The Ruckus Society trains and provides tools and support to organizers in the areas of environment, human rights and social justice through the “strategic use of creative, nonviolent direct action.”
The society uses more than 150 trainers to build partnerships with a variety of organizations within communities, from professional groups to high school students, to facilitate the sharing of resources and strategies with the belief these methods are “the most powerful way we as individuals can contribute to actualizing positive social change.” But critics call the group the “violent version of Forrest Gump,” training protest industry footsoldiers for newsworthy events that often lead to injuries and property damage.
The group was formed in 1995 after President Bill Clinton signed into law a pro-logging bill known as the Timber Salvage Rider. In response, environmental activists Mike Roselle and Howard “Twilly” Cannon held a weeklong training camp for other activists to organize and discuss how to combat the legislation, although they were unsuccessful in overturning the rider. The success of the camp from a protest organizational standpoint, however, sparked the creation of The Ruckus Society.
Critics have accused the group of inciting violent protests that have included rioting. At the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, rioters smashed windows, set fires and overturned vehicles. John Sellers, then the director of The Ruckus Society, represented protesters when the terms of their arrests were being discussed with police, later telling USA Today, “We kicked the WTO’s butt all over the Northwest.”
Ruckus was heavily involved in protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where 15 police officers were injured and 23 police cars received damage.
In its own training handouts, Ruckus touts direct action in protest campaigns that includes “tactics to resist the unjust system. Some of these may be legal strategies while others may be outside of the law, such as the use of civil disobedience.”
Ruckus Society has reportedly been involved in Black Lives Matter-inspired demonstrations. The Ruckus Society was integral in assisting “Ferguson October,” a weekend of rallies, marches, and meetings about social activism in the St. Louis area in October 2014 following the fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson that summer.
On April 10, 2015, as part of the Ferguson Commemoration Weekend’s day of civil disobedience, a group called The Artivists used helium balloons sold to them by The Ruckus Society to float a 40-foot banner that read “Racism Still Lives Here” in the air near the Gateway Arch. A coordinator from Ruckus traveled to St. Louis to train the activists and others served as legal liaisons to discuss the legalities of the action with the police.
Prior to the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, The Ruckus Society worked with other groups to build a banner wall in front of Quicken Loans Arena, site of the convention, decorated with anti-Donald Trump drawings to “wall off Trump’s politics of hate.” However, the city implemented strict security measures and the protesters instead wore ponchos painted like brick walls featuring the words “Wall Off Trump.”
Ruckus joined dozens of like-minded groups and thousands of progressives at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offices in several major cities in November 2016 to encourage President Barack Obama to reject the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Indigenous People’s Power Project, an offshoot of Ruckus, worked to organize peaceful protests of that 1,172-mile oil pipeline alongside the Lakota Sioux people at the Standing Rock reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, in November and December 2016, calling themselves “protectors, not protesters.” The Corps of Engineers chose to deny the permit for the planned route that would cross under Lake Oahe, saying it would begin environmental impact studies for the best alternate route.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to revive the pipeline and to expedite environmental review of other projects, calling the permitting process “incredibly cumbersome, long, [and] horrible.”
Sharon Lungo serves as executive director, having been a trainer with Ruckus since 2001. She is a founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Power Project, helped organize the Mobilization for Climate Justice West, and has served on the coordinating committee of the Global Women’s Strike. The organization reported total compensation for her in 2014 as $37,000 on its IRS Form 990.
Sellers, the former director, is now the president of Ruckus’ board of directors. He also serves as executive director and is a co-founder of Other 98, which states as its mission “kicking corporate asses for the harder working classes.” Sellers directed the Washington, D.C., office of Greenpeace for much of the 1990s and has also coordinated efforts of such groups as United SteelWorkers, Service Employees International Union, and Students for a Free Tibet.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Ruckus isn’t required to reveal its donors, although reports of funding over the years have shed some light on who aligns with the group. For example, Western Journalism reported in 2009 about a $200,000 donation from the left-leaning Tides Foundation to Ruckus. Discover the Networks reported $150,000 in funding from Tides Foundation to Ruckus between 1999 and 2004.
Sellers has said that CNN and TBS founder Ted Turner “carried Ruckus on his back” the first few years after its founding. Other celebrity backers have included Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, The Doors drummer John Densmore and (now split) Hollywood power couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.