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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Raising a Ruckus!

Air Date: Week of

Environmental activists have long turned to civil disobedience to put their causes in the public spotlight. Protesters have sat in front of bulldozers, sailed into nuclear test sites, chained themselves to oil rigs and dangled from tall buildings and treetops. The methods are designed to stir controversy, and their practitioners are always on the lookout for yet another way to garner media attention. Producer Vicki Monks reports on the latest front-line tactics from a direct action training camp in San Marcos, Texas.


CURWOOD: Environmental activists have long turned to civil disobedience to put their causes into the public spotlight. Protesters have sat in front of bulldozers, sailed into nuclear test sites, chained themselves to oil rigs, and dangled from tall buildings and ancient trees. The methods are designed to stir controversy, and their practitioners are always on the lookout for yet another way to garner media attention. Producer Vicki Monks observed the latest front-line tactics in a direct action training camp in San Marcos, Texas.

(Clanking sounds; ambient voices in the background.)

WOMAN: Put your neck out against that bar. And she's locked and I'm taking away her key.

MONKS: Diane Wilson, a tall, rugged 49-year-old with curly black hair, sits on the floor of an outdoor pavilion. A U-shaped Kryptonite bicycle lock around her throat secures her to a steel post. Two other women lean against her on the floor. The bicycle locks around their necks are fastened to Ms. Wilson's lock. As a trainer explains, its an effective yet somewhat precarious method for staging a protest.

WOMAN: The thing is, I move, she moves, and we're connected by the neck so, you know, you don't really want to choke the person you're next to.

MONKS: Diane Wilson is no college rabble rouser. She's a fourth generation commercial shrimper, and one of about 60 women who've gathered on a rainy spring morning at the Stonehaven Ranch in the Texas hill country. This is activist boot camp, an intensive week of training in the latest tactics of nonviolent direct action. The sponsor is The Ruckus Society, a California- based nonprofit group that trains individuals in the nuts and bolts of modern civil disobedience in techniques for hanging banners from skyscrapers, scaling redwoods, or halting bulldozers in their tracks.

WILSON: I went to great lengths to get here. I've got 5 kids. I've got fishing that's going to hell in a bread basket. But I was determined I was going to go here because I could do my struggle a lot better.

(More clanking, voices)

WOMAN: And you run it, you lay down, and glue them on.

MONKS: In this class on human blockades, the women are learning how to chain their arms to metal rods welded inside of steel pipes.

WOMAN: Practice and practice with your lock box. Know your lock box before you do it.

MONKS: Gone are the days when protesters used ordinary chain. Police learned long ago to carry heavy bolt cutters. These chains encased in steel pipes would take the police hours instead of minutes to remove.

WILSON: I know when I was on my first hunger strike, I was determined in the middle of that hunger strike to chain myself to a gate and I had not the first concept of, you know, I was going to go down to Walmart and get some chain and wrap myself and lock myself in. And I didn't realize there was actually a strategy you could use and there's techniques about even being arrested. I was totally winging it.

MONKS: The advanced techniques taught in the Ruckus camp are new territory for Ms. Wilson, although she's no stranger to civil disobedience. She came to environmental activism in the mid-80s after watching dolphins die off in record numbers and fish stocks dwindle in the Texas bays where she catches shrimp. Then she learned that the petrochemical plants and plastic makers there ranked among the worst polluters in the nation. So for more than a dozen years, she's all but single-handedly kept up a protest.

WILSON: And here are people that are doing the same thing, and they, they're gutsy. I love gutsy people.

MONKS: The women at this camp come from as far away as the Philippines, Alaska, and Bulgaria, and as nearby as Austin. Most are young and nearly all have participated in direct action campaigns. Some travel the country from one event to the next. These activists say as civil disobedience has become more professional, the stakes have gone up as well.

WOMAN: Just by wearing chains in general, there's going to cause a lot of friction on your wrist and especially when you're being yanked it can hurt really bad.

MONKS: This Texas gathering is the first time Ruckus has offered a boot camp just for women. Camp coordinator Donna Parker says women can be especially effective at direct action, as she found out when she and another woman rappelled from the top of a San Francisco skyscraper to hang a banner on the building.

PARKER: I really didn't think about it being women. And later I heard that people stopped on the street and said, "Those are women?" And it didn't really click until after I heard the response of the people on the ground that they were so surprised those were two women doing this, and not two men up there.

MONKS: The techniques the women learn here are innovative and risky. Although trainers stress safety, in the heat of the moment the activists can get hurt.

WOMAN: And so you're going to go underneath (zipper sounds) and you're going to start your weave...

MONKS: This morning trainees are lashing together tall logs, making a teepee-style barricade used for blocking logging roads.

WOMAN: ... because if it falls, there goes your head. Safety first.

MONKS: When the logs are bound together a climber ascends 30 feet or more to the top. When police try to get climbers down, it's always possible that the whole rig could topple over, causing serious injuries. It's a hazardous business that Diane Wilson knows well.

WILSON: I've had the boat sunk on me, I've had family shot at, I've had a dog killed, I've had 300 construction workers picket me.

MONKS: As the tactics of demonstrators become more refined, police tend to match them in sophistication. In many cases that's resulted in more confrontational encounters, and decisions like the one authorities made in Humboldt County, California, last year, to dab pepper spray directly into protesters' eyes. Police say they were within their rights. But activists sued, saying the police used excessive force.

WOMAN: He held my eye open and applied it right to eyeball.

WOMAN: It escalates every year. It escalates every incident to another level.

WOMAN: I've seen some really bad things. I've been hurt several times, watched people dragged by their nostrils.

MONKS: In addition to techniques, trainees are taught how to remain calm and nonviolent amid chaos. They attend lectures with titles like "Ecopsychology," "Site Surveillance," and "Dealing with Despair." Diane Wilson says she especially appreciated the discussions on the history of civil disobedience.

WILSON: When I did hunger strikes, all I had was people telling me how crazy I was and the only one who ever did it was some little skinny man in India. And so it gave me a sense of my, of the history and the amount of social change that has come with this type of civil disobedience.

(A bell rings. A woman yells, "Circle!")

MONKS: The Ruckus logo shows a monkey wrench stuck in a set of gears, and monkey-wrenching is what Ruckus intends its trainees to do: to go out and grind the machinery of environmental destruction to a halt. Ruckus critics say this brand of confrontational direct action sometimes goes too far and gives environmentalism a bad name. That's not a problem for Texas philanthropist and oil company heiress Genevieve Vaughn, who allowed the Ruckus women to use her ranch for free. She's a civil disobedience veteran.

VAUGHN: I think it really calls attention to the problems, because unfortunately the media ignores a lot of the problems that are really out there. And it takes people who really care a lot and are willing to put their time and sometimes their lives on the line to even bring it to public attention.

MONKS: The Ruckus Society does not advocate some of the more extreme direct action techniques, such as driving spikes into threatened trees, a tactic that has injured some mill workers. Donna Paker.

PARKER: We don't teach any destruction of any property or person. We feel that the techniques that we teach are the techniques that get the issue into the media and into the public.

MONKS: The trainees are trying out their skills here. But it's when they move from the realm of theory into practice that the risks multiply and the unpredictable can happen. Donna Parker says one of her most successful actions in recent years was also one of her most dangerous.

(Traffic sounds)

MONKS: It happened on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, a 6-lane, half-mile-long structure 135 feet above the water. Much of Seattle's fishing fleet must sail through the passage the bridge spans. In a dramatic action in August of 1997, Ms. Parker and 6 other Greenpeace climbers lowered themselves off the side of the lofty bridge on slim ropes, dangling their bodies in the path of a massive factory fishing trawler. According to the activists, the huge trawlers essentially strip mine the ocean, destroying miles of underwater habitat in a single fishing expedition.

PARKER: We hooked into the bridge, tied our anchors. A cop happened to be going by at that time and he made a U-turn on the bridge and took out a knife and started cutting lines without knowing what he was cutting. And he was yelling, "I've cut your lifeline! I've cut your lifeline!" And it was just this really intense moment, because I looked at my support person, and I said, "What's going on?" And he said, "You're safe. You're fine. Go." And I just jumped. And I just stepped back and jumped off the bridge. He could have endangered all our lives.


MONKS: The climbers were tied together with a single rope, so that if the trawler had come through while they were dangling in front of it, it would have snagged the entire group of 7 people, sending them plummeting toward the ocean.

PARKER: I've never seen a ship this large before, and that close. And I was toward the middle, so I got a good view of the ship (laughs).

MONKS: The captain stood down and returned to port.

NBC ANNOUNCER (backdropped by news theme music): This is NBC News at sunrise, with Linda Vester.

VESTER: In Seattle, members of the environmental group Greenpeace have staged a dramatic protest...

MONKS: The action made news across the US. On national television, fishing industry officials branded the activists as extremists. Donna Parker says the risks they took for the protest were worth it.

(To Parker) You could have been killed.

PARKER: I don't think about that. I think about what has to be done, and sometimes this is what you need to do. And the being killed aspect just doesn't seem part of it. And there's no choice; it has to be done.

MONKS: Each activist here must assess if and when such life-threatening risks are worth taking. Ruckus has scheduled more camps in other locations across the US. The women here say after a week of training they're ready for action. Donna Parker and Diane Wilson, no doubt, will be on the front line.

WILSON: There is power in putting yourself on the line and putting yourself out there. I think it shows your commitment and also it makes things happen. I think it is such a peaceful, nonviolent way of making change and it's so amazing that people see that as radical. As peace being radical.

( So I've got the anchor, I've got the four lines...)

MONKS: For Living on Earth, I'm Vicki Monks.

WILSON: ... I've got it locked down, I've got it hooked to the double belt. Okay-doke. Lemme see.

WOMAN: You got it.

WILSON: This is going to be a hobby, big time.



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