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Activists Gather at Summer Camp

June 19, 1998

MIDDLEBURG, Va. (AP) _ Summer camp for activists teaches physical skills, legal tactics, nonviolence techniques, political theater, and, most importantly, that participants are not alone in political protesting.

It seems the people who practice direct nonviolent action often are not among the most loved people in town.

Abigail Abrash, 32, says she often has felt isolated in her work. Brice Smedley, 22, recalls how he was physically ejected from stores in Idaho during the battles with timber companies. Ritva Nybacka, a 50-year-old Swede, admitted the lengthy battle to pressure China into letting go of Tibet has carried the threat of burnout.

Camp organizer John Sellers sees the summer camp in rural Virginia’s hunt country as a chance to bring together the different elements of the political spectrum’s left wing.

``It’s a gathering of the tribes, the human rights tribe and the gay rights tribe and the environmental rights tribe,″ Sellers said. ``I would love to think we’re playing a small role in reconnecting the Left.″

Over the years, the movement that once defined a generation has lost its sense of community, he said.

At a farm in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, summer camp for human rights activists also taught some basic skills of protest.

Do not let the vegetarian fare, blue jeans, yoga lessons and communal spirit fool you: This is not a retro 1960s theme party.

``We’re looking less to revive the ’60s than to revive the ’90s,″ said Sellers. He’s with the group Ruckus, widely known in activist circles for its environmental activist boot camps held since 1995. ``We want an approach that is more radical, more confrontational, but at the same time coming from a place of nonviolence. We want to create that kind of political will.″

The five-day camp, which had a human rights theme for the first time, is being held all week on the grounds of Glen Ora farm, about 50 miles west of Washington. The 150-acre farm is owned by Elaine Broadhead, whose family once rented it to President Kennedy as a weekend retreat.

The camp, co-sponsored by Ruckus, the Underground Project and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, offers training in rope climbing (for hanging banners), nonviolent confrontation, legal workshops, political theater, media training, even use of the Internet.

The camp costs more than $30,000 to stage, paid for by foundation grants, but is free to the 100 or so participants. They are screened to ensure they either have protest experience or at least a legitimate reason to attend.

``We are selective,″ said Sellers, 31. ``We, as activists, need an ethic of excellence. There’s a lot of shoddy direct (nonviolent) action that gives direct action a bad name.″

Abrash of the RFK Center added: ``We don’t want just to be heard. We want to be effective.″

While the camp’s principal organizers are too young to be veterans of the 1960s protests, Ruckus director Mike Roselle cut his teeth in the ’60s, co-founded ``Earth First!,″ the pioneering group in the radical environmental movement, and led Greenpeace’s first direct-action team.

The goal of direct nonviolent action is finding an entree onto the nightly news as a means of combating the millions of dollars poured into issues campaigns by corporations. And while these efforts often are not appreciated by the public, Project Underground’s Steve Kretzmann notes that such movements are part of an American tradition, dating from the Boston Tea Party.

``This kind of democracy has to have the capability to hear criticism and make changes based on the opinions of its citizens, pushing the limits of freedom of speech,″ Kretzmann said. ``We are going to do what it takes to make sure these issues are heard.″

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