially set at $1 million; one week later, it was reduced to a tenth of that. Scott Haws was arrested the day before, along with his wife, Ann, their 16-year-old son Milo and nearly 400 fellow demonstrators. And events outside the convention, which had often seemed plodding and perfunctory, once again became fodder for CNN.
It is not, however, the worst fate that could befall this burgeoning contingent of activists. Agitators in Seattle rocked the world because police tried so hard to shut them down. By contrast, protests in Washington, D.C., during World Bank meetings were easily bounced off the front page by a little boy from Cuba. It is possible that, by some quirk of police conduct or media whim, the protest movement that comes to the Democratic National Convention will have nothing that, as Sellers puts it, “wiggles” enough to make a news flash. No one wants their ass kicked, but no one wants to be ignored, either.
A few days after the Ruckus facilitators packed up their camp, U.S. District Judge Gary Feess ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued the city and the LAPD on behalf of protesters for the right to rally in the vicinity of Staples Center, where the convention will be held. The ruling rang like the voice of reasonable authority against a police department already under scrutiny for corruption whose plans to stockpile tear gas and surveillance cameras were summarily derailed. It was a significant victory for the demonstrators’ right to peaceful assembly. But an assembly that’s too peaceful goes unnoticed — sometimes you have to break a window to be heard. In the end, it may not be the ability to transcend diversity that determines whether this movement thrives or fades, but a more elusive skill: finding a balance between attention and infamy, notoriety and respect.