Ruckus Society

Ruckus Society


* Trains radical activists in “direct action” techniques that are sometimes violent
* Sparked violence in Seattle WTO protests

The Ruckus Society was established in the San Francisco Bay area in late 1995 by Howard “Twilly” Cannon, who was on the front lines of sea-going anti-nuclear campaigns for Greenpeace, and Mike Roselle, a co-founder of both the Rainforest Action Network and Earth First! After President Bill Clinton signed the Timber Salvage Rider, a pro-logging bill, into law in July 1995, Roselle and Cannon conceived of a training program where aspiring environmental activists could learn effective tactics to counter such political moves. Thus they organized a seminar called “Forest Action Camp,” which was held in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest and trained people in such skills as tree climbing, forest monitoring, blockade formation, and communications. Out of that, the Ruckus Society was born.

A self-described “strategic and tactical clearing house,” the Ruckus Society aims to provide “environmental, human rights, and social justice organizers with the tools, training, and support needed to achieve their goals.” Toward this end, it has trained many thousands of activists – including more than 3,000 during its first decade alone – in the use of “non-violent direct action” and “guerrilla communication” techniques for the promotion of “environmental protection,” “progressive” politics, and various forms of “positive social change.” Among the topics and skills that are covered at Ruckus Society trainings are: street theater, banners, puppets, basic ropework, belaying, rappelling, knots, harnesses and hardware, anchors, hammocks, platforms, jumaring, tree sits, street blockades, bridge blockades, barrel blockades, vehicle blockades, water blockades, building climbs, stack climbs, hanging from urban structures, agitation and disruption techniques, action planning, “using the media to your advantage,” building leadership, political analysis, nonviolent philosophy and practice, and police confrontation strategies (i.e., goading police into overreaction). The Ruckus Society’s logo features two large meshed gears of a machine with a monkey-wrench wedged into their teeth to stop them—signifying the group’s endorsement of “monkey-wrenching,” a term meaning the sabotage of logging or construction equipment.

A large percentage of Ruckus Society trainees over the years have been members of other left-wing groups – like Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, and the Rainforest Action Network. As puts it, Ruckus has been “grooming the footsoldiers of the ‘protest industry’ for every major newsworthy protest event since its founding.” When they are engaged in protest activities, Ruckus activists often wear masks, assume aliases, and give false names to arresting police officers.

Viewing the United States as a nation rife with “injustice and oppression,” the Ruckus Society strives to “prioritize the voices and visions of youth, women, people of color, indigenous people and immigrants, poor and working class people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender queer, and transgendered people, and other historically marginalized communities.”

The Ruckus Society despises multinational corporations and free trade, and opposes “the pathological corporate culture that rules” North America. As one observer has noted, Ruckus teaches “the skills of waging guerrilla street warfare against capitalism.” In 1999 the Ruckus Society was a signatory to a petition of “civil society” organizations that opposed globalization, big business in general, and “any effort to expand the powers of the World Trade Organization through a new comprehensive round of trade liberalization.” Ruckus also played a major role in organizing the November/December 1999 riots protesting a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. The target was, as one Ruckus activist describes it, “the unfair consequences of globalization.”

Prior to the protests in Seattle, reported the Chicago Tribune, two Ruckus Society leaders made a deal with the city’s police force. The Ruckus leaders promised that if a few hundred protesters could have a media photo opportunity to symbolically break through the security cordon around the WTO meeting, they would then promptly submit to peaceful arrest. Police officials in liberal Seattle agreed to this deal, but when the moment for the photo-op came, thousands of protesters rushed aggressively through the police security line and refused to submit to arrest. Before the officers were able to quell the violence, Many Ruckus-trained activists smashed store windows, set cars ablaze, and did millions of dollars in property damage. has noted the Ruckus Society’s propensity for violence: “Despite the organization’s ties to well-documented acts of violence and its officers’ connections with domestic terror groups, the group constantly claims to limit itself to ‘non-violent’ protest in the spirit of 1960s civil disobedience. But the trail of economic damage wrought by these organized thugs (to say nothing of the broken windows and injured policemen) would suggest otherwise.” Confirming this analysis, Ruckus executive director John Sellers once told Mother Jones magazine: “Violence to me is [only] against living things. But inanimate objects? I think you can be destructive, you can use vandalism strategically. It may be violence under the law, but I just don’t think it’s violence.” On another occasion Sellers declared, “Anarchism has gotten a really bad rap, like communism.”

The Ruckus Society’s Action Planning Training Manual endorses property destruction as a justifiable, patriotic means of making a political statement – in the tradition of the Boston Tea Party, which it calls “[o]ne of the most famous direct actions ever.” “It is … illegal to break into a home,” says the manual. “But if that home is on fire and you fear someone will be hurt, it is OK—in fact it is your responsibility—to break in. This is the argument of competing harms: A smaller harm is accepted if it prevents a greater harm from occurring.” Moreover, the manual disparages the intelligence of people who object to Ruckus’s sometimes-violent tactics: “As activists, we often have a more sophisticated understanding of an issue than the general public.”

At the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, Ruckus-trained leftists were intent upon bringing the city to a halt with rioting. But the Philly police force stopped them, and in the process seized improvised weapons, gasoline-soaked rags, and piano wire that the protesters had intended to string across streets in order to trip police horses. In the melee, 23 police cars were damaged and 15 officers were injured. More than 400 protesters were arrested.

Also around the year 2000, many Ruckus Society members began to lament that there were too few racial and ethnic minorities in their organization; thus they sought to prioritize the recruitment of leaders and foot soldiers who were nonwhite. Anti-racist workshops for white people became a core part of the Ruckus curriculum, and by 2004 the group’s paid staffers and trainers were mostly “people of color.” In a related measure, Ruckus adopted a policy where “frontline communities”—meaning “those most impacted by a political, social, economic or environmental injustice and who are actively organizing to confront the injustice”—“lead the strategy, vision, and action.”

In 2003 the Ruckus Society trained anti-globalization radicals to disrupt an international Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology which was held in Sacramento, California that June. The Competitive Enterprise Institute describes what transpired there:

“Anticipating trouble, the federal government spent $3 million on conference planning and another $1 million on security for the representatives of 120 nations at the June event. One thousand police officers patrolled the conference venue, as did officials from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the California National Guard. Protesters did their best to provoke police arrests by spitting on officers, shouting anti-cop obscenities and upending municipal trash containers. But only 70 people were arrested—five for blocking traffic by lying down in an intersection and others for ignoring orders to disperse. Thirty protesters trespassed onto the campus of the University of California at Davis, where two suspended themselves midair in a stairwell and began chanting ‘Corporate greed is destroying our trees!’ They too were arrested.”

Ruckus organizers subsequently trained 150 members from 40 anti-globalization groups to disrupt a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) event held in Miami, Florida in November 2003.

The Ruckus Society was also active in the peace movement during the months prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In an October 2002 protest in Washington, DC, for instance, Ruckus members lay inside body-bags to dramatize the casualties that would undoubtedly result from war. In 2003, Ruckus activists sold decks of cards similar to the ones distributed by U.S. military forces in Iraq depicting “most wanted” members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Ruckus deck included cards bearing photos of people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger, John Ashcroft, Rupert Murdoch, and James Baker. Ruckus portrayed these men as “War Profiteers” who were using the notion that Saddam posed a threat to American national security as a pretext for “subjugation, resource extraction, and opening markets [in Iraq]: a practice once referred to more honestly as colonialism.”

A member organization of the United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition, the Ruckus Society endorsed a May 1, 2003 document titled “10 Reasons Environmentalists Oppose an Attack on Iraq,” which was published by Environmentalists Against War.

The Ruckus Society today administers 3 major programs:

(1) The Indigenous Peoples’ Power Project (IP3): Noting that “as much as ninety percent of the world’s remaining natural resources are on indigenous peoples’ lands,” this initiative charges that “the extraction of those resources promises nothing but continued genocide for native people, as the land is stripped bare and the people [are] left destitute and disenfranchised.” “Treaty rights and sacred sites alike are trampled,” adds IP3, “so that a few can profit from water dams, uranium mines, nuclear waste dumps, and coal, gas and oil extraction projects.”

(2) The Combahee Alliance is a Ruckus partnership that was named in honor of Harriet Tubman’s role in leading some 150 black Union soldiers in the famous Combahee River Raid during the Civil War. It includes such groups as the Transgender, Gender Varient & Intersex Justice Project; Black Lives Matter; Southerners On New Ground; the Community Justice Network for Youth; the Highlander Research and Education Center; and the BlackOUT! Collective. Emphasizing the importance of “Black, queer, and trans leadership and liberation,” this Alliance is “inspired by BLM’s guiding principle of ‘sharing and making accessible space for all Black folx regardless of perceived sexual identity, gender identity and expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs or immigration status or location.’”

(3) The Climate Justice Alliance is “a collaborative of over 35 community-based and movement support organizations uniting frontline communities to forge a scalable, and socio-economically just transition away from unsustainable energy towards local living economies to address the root causes of climate change.” A related Ruckus initiative – the “Our Power Campaign: Communities United for a Just Transition” – is founded on the premise that “global capitalism is in a deep crisis.” To address this crisis, “Our Power” calls for “a radical transformation of the economy” where, through the redistribution of wealth and power, “meaningful work and livelihood[s]” are created for “Indigenous Peoples” and others “who have the least responsibility for climate change and the least resources to adapt to and survive it.” The overarching goal is to “reduce carbon emissions in line with what science says is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change,” and to build a national “climate jobs” program geared especially toward “unemployed and underemployed people, and workers formerly employed by extreme [fossil-fuel-based] energy industries.”

In June 2012, the Ruckus Society collaborated with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to hold an “Action Camp for Migrant Rights” at the Highlander Center in Tennessee.

Among the Ruckus Society’s leading partners and allies are such organizations as, the American Friends Service Committee, the Backbone Campaign, Black Lives Matter, Earth First!, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, School Of the Americas Watch, the U.S. Social Forum, Veterans for Peace, and the War Resisters League.

Financial backers of the Ruckus Society include such notables as the Agape Foundation, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the Compton Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the Liberty Hill Foundation, the Threshold Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the Turner Foundation.

One particularly noteworthy graduate of Ruckus Society training programs is Zack Exley.

For additional information on the Ruckus Society, click here.

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