Making a living teaching civil disobedience

Activist: Han Shan's job is instructing protesters how to kick up a righteous ruckus.

April 14, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- It's not difficult to spot Han Shan.

Just look for the guy with the cell phone attached to his ear. Shan carries two of them, and the calls come and go almost constantly. Pacing and talking at the downtown Washington space where activist groups have converged in preparation for Monday's World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meeting, Shan stands out amid the sea of piercings and dreadlocks. Clean-cut in a crisp blue shirt, his brown hair cropped and tidy, the 27-year-old looks more like a mover and shaker on the ladder up than a political agitator.

Closer inspection, though, reveals something else. The shirt is from Banana Republic, yes, but Shan bought it secondhand, meaning the international clothing company received not a dime of his consciously spent cash. His well-worn Doc Martens are made of animal-friendly ersatz leather. And while the pin on his lapel is indeed the green and black anarchist star, Shan isn't comfortable with the term, explaining he wears it not as a statement but as a reminder of the struggle against injustice.

It's a cause to which Shan, born and raised in the Baltimore area, is passionately committed. As the program director for the Ruckus Society, a Berkeley, Calif.-based organization that trains protesters, Shan makes his livelihood in the business of civil disobedience. And if there is an ideal poster boy for the movement, he's it -- model good looks, deeply intelligent, articulate, congenial and unfailingly gracious.

"Do you mind walking?" he asks a reporter, striding briskly down a Washington street. "Are you cold? Do you want a jacket?"

As for himself, such fundamental considerations are far from his mind. There's simply too much to do. There are appointments to arrange, demonstrations to plan for and always, always, calls to make. Fueled by caffeine and conviction, Shan whirls through the day in constant motion. It's no small task, helping coordinate the hundreds of "Ruckatistas" who have descended on Washington in an effort to derail Monday's meeting.

How that disruption is achieved, however, is of critical importance to the Ruckus Society, a nonprofit organization formed in 1995 that advocates nonviolent activism through "action camps." The camps provide training in tactical maneuvers such as scaling buildings or forming blockades and assistance with planning and media communications. They may be organized around a particular issue, such as one scheduled in preparation for the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary in June, or held whenever space is available. One element that's a constant, Shan says, is teaching nonviolence.

Activists familiar with the Ruckus Society say Shan's strength as a leader is in his ability to effect change peaceably.

"He can mobilize students, but he's always thinking about how no one can get hurt," says Jessica Coven, who attends Columbia University and belongs to Students for a Free Tibet. "He knows how to change things and make things happen through nonviolent direct action, which is most important."

Thupten Tsering, another member of Students for a Free Tibet, says he's learned a great deal from Shan. "He makes people understand it's not only about getting out in the street and going crazy," he says, standing on the steps of the Capitol during a labor rally Wednesday.

Some critics, however, have decried the global justice movement as less than pacifist, pointing to the violence that erupted during last year's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

Shan is concerned that media coverage of the incident focused heavily on the actions of a small number of protesters. He considers property destruction "alienating and really stupid" but says smashing windows at a Nike shop is very different from attacking a person.

"I think it's incredibly important that we delineate between violence against human beings and property destruction," Shan says over a vegan lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant. "I think the media's reaction and the authorities' reaction to the property destruction [demonstrates] this incredible worship of property over human life."

Negative publicity notwithstanding, Seattle signified a coming of age for the Ruckus Society, Shan says, representing a pivotal moment for a groundswell that's been gathering momentum.

Today's revolutionaries are as likely to be nurses and postal workers as idealistic students or guerrilla radicals. The face of protest has changed, Shan says, as awareness -- and suspicion -- increases around economic institutions.

"I'm really gratified that people are becoming so sophisticated in their understanding of how global economics is the underlying paradigm upon which so much oppression and so much disparity between rich and poor is based," he says.

Shan sees Baltimore as a microcosm of the global economy and calls the city's plans for revitalization of its west side misguided.

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