ARCADIA — It is a sticky afternoon in mid-October and Kate Chanton, a freckle-faced New College senior in a baseball cap, is finishing a meal of meat substitute and vegan cake after a day of workshops on white privilege.
Chanton, 20, is here at the Peace River Campground with a college comrade, Corinna Loomis, the daughter of "big-time hippies," she says, from Maine.
Loomis, also 20, has spent the day learning how to build giant puppets, walk on stilts and design costumes for the protest demonstrations she and Chanton plan to attend with a group of 50 or so other New College students in Miami this week.
Chanton is excited about the routines she’s learning from a group called Radical Cheerleaders — "kind of like a feminist co-option of the idea of cheerleaders," she explains.
"It’s always way funner when there’s Radical Cheerleaders around."
The Radical Cheerleaders plan to be around in Miami — as will legions of labor, environmental, student and farming activists from around the world — to protest at the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference.
Trade ministers from every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba will be on hand to draft what is intended to be the most far-reaching trade agreement in history.
The occasion that has brought Chanton and Loomis to Arcadia is a training camp for those who oppose the FTAA on any of several grounds — because it will cause loss of U.S. jobs to countries with lower wages, they say, or hurt family farmers, harm the environment, and generally advance corporate globalization, thereby threatening further homogenization of the world’s cultures.
The weeklong training, which costs $100-$500 to attend, is sponsored by the California-based Ruckus Society, founded by radical environmentalists in 1996, which coaches activists in nonviolent but often provocative political action, from blocking street intersections to chaining oneself to the front door of a corporate office.
Miami police have told The Associated Press that they expect FTAA protesters may number tens of thousands and that they have prepared for disruption along the lines of what Seattle experienced in 1999, when demonstrations against a meeting of the World Trade Organization resulted in some 500 arrests.
In Arcadia, in the October sunshine, four young white women with short-cropped hair are getting ready to scale a seven-story scaffold — training for, say, hanging a political banner off a skyscraper.
Kate Berrigan, Sarah Saunders, Jackie Downing and Laurel Paget-Seekins, part of a collective called the Rainbow Revolutionaries, have reunited from various parts of the country for the Arcadia training. They are missing one member of their group: Becky Johnson.
At a protest last year at a combat training facility in Georgia, Becky was arrested after she "U-locked her neck to the front gate," says Seekins with a grin.
"Becky’s very important," says Seekins, "but Becky’s in prison."
Diversity in the ranks
John Sellers, the executive director of Ruckus Society, is cutting black T-shirts into armbands for campers to wear in protest of Columbus Day — "In solidarity with the indigenous folks here at camp," he says.
An affable 39-year-old with a round, open face and a shaved head, Sellers is one of a white minority among Ruckus paid staff and trainers.
Traditionally, participants at Ruckus camps have been people like the women from Sarasota: young, white, environmentally conscious college students.
But, as illustrated by the Arcadia camp — where a third of 150 participants are people of color, many of them from South and Central America — Ruckus is undergoing major changes.
According to Sellers, it’s shedding its tie-dyed, dreadlocked, eco-activist past and "moving towards becoming a multi-racial, multi-issue organization."
The shift has meant changes in camp culture. Alcohol, which has traditionally served as a social lubricant, is banned at the Arcadia training, for example.
The Indigenous Environmental Network will not participate in a camp with alcohol, explains Ruckus operations director J.C. Callender, 37, a member of North Carolina’s Coharie tribe, "because alcohol has had such a devastating impact on indigenous communities."
Previous Ruckus camps have been vegetarian, but meat made an appearance for the first time this year.
"In America if you have access to resources and wealth and you can make a conscious decision not to eat meat," says John Taylor, 25, an organizer with the African American Environmental Justice Action Network in Atlanta.
" But if you come from one of my communities then you eat whatever is given to you because you don’t have the luxury to say, ‘I don’t want to eat that,’" says Taylor, who calls meat "a cultural issue."
"They tackled (it) head on and found a resolution to that issue," says Taylor, lauding camp organizers for devoting time and resources to discussion of meat.
"Ruckus, much like a phoenix," he says, "finds a way to rise from every fire fresh and beautiful and invigorated."
United in opposition
Chrissy Swain, 24, sits wilted on a folding chair in front of her tent, a large cup of water in her hand. A native of Ontario, Swain is having a difficult time adjusting to the Florida heat.
Up north, she’s involved with a group that since December has maintained the longest blockade in Canadian history, preventing a Montreal lumber company from logging in a stretch of land belonging to her tribe, Grassy Narrows First Nation.
Nick Tilson, 21, and Charmaine White Face, his 56-year-old aunt — "probably the oldest one here," she says — are representing Defenders of the Black Hills, which is considering a similar blockade to stop development of Lakota tribal lands in South Dakota.
Tilson and White Face are among 25 camp participants on some form of scholarship; in their case, the camp is all-expenses-paid.
Carlos Alicia, a 36-year-old Puerto Rican, is in Arcadia representing the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which has led protests against a medical waste incinerator in its neighborhood since 1991.
Historically focused on mass mobilizations such as that planned for the FTAA, Ruckus has expanded its agenda to include smaller, more localized issues.
" Power is being concentrated in this country in the hands of a very small number of people," says Rainbow Revolutionary Jackie Downing, 24, preparing for a mock-banner hang.
"It’s important that the rest of us open our hearts and minds to each other and look at the fact that our lives are very interrelated."
Many at Ruckus camp feel themselves united in opposition to a universal enemy they identify as "corporate globalization" — roughly, the idea that multi-national commerce is eroding individual cultures and creating a homogenized world of consumers.
So it is with some irony that John Sellers points to the corporate giant Unilever — producer of such worldwide brands as Lipton, Ragu and Dove — as the source of some 20 percent of the organization’s funding.
Sellers says that when Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the founders of the Vermont-based ice cream maker, well-known advocates of numerous social causes, made the sale contingent on Unilever’s creation of a $5 million foundation devoted to social action.
" We’ve gotten Unilever quite a bit of negative press in the Financial Times and other places," Sellers says with pride. "The business community is saying, ‘What the hell are you doing supporting these revolutionaries?’"
Sellers says he’d "love to not take any corporate support." But, he says, the organi
zation "could be doing a lot worse than ice cream money."
A closing circle
A raucous march to the campground entrance brings Ruckus participants together in a closing circle around a towering metal sculpture of a shirtless Native American in a headdress.
Campers, many on stilts or in costume, denounce the icon as "racist propaganda." Many raise their fists into the air.
"What do we want done with this?" demands a young Blackfoot Indian from the middle of the circle.
" Knock it down!" several people chant.
Instead, the group drums, dances, prays, chants and raises a blue tarp to cover the statue, which has blue eyes and is missing an arm.
George Lempenau, 58, owner of the campground, sits a respectful distance away in a golf cart.
"They’re an eclectic group," says Lempenau, who holds a video camera in his lap. "But they’re good campers. Very environmentally sensitive."