Media

Radical Techies Go To Camp

Ruckus Society's Tech ToolBox Action Camp is a festival of open-source engineering, antenna-building and intimate conversations.
Editor's Note: This article was commissioned, in part, by John Sellers, Executive Director of the Ruckus Society. Aliza Dichter attended the camp as a facilitator.

"Change your passwords when you leave here," warned Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "I can't say it enough."

"Here" was a 350-acre wildlife preserve in the Northern California hills, buzzing with more than 60 networked computers, a multimedia production studio and wireless broadband subnets connecting laptops across the woods and fields. This was the href="www.ruckus.org">Ruckus Society's nine-day Tech ToolBox Action Camp and there was a pretty good chance the Feds were listening in on all the digital noise coming from this temporary community of open-source programmers, corporate-accountability activists, community organizers, network administrators, Web producers, microradio broadcasters, human rights campaigners, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, videographers and culture-jammers.

More than a few of these campers are regularly detained at airports, arrested at protests and put on FBI lists by a U.S. government that increasingly redefines dissent as terrorism.

Cohn was leading a workshop on "Internet Activism and the Law," one of more than 50 planned workshops on topics from surveillance to setting up a Linux mail server. Groups sat in the grass to look over walkie-talkies and radio scanners or learned skills for consensus procedure; they gathered in barns to write Web programs, and discussed ways to transform advertisements or tapes of network news shows into counter-propaganda.

At this electronic wilderness camp, where the signs at the Porto-potties reminded you to wash your hands in the buckets and hand-pumps, you could attend a training on secure collaboration led by facilitators in Israel, broadcast live into the computer lab over an indymedia.org website.

Yet, despite the heady schedule, this was first and foremost a social event. Known mostly for training activists to form blockades, hang banners from buildings and non-violently deal with very unhappy police officers, the Ruckus organizers understand that the strength and success of their camps is in what happens in between the scheduled sessions. According to camp coordinator Allen Gunn, the driving vision for this project was to create gathering space for passionate political people, geeks and non-geeks, to lay the groundwork for collaborations and solidarity by connecting faces with email addresses and chat-room tags. "We pitched it as a party, knowing full well that massive knowledge transfer would be an unavoidable by-product."

The time to sit together under the trees helped launch and advance powerful working relationships throughout the week. A few examples: organizers from Canada, the U.S. and Latin America met to strategize against the FTAA/ALCA (the "Free Trade Area of the Americas," an international business treaty); media democracy and labor activists plotted a multi-tiered campaign against radio and advertising behemoth Clear Channel; independent media producers teamed up to launch a resource-sharing and content-distribution group; and a core of technical infrastructure organizations formed the seeds of an international Tech Federation.

Said Gunn, "The most important hardware resources we provided were 4'x8' whiteboards built from shower stall siding. Those were the blank canvasses on which folks painted pictures of learning, exchange and radical activism."

Gunn and those who worked with him wanted to provide blank canvasses, not textbooks. Ruckus brought in 25-30 volunteers to take care of the nearly 200 participants. But while the logistical bases were well covered, the 55 invited facilitators, including myself, discovered a conspicuous lack of structure, including many sessions with no designated trainer, and schedules and locations determined at the last minute.

Written on a giant whiteboard outside the room known as Mission Control, the schedule was in constant flux as workshops were redefined or cancelled. For more than a third of the camp time there were no planned workshops, but rather open time for people to share skills, strategies or stories. This was conference-planning by chaos theory.

"I was initially struck by the organizers' emphasis on having a good time rather than on accomplishing something concrete," recalled Ronit Avni, a program associate for Witness, "… and I think it was entirely appropriate."

Avni was part of a team that came together to teach the "Digital Witnessing" course, a series of trainings on video production for advocacy and organizing. This was a collaboration between groups that had never met or worked together -- Witness (helps activists worldwide use video to document human rights abuses), Amazon Watch (equips and trains Amazonian indigenous groups to use media to protect their environment) and Third World Majority (grassroots organizing through media-making in disenfranchised U.S. communities) -- and the experience was inspirational for the facilitators as well as their students.

For Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Third World Majority, "It was a magical moment when the theory of our joint work was being weaved into a single framework as we were literally teaching from the seat of our pants. For me it was that pivotal click … it was that understanding that story and its place in the movement is that essential lever for moving people from individual experience to collective action."

Investigating the Power Grid

It was significant that the Digital Witnessing training was entirely woman-led. Camp organizers had made it a priority to push non-male leadership throughout the camp, recognizing the forces of sexism and male domination in technology fields as well as in activist circles. Both men and women expressed appreciation for women-led tech workshops and sessions such as the "Linux Ladies Lounge" became vital safe spaces for learning in exclusively non-male settings.

But this also placed a burden on the few highly technical women at the camp.

"Somehow we all felt the need to work harder, give more workshops, attend more open forums, and do more one-on-ones -- simply because we know that for other women having women as teachers is often more empowering," noted Megan Z., a systems administrator from Resist.ca and href="http://www.tao.ca">Tao.ca who arrived at camp via a 28-hour bus ride from British Columbia.

Making sure women were represented as technical experts wasn't, of course, enough. At a 50-60 person Gender and Technology meeting on one of the last nights, women told stories of being shut out of high-tech conversations or sexualized for their skills, and people who identified as "genderqueer" spoke of feeling constantly excluded for not fitting into the male/female binary boxes.

For radical techies and white-majority "global justice" activists, there is a growing awareness of being even further behind on some of the most urgent and undeveloped questions and challenges, those around race and class. Race was one of the dominant themes of informal discussion at camp, echoing current conversations elsewhere among the folks who consider themselves allies in struggles against oppression, injustice and racism, yet don't know how to confront their own issues of exclusion, privilege and white-dominance and the lack of trusting multicultural relationships.

Notes Leda Dederich, a Web developer and community organizer who coordinated the Independent Media track at the camp, "We are in the baby stages of beginning to address these issues [beginning with] the simple honesty of looking at our struggles for social justice and acknowledging who continues to get left out of the conversation, and especially out of the leadership."

Our efforts to avoid repeating the same power imbalances we want to challenge usually bring into sharp relief the ways in which we also often fail. Fully aware of the neocolonization that has the rich nations of the North feeding on the poor of the Global South, camp organizers made it a priority to bring in participants from Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico. But what about making more space for people from the U.S. domestic "global south" -- the communities of color that are locked out of equal education and jobs and locked up in prisons and projects?

"At first I was really struck by the severity of seeing how white the camp was," recalled media democracy activist and scholar Seeta Peña Gangadharan. "But I left there being far more optimistic about people wanting to work together on issues of race."

Gangadharan has been working with and around social-change groups and independent media for the past six years and sees this as a historic shift for the U.S. activist community that has blossomed since the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

It was a sentiment echoed by some of the other people of color at the camp.

"I was generally surprised by the outward willingness of some of the participants to confront issues of racial and gender privilege," reflected Marco Palma, a Los Angeles-based organizer with Youth Organizing Communities. "It was refreshing, but also perplexing because of the very visible Digital Divide which manifested itself in many ways at the Camp."

One of the clearest lessons that emerges from the open space to have discussions and build relationships is how essential it is to create these kinds of opportunities. It's well known that the real business of corporations and politicians often takes place on the golf course or at Washington, D.C. cocktail parties.

In fact, less than one month after the Tech Camp, another group was frolicking and strategizing nearby in the Sonoma hills -- href="http://www.google.com/search?q=bohemian+grove">Bohemian Grove, the infamous men-only secret gathering for some 2,000 of the country's richest and most powerful: CEOs, presidents, military generals and global policy-makers. If (as some say) Bohemian Grove is an orgy of speeches, partying and pagan rituals, the Tech ToolBox Action Camp was a festival of open-source engineering, antenna-building and fervent, intimate conversations.

Antenna building? Of course. Antennas were popping up everywhere at the Ruckus camp -- the satellite dish on top of the old barn provided high-speed Internet, solar-powered microradio stations broadcast interviews and economic-rights jingles, Pringles cans were transformed into wireless hubs to href="http://www.sfbg.com/36/37/cover_wireless.html">spread free Internet and a FM broadcast tower was built from a 6-foot PVC pipe with a bicycle light on top.

In this time of the communications counter-revolution, as telecoms pave the Internet to put up shopping malls (the model of killing the Web's biodiversity does apply), with radio and TV almost totally monopolized, when Ashcroft's new laws and emerging technologies are combining to give government more power than ever to listen in, it makes sense that activists would turn to the airwaves as one way to seize communication space outside of corporate or government control.

And yes, the Feds probably were listening. Cindy Cohn urges activists to take advantage of simple new encryption systems and use free and open source software, to protect their own work and also the work of all activists. "If lots of people are using encryption, the use of it by the people who really need it is less easy to pinpoint," she says.

If the Ruckus campers are one vanguard of a growing global resistance to corporate and government exploitation of labor, communities, environment and war, they also need to be on the front lines of protecting and advancing the tools for free and radical communication.

Camp participant Inez Sunwoo is taking her new shortwave radio skills to the streets to invite people to make free broadcasts about the U.S. Not In Our Name peace campaign. "I was seeking to understand the ways in which humanity and technology intersect, and the Ruckus camp provided the space for me to accept technology as a positive tool by first routing out intention. I was, am inspired."
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