Raising a real Ruckus

He’s been in more than 100 protests and arrested more than 20 times. Yet John Sellers, 35, isn’t planning to quit protesting for a world of justice. As the director of the Ruckus Society, he trains others to do the same in civil disobedience camp.

Nina Wu: Do people call you now when they’re organizing a protest?

John Sellers: I think Ruckus tries to be a resource for folks who want to take nonviolent, direct action. I think we do our best work when we’re giving people more nonviolent tools to create change.

It gives us opportunities to work with some great social change movements: environmental, social justice, human rights and peace groups. We’re starting to see a lot of their work overlapping. A lot of people call it the global justice movement, this movement of movements, this intersection of struggles. …

Q: Were you in Seattle? How many times have you been arrested?

A: Yeah … I stopped counting after 20.

Q: Where do you draw the line in how far you go in disobedience?

A: I think when you endanger people, create a dangerous situation or the context for violence to happen, or a situation where people can get hurt, you’re not being responsible.

For me, it’s not so much about property destruction, violence or nonviolence, it’s do people understand what you’re doing with your actions? Sailing with the Rainbow Warrior, I got to cut a drift net that was 20 kilometers long and it was someone’s property.

Q: So that would be considered illegal.

A: And it would be property destruction. The Boston Tea Party was property destruction. I don’t think a lot of people debate about whether it was violent or nonviolent. I think most people would say it was nonviolent.

When I cut that drift net, I would say that was a nonviolent act. Did it destroy property? Yes. But Greenpeace has done a lot of work to create the political context for people to understand that action as a political, not a violent act.

When you’re trying to mobilize a whole cross-section of society to be out in the streets with you, and a small group of people create a violent confrontation with police by smashing some windows, then I think it’s not an intelligent, strategic act.

Q: Do you consider a protest effective if no one gets arrested?

A: I always base the analysis of whether something’s effective or not on whether it achieved its goals. I think there are lots of actions where people get arrested and they’re not so effective because the message didn’t come through, and I think there are some actions where no one gets arrested and there’s a real powerful message.

Q: What was your last protest?

A: The last one we were real involved with was down in Austin, Texas. We built the world’s largest paper-shredder. We turned a full-sized tree chipper into the world’s largest paper-shredder.

We had some actual ex-Enron employees show up and took giant replicas of the 401K plan and shredded that, and we shredded the campaign contributions that Enron had given the Republican party. …

Q: What’s your next protest?

A: We actually try to concentrate on training through action camps. We have anywhere from four to six of a year. We bring 100 to 150 people together for six or seven days and train them in a whole range of nonviolent tactics and strategies.

Q: Who are your role models?

A: I love reading about successful, nonviolent movements. I love to read about King, Ghandi and Mandela. I love to look at the "yippies," Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden, the Chicago Seven.

Q: What’s the longest time you spent in jail after a protest?

A: I’ve never been in jail more than a week. I got thrown in jail during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. I was charged with 13 different counts of being the ringleader of mayhem and destruction and I was held on a million-dollar bail.

Once the Republicans left town, they dropped my bail to $100,000 in Philadelphia and I was eventually bailed out by an amazing businesswoman from west Philadelphia.

Q: You were kicked out of Canada, is that right?

A: I’ve never broken the law in Canada per se. What happens is their computer system pulls up a lot of my arrests. They see what I’m charged with, but not what I’m actually convicted of or what I plead guilty to. …

Q: Are you a radical?

A: I like to think I’m a radical. Radical means to go to the roots, and I want to see some systemic change in the way we relate to one another and to this planet.

I’m a nonviolent revolutionary. I want to change the way we relate to power on this planet. I want shared power on this planet, but I don’t want to pick up a gun to accomplish those changes. I want to redefine our value system.

Q: Did you get involved with the Middle East protests?

A: I’ve been in these peace marches. I’m on the side that says neither side should be killing the other side. I think that both sides have the capacity to do horrific things and that there are people on each side making a powerful argument that we need put the guns down.

I’m on the side that says the U.S. should stop sending weapons over to Israel. I want our country to pull back from this and to play a role in facilitating the peace process, not arming so many areas around the world. We’re selling weapons at a breakneck pace right now while fighting evil around the world. Those two things aren’t commensurate with one another.

Q: So you don’t agree with our war on terrorism?

A: If we want to confront terrorism on this planet, we should spend time working for justice around this planet. We should spend time lifting people up out of the profoundly unjust environments and political systems that they live in.

I think we should spend time looking at our foreign policy and the way our corporate institutions are relating to the poorest people one this planet. I think that will go a lot further to fight evil than going around with guns.

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