Activism training camp: scale a building, sing a song

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A dozen protesters drop to their knees and lock arms. A police cruiser creeps into view. The protesters start chanting. "There ain't no power like the power of the people, 'cause the power of the people don't stop." DeSoto County sheriff's deputy Scott Osborne pulls up in front of the spectacle, pauses for a second, then drives around. He's here to investigate a skinny-dipping complaint, not a demonstration.

Public nudity may be a no-no in Arcadia, Fla., but teaching America's youth how to hang banners, block traffic, chain themselves to bulldozers, and generally challenge authority is tolerated. Here at Alternative Spring Break Action Camp, some of the same people who staged last year's disruptive protest at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle are sharing what they know with college students from around the United States.

The camp is a production of the Ruckus Society, a Berkeley, Calif., group that trains activists in nonviolent civil disobedience. The trainers are preparing their charges to protest next weekend at the spring meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington. They're also looking forward to the political conventions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

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"We're trying to teach a discrete set of tactics and strategies that can be applied to just about any campaign for social change," says director John Sellers.

On the second day of camp, the students get their first hands-on lesson. At lunchtime, they gather in front of a 50-foot scaffold, the plates on their knees piled high with garlicky vegetarian food. Several climbers ascend the tower and start to unfurl a banner. Trainers dressed like police come running out of the woods. The "cops" pull a few protesters off the scaffold, handcuff them, and drag them to a prisoner transport van.

Gradually, the students come to life. They start chanting. As the cops load arrestees into the prisoner transport - really a green minivan - the students surround it and refuse to move. The climbers finally get the banner unrolled. It bears the Ruckus Society's slogan: "Actions Speak Louder Than Words." The crowd goes wild.

They don't call it the Ruckus Society for nothing.

Spring Break Action Camp is as disciplined as a military operation. But fun is also a vital element. In a political-theater workshop, students make up skits, interpretive dances, and songs. Cheerleaders chant a message about global warming: "Hot sun is blazing in the sky, sea is rising, you know why? Cars and cattle and coal, oh my!" Watching from a distance, Mike Roselle, a veteran environmental activist who founded Ruckus in 1995, grumbles about what has become of his movement. "I feel like I fell asleep and woke up in kindergarten," he says.

But these kids are not playing around. Using boycotts and publicity campaigns, they recently persuaded all three major US automakers to withdraw from the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group that disputes the science behind global warming. "What they really bring to the table is their courage and their outrage," Mr. Roselle says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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