BETWEEN THE LINES: Ruckus Society Leader Speaks
Thousands of activists took to the streets during the major party nominating conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the first part of August to focus attention on critical issues that they say neither the Republican or Democratic parties have seriously addressed. Both parties, protesters say, have been bought and paid for by the same set of giant transnational corporations undermining democracy.
While engaging in legal demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience, hundreds of protesters were arrested by police in both cities. Civil liberties lawyers alarmed at what they describe as law enforcement's overreaction to dissent this summer have criticized police surveillance, harassment and pre-emptive strikes against organizers. They also cite instances of police brutality and excessively high bail set for those arrested.
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with John Sellers, director of the California-based Ruckus Society, which trains activists in direct action techniques. Sellers talks about his arrest during the GOP convention in Philadelphia, where he was accused of being a "facilitator of violence and mayhem" and held on $1 million bond, later reduced to $100,000.
John Sellers: The biggest contribution we made to the protests at the Republican National Convention was a camp we organized about six weeks before the RNC even met in Philadelphia. It was a training camp that was very open and transparent. We invited the press to it; we had nothing to hide. It was all about nonviolent direct action.
I was up in Philadelphia, just having finished a little summer vacation with my parents down in the Outer Banks (in North Carolina) and had gotten a ride back up into Philly with them and spent the time during the Republican National Convention giving my moral support to folks and not doing much else. So it was really shocking to be yanked off the streets on the second of August, just walking down JFK Blvd., with my cell phone -- not even using it, just minding my own business -- and basically, this tactical operation manifested itself around me.
I was arrested by three or four lieutenants and a couple of captains and finally the ranking official came out, a deputy commissioner with a star on his shoulder. It was kind of an insane situation. These guys have been watching way too many old reruns of "S.W.A.T." They just mobilized and appeared all around me, whisked me away in this high-speed car maneuver through the city and took me to the Homicide Division of the Philadelphia Police Department. They interrogated me in an interrogation room for about four hours before they even told me what my charges were.
The first charge I saw, when they handed me the receipt for my possessions they were confiscating, was aggravated assault on a police officer. And until that time, I was being very accommodating and cooperating with them fully. I told them I had nothing to hide. I gave them the Ruckus Web site address. By the time they told me I was going to be charged with aggravated assault, I was really starting to question who the man behind the curtain was that was pulling the strings, and I told them I would no longer be cooperating with them. That charge flew in the face of everything that I stand for as a nonviolent activist, and I was beginning to be very concerned about what kind of fix was on by that point.
Between The Lines: Yours was an amazing episode in the two weeks of protest at the conventions, both in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. It's not over for you, you still have to go back to court. But what do you think the objective of the police crackdown was in Philadelphia? Did they want to keep you out of action until after the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles?
John Sellers: An amazing activist who cut his teeth in the '60s, Tom Hayden, (formerly leader of the Students for a Democratic Society and current California state senator) who was in Chicago in '68 put it best: "as social movements become more effective, governments become more repressive." And we're starting to see state-sanctioned repression against this anti-corporate globalization movement.
Between The Lines: People like political commentator and "No Logo" author Naomi Klein have written critically that the movement risks burnout if there's one giant protest action after another, that there is a need to chart a more thoughtful path in terms of organizing and issue education at the grass roots. What are some of your thoughts on the various tactics being used within this growing anti-corporate social movement we're seeing across the world now?
John Sellers: I tend to agree with Naomi, actually. I think we are in danger now of becoming a tactically led movement of "action junkies," because if we keep moving from mobilization to mobilization, then we stand to beat a dead horse. I think that we need to base our success on our strategy and on creating integrated, multi-faceted, strategic campaigns that are going to use site-specific, appropriate technology and weave all kinds of different tactics together in very smart ways to achieve measurable goals.
I think that it's very important for us to use these mobilizations to inspire ourselves and people in the United States. (We then need to take) that energy and inspiration back into our individual campaigns and communities and put our shoulders to the wheel and do the kind of behind the scenes work that really builds movements and unity. Build a much more powerful and concerted effort that cuts across race, gender and class boundaries and really builds much more diverse communities of people that are coming together to demand their truth and justice be heard.
Contact the Ruckus Society by calling (510) 848-9565 or visit their Web site at www.ruckus.org