A Ruckus among Us

By Worf, Richard | Harvard International Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

A Ruckus among Us


Worf, Richard, Harvard International Review


Protest in a New Age

The protests that shut down the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in November 1999 have so far been the high-water mark of the movement against global free trade.

At the helm of the protest was a group known as the Ruckus Society. Ruckus has transformed the nature of nonviolent protest since the group's founding in 1995, contributing significantly to the slowing of trade liberalization.

After Greenpeace disbanded its direct-action office in 1991, nonviolent activism briefly became the province only of fringe groups. The Ruckus Society was founded to revitalize direct action and make it visible again. Since 1995, Ruckus has trained thousands of activists each year, from countries as diverse as Nigeria and Denmark, in the methods of protest. At the dozens of Action Camps that Ruckus offers annually, protesters learn techniques ranging from blockading police roundups to creating the image of a hanging man from a company billboard. The focus is on making a loud statement while avoiding violence and property destruction. Vocal nonviolence has allowed Ruckus to achieve a level of credibility unknown to any of its predecessors: its supporters range from media mogul Ted Turner to publishing heiress Elaine Broadhead, who frequently hosts Action Camps on her personal estate in Virginia. However, as successful actions become less frequent and the targets of Ruckus's ire learn from the WTO's mistakes, t he potential for Ruckus's raucous supporters to turn violent increases.

How did Ruckus succeed where so many groups had failed before? It found success through what a large corporation might call damage control. Unlike environmentalist groups, which aim to offend, Ruckus handles the media with kid gloves and deliberately crafts a neutral image in the media. Embracing no specific cause, Ruckus can avoid the strident demands that turn off moderate news-watchers. The group's leadership has followed this strategy by subsuming their personal causes (such as environmentalism and workers' rights) into the broader struggle against global free trade. For example, Ruckus founder Mike Roselle was a cofounder of Earth First, a group known for advocating the depopulation of large areas of the western United States to create wilderness reserves. But today, without publicly disowning his past ideals, he focuses more on mobilization; as he puts it, "We are doing exactly the same thing we were doing five to seven years ago, but now it's a lot more productive environment for organizing."

Though not as vocal as its environmentalist ancestors, Ruckus is much more visible because it has taken to the streets of major cities. In 1998, Ruckus moved its headquarters from Montana to Berkeley, California, and protests in the streets of Seattle in 1999 and Washington, DC, in 2000 have been great opportunities for media exposure. Founder Roselle says, "Image is everything. The content will get totally passed over if the image is lost." Ruckus's in-house media manual says, "Go the extra mile; proofread the press release again; make the extra phone call. Never cut corners," and recommends Ted Turner's CNN with its "24-hour news hole" as a prime publicity tool. This stands in contrast to the haphazard efforts of previous years, when the goal was stopping loggers instead of shaping public opinion.

Ruckus's nonpartisan bent, besides moving the theater of action from the forest to the street and from obscurity into the media spotlight, has also allowed it to benefit from the very basis of multinational corporatism: economies of scale. At the Seattle protests, the investment Ruckus had made in training a few activists at Action Camps became the seed for the largest anti-globalization protest in history. Like a multinational, Ruckus itself comprises no more than a dozen administrators and trainers. Its Action Camps resemble corporate retreats and are conducted in the style of a multinational board meeting. …

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