SONOMA COUNTY, Calif.–Greased in sunscreen and crusty with salt from bathing in the nearby Pacific Ocean, activists have transformed a rustic barn and hillside into a high-tech retreat dedicated to nonviolent political activism.
The Oakland, Calif.-based Ruckus Society organized its first annual Tech ToolBox Action Camp, a weeklong training seminar to teach activists how to use computers and the Internet. More than 230 activists attended the conference, which ended Tuesday afternoon.
Many campers said they were trying to teach activists of all stripes how to better develop Web sites and improve e-mail communications to help promote their cause, be it ending police brutality or freeing political dissidents in Cuban jails.
"We are just at the beginning of learning how technology can help us," said Leda Dederich, a 31-year-old San Francisco resident who recently quit her job as creative director of independent journalism site Alternet.
"There is a huge segment of the voting population that is just begging to read the stories that the mainstream media ignores, and the Internet is an extremely powerful tool for them."
Ruckus organizers thought the retreat would attract scores of radical activists from the San Francisco Bay Area. But they were pleasantly shocked when more than 230 people, including rainforest enthusiasts from Brazil and digital divide crusaders from Mexico, flew, drove or hitchhiked to the campground about 65 miles north of San Francisco.
Members plan to strategize this week about the possibility of a future gathering; several said the inaugural event was so successful that a second event is almost inevitable around the same time next year in the Bay Area.
"What we wanted was a bunch of plug-and-play geeks who already had formed their opinions on global capitalism and weren’t going to launch into some self-aggrandizing acronym spew about how much they knew about Linux or anything else," said Allen "Gunner" Gunn, a 39-year-old San Francisco resident and one of six full-time Ruckus employees.
"The priority has been to create a safe space for tech learning so activists are better able to get out their message, on Web sites, via e-mail, streaming media, whatever."
Gunn requested that the specific location of the retreat not be named, hoping to avoid throngs of video cameras that might accompany mainstream media. The group, whose members are generally disdainful of journalists, particularly those from giant publishing conglomerates, allowed a CNET News.com reporter on the condition that she wouldn’t take photographs or wander unescorted around the resort–an abandoned hippie commune from the 1970s.
My cause, my T-shirt
The Ruckus Society gathering taught activists how to use computers and the Internet to promote their causes. Here’s a list of
|T-shirt slogans worn by members at the camp.
. Free Tibet
. Working families vote, working families win
. I support the comic book legal defense fund
. I love my life
. Art Revolution
. Erase Hunger
. End police brutality
. Mobilize 4 Global Justice
. Big Sur International Marathon
. Meat = Murder
Gunn admitted that many campers were "noids" who were slightly paranoid that government agents might infiltrate the event in the form of journalists, hikers or other passersby.
Although many campers were eager to learn how to use technology to improve literacy, end police brutality or help campaigns of like-minded politicians, other campers promoted technology itself as a form of activism.
Eradicating the digital divide was the raison d’tre of members of NoBorder Network and the organizers of BorderHack. The latter group is arranging a conference later this summer in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico, to help boost computer literacy and Internet access in Mexico.
Others discussed "the Microsoft problem" and the dominance of Windows, urging use of alternative operating systems such as Linux. A poster above the speaker read, "Long Live Linux Love."
Electricians, engineers and others who arrived more than a week ago to prepare the site mounted a satellite receiver on top of the barn and laid down a power grid to provide juice for several servers, 60 desktop computers and dozens of laptops. The only mishap occurred last week, when a car slammed into a telephone pole in a hillside hamlet and briefly killed electricity to the campground.
Bullish about the Internet
Despite concerns about AOL Time Warner, Microsoft and other corporations’ increasing control of large sections of the Web, participants seemed bullish about the Internet’s ability to give a louder, global voice to alternative publications.
"This camp has been really informative because I’ve seen how other activist groups are using Web sites to bridge gaps between the north and the south, and the developed and developing economies," said Ronit Avni, a 24-year-old program associate at New York-based Witness, a non-profit human rights group. Witness provides activists with video cameras so they can take footage of people enduring hardship, including Mexicans in abysmal psychiatric facilities and garment workers in Saipan.
Numerous attendants identified themselves as professional activists–people who espouse a number of causes and believe in collective decision-making and protest. Many praised Ruckus for trying to bridge the gap between activists, who are not generally known for their computer expertise, and technologists, who are often stereotyped as anti-social and workaholic nerds without many interests outside of the hard sciences.
Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Jene DeSpain was one of the first people to arrive to help set up. DeSpain fights for human rights abroad and against police brutality in the New York area, and she came to Sonoma specifically to boost her computer literacy.
"They asked me to build the computers, re-network hard drives, install software and reformat," DeSpain said. "I learned how to do all of that in the first few days here. I’d say that’s been the most valuable thing I’ve done here. And I’ve also been doing the dishes."
Regardless of whether there’s a second ToolBox, the success of the inaugural event was an uplifting sign for many attendants.
Members of Ruckus and other protest groups got bad reputations after the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. A few dozen anarchists and vandals at that meeting caused millions of dollars in damage to buildings, and police agencies have severely clamped down on protesters in subsequent meetings in Washington, D.C., Quebec City and in Europe.
Gunn said Ruckus wouldn’t necessarily expel campers who wanted to use technology to disrupt society at any cost–but he emphasized that violence was not part of Ruckus’ agenda. Facilitators were not teaching how to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks or how to deface Web sites.
"Ultimately our analysis comes down to answering the question, ‘Have we empowered activists?’" said Gunn, who joined Ruckus full-time a year and a half ago, after his e-learning company burned through $45 million in venture funding and folded. "There is no Molotov cocktail seminar by the ocean at this gathering."
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