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A boot camp for rebellion

These spring breakers aren't working on their tans; they're gathered along the Peace River to learn how best to stage a protest.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2000


ARCADIA -- The portly tourist stopped the golf cart on the campground's sandy road, puffed on his cigar and swiveled his head back and forth, amazed.

To his left, college students swarmed over 60-foot-high scaffolding, learning how to scale buildings and hang protest banners. To his right, another group practiced chanting and locking their arms together so police could not pull them apart.

Atop the scaffold fluttered a flag depicting a pair of mechanical gears jammed by a big monkey wrench, and the words "The Ruckus Society." The portly man eyed the flag, puffed out a nimbus of smoke and asked a passer-by, "What's a ruckus?"

A ruckus is what happened in Seattle last fall, when thousands of activists trained and coordinated by the Ruckus Society disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting. Now the Ruckus Society is training the next generation of protesters to take on everyone from the World Bank to General Motors to both political conventions.

"We're the nation's boot camp for civil disobedience," said Lou Niles of San Diego, at 53 the oldest member of the group and a ramrod-straight retired Army officer who became a paramedic to atone for what he did in Vietnam.

On a bluff overlooking the Peace River near Arcadia, the Ruckus Society this week is staging its first Alternative Spring Break. To the nation's college students, Ruckus organizers said: Instead of joining the drunken throngs getting a nasty sunburn on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, why not attend a wilderness camp for free training in political theater?

"We wanted to be the alter ego of the vacuous bacchanal," explained camp director John Sellers, 33, of Berkeley, Calif., a former Greenpeace activist. Among his Ruckus stunts, Sellers is best known for helping actor Woody Harrelson hang a Save the Redwoods banner on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The camp -- sponsored by the Rainforest Action Network, the student group Free the Planet and the anti-global warming group Ozone Action -- attracted 80 participants who paid their way to the Peace River Campground.

"I heard this was the place to be," said Sarah Austin, 21, who with four fellow American University students spent 19 hours driving a rattletrap van from Washington, D.C. Austin had altered a Santa Claus shirt to say, "I Believe in Sabotage!" and plans to be part of the World Bank protest next month.

Other participants hailed from Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, New York and Canada. Most were, like her, young, painfully earnest and pale as a blank sheet of paper.

On Sunday morning, about the time the good burghers of Arcadia were getting dressed for church, the campers stood in a circle and called out their names and causes: the AIDS awareness group Act Up!, United Students Against Sweatshops, the Houston Animal Rights Team.

One woman said she was representing "a community of witches and pagans." She stood near a bearded man whose T-shirt said, "Live like Jesus."

* * *

Standing quietly among the tattooed multitude was a graying man clad in black: Bill Carey of the United Steelworkers of America in Gary, Ind., whose union wants to learn how to raise a Ruckus.

"This is sort of a natural growth for us," he said.

Unions and environmental groups are discovering that, thanks to corporate mergers, they increasingly share a common enemy, he said. Steelworkers battling a company over labor issues have learned that it shares ownership with a company cutting down redwoods.

Because Ruckus camps focus on tactics, not polemics, its sleeping bags are often occupied by strange bedfellows. Past camps put anti-gun-control libertarians with anti-hunting activists and paired abortion rights and anti-abortion protesters.

Ruckus organizers trace their lineage back to the Boston Tea Party, women's suffragists and the civil rights movement. During training Sunday, the Ruckus instructors touched on the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., then hurried along to more practical concerns like dealing with the media.

They staged a role-playing exercise with students playing protesters, police, reporters and corporate executives. A melee ensued, with panicky "police" swinging clubs, hissing as if they were spraying tear gas and dragging a woman out screaming. One faux protester, Peter Tsolkas of Clearwater, suffered a real asthma attack unnoticed.

"It was intense," the screamer, Charlotte Noss, said afterward. Noss, 20, came to Ruckus because she has been lobbying for the State University of New York at Syracuse to divest college money from polluters. Her next step may be what Ruckus calls a "direct action."

"We're coming to a crunch point," Noss said. "They're not listening to us."

More and more groups are turning to civil disobedience to push their agenda, whether it's a parade of celebrities getting arrested to protest a New York police shooting or a pair of Florida legislators staging a sit-in at the governor's office over affirmative action. Law-abiding groups are turning to Ruckus to learn how to stage an event with precision and panache.

"What they showed us at the WTO is that this really works," said Ozone Action's Brandon MacGillis.

* * *

During the camp's morning announcements, when everyone else in the circle sat on the ground, a grizzled man with a head like a doorknob dragged a chair over and slumped into it.

This was Ruckus' founder, 45-year-old Mike Roselle, whose work with Ruckus, Greenpeace and the radical environmental group Earth First! have led to him being arrested more than 40 times.

To conservative members of Congress and logging companies, Roselle is the poster boy for eco-terrorist fears. But to people like Ozone Action director John Passacantando, Roselle is "the environmental equivalent of the old blind guy on Kung Fu, where you try to grab the pebbles and you can't."

Passacantando, a Reagan-era conservative, was won over to the cause of environmentalism in part by Roselle's most famous stunt. To protest acid rain, in 1987 Roselle scaled Mount Rushmore to hang a gas mask on George Washington. For that act he spent four months in jail, 40 days of it in solitary.

Now Roselle is passing along his hard-won skills. Thanks to Ruckus' training, he said, "I've put more people behind bars than most district attorneys."

He has put together a cadre of trainers with experience in non-violent protest. Blockade expert Cathie Berrey, 33, of Asheville, N.C. -- tear-gassed 16 times in Seattle -- joked that "Ruckus is where old Greenpeacers and Earth Firsters go to retire."

But some are young converts, like 23-year-old Josh "Grommitt" Rumschlag of Clearwater, who was literally showing students the ropes Sunday. The mutton-chopped Rumschlag quit St. Petersburg Junior College to become a full-time activist and sell radical literature. His mother is "somewhat supportive," he said, "but she'd be more happy if I went back to college and got a real job."

"I heard this was the place to be."


-- SARAH AUSTIN, 21

American University student attending Alternative Spring Break

* * *

The youngest Ruckus trainer was Matt Leonard, 20, of Seattle, part of the advance crew who built the scaffold. Many of the other occupants of the Peace River Campground last week were bull-riders and calf-ropers in town for Arcadia's spring rodeo. When they saw the scaffold they stopped to say howdy.

"Are y'all set up for bungee jumping?" they asked Leonard. He explained the group was working on something requiring a stronger commitment than a 10-second dive with a long rubber band.

In five years Ruckus has trained about 2,000 activists. Each camp costs Ruckus about $30,000 to $40,000, paid for by donors like Ted Turner.

When Roselle launched Ruckus five years ago, donors were scarce. Foundation officials would say, "You teach people to break the law." Roselle said he prefers to think of it as teaching people to "intervene in immoral situations on behalf of a higher law."

But in the post-Seattle glow, Ruckus is being viewed as not only legitimate but even powerful. There is talk of making Ruckus more of a gang of freelance samurai, providing tactical services to environmental and human rights organizations.

"Now we're dealing with all this euphoria," Roselle grumbled. "Now people think they can go shut down any international meeting any time."

The truth is, he said, that Ruckus' training camps tend to attract more media attention -- from the Wall Street Journal, Mademoiselle and, most recently, the New Yorker -- than the protests they spawn.

Sellers joked that Ruckus "will weather this storm of approval" with its bad reputation intact. But Passacantando contends the climate has changed, and an American public weary of corporate greed is ready to embrace what Ruckus represents.

"This too is what democracy looks like," Passacantando said. "It's not just pulling the voting lever."


-- Staff researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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