Ruckus in the Woods: Activists Camp '96
To the uninitiated, the scene at the action camp outside of Darby, Montana might seem weird. In one clearing, long-haired men and women, some in tie-dyes, some with dread locks, dangle from huge Ponderosa pines. In a second clearing, down the trail from the Seeds for Peace rolling vegetarian kitchen, more folks in their twenties climb to the top of a four-story scaffold.
If it weren't for the tattoos and nose-rings -- and the constant talk about non-violent direct action -- an onlooker might think he had stumbled into a survivalist training camp for militia members.
Tents and tarps are pitched throughout the woods. All around, people are talking tactics, and attacking the injustice of the federal government. They're packing climbing ropes and learning to tie knots. They're getting used to the feel of rock-climbing harnesses cinched up tight and talking politics around campfires.
These activists-in-training have traveled from all over the world to attend the Ruckus Society's Action Camp '96 in the picturesque Bitterroot Valley. They're here to learn how to effectively wage a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience -- with a special emphasis on tree-sitting and banner-hanging, favorite tactics of the radical environmentalist.
They have come from Russia, Bulgaria, Canada and Austria, as well as North Carolina, Colorado, California and Ohio. Once you become acclimated to the sights and sounds of camp, the apparent cultural homogeneity fades. There are some older folks and some parents with children in tow. Hair length does not seem to be a determining factor for membership. All that's required is a profound belief that the earth is in danger, and a willingness to risk arrest to protect it.
Bill Walker, a clean-cut Texas native who works for the California League of Conservation Voters, is Ruckus' media liaison. He points out the fellow stringing for the New York Times, and the freelancer from Outside<> magazine.
Walker is happy about the exposure, but he says the point of the action camp is to provide citizen-activists with tools to tackle their political concerns. He makes sure every reporter he talks to understands that the Ruckus Society is committed to the principals of non-violence.
Ultimately, Walker says, broad-based grassroots support is needed for conservationists to succeed, but specific skills -- ranging from fund-raising to electronic communications to rappelling -- must be learned first.
He says the camp's measure of success will be the number of activists arrested over the next several months. Walker's positively gleeful when he points out that more than 70 activists were arrested after attending last year's camp in Oregon.
Josh Brown, a bearded twenty-something year old, attended last year's camp as a student. This year he has returned as a climbing instructor. He helps a pair of young women learn to use modified rock climbing gear to scale a thick Ponderosa. He talks them up and down the trunk of the huge tree, speaking in calm, encouraging tones.
"This will give people the basics," Brown says. "They can go back to their bio-regions and cities and take some sort of action."
During the day, alternated with the climbing sessions, seminars focus on the history of non-violence and civil disobedience.
Ruckus organizer Twilly Cannon, 41, a longtime Greenpeace skipper who was arrested last year for interfering with French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, says Action Camp '96 is an exercise in patriotism.
"The American experience essentially captures non-violence," he says, explaining that civil disobedience has been a tool from the time of the American Revolution.
"The next time someone tells you what you're doing is unpatriotic, remind them of the Boston Tea Party," he tells the campers.
Cannon and many of his fellow leaders at Action Camp have tired of litigation and legislation to protect the environment.
Having spent five-and-a-half years pushing legislation and filing lawsuits, Missoula activist Dan Funsch quit his job with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies last month.
In recent years, he says, victories have been few and far between -- in part due to the sophisticated campaigns being run by various industries and government agencies.
"When we did have victories, they came undone pretty easily," Funsch says. "One looks to make a difference and draw attention to the issue, and non-violent civil disobedience is a really good way of doing that. That's what brought me here."
Funsch is excited at the prospect of doing direct action, and he's also obviously elated at the latest skills he has learned.
"I've never climbed before," he says. "It's great."
Elene Surovikina, from Moscow, Russia, also looks forward to putting some her newfound skills on the line. She has been working to save the Siberian forests, and was involved in a Greenpeace direct action aimed at Hyundai Corp. last year.
"It will be useful for some practical things -- like the climbing," Surovikina says. "And some of the theoretical things as well. It will be neat to tell not just my colleges, but other environmental organizations."
"The struggle should be non-violent," she says. "We just have to make our enemies our friends."