The Ruckus Society, a tiny band of battle-hardened Greenpeace vets, is training a new group of student activists in how to get their point across without losing their legs.
The Malibu coast spins slowly below as the rope from which I dangle gently untwists. Ingrid Gordon is gazing up at me with the piercing blue-eyed hostility of a storm trooper, making clear the consequences of a screw-up. "Lock your eight!" she barks, pointing at the double-holed slab of aluminum at my waist. "Or you will die." The eight, though, is slick with cold rain. I can’t lock it, so down I go . . . all of ten feet. "If this were a real action," Gordon growls as I wriggle out of my climbing harness, "we’d be calling your wife with bad news."
Above us on the five-story scaffold, two muscular women are faster learners. They shriek delightedly as they slide down their own ropes, unfurling behind them a huge baby-blue banner of gossamer-thin nylon. THE RUCKUS SOCIETY: ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS, it reads, above an image of a monkey wrench jammed between gears. Gordon, 36, a veteran banner-hanger, shouts instructions to them on how to refold the nylon material. Until they learn it all, they can’t go hang banners off thirty-story buildings or under suspension bridges. They can’t be political activists of the new media age.
These two rappellers, Jennifer Obadia and Alma David, are among nearly 100 student activists from as far afield as Universiteit Leiden in Holland and Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan who have come to learn the art of demonstration from a band of merry warriors called the Ruckus Society. Obadia and David learned the hard way that enthusiasm can only take you so far in guerrilla politics. Obadia organized fellow students at New York University three years ago to vote Sen. Alfonse D’Amato out of office, and succeeded, in a way – Charles Schumer won – but the minute the election was over, Obadia’s organization collapsed. Her bigger goal – of creating a permanent student group for green electoral action – fizzled. David was a senior at Amherst College when she successfully organized a rally last year against a British Petroleum pipeline in Tibet but knew nothing about working the media. The demonstration got no ink or airtime and might as well have taken place on Pluto.
So they turned to Ruckus, a cadre of direct-action veterans who consider themselves the training arm of the radical Left. Ruckus has held twenty-five action camps since its founding in 1995, disseminating a generation’s worth of accumulated experience in political action. These are the folks who rappel off skyscrapers to hang huge, ironic banners – e.g., BP: BLOODY PIPELINE – who have perfected the technique of bicycle-locking one’s neck to an offending corporation’s front door and who have a knack for getting their demonstrations onto the evening news. It was Ruckus-trained activists who disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, hounded the International Monetary Fund summit in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2000 and razzed the Democratic National Convention in August. The Malibu session is intended to persuade BP to stop helping the Chinese government build a pipeline in Tibet. Next up: the Biotechnology Industry Organization conference in San Diego in late June. Ruckus plans to treat the several thousand scientists and executives attending to the kind of irresistibly flamboyant demonstrations that are the group’s stock in trade. "We’ll be floating huge mutant fish on the ocean and maybe dressing people as genetically engineered vegetables for an Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," says John Sellers, Ruckus’ bullet-headed thirsty-four-year-old director. "I’m also hoping to do an ‘Attack of the Designer Babies,’ maybe tweak some of those sumo-wrestling suits into giant blond-haired, blue-eyed infants."
Behind the puckishness lies surprisingly complex political analysis and a deadly serious, unsentimental approach to the study of why demonstrations succeed or fail. "What’s effective a out this action?" Sellers asks as he works a slide projector for a large group of students huddled inside a concrete gazebo at the Malibu camp. On the screen is a shot of young people chained together in a Seattle intersection, their arms locked deep inside steel pipes so the police can’t pull them apart. "Notice how they’ve got NO TO WTO not only on their signs but also on stickers on eh lockdowns, so in case that’s the media shot that goes out, the message goes with it." As the rain whips against the outside of the gazebo, Sellers runs through a history of direct-action protests, from Gandhi to King to the Vietnam War and beyond. A picture of Rosa parks appears, and Sellers explains that Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955 wasn’t a spontaneous act of individual protest, as legend has it, but rather a well-planned action by the Montgomery Improvement Association for which Parks was trained at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. A slide comes up of a man dressed as Death walking among people sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the White House. "This is an OK action," Sellers says. "But you can’t tell what it’s about. If Death had, say, the nuclear symbol on his chest, it would get the message across."
Ruckus grew out of Greenpeace, which pioneered daring, mediagenic demonstrations, sending its ship, the Rainbow Warrior, into nuclear test zones, dangling people off bridges to trap toxic-waste barges in port and photographing the clubbing slaughter of baby seals. When a couple of Greenpeace foot soldiers founded Ruckus, their focus was the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. But after their first camp, something unexpected happened. "We had human-rights people wanting to come to our cams," Sellers says. "Then labor. Then the free-Tibet folks . . . the combining theme was corporate audacity, the unchecked spread of corporate globalism."
This combination of causes is what makes the Ruckus Society a twenty-first-century phenomenon. Global capitalism in the post-Cold War era is a hydra-headed target that cannot forseeably be "ended" the way a war can. It can, however, be badgered, heckled, bullyragged, boycotted, shamed and legislated into reforming. Unlike such single-issue movements as drug-policy reform or animal rights, globalist labor and environmental battles require fairly sophisticated economic and political analysis. For all their youth, long hair and carabiners, Ruckus-trained activists are uncommonly well-informed. There are no platitudes about "greedy fat cats" at the Malibu camp, no giddy Earth First!-style songs demeaning humankind, no quasi-spiritual hand-holding for Mother Gaia or animal souls, no referring to the police as "pigs."
Instead, thirty-six-year-old Stephen Kretzmann – a whip-crack petroleum-economics analyst disguised as a bushy-haired stoner – summarizes the latest Securities and Exchange Commission filings by British Petroleum while pens burrow furiously into notebooks. "Keep in mind that your professors’ pensions are probably held by the investment house TIAA-CREF, which is a major holder of BP stock," says Kretzmann, who worked as a congressional aide for years before joining Greenpeace as a financial analyst. "That provides us an organizing opportunity."
"Blockades" instructor John Bowling looks like a wizened old drug casualty but ah the disciplined devotion to technique you’d find in an emergency-room doctor. His course provides a harrowing lesson in how to best place oneself in harm’s way. "If you’re going t blockade a railroad track," Bowling tells the students, sitting cross-legged around him on a blue tarp, "do it in a place where you’re sure the train has time to stop." (An activist lost his legs ignoring that advice a few years ago, one of the few serious casualties the Ruckus netw
ork has suffered.) [Note: this is untrue. This accident took place years before Ruckus was founded.] If you chain yourself in port to a ship’s rudder, Bowling says, be sure the captain knows you’re there before he throws the ship into gear. If you expect the police to use pepper spray, take out your contact lenses.
Like other Ruckus trainers, Bowling extends a brotherly class analysis of the police. Even when they are dragging you by the hair, he says, don’t hate them. "They’re working people with an unpleasant job," he says. "They are not the problem; they’re victims of the problem." At the IMF protests in Washington, D.C., police appeared in riot gear so dark and menacing they looked like Darth Vader’s storm troopers. Sellers greeted them with a portable PA system blaring the "The Imperial March" from Star Wars, and they pulled off their gas masks, smiling. This is a far cry from "Off the Pig."
The Ruckus Society itself is small, with only four full-time paid staff members based in Berkeley, California. But it maintains a gigantic Rolodex of volunteers from the broadly defined "movement." "A lot of wisdom about how to do effective actions has accumulated in the movement since the Sixties," says Gordon as she supervises the climbing scaffold that is the centerpiece of every Ruckus camp. "Our job is to gather that wisdom in, and then disseminated it." Unlike Earth First! and Greenpeace, which are often accused of having a testosterone-driven guy culture, Ruckus appears to divide authority pretty equally between the sexes. Gordon, who matches the brawny grace of a Green Beret with the intense gaze of a practiced politician, is a star in Malibu.
The hallmarks of a Ruckus-style action are clarity of message, media-savvy visuals, technical wizardry, respect for law enforcement, and safety. When two Ruckus-trained climbers hung a stories-high STOP GLOBAL WARMING banner off the Los Angeles headquarters of the oil company ARCO a few years ago, they were only the centerpiece of a fifteen-person operation. Others directed the media to the best camera angles, delivered carefully prepared sound bites about ARCO to the cameras, monitored the police radio bands from a truck full of scanners and waited at the jail with bail money. Perhaps most important, the action’s safety coordinator, thirty-six-year-old David Augeri of Missoula, Montana, greeted the police with a broad smile and explained how the climbers had gotten there and why everybody would be safer if the police left them alone. He described the homemade devices the climbers had used to scale the window-washers’ tracks and promised they would come down on schedule. The cops were so charmed by the technical elegance of the operation that Augeri was able to keep the banner up for hours. When the climbers came down, the LAPD SWAT team wanted a look at their customized gear – not to prosecute but as a kind of elite-to-elite exchange of trade secrets. Ruckus demurred.
As in all Ruckus events, the protesters are connected by an expensive network of high-tech communications: radios, beepers and cell phones. "They say, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ but all this was developed by corporations for their own gain, and we got it when the price went down," says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace U.S. and a Ruckus confederate.
Ruckus’ broad definition of "the movement" as resistance to corporate excess has helped make allies of such diverse groups as the AFL-CIO, the Rainforest Action Network and the free-Tibet people. "For many years, the Tibet cause just loped along," says thirty-year-old Josh Schrei, campaign coordinator for the Milarepa Fund, which was founded by Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch in 1994 to support the free-Tibet cause. "Now we’re making a very conscious effort to focus on BP’s role in Tibet, and that brings in the anti-corporate activists."
Organizations such as Students for a Free Tibet don’t hire Ruckus to train their activists; they co-sponsor Ruckus camps. "There’s a lot of cross-pollination," Sellers says. "We bring some skills, they bring others." Ruckus has turned down requests for political reasons – from a pro-life group, for example – but usually it’s because "the organization hasn’t done its homework and isn’t’ ready for what we do," Sellers says. "A lot of the people coming into the movement are fascinated with action and aren’t as steeped in the down-and-dirty grunt work that keeps movements alive and growing." People who want to attend a Ruckus camp have to write a long application – explaining their cause – and they pay a $100 suggested donation. After the San Diego biotech protests, Ruckus is planning something new: an "eTools Action Camp" for "digital activists."
Ruckus’ $750,000 annual budget comes mostly from a handful of rich donors, plus a few foundations. Ted Turner’s personal environmental-action foundation was one of Ruckus’ biggest donors – as much as $50,000 a year – until after the WTO protests in Seattle, when Turner shut off the tap. "Ted’s a big trade fan," says Sellers, but the foundation insists it stopped funding Ruckus because its focus is no longer solely on the environment. As Sellers splashes around in the mud arranging alternative tent locations in the event of flash flood, he chuckles happily over news he’s just gotten: "Tim Robbins donated $5,000 an Susan Sarandon $1,000."
Ruckus’ relatively big budget and its sources raise a question: How radical can you be when you’re living on handouts from the rich? The so-called Black Bloc of anarchists – the black-clad folks in ski masks who did the window-breaking in Seattle – dismiss Ruckus as milk-and-water liberals. The system doesn’t need reforming, anarchists argue; it needs destroying. Ruckus’ "pious-gesture, ritualized, play-by-the-rules, dancing-puppets shit" plays into the hands of the capitalists by lending the illusion of resistance, says fifty-seven-year-old John Zerzan of Eugene, Oregon, who is as much of a leader as anarchists can reasonably have. In Seattle, Ruckus-trained activists stood between Zerzan’s anarchists and store windows, a stance that anarchists say shows Ruckus’ true pro-capitalist colors. "They talk about the Zapatistas, who carry guns and shoot people to protect themselves," says anarchist videographer Tim Lewis, also of Eugene. "But when it happens around them, fuck that, man. Let’s protect the windows until the cops show up. What’s up with that?"
Anarchists breaking windows and burning dumpsters is perhaps even more attractive to the cameras than activists rappelling from cranes to unfurl banners, so for Ruckus, the Block Bloc is a problem out of all proportion to its numbers. (Nobody knows how many Black Bloc activists there are; being anarchists, nobody keeps a roster. Still, the number of window-breakers was relatively small in Seattle.) The violence often becomes a demonstration’s dominant image, and perhaps because of its name, the Ruckus Society often gets blamed. Sellers was arrested in Philadelphia during the Republican convention last August and held on an unprecedented $1 million bail, because, prosecutors said, he instigates violence. (Sellers was later released with all charges dropped, and he is planning a lawsuit.)
Ruckus and its allies had better figure out how to deal with the Black Bloc, says Ruckus co-founder Mike Roselle, because anarchist violence is already driving people away from demonstrations. Fewer people showed up for the World Bank/IMF protests in Washington, D.C., than for the WTO protests in Seattle, and fewer still at the one-year anniversary of Seattle demonstration. "People see [the violence] and say, ‘I don’t want to get in the middle of that,’" Roselle says.
As Alma David learned painfully in college, managing the image of a
n action is as important as the action itself. Back at the Malibu camp, Celia Alario, a thirty-two-year-old Bay Area radio journalist, is holding a seminar on the Wall Street principle of "reputation capital" – the investment a corporation makes in its image. "You don’t want to demonize them," Alario says. "In some respects, BP’s a good corporate citizen, and we need to keep calling them to that higher standard." Alario also details how the networks and mainstream papers can be coaxed into covering a demonstration. "Practice your sound bites in front of a mirror," she says. And if you haven’t properly arranged coverage beforehand, "reconsider whether to do your action."
In the front row, David puts her face in her hands and groans. The lesson might be hard to swallow: In the twenty-first century, if the revolution is to take place at all, it must be televised.