Eying the towering metallic scaffolding skeptically, Matt Leonard wondered what place climbing could possibly have in activism. He had done little actions around Seattle with his friends over the past few years, but nothing like what he was now experiencing.
Realizing there was no other way to learn how to climb giant structures short of actually doing it, Leonard set his mind to the task.
Eight years later, Leonard looks back on his experience at Seattle Camp, a training hosted by the Ruckus Society in preparation for the now infamous World Trade Organization protests, as a truly educational one.
“It definitely opened my eyes to all the different tactics you could use for social change,” Leonard says. “Ruckus was the first time I had the experience to do it really strategically, really effectively and really smartly.”
Nestled between a strip of restaurants, hair salons and manicurists, the Ruckus Society occupies an inconspicuous storefront in downtown Oakland. The blinds are partially drawn and posters dot the display windows.
Inside, cubicle-like work spaces line the length of the open office, colorful tapestries and green plants disguising their la “Dilbert” organization. At the center of the room is a sitting area with two comfy chairs and a large plush couch. Spread out on the coffee table is a collection of magazines and newsletters. Buried in the pile is an IKEA catalogue, the cover-girl sprawled out on a bed smiling despite a crudely hand-drawn speech bubble above her head asking “Emeryville shell mounds? What’s that?” in red ink.
The office is relatively quiet, a short conversation here or telephone ring there occasionally punctures the silence. It’s like the calm before a storm, as the coming weeks will be filled with preparation for a training camp for the Indigenous Peoples’ Power Project, or IP3. The camp is designed to teach representatives from various Indigenous communities how to plan an appropriate campaign for their issue, come up with strategies and tactics for non-violent direct action, and ultimately how to become trainers themselves.
“We give strategic evaluation of direct action and civil disobedience and how they fit into a larger campaign,” says JC Callender, development director for the Ruckus Society. Although Ruckus’ brand of direct action training tends to lean toward the creative side of what many might label as protesting, the organization hesitates to define what direct action actually means.
“Ruckus is very open to interpretation – we only define what we train in,” Megan Swoboda, operations director for the Ruckus Society, explains. Her tone suggests it is a topic she frequently discusses.
Direct action can be boiled down to anything that communicates a desire for change, like writing a letter to a lawmaker or even occupying the lawmaker’s office.
The Ruckus Society has evolved significantly since its founding in 1995. Originally steeped in environmental issues, the organization now addresses human rights and social justice issues as well. A non-profit, the Ruckus Society is funded by private donations and grants. With an exception of its six staff members, most of those affiliated with the group do so on a volunteer basis.
What distinguishes the Ruckus Society from other organizations is that Ruckus operates somewhat like a consultancy. During their major action camps and micro-training sessions they provide others with the skills and techniques to build a campaign, but they don’t orchestrate it.
“We give training but we don’t manage what they do with it after,” Callender says.
Cy Wagoner excuses himself for a moment as the low whistle of a passing train drowns out his voice. Based in Flagstaff, Ariz., Wagoner is a part of IP3 and he plans to come to the Bay Area in March to participate in Ruckus’ training camp. Like so many others affiliated with the organization, Wagoner takes his Ruckus training back home in order to address issues confronting his community. It’s in this way that the Ruckus Society’s reach crisscrosses the country. They have been identified in the media as being involved in protests staged anywhere from San Francisco to New York.
Wagoner, who lives on a Navajo reservation and is a part of the Navajo nation, trained with Ruckus in an IP3 camp last year and is working toward becoming a Ruckus trainer.
“I’m looking forward to creating more trainers so there’s more of us,” Wagoner says into the phone after the train has passed and his voice is audible again. Once one has undergone a Ruckus training, he or she is a part of the Ruckus Society’s network, but can act independently, free to use the skills they have acquired in their own lives or to train others as the need arises.
It is because of Ruckus’ relationships to its trainers that, despite their small staff, the organization grows exponentially each year. satya, the Ruckus Society’s actions, network and systems director, says this contributes to why Ruckus can’t gauge how many organizations are affiliated with, or use Ruckus’ techniques.
“We’ve trained all these people and hopefully they go out and do actions and sometimes we get glimpses of it,” satya says. “I think the ideal is to work ourselves out of business.”
Perhaps in line with the idea that one must use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house, the Ruckus Society has taken protesting into the 21st century. Expressing one’s point of view has moved beyond carrying a picket sign and a bullhorn, but demands building a campaign and applying effective tactics over time. The grassroots organization of the late ’60s have given way to a business-like model, complete with staff titles and a permanent base of operations.
Mitchell Lee Marks, an assistant professor of business management at SF State, views the Ruckus Society’s consultant-like approach to direct action as “showing the sophistication of protesters.”
“First of all,” says Marks. “There’s a lot more competition – everyone’s protesting.”
Marks points out that because of competing forces, such as relationships, work and the comforts of every day life, people are too busy to observe a picket line.
“The more sophisticated the campaign, the more likely they are to get people’s attention,” Marks explains.
Through nearly 12 years of operation, the Ruckus Society has had its fair share of criticism, sometimes deserved, other times not. It has been labeled an “ultra-violent” and a “covert militia” group in an op-ed piece published by The Center for Consumer Freedom. And the conservative website Discoverthenetworks.org, has a series of articles on the Ruckus Society, including a profile which describes them as an exploitative stop-at-nothing organization that “sparked violence in Seattle WTO protests.”
“A lot of that was trying to be opportunistic and realizing for the first time how effective the opposition was,” says Leonard in response to the criticism he heard after his first experiences in Seattle.
Perhaps even those denouncing the Ruckus Society as domestic terrorists can be a symbol of its success. After all what good is a ruckus if it doesn’t get a reaction?