In a cloud of dust, high in the Malibu hills, the column of protesters surged forward. The Ruckus Society, trainers of activists, had chosen this empty field of stubble for the first march of the Democratic convention, still 25 miles away and a month distant. It was a drill. In a shimmer of mid-July heat, a dirt road became Sixth Street; a makeshift lot of parked cars was Pershing Square. One hundred fifty mock protesters pushed their banners onward as life-size cardboard puppets rode the crowd and chants and hollers overlapped the drumbeats in a chaos of noise and color. Ahead was a wall of mock police, Ruckus trainers in bandannas and sunglasses, and they were mock-enraged as they charged the marchers with nightsticks. But the press corps on the outside was real, and suddenly the fear was real, almost, and the shoving was real, too. A black man was thrown to the ground and cuffed. "Stop!" workshop leaders shouted. "Freeze!"
"What just happened?" they demanded.
"One person of color got singled out," a young trainee replied, taking the lesson immediately. Others murmured assent.
A trainer with a bullhorn ordered the drill to resume. The mock demonstration shuffled forward, peacefully, more disciplined this time. The police stamped and beat their nightsticks in rhythm against their palms. The protesters stopped. They started again, learning to "de-escalate" the confrontations.
It is an odd scene, poised in the twilight land of a new movement. The young trainees gather in a circle at one point in the melee to chant, "The whole world is watching!" As mock demonstrators are treated to mock police brutality, what they say has become true. Here is the real CNN filming them. The real CBS has been here, and the real NBC and the rest, asking them cheerfully if they plan to destroy property, if they will shut down the convention. And here on the sidelines is the real Tom Hayden, who, via a not-so-peculiar time warp, has been transformed by press and protesters alike from afternoon visitor to symbol of 1960s commitment and of the posterity these trainees stand to inherit. So when the mock police come for him, just as a joke, he resists: "I'm a state senator!" he cries out, mock-official. Embarrassed, he retreats to a bluff out of the way at the property's edge and climbs to the top, where a huge vista opens up on the other side, gorgeous, the city of Los Angeles glowing hazily.
From the white breakers on its miles of beaches to the vast expanse of its gridded neighborhoods, this is the city where some believe the new movement will be made or broken. And on a bright day, it's not hard to believe that you can see as far as the real Pershing Square, where the long-awaited demonstrations are to occur, or the real Staples Center, where the Democratic Party will anoint Al Gore as its champion--or, if you like, into the future.
Then Came Seattle
The Ruckus Society had its start, without fanfare, in 1995. The plan, conceived by several alumni of Greenpeace's action trainings, was to train people from all sorts of other organizations in direct action. Direct action is simply the blockading, banner-hanging, and occupying of property that forms the highest-profile component of modern-day radical campaigns. As events, "actions" fall somewhere on the spectrum between the solemn purpose of the civil rights sit-ins in 1960 and the willful publicity-seeking of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Visibility is key. Ruckus's volunteer trainers, who now number about 40 at any given training camp, have bicycle-locked their necks to truck axles to publicize the covert disposal of toxic waste, interposed their bodies between chainsaws and trees, dangled from bridges and cranes and shopping mall ceilings, and scaled the Chinese embassy to unfurl reminders of Tibet.
The original idea was to set up temporary "action camps," on an as-needed basis, where participants could head to the woods for a week, eat vegan food, talk shop, and learn their trade. And that's still how Ruckus operates--with no steady campaign, no single issue, no real doctrine. It keeps only four staff members on payroll. Until recently, it always trained its participants (at no cost to them) in relative obscurity. It had trouble paying its bills.
Then came Seattle. The chaos at the World Trade Organization conference in December 1999 made Ruckus's name, somewhat fortuitously. The group had held a training camp in the Cascades, north of Seattle, weeks earlier. When mass demonstrations succeeded in scuttling the trade ministers' negotiations, the media were forced to take notice that certain things had changed in the continuing saga of protest in America. Among the Seattle demonstrators there seemed to be a new sophistication about tactics--plus a "convergence" of multiple interests without even the pretense of a grandiose ideology to unite them. The anchors and reporters tried halfheartedly to trace the links of this decentralized model of movement-building, which Ruckus--along with a thousand other groups--espouses. But news coverage doesn't thrive on decentralization, and since Ruckus trainers and trainees were in the streets and its spokespeople were available to reporters by cell phone, they became the story. Suddenly reports credited Ruckus with all kinds of victories. It became both hero and scapegoat, its directors became stars of a sort, and its funding (previously from staid foundations like the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and individual sponsors like Ted Turner) improved dramatically.
Ever since, organizers have had to tamp down their rhetoric on the one hand and improve tactics on the other. Kelly Quirk, director of the Rainforest Action Network (which co-sponsored Ruckus's Seattle camp) was quoted many months earlier as saying, "I've been telling people, 'Let's all go to Seattle and have a riot'"--adding that it would never happen. But then after there was rioting, unexpectedly, no one could call for such a thing again. (The loose alliance of protest groups planning to appear in Los Angeles is, like Ruckus, committed to nonviolence.) Activists were trapped within a national slide show of images: black-clad anarchists, the Niketown vandal wearing Nike sneakers, Teamsters, and sea turtles. For the next showdown, in Washington, D.C., during the protests of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in April, it would be even trickier to keep control of the message. "We'll have to really be radically nonviolent and radically confrontational at the same time," John Sellers, the present director of the Ruckus Society, said before D.C. "It's going to be a chess match out on the streets." But pre-emptive mass arrests and raids by the District police--and the widely retold story that World Bank delegates had evaded blockades by getting up earlier in the morning than their opponents did--yielded a sense that protesters had been outflanked.
All this the press, with its fondness for reducing all action to personality, reported as if Ruckus were running the show. "It's as if you could speak to the entire anticorporate globalization movement just by calling up the Ruckus office," says Han Shan, another top Ruckus figure. "It's bad for diplomacy when people are doing incredible work and we're getting credit for it." It may be that only a group of swashbucklers like Ruckus and its trainers--both image-savvy and flexible--could have handled the spotlight so gracefully. But if Ruckus wanted to stay useful to the campaigning groups it joins in on-again, off-again partnerships, this self-proclaimed "volunteer fire department" of the left would have to get proactive. It would need to make a next, definitive move--and, of all things, that might turn out to be about race.
I think we've saturated the intellectual classes, the people who've studied this stuff," says Juliette Beck of Global Exchange, one of the co-sponsors of the Ruckus camp in Los Angeles. "Now we have to reach the people who live it." From the World Bank protests, activists took away stories like that of the mostly white demonstrators who liberated an abandoned row house in a poor, black Washington, D.C., neighborhood, advocating "Housing for All." Neighbors called in the cops. The Associated Press quoted one angry resident: "They have no business being in our neighborhood like this." The neighbors were right.
Los Angeles ups the ante. Any group with environmental origins, like Ruckus, is likely to be a heavily white and middle-class organization. L.A., especially in its neighborhoods near the Staples Center, is not a white and middle-class city. As much as the media seem to want chaos--thinking of Chicago, 1968, and wanting to see heads split--the activists, like activists always, want this to be the turning point in the creation of a lasting, broad-based, populist movement, one that will reach out to the locale, not trample it.
And so Ruckus last month attempted another high-wire act. For its Democracy in Action Camp in preparation for the Los Angeles convention, it invited black, Latino, Asian-American, and Native-American trainers to join the camp as the partners of existing trainers, and it also recruited "people of color" to make up the vast majority of participants.
As at every past camp, a great climbing scaffolding, with metal platforms, plywood sheaths, and dangling ropes, occupies the center of the grounds. Tents stand in clusters. But leaning against their cloth sides are painted cardboard signs: multicolored masks, Latino and Latina figures, and slogans like "People of Color: Targets of Prisons" and "Books in the 'Hood."
At a break in the action, Jesse Osorio stands on the cement ruins of a defunct hilltop structure, smoking a cigarette. He is 18, a Latino from San Francisco who wears his hair in fashionable cornrows. He sees plenty of signs that the movement will take a new direction. "Even me stepping into the whole activist world. I used to be a drug dealer, dealing with gangs, part of a repressive system." He got involved, started lobbying for schools and against prisons. "Instead of hurting my people. I got tired of it."
He holds no hope the politicians at the convention will ever change their minds. So why be an activist, I ask.
"I don't say that I'm an activist," he says finally, the smoke curling out of his mouth. "I just say--that I'm a people person." He stubs out the butt. "And I think of my people first, before acting."
One compulsory training session at the camp is the media workshop. We convene at 9:00 a.m., fresh from breakfast. The central meeting place of the camp is down by the kitchen, outdoors, a wooden platform shaded by a collection of café umbrellas and one large canopy, with the clanking of pots always in the background.
Celia Alario, a white Ruckus trainer, runs down the basics of media management. She reminds trainees to know the bias of the media outlets they're working with, to speak clearly and without jargon, to redirect hostile questions, to use the press to their advantage. Many of the trainees, though, especially the people of color, remain suspicious. Television news represents activists badly as a rule, and--if you're black or Chicano--you don't want to have your picture taken if you think it will be used against you later by police. As the sun climbs higher in the sky, the participants go around in a circle and express their feelings. "I hate the media. Sorry, homes," a young Latino man apologizes to me.
But if the press is an evil, it's a necessary evil. The participants split up into small groups to develop their messages, work out talking points, and come up with at least one chant for rallies. The issues are endless--the "prison-industrial complex," the oil trade, racial profiling, international sweatshops, juvenile justice, globalization, "Mumia work," the Cuban embargo, homelessness--and it all has to be boiled down. They reconvene to share their work.
An African-American woman named Luna Pantera stands up as spokeswoman for her group. She wears dark glasses and a head scarf. "We came up with a chant," she announces, and it goes like this:
The cops and the dollar
Grabs me by the collar
Makes me want to holler
Look me in the eye, and see my soul.
Applause, laughter, cheers. "Sounds like a Tupac rhyme," a young man says.
To end the session, they practice interviewing for television. I am drafted into service as a member of the press. A cameraman stands each of them up uncomfortably, then shoves the camera in their faces. "Ask them one or two easy questions," Celia whispers in my ear, "then give them a real mean one."
I give all the mean ones I can think of. Isn't this agitation nothing but a rehash of the 1960s? Aren't they too young to understand the serious economic issues at play? How can they have so many different concerns and expect to be taken seriously?
The participants act like what they are: polished activists, who know how to put their message across eloquently, and novices, one with braces still on his teeth, who care deeply but are terrified by the unblinking eye. It's easy to see how they struggle to be what the television cameras want--an exemplar, a single youth speaking for "a generation" or for "the new activists"--and how likely that is to fail. Afterward, they gather once more under the canopy to say what they did wrong.
Jesse is standing in the circle, balancing absentmindedly on a split log. "I should learn to speak a little less quickly," he says, when it is his turn for self-critique. He thinks. "I should've represented the whole movement, not just my own group."
ut this question of representation--do you speak for all or for yourself?--is the new movement's thorniest problem, both philosophically and racially. The Seattle experience took activists by surprise. Without any ideological priming, different groups with their different agendas seemed to coalesce naturally around a shared abhorrence of corporate globalization. With that encouragement, though, it's now very nearly doctrine that a unifying analysis is no longer necessary, that the evil and greed of corporate capitalism create the linkages for us. Moral appeals worked mostly by analogy before: New forms of exploitation were like slavery, or environmental spoliation was like rape. But the recent economic integration brought about by globalization--as the ownership of natural resources, finance capital, and mass culture itself winds up in ever fewer hands--creates actual causal connections, activists say, between many different kinds of iniquity.
Race is a test--perhaps the test--of how far a movement can get while sidestepping ideology. Radicalism in this country has lately stumbled badly on the problem of integration. The identity politics of the 1980s insisted on the maintenance of difference, discouraging old-line liberals who believed that social change required fewer divisions--a common identity. Ruckus's participants were now testing the water, whether fresh unities of purpose could be achieved without a common self-definition or single cause.
As planned, on the first day of its L.A. camp, Ruckus, in a nod to its new allies, added something different to the training: an extensive anti-imperialism workshop. One of the co-sponsors of the camp, a group called Just Act, detailed the history of colonization and white supremacy from before the early nation to the present day. Then the participants proceeded to the customary training in nonviolence.
This, however, wasn't going to cut it. Hop Hopkins, an African-American organizer from Seattle, explained: "We have to talk about the inherent white supremacy in this movement, or we'll be disabled by it." "As people of color, we ... said what we need from our white brothers and sisters." This meant splitting into four caucuses--men of color, women of color, white men, white women--plus an integrated fifth group made up of the "youth." The idea was to discuss problems in the caucuses, report them back to the whole camp, and then develop solutions.
Much of the original Ruckus curriculum had to be shelved to accommodate that. The legal workshop was canceled. A day's worth of training fell by the wayside. Ruckus organizers seemed unfazed.
The caucuses and whole-group responses were off limits to the press. "Everyone wanted to know, what are the white men going to say?" Hopkins told me later. "It was a real pointed moment." I'd sat through it with a cameraman from New Mexico under a canopy near the parking lot. We heard only the big round of applause to tell us the meeting was breaking up.
Luna approached me, smiling, when I went down to rejoin the participants. People were chatting, taking a snack of peanut butter and jelly, lounging about. She was buoyant. She wanted to talk about Ruckus.
"People think of them as the white, testosterone-driven protest organization. But they'll never be able to go back to that," Luna said quickly--then thought about what she'd said, and laughed. "And you can quote me on that. I think we're gonna see the results at the DNC. There's going to be an alternative to Republicans and Democrats, and it's not Ross Perot. It's us. And I'm no anarchist: I'm a registered Democrat."
So the caucus worked? Alliances were formed across race lines?
Luna indicated the kitchen, where volunteers were still washing up from lunch. "You've got black folk eating tofu--you've got something here."
Hop Hopkins felt the caucuses had cleared the air about some fundamental differences. "But," he asked rhetorically, "are you gonna stay the storm? Are you gonna finish the 26 miles of this race in the same way?" In Seattle he felt he'd seen the new movement's antiracist intentions turn to fairy dust. "Will they find the trainers? Make the changes in their mission statements?"
Fun and Games
After the caucuses, Ruckus leaders said they would. "How can we go back now?" John Sellers asked. "Who would want to?" "Fortunately, we had all these experienced facilitators that were here that could help us gently open up our white shit and deal with it." And as the camp proceeded, suspicion of Ruckus's ability to work with local organizations did seem to melt--though doubts always lingered whether even Ruckus, much less all the organizations these trainers and trainees would go back to, could stay the course.
On my way up the dirt road through the middle of the camp one afternoon--Sixth Street, as it would be transformed in the mock demonstration--I was stopped by two outsiders, Gekko and Joanna. They were representatives of something they called the National Homeless Plan--both of them people of color--up for the afternoon to parley with the Ruckus leaders.
Gekko told me they came from L.A.'s Ninth District, the neighborhood the Democrats will be entering, and from Skid Row--centered on Sixth and San Julian--"the homeless capital of the world." Before the protesters and police and politicians started shoving each other in his neighborhood, he wanted some commitment to the local inhabitants' problems--like not having any place to live.
"Oh, I'm homeless. Mmm-hmmm," Gekko said. "It is serious."
I asked what it was like talking with Ruckus and all the other protesters.
He raised his chin. "We're not into continually talking--"
"Talking, talking, talking--" Joanna said.
"We want a solution."
On the huge scaffolding, within sight of us, the Ruckus trainers were checking their ropes. The trainees were about to do some climbing in the bright air.
"It's not real," Joanna burst out. "It's fun and games. It's a camp. They get to choose at the end of the day if they want to keep going."
"If these organizations are on top of their shit, we'll let them do some staging," Gekko declared. "If they act right."
No one knows what will happen in Los Angeles--only a few days away, as this issue goes to press--and activists I spoke with, stung by the failure to "shut down" the World Bank in April, refused to predict. The protests in Philadelphia are no preview either; it had always been intended that they would be less significant than those in Los Angeles. The Democrats could be moved, or at least shamed, as the Republicans could not.
Before the fact, though, what is most striking about the activists who will be in the streets this week is their magnificent disunity--like the heated molecules that, flying around, stretch the walls of a balloon. G. won't give his name--because of the history of L.A. police officers assassinating Mexican-American activists, he says--but he will be in the streets advocating everything from racial justice to bicycling as an alternative to cars. Atossa Soltani, who usually helps indigenous groups videotape trespasses on their lands, will have her camera trained on the protests to encourage fair media coverage. Orange-haired Cathie, who specializes in blockades, will most likely be carrying her U-locks and bicycle cables. Cliff, a Mexican-English artist, hopes to have stacks of the comic book he's drawn to teach a "people's history" of oppression. Brian Buckley, an earnest L.A. Catholic worker organizer who aids the homeless, will be in the streets because of God; because, he says, activism embodies "the Bible teachings I grew up with." Alli Starr, a seasoned dance activist, will be there because of Art--"the number one de-escalation tool."
They've made it this far on startling tactics, common enemies, and anti-imperialism workshops. The convention will show whether they need more than that to make a movement--if the moody American public can be made to care. ¤