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The Ruckus Society rethinks the U.S. anti-corporate globalization movement

by Joseph Plaster Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2004 at 3:00 PM

“Close your eyes,” directs a young workshop facilitator. In the sticky heat of a secluded Florida campground, under a large open-air tent, a group of activists closes their eyes. “Now I want you to picture an anti-corporate globalization activist.” The campers furrow their collective brows. “Okay,” says the facilitator, after a brief pause, “how many saw a white person?”

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The Ruckus Society rethinks the U.S. anti-corporate globalization movement; foregrounds POC leadership, “anti-oppression analysis”

Joseph Plaster

“Close your eyes,” directs a young workshop facilitator. In the sticky heat of a secluded Florida campground, under a large open-air tent, a group of activists closes their eyes. “Now I want you to picture an anti-corporate globalization activist.” The campers furrow their collective brows. “Okay,” says the facilitator, after a brief pause, “how many saw a white person?”

Over a hundred and fifty activists -- roughly a third of them people of color -- have gathered in the Florida wetlands from across the hemisphere, united in opposition to corporate globalization, to participate in a week-long training camp hosted by the Oakland-based Ruckus Society. The nonprofit is best known for training many of the demonstrators who shut down the WTO in 1999, and continues to coach people of conscience in nonviolent and often provocative direct action -- from blockading street intersections to ascending skyscrapers for politically-themed banner hangs. But as the workshop above suggests, Ruckus has also been working to broaden activists’ conception of the anti-corporate globalization movement itself, building broad coalitions and redistributing power in an effort to redefine segments of the movement it helped spawn. The activists, trainings and conversations at the Florida camp are evidence of this work.

24-year-old Chrissy Swain, a member of Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario, is taking a breather by the aptly named Peace River, where an alligator sighting caused a minor sensation earlier in the day. Since December 2002, her tribe has maintained the longest blockade in Canadian history, preventing a Montreal lumber corporation from logging in their Traditional Land Use Area. “A lot of the young people started it who are frustrated with everything that’s been done to our community in the past,” says Swain. “When the clear-cutting started, it was just like ‘that’s enough.’” Swain is enrolled in the Organizing track, one of five tracks offered at the Ruckus camp, brushing up on her media and coalition building skills.

Carlos Alicia, a 36-year-old Puerto Rican American, is representing the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which has led protests against a medical waste incinerator in its neighborhood since 1991. He made the trip south to perfect his civil disobedience skills, which may be incorporated into an upcoming campaign against two major corporations back home. “Very interesting too,” says Alicia, “we are going to have the opportunity to establish associations and networks with people at the camp from Brazil and Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru and Native American nations."

One of them is 22-year-old Urías Bejarano, a member of the Ngöbe tribe in Costa Rica, who relies on Alicia for translation. Bejarano represents the youth of his community on the board of the Asociación Cultural Ngobegue, which has organized several 300 kilometer protest marches from indigenous communities in the south of the country to the capital, San José. During a 1999 march, they occupied the Presidential House for more than an hour, demanding ownership of land, territorial autonomy, and health care. In Florida, he’s being trained in popular education practices and conflict resolution skills as part of the Mass Action track. “Because,” says Bejarano, “in my experience we have had rallies that have not been successful, perhaps due to lack of organization.”

A shift in consciousness

Swain, Alicia and Bejarano might not be the folks who come to mind when most white people in the U.S. -- even those on the left -- close their eyes and picture an anti-corporate globalization activist. But they represent the constituency which the Ruckus Society, largely regarded as the training arm of the movement, is increasingly looking to for leadership. This represents a shift in consciousness within Ruckus, which is also reflected in movement terminology: what most activists in the U.S. were calling the “anti-globalization movement” around Seattle is now more accurately referred to as “primarily white sectors of the global justice movement.” Recognizing that in most countries the global justice movement is led by those most negatively affected by corporate globalization (primarily low-income communities of color), Ruckus is working to support local struggles for global justice, such as those of Swain, Alicia and Bejarano, in the belief that a global justice movement led by those most negatively affected is possible in the U.S.

This has necessitated a recognition that the power dynamics which shape U.S. culture also impact and influence activists’ organizing efforts, and a commitment to breaking down those inequalities within Ruckus and the larger U.S. movement. Activists refer to this approach as an “anti-oppression analysis.”

During the first few days of the Florida camp, introductory exercises act as icebreakers and lay the groundwork for the organization’s approach to power dynamics. In one exercise, three facilitators -- all people of color -- ask the camp to form small groups of five and create a unique, repeating sound and body movement (three claps and a shout, followed by a kick in the air, for instance). The small groups are then instructed to come together and nonverbally agree on a sound and body movement for the entire camp, incorporating a sound or movement from each small group, or creating something entirely new. At first, the campground is filled with a chaotic hum, but a multi-textured sound soon rises out of the din, slowly morphing into a repeating pattern complete with clapping, jumping and deafening “bleeps.”

After campers cool down, the facilitators begin a discussion of group dynamics in the exercise. “My group got erased, so I just left,” says one woman. A white male says his group of five was “just having a good time, but in the end we were the loudest and we really wiped out a lot of beautiful things.” An African American woman interprets her aggressive approach a bit differently. “I see that as reclaiming. I was thinking ‘get out’” she says, referring to the primarily white groups. One of the facilitators points to a small group made up of Native women who remained separate from the camp during the exercise. “That’s just not who we are,” says one of the women.

“We don’t force what we have on others.” Another camper, who says he’s “mostly heterosexual and mostly male,” cautions people not to make assumptions about people’s sexuality or gender identity in the course of the conversation.

Ruckus’ “crusty, eco-activist” roots

This is a far cry from early camps, says JC Callender, Ruckus’ 37-year-old Operations Director, who wears a snug “Boys Lie” T-shirt and a mop of jet black hair. Raised in rural North Carolina’s Coharie tribe, Callender joined Ruckus soon after it was founded in 1996.

“The first Ruckus camps were totally about skills,” says Callender, a former Greenpeace organizer. “They were very white, very hetero-normative -- basically crusty eco-activist hippies. It was a homogenous group, so everybody knew that everybody was working on the same issues.”

Founding fathers Mike Roselle, a co-founder of Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network, and Howard “Twilly” Cannon, formerly a ship’s captain with Greenpeace, modeled Ruckus on Greenpeace action camps, which had been discontinued due to budget cuts in 1995. From the beginning, Ruckus was highly effective in its forest movement goals such as organizing tree sits and blockades to stop massive timber sales in the U.S. But, like Earth First! and Greenpeace, it was often criticized for its macho culture and lack of analysis of race, class and sexuality. There were objections, for instance, to men using their status as hot shot climbing trainers to get with younger female students at camp, older Earth First! guys getting drunk and making passes at younger women, or simply the politics of white men with dreads in drumming circles.

“I had heard about the roots of Ruckus,” says Kara Davis, a 33-year-old Brooklynite at the Florida camp with a “Sodomites for Palestine” patch safety pinned to her shorts. “And it was a very mid-40’s, white, beer guzzling, pot smoking, macho, I-just-want-to-save-a-tree-and-fuck-everything-else, non-sensitive brand of activism.”

“Don’t go down that rainbow path…”

The road from the early Ruckus camps to the present Florida camp has been a bumpy one. “We’ve made so many mistakes,” says Ruckus’ 39-year-old Executive Director John Sellers, an affable white man with a round, open face and shaved head. “And we still grapple with this work. We argue about it and yell at each other, and sometimes it’s really painful.”

Sellers recounts the organization’s history while cutting black T-shirts donated by “white punkers” into armbands for campers to wear in protest of Columbus Day -- “In solidarity with the indigenous folks here at camp,” he says.

The first signs of change came in 1998, when Ruckus hosted an all women’s camp and began to work with groups from international human rights “hot spots,” like Burma, the Niger River Delta, and Tibet. “It was incredible to see the lights go on for a lot of the forest activists,” recalls Sellers. “There was this realization that in many parts of the world people were putting their lives at risk to do actions we took for granted.” Still, there was resistance from founders and board members who wanted Ruckus to remain a forest movement organization. “Don’t go down that rainbow path of identity politics,” Sellers remembers some of them warning.

Mojgone Azemun, a 28-year-old Iranian immigrant, was hired as Ruckus’ Training Director in 2001, after working closely with the Free Tibet movement. She is responsible for planning the bulk of the Florida camp.

“I think,” says Azemun, “what was constantly not addressed in the organization [in the late ‘90s] was, what about indigenous people and people of color from this continent? Where's the space and where's the attention and the room focused on their struggles?”

These questions came to a head in 1999, after Ruckus made another strategic leap by organizing against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The victory was undeniable, but Seattle was also the beginning of a conversation about race and class dynamics in white anti-globalization circles. Many primarily white organizations first responded to critique from people of color, including Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez’s influential thought piece, “Where Was the Color in Seattle?” by asking how to recruit people of color into “the movement,” rather than looking to them for leadership.

“I believe that some of the interest in diversifying Ruckus, especially in the ‘90s, came from a place that wasn’t very deep.” says Azemun. “The motivation behind diversifying can’t just be about window dressing,” says Azemun. “It actually means sharing values, creating spaces where people bring their whole selves to the groups, and doing work that builds towards our collective liberation in a democratic way.” If the same power dynamics that fuel the oppression Ruckus works to fight against are at work within the structure of the organization, moves to “diversify” can be merely cosmetic.

Sellers points to a training camp in Malibu, just before the 2000 Democratic National Convention, as a watershed moment for Ruckus. The camp, one of the first with a large percentage of people of color, came to a halt after many of the activists of color called attention to the contradictions between Ruckus’ desire for “diversity” and their lack of analysis or strategic plan.

Caucuses, essentially breakout discussion groups, became part of Ruckus camps for the first time at Malibu “because they were demanded,” says Sellers. “At my first white male caucus, all of us were so shit scared that we’d been called on all this stuff,” he remembers. “We felt we had to solve it and fix it and make everything better within a few hours. We thought we could do it in the caucus or something.”

Post-Malibu restructuring

Of course they couldn’t. But if early camps had been overwhelmingly white, single-issue, and culturally “insensitive,” Ruckus made a commitment to move towards anti-racist, multi-issue camp environments, incorporating an analysis of group power dynamics. And if Ruckus and the larger “anti-globalization movement” had tokenized the participation of people of color, discounted local struggles, and held a myopic view of the global justice movement, Ruckus also began to prioritize the leadership of those most affected by globalization, bridge gaps between local and global struggles, and foster an awareness of the organization’s role in the larger global movement.

Anti-racist workshops for white people, facilitated by the San Francisco-based Challenging White Supremacy, became a core part of the curriculum after the Malibu intervention. Ruckus’ volunteer core, which remains primarily white, formed an Anti-Oppression Working Group, which works to incorporate anti-oppression, pro-liberation politics into Ruckus trainings, camp culture and strategies for movement building. It also works to develop the leadership of “those most affected by the injustice and oppression we struggle against.” According to the Ruckus mission statement, those include “youth, women, people of color, indigenous people and immigrants, poor and working class folks, lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender queer and transgendered people, and other historically marginalized communities.”

Ruckus also adopted the Jemez Principals for Democratic Organizing, guidelines developed in collaboration between grassroots organizations, labor, and anti-corporate globalization activists in the mid ‘90s, which call for diversity at the planning table, in staffing, and in coordination, an emphasis on bottom-up organization, and a commitment to underscoring the voices of those directly affected by globalization. After years of recruitment and coalition building, Ruckus’ paid staff and training group is now primarily people of color, quite a change from the past.

As people of color move to the forefront of the organization, white staff and trainers, including Sellers, are learning to step back. “At first, I didn’t really know how to give up my leadership,” says Sellers. “One of the things that Moj called me on when I was stepping back was that I was stepping back and stepping away. But I think I’m hopefully learning how not only to step back but really stay engaged and be of service.”

After Seattle, Ruckus had focused on training activists for mass mobilizations organized around the WTO, FTAA and the World Bank, but the organization has expanded its agenda to include more localized struggles. Last spring, the organization hosted Our Power Camp, designed by and for people of color and indigenous activists, which focused on power plant contaminants. Ruckus also recently kicked off a “Global Justice microRUCKUS Tour,” two-day trainings in partnership with local organizations like the United Steelworkers, Strategic Action for a Just Economy, and Jobs with Justice. Most of 2004 will be spent supporting local struggles, says Ruckus, including environmental justice work in Harlem, economic justice work in Atlanta and Detroit, and the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Native Youth Leadership Training program.

The post-Malibu period hasn’t been free of conflict and criticism, of course. A number of organizers and activist groups in the Bay Area and beyond challenged Ruckus — and particularly Sellers - for their organizational policies and practices after trainer Dara Silverman was fired in December 2002, for instance. Silverman was active in the microRUCKUS program, aggressively pushing for an anti-oppression analysis within the organization and for more principled work at the local level.

White college kids are NOT the anti-globalization movement

Back at the Florida camp, 24-year-old Jackie Downing is preparing herself to scale a seven-story scaffold in the middle of camp, part of the training offered in the Advanced Climbing track. An organizer with the School of the Americas Watch, and part of an affinity group of queer white women known as the Rainbow Revolutionaries, Downing was able to meet with many of the campesinos who played a leadership role in organizing against the Free Trade Area of the Americas ministerial in Ecuador.

“People of color around the world, including in the United States, have been resisting the unfair consequences of globalization for as long as globalization has been taking place,” says Downing. “So for young college students to feel like we are the anti-globalization movement and that it just was born in Seattle – and to think we need to diversify the movement – just shows total unawareness and disrespect.”

“Power is being concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people in this country,” Downing adds. “So 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. It’s not flawless, but Ruckus is doing a really good job of embarking on this journey.”

Cultivating “safe space” at the Florida camp

There are inevitably conflicts and false steps as Ruckus sheds its crusty, eco-activist past in favor of a camp culture which is more welcoming to the “historically marginalized communities” they are increasingly looking to for leadership. The growing pains were clearly visible at the Florida camp.

The better part of a day was devoted to debate between animal rights activists (primarily white) and meat eaters (primarily working class and people of color) after meat was brought into the historically vegetarian and vegan camp space for the first time, at the demands of many people of color.

John Taylor, a 25-year-old organizer with the African American Environmental Justice Action Network in Atlanta, was one of them.

“In America if you have access to resources and wealth you can make a conscious decision not to eat meat,” says Taylor. “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.’” Taylor, who is learning puppet construction, political theater, dance, and costume design as part of the Arts in Action track, also noted that meat is an important part of many indigenous spiritual traditions.

“We made it necessary for Ruckus to provide meeting spaces for us to talk about what issues of classism and racism exist where someone else’s culture is not being represented at a progressive camp,” says Taylor. “And what makes Ruckus progressive is the fact that they dealt with that issue and didn’t suppress it.”

The tongue-in-cheek “gender aptitude tests” campers find in the port-a-potties suggest the growth around queer and trans issues. But Sasha Vodnik, a mohawked 32-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, noted that “no one in the queer caucus self-identified or came out as a person of color.” Vodnik blamed it on exclusionary language. “Queer” itself is a racialized term, he says, citing a recent NGLTF survey of Black Pride attendees who preferred the term “same gender loving” to both “gay” and “queer.” While there were non-heterosexual identified people of color at the camp, the most vocal and visibly queer activists were white. This unfortunately perpetuates both the belief that homosexuality is the “white American disease” and the invisibility of non-heterosexual identified people of color. What do you think of when you close your eyes and think of a queer activist?

Alcohol, traditionally a “social lubricant” at Ruckus camps, was banned at the Florida training. The Indigenous Environmental Network will not participate in a camp with alcohol, explains Callender, “just because alcohol has been used as a weapon of colonization and has had such a devastating impact on indigenous communities.”

“Being a Native person, I’ve had an awful history of alcoholism in my own family,” says Callender. “There are a lot of people who are struggling with that, and if you’re not providing a safe environment for them chances are they won’t say anything -- they just won’t come back. As with many of the other things we’re discussing. If it’s not a queer safe space, often people don’t speak up -- they just won’t come back. And you don’t know why they don’t come back.”

Training camps are still about building skills, says Callender, “but it’s about building skills within the context of an anti-oppression movement. All these issues are usually the white elephant in the room for a lot of organizing. And instead of trying to ignore it or trying to work around it or hoping it will go away, we’re hitting it head on and making it part of the work we’re doing.”

“Cool white kids” and “liberal, urban culture”

Still, many pointed out that camp culture remains dominated by a certain style of activism, originating from urban centers like the Bay Area and New York. Certain approaches to problem solving and elitism, especially in the white allies training and caucus, alienated many people, particularly union members, rural folk, and working class activists.

“There was definitely a feeling of division between the cool white kids who were experienced doing this particular model of anti-racism work, and newcomers or people from different backgrounds” wrote 24-year-old Laurel Paget-Seekins, part of the Rainbow Revolutionaries affinity group. “It seemed like the discussions were all about who could say the most carefully crafted analysis using all the correct words, and many people left feeling alienated from this work and each other.” This begs the question: Is Ruckus substituting one exclusionary form of organizing with another?

“The camp isn’t white dominated,” says 21-year-old Nick Tilsen, a member of South Dakota’s Lakota tribe. “But what it is, is urban, liberal culture. And it’s actually something that rural indigenous people are not a part of, and don’t necessarily want to be a part of.”

Tilsen and Charmaine White Face, his 56-year-old aunt -- “probably the oldest one here,” she says -- are representing Defenders of the Black Hills, a non-profit working to stop logging of areas which hold some of the last sacred places, burial grounds, and cultural sites of their tribal lands.

“The race and class issues are good to expand on,” says Tilsen, “but our purpose for coming here is to help us develop a direct action plan for what we’re going to be doing back home. Even some of the plans we’re going to be learning here, we’re going to have to modify them for our culture.”

The relationship between the training camp and the surrounding area was also problematic. The Ruckus camp took place in the secluded “wilderness area” of a campground located on the outskirts of Arcadia, a small working class town with large African American, Latino, and migrant farm-worker populations. But the only time the group as a whole ventured outside their designated area was in the form of a mock-protest march to the front of the campground.

“Back in the campground,” wrote Paget-Seekins, “it felt easy to miss the ‘masses’ we say we want in our movement. The last night I was there, when the regular folk were moving in, I realized how uncomfortable I would feel in that campground if I was not surrounded by a hundred other people pretty similar to me. I’m still thinking about what that says about my own willingness to go outside my ‘comfort zones’ and the accessibility of our movements to people in large areas of the country.”

An evolving process

Most campers recognize that the questions and conflicts at the Florida camp are part of a continuing conversation within Ruckus, which is, in many ways, a microcosm of the primarily white sectors of the global justice movement. White U.S. activists are realizing that if they are to be effective and relevant to the global justice movement, they must continue to prioritize the leadership of those most negatively affected by globalization, bridge gaps between local and global struggles, incorporate an analysis of group power dynamics, and shift movement culture.

“It’s an evolving process,” says Callender. “You have build trust, you have to build relationships, and you have to walk your talk. Because people of color all over the world have been burned time and time again; been taken advantage of, been lied to, been cheated out of everything they have. And to a large extent we look just like the people who did all those things. So even though from where I started it’s changed a lot, these are still the first steps and they’re difficult steps.”

“My sense of it is that organizations think it’s a distraction and gets in the way of doing the work,” says Callender. “But in reality, I think this struggle is the work.”

“I think that a lot of people who are part of the movement would like to see us fail,” admits Azemun. “But I think that more people would like to see us succeed, and I'm banking on their support for the process. The process may outlive the organization. I think this work is not going to be completed until we’re very far down the line. It’s not a two-year plan; it’s not a five-year plan. This is possibly a generational plan. And it has very little to do with the 501c3 called Ruckus and it has much more to do with the community of people that are involved in it.”

Joseph Plaster is a white, queer boy who was born in Arcadia, Florida, and discovered feminist methodology at Oberlin College. Thanks to Jackie Downing, Laurel Paget-Seekins, Gabriel Sayegh, Chris Crass, and Kate Berrigan.

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