Great protesters are not born – they’re made.
Surprised? As with everything else, there’s a right and wrong way to protest. Blow your top and take a swing at a cop or hurl municipal property through a plate-glass window -- that’d be wrong. Miscommunicate your position to a TV news reporter for your complimentary five-second soundbite – that’d be wrong. Plummet 18 stories to the cement while attempting to string a large banner between buildings – you know, that’d be wrong too.
So in order to keep protests – or, to use the preferred term, “direct actions” – safe and effective, there’s The Ruckus Society. Founded in 1995, the Berkeley-based organization has trained thousands of activists in a dazzling array of direct action methods.
“Not only are the students trained in nonviolence, which is sort of a required class,” says Ruckus climbing trainer Mike Sowle, “But they’re also trained in climbing, media skills, strategic planning, blockades, street theater and communications. It’s a pretty wide range in curriculum.”
Ah, school was never like this. And, not surprisingly, the “students,” as Sowle calls them, are not being trained in school settings but “Action Camps.” Roughly 80 students attend each of Ruckus’ multi-yearly camps (which have been held in over 20 locations across the United States and Canada, ranging from Alaska to Florida). Most of the students are already dedicated activists hoping to refine their skills at the week-long camps – direct action graduate school, if you will. Serving as the professors in this grad school are instructors like Sowle, each sporting a unique area of emphasis.
Reading off the various specialties of Ruckus’ many trainers, one is almost reminded of the seemingly infinite number of coaches needed to run a football team. On Ruckus’ roster are “coaches” of climbing, media skills, blockades, nonviolence, direct action, strategy and even electronics.
“I would hope a lot of the skills we teach do ripple out; areas where the curriculum involves little or no physical risk are the types of things that are really important (for the students) to disseminate through society,” says Sowle. “But in climbing, for instance, there are risks involved.”
As Sowle speaks, he glances up over his shoulder at a framed photo of a pro-Tibetan banner dangling off the side of a building. The banner’s great size is only revealed by a near-invisible climber repelling past its lower right corner; a man perhaps one-sixth as tall as the sign he’s just hung.
“We teach people how to do things safely,” continues Sowle. “I’d discourage people who only have five or six days of climbing training in camp from going back to teach others what they just learned.”
In fact, safety and rationality are two of Ruckus’ hallmarks. The Society explicitly separates itself from any protesters who destroy property, “whatever the cause.” And the instructors are quick to point out that direct action can only come after every other legal recourse has been attempted. Blockading lumber roads, hanging banners and marching in the streets are last, not first resorts.
Some of the “last resorts” Ruckus has participated in are small, some large, some well-known, some not so well-known. Members of The Society are currently working the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, and will protest outside the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles as well. The group participated in the large-scale April protests in Washington, D.C. (which, almost proving protesters’ claims of a corporate monopoly of the media, was hardly covered at all) and, of course, the anti-World Trade Organization “Battle for Seattle.”
“Seattle surprised a lot of people with just how effective that kind of protest can be,” says Sowle, who, prior to working with Ruckus spent six years with Greenpeace. “It caught a lot of people off-guard, and obviously the authorities were caught off-guard as well. Since then, authorities have been much better prepared. As we saw in Washington, police made preemptive arrests and raided areas where activists were gathering. And I saw in a Philadelphia paper that police were pulling pre-emptive raids there too. So as you get a victory here or there, of course your adversary is going to respond and prepare. They certainly have resources at their disposal that we can’t match.”
Or do they? While The Ruckus Society’s foes certainly have all the money and power, it’s the activists who have the fighting spirit.
As Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad said in “The Grapes of Wrath,” (the movie, not the book) “I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”
And if you’re going to BE there and you’re going to DO something, The Ruckus Society is there to make sure you do it safely and do it effectively.
And do it right.
The Ruckus Society’s website is at http://ruckus.org/