Student activists shun spring break at beach

Ruckus Society camp teaches techniques of political protest

March 15, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ARCADIA, Fla. -- Finals over and next semester far enough in the future to ignore, they piled into cars and pointed them southward, driving like so many of their friends round-the-clock in a spring-break-or-bust frenzy to Florida.

Awaiting them at journey's end, though, were not the usual hotel rooms crammed with 10 frat brothers, or days splayed on a crowded beach and nights squeezed into two-for-one bars.

Instead, these 85 college students are spending spring break at a campground east of Sarasota learning how to scale buildings, halt traffic, stage street theater, spin the media, challenge authorities and, if necessary, get arrested.

"I think my parents kind of wished I was on a beach in Cancun instead," said Colette Eno, 20, one of five students from Indiana University attending this week's Alternative Spring Break Action Camp.

Call it Ruckus 101.

It's run by the Ruckus Society, one of the groups that took to the streets of Seattle in protests that seemed to spin out of control during the World Trade Organization meeting in November.

The camp attracted students from across the country who want to save the rain forests, stop global warming, shut down sweatshops, protect animal rights, stand up for gays.

It's an earnest bunch, dedicated to its causes and proud of growing activist resumes.

"I'm on probation right now," said Amanda Moeckel, 20, a student at American University in Washington and an animal-rights activist. "I usually get arrested for unlawful entry. One time, we broke into a fur store. Another time, it was a circus. We actually prevented them from performing."

Breaking the beach habit

"Alternative" spring breaks have grown in popularity in recent years as some students seek to work on issues rather than tans.

A Washington-based group, Witness for Peace, sponsored two spring break trips this month to Central America to inspect sweatshops, one of the big causes sweeping college campuses.

Other students are spending their break building houses for the poor in cities and Appalachia and for migrant workers in California. And still others are replanting cypress trees in Louisiana to replace those ravaged by the logging industry or building additions to a school on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.

It's hard to estimate how many college students have opted for alternative spring breaks. Many are still taking the well-worn path to beaches from Fort Lauderdale to South Padre Island, Texas. Grown-up activists, though, say the commitment among college students is strong.

"The climate change is happening on college campuses. It's happening among young people," said Han Shan, program coordinator for the Ruckus Society, which is based, he notes, in the "activist ghetto" of Berkeley, Calif. "Young people are understanding they have power."

The students make some of the older activists, serving as trainers for the camp, smile, and not always because they remind the elders of their own youth.

Less obnoxious

"They're not as obnoxious as we were," said Mike Roselle, 45, founder of the Ruckus Society and a veteran of movements from the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s to the radical Earth First environmental actions of more recent vintage.

"They're earnest and polite. I was raised by rednecks. These are more educated and more middle-class kids and, as much as they hate to admit it, they're going to act like it."

All of the campers are white, even the ones with dreadlocks, and there's a substantial gay contingency. Their T-shirts and buttons advertise their causes -- anti-logging, pro-bicycle, anti-worker exploitation, pro-Che. They paid for the weeklong program on a sliding scale, according to what they could afford, from nothing to $100.

Practicing street skills

They began a recent morning with a workshop on street theater -- developing skits, chants, dances and other attention-getting, traffic-stopping sidewalk shows.

Some of their work may figure into an event on many activists' minds -- something they hope will turn into a sort of WTO II -- next month's meetings in Washington of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Many of the arguments against the IMF and the World Bank are similar to those lodged against the WTO -- that the institutions are dominated by corporate interests to the detriment of the environment and working people.

Cheers and dances

One group of campers worked up cheers to use for a protest against global warming: "Cars and cattle and coal, oh my! Before you buy that SUV, think about ecology."

Another group did a rain-forest dance. Several women were trees, gracefully waving their branches, until a corporation came in, chopped them down and turned them into logs.

One group performed "Occi-moron," a skit based on Occidental Petroleum's plans to drill for oil on land in Colombia that an Indian tribe considers sacred -- and Vice President Al Gore's ownership of stock in the company.

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