John Sellers organizes organizers. He activates activists. As director of the aptly named Ruckus Society, the jocular 33-year-old trains would-be hellraisers in the finer points of “direct action” — a modern brand of civil disobedience designed to captivate the mass media. Ruckus first entered the national spotlight during the Battle of Seattle and was recently instrumental in planning protests at the Philadelphia and Los Angeles conventions.
Sellers, who cut his activist teeth at Greenpeace in the early ’90s, is a career thorn in the side of the establishment. When we spoke to Mr. Ruckus, he had just returned from Calgary, Canada, where he’d been leading protests at the World Petroleum Congress.
Mother Jones: When we called to set up an interview, I believe you said, “Mother Jones?! F–k that s–t! You’re corporate sellouts!” I thought you were serious.
John Sellers: That’s my litmus test. I say that to every reporter, just to gauge their reaction.
MJ: You’re critical of the corporate media, yet Ruckus wouldn’t be what it is today without that media. Is there a contradiction there?
JS: No question about it. I admit it: We use the media. It’s the only way for mass communication to happen in almost real time. It is theater; it’s an artistic expression. It’s also a confrontation with power, with The Power.
MJ: Can that confrontational attitude be counterproductive?
JS: A lot of activists look at media with fear and loathing and suspicion. They’re uncomfortable around journalists and think that they’re going to get screwed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We try to be as radical as we can, but be as public about it as we can. You are going to see our dirty underwear, but you’re also going to see that we’re good people. We plot and scheme and conspire to save the planet. We have a blast.
MJ: Because of Seattle, many people now associate direct action and the antiglobalization movement with violence and vandalism.
JS: I make a distinction between violence and destruction of property. Violence to me is against living things. But inanimate objects? I think you can be destructive, you can use vandalism strategically. It may be violence under the law, but I just don’t think it’s violence.
MJ: How can vandalism be strategic?
JS: It depends on how you do it. It’s going to scare my grandmother if you have a bunch of black-clad guys beating up on a McDonald’s. It looks violent. But if you had 12 grandmothers beat up on the same McDonald’s and stand around afterward and answer questions about why they did it — it provokes people in a different way.
MJ: Has your approach changed at all since you joined Ruckus?
JS: I think in the past we came off as being dire and frantic and too often saying, “No no no, turn back, fuck you!” to our adversaries. I think now we can still be confrontational, but in a way that allows corporations to do what’s right. Not backing them into a corner and vilifying them.
MJ: How different is Ruckus-style direct action from the nonviolent protests in the ’60s South?
JS: Comparing us to people who were organizing sit-ins in the ’60s? They were risking their lives. It’s nothing like that. Those are giants. We’re lucky enough to stand on their shoulders right now. We’re spoiled kids.