John Sellers is a master of the larger-than-life political gesture. He's climbed the Sears Tower, unfurled a giant banner over the Golden Gate Bridge and sneaked onto the roof of the World Bank building, all to get media attention for various progressive causes. Sellers, 39, is the executive director of the Oakland-based Ruckus Society, which offers disciples of nonviolent direct action state-of-the-art training in blockading, urban-building climbing, radio communication, and other skills. In 1999, Ruckus achieved international notoriety as one of the key organizers behind the anti-World Trade Organization demonstration in Seattle where 50,000 activists surrounded the WTO meeting site. Sellers blames the violence on the Seattle police, saying, "When people talk about the riots in Seattle, it was the cops who had the riot. It was a full-on cop riot. They just completely lost their shit." For his part, Sellers sees himself as following in the footsteps of such civil disobedience heroes as Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks -- with an updated, media-savvy spin. Sellers met his wife, Genevieve, during the Golden Gate Bridge protest; they have twins who were born on election day, 2004. He has lost exact count of the times he's been arrested during his career, but he estimates it's between 30 and 40.
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I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania called Phoenixville -- old steel town, probably one of the first. Made the steel for the Brooklyn Bridge. The steel mill closed when I was a little kid. My mom was a fourth-grade teacher, and my pop made tires in a rubber mill for Goodrich Tires.
I remember this one big family road trip we took to the Everglades. I had an environmental epiphany there. I was eight or nine years old. This beautiful park ranger was giving us an ecology tour. She took us out in this marsh and had us all take our shoes off and walk into this marsh. The mud was squeezing between our toes as she talked about how this ecosystem was dependent on the water that flowed. The Everglades was this giant, wide, slow-moving river. This marsh supported the darter snail, which was the staple food for the whooping cranes, these unapologetic, uncompromising birds that wouldn't eat anything else. They flew across the planet when they migrated, and this was an important stop for them. Because industry was carving up the Everglades, the darter snails were getting fewer and farther between, and that was impacting these whooping cranes. I guess a light bulb went off in my head. My sister was also inspired by what she was hearing. When we got home she totally shamed me by writing to our senator. A couple of years afterward, I was lying on the floor of the den and watching 60 Minutes and there was this piece on Greenpeace. I watched these crazy hippie commandos put themselves in front of grenade-tipped whale harpoons in their little boats and hang from oil rigs and sail in nuclear-test zones. I could feel the hair standing up on my arms and the back of my head. And that is when I decided what I wanted to do when I grew up.
During my first couple of years in college, I had the zeal of the recently converted. I was such a self-righteous shit. My dad once took me out for a nice prime rib dinner, and I was such a little smartass as I tried to break down capitalism for him. I wanted to make him understand how he was a puppet of the system by working in the tire factory. Yet here was my dad working twelve-hour days from midnight until the afternoon and busting his ass to get me to college, and I gotta tell him that he was part of the exploited proletariat. We definitely had some awkward years there for a while.
After graduating from college and working in Australia, Sellers returned to the United States, where he got a job canvassing for Greenpeace.
After about two or three months in the Philadelphia office, I got fast-tracked and became a field manager. I was now driving a van full of canvassers. They were mostly white kids. One of the women in the office was an Amish girl who had defected from Pennsylvania Dutch culture. There was a Quaker girl who practiced witchcraft. There was a lot of turnover in this canvassing world. Lots of drinking and partying. The whole reason that I was willing to canvass was that I wanted to do direct actions for Greenpeace. I wanted to sail with their ships.
Greenpeace at that time had a nonviolent action team. Still does. There was this cement kiln facility in Bath, Pennsylvania, which was not too far from Philly. They were using toxic flammable waste to fire the kiln. They had actually received a commendation from the U.S. government for creatively disposing toxic waste. They had expanded their permit so they could burn chlorinated compounds. Our toxics campaign targeted this place, but in order to scout the facility, Greenpeace asked me and another guy to drive out there and pose as documentary filmmakers from Temple University. We told the company that we were making a documentary on the re-emergence of industrialism on the East Coast. We actually got the company president on film. He took us inside, bragged about his government award. The guy was just totally delighted and honored to be in the film. We mapped out the whole facility, drove around it, filmed it, looked at all the entrances where the actual waste trucks were coming in. Really dialed it in. I think we did a real thorough job. Greenpeace's East Coast action coordinator was so impressed with our scouting job that I was invited to be in the actual action itself. So that became my first action.
We went to a farm in upstate Pennsylvania and trained for three or four days. Our plan was that we would deploy a cargo truck at the most important entrance where the toxic waste came into the facility. We'd block that entrance and jump out of the truck and cover it with banners explaining the toxic-waste issue. We'd then chain ourselves up under the truck. I was working with another woman who was a toxics campaign intern from New York. She was going to be my partner. It was late fall and we wore big padded union suits. We cut sleeping bag pads to fit inside our suits so that we could lay on the cold ground for hours. We were wearing diapers. We also had a long steel tube to lock our arms in. It was cut at a right angle and welded together so that it could go over the axle, and we would each place one of our arms inside the tube from opposite directions.
We ended up pulling off the action and chaining ourselves under the truck. Because we each had an arm up over the rear axle of the truck, we were on both sides of the tire; they couldn't move the truck without running one of us over. It took them about eight hours to cut us out. They had to remove the floorboards from inside the truck. The president came out and recognized me. He was so pissed off. The state troopers were playing good cop and bad cop. At the end of the day we got arrested. It was amazing and inspiring to have crossed that line, to do something where you are heeding a higher moral calling. The U.S. toxics campaign at that time was just really kicking butt. And they actually got a full-blown moratorium on the construction of any new incinerators. That particular cement kiln was later declined a permit to burn even more dangerous compounds.
Anyway, after we did this action at the kiln, Greenpeace fast-tracked me toward more responsibility and more action training. I got invited to what turned out to be the last action camp that Greenpeace ever did. It became the model that Ruckus stole or borrowed. It was held outside of Silver Springs, Florida, at a children's camp. The action camp was just remarkable. There were 150 people from all over the world. We practiced urban-climbing techniques and banner hanging on scaffolding four or five stories high. There was a lake where we practiced boat-driving skills with inflatable Zodiacs. Some of the old dogs were there, the people who had inspired me when I was ten years old. I met Mike Roselle, who is the main founder of Ruckus. He was my nonviolence trainer. He talked about mass civil disobedience in which they would get hundreds or even thousands of people arrested, and then the action would continue into the jails and clog up the system itself. It was an awe-inspiring nine days.
One of my biggest climbing actions was the Sears Tower in 1992. A friend of mine, Claire Greensfelder, who worked in the No Nukes campaign for Greenpeace, started thinking about the fiftieth anniversary of the first sustained nuclear reaction, which happened on December 2, 1942, at the University of Chicago underneath the squash court. We knew that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nuke advocates from around the world would be in Chicago to celebrate fifty years of nuclear energy. There was no way we were going to let their pro-nuke pep rally go off unchallenged. We wanted to metaphorically piss on their atomic bonfire. Because Chicago's symbol to the world is the Sears Tower, we decided that we would climb it and hang a banner.
We started training one month out. In most building-climbing situations, you try to sneak up to the roof and then rappel down. But in this climb we decided to work with these crazy engineers. The coordinator of this climb was Dave Hollister, who designed some aluminum devices that we would use as cams inside the window-washing tracks. This would allow us to start at the base of the Sears Tower and climb up the outside of the building. It is 110 stories. We had no illusions that we were going to climb up the whole side of the building, although you could with these devices. If we climbed the whole building and hung the banner at the top, nobody would have been able to see it. So our strategy was to climb about thirty floors up, or about 400 feet off the ground.
There were four of us. We actually built a piece of window-washing track in Washington at the Greenpeace equipment center where we practiced climbing. Because we were going to be climbing the side of the Sears Tower in one of the windiest cities in the United States in December, and in the freezing cold, we bought $3,000 worth of cold-weather gear at REI. Once in Chicago, we got a big team to help us with deployment. We got to the side of the building about 5 A.M. It was pitch dark. We looked like spacemen in all our gear. We brought along these big stoppers to stop the window-washing carts from coming down -- because this French climber guy nicknamed Spider Dan had gone up the Hancock Building, and the police came down on the window-washing cart and used high-powered hoses to try to blast him while he was free-climbing the building. The mayor of Chicago had to come out and basically save this guy's life by telling these cops not to blast him off the side of the building. We were painfully aware that we did not want any kind of dynamic confrontation while we were on the side of the Sears Tower.
We put our devices in the window-washing track and started to climb. Right around the first or second floor -- we are just twelve feet above the ground -- all of us start getting stuck in the track, because it was a slightly different design than the track we had been using. We had to take these screws out of our devices. Three of us got unstuck. I am lifelined to the woman next to me. Her name is Nadine Bloch. We have a rope between us in case one of us falls. Bill Richardson is our pack horse. He is carrying a seventy-pound pack up with the banner, a 2,500-square-foot banner. It's massive. He starts climbing. Diana Wilson is the fourth climber. She literally got stuck for the entire day. She could not get her device free. So she spent the day outside the second floor.
Right around the sixth floor, I get stuck again because the track is a little too narrow. The pins are stopping me from ascending. Just then the firemen roll up in a big ladder engine. I needed to get up around the eighth or ninth floor before the ladder gets there. I am wailing with one device on the side of the building. I took an industrial suction cup, which we all carried as a third point of protection, and placed the cup on the glass. I set it and then tied myself off to it so that I could safely take my cams out of the track. I finally got the damn pins out and I start moving. The ladder is coming up the building. I'm just humping it up the side of the building to get out of harm's way. I end up getting away. I tied back on to Nadine so we would be lifelined to one another. We went up to the thirtieth floor and began deploying the banner. We now are working with three different ropes to hold the banner down and secure it to the side of the building. It's about twenty below zero with the wind-chill factor. It starts to snow and it's blowing a gale. Snow is flying up the side, kinda going up into your nose. We have been up there for several hours now. We are trying to pull the banner down and deploy it on the side of the building. All the different ropes are just spinning around below me in the wind; they were all going through one carabiner on my harness. This gust of wind blows up the side of the building and catches the banner like a giant sail. Kind of like parasailing. As the banner fills with wind, it blows the ropes up and they all get stuck in this carabiner, and I literally start to sail off the building. My climbing devices were designed to keep me safe by my weight pressing them down in the track. All of a sudden my weight is coming off the devices and I am going in reverse, up the building. That was the scariest moment in my life. I could have been pulled right off the building. I didn't know what was going to happen. A 2,500-square-foot sail pushes a really big boat through the water. It was probably catching a thirty-knot wind in it. I was paralyzed with fear. Nadine was screaming, "Get that goddamn carabiner off your harness!" For a split second the wind died down and I was able to take the carabiner, unclip it, and untangle myself from the whole rats' nest of ropes and carabiner. Ten minutes later, we were deploying the banner. Pulling it down nice and taut and tying it onto the building. It was an incredible moment.
The story went global. It made the front pages of newspapers in Japan and China and Australia, with the image of our huge banner. It was a giant, ominous-looking mushroom cloud with a skull peering out of it. Below the mushroom cloud were missiles and radioactive casks of waste. It said: "End the 50 Year Nuclear Nightmare. Nuclear Free Future Now!"
There were a thousand people gathered underneath us. This was spontaneous. We hadn't called for a rally. People were chanting, "Go Greenpeace! Go Greenpeace!" We did a bunch of phone interviews with TV and radio stations while still hanging off the side of the tower. I talked to people inside the building. The windows weren't open. We were just yelling to one another. One of the women called my fiancée at the time and said, "Hey! Your fiancé is right outside the window of my office. I happen to work on the twenty-fourth floor."
Throughout the day, we had been communicating with the police by radio. We had a coordinator on the ground who allowed the cops to use our radio system to communicate with us. They had told us that we'd be arrested. We said we understood that. We were willing to take that responsibility. We had done everything possible to ensure both our own safety and the safety of everyone else. We had lanyards on everything so we wouldn't drop anything. We told the cops that we would be down by the end of the day, that they could arrest us then. We asked them not to endanger firefighters by sending them after us. By the end of the day, the banner had been shredded by the high wind. We stuffed it into different packs and climbed down. Oh man, I was exhausted when my feet touched the sidewalk after hanging out in the freezing cold for eight hours.
After discussing his role in the WTO protests in Seattle and the anti-old-growth logging Golden Gate Bridge action, Sellers talked about his experiences at the 2004 Republican Convention.
For the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, we worked with a super-cool local businessperson who allowed us to take over his office live/loft space in Chinatown. We brought along our state-of-the-art communications infrastructure. We had all kinds of scanners for scanning tactical police frequencies. We had this amazing network of cell phones using text messaging. We had a network of 900 cell phones that was coordinated with groups that had another 7,000 cell phones in networked loops, so that we could instantaneously communicate with all these people on the street and receive intelligence from those 7,000 people. We had encrypted chat rooms on-line. We had just an incredible communications hub -- helping people stay safe and be strategic and know where Republicans were having their corporate pep rallies at any time. We went there mainly to test-drive a bunch of technology we were working on. These emerging cell phone technologies are being used by citizen activists all over the world. Folks used text messaging in Spain after the 2004 train bombing to organize opposition overnight to the pro-war ruling Spanish party. It's the preferred method of communications for Chinese dissidents. There are billions of text messages being sent in China. It is really a hyper-democratic form of communications. Unlike computers, cell phones cross the digital divide because they are cheaper than landlines.
While we helped provide communications assistance to a lot of the folks who were doing different actions in New York, I was mostly staying off the streets. During the convention, my photo was flashed on ABC's "Nightline" by Ted Koppel as "one of the twenty most dangerous anarchists in the country." I ended up going on an unpermitted People's March from the United Nations on the East River over to the Republican convention at Madison Square Garden that was sponsored by Kensington Welfare Rights Union of Philadelphia. We helped do some of their communications. The march started out with probably about 2,000 people. By the time it went around the city to the Garden itself, it was probably only about 1,000 people. It was getting pretty crazy, and the cops were getting more and more provocative and aggressive. It was not a good scene. The cops didn't play fair. They would pen people inside these plastic mesh barriers, and then you had to defend yourself later in court. Hundreds of people were arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember walking away when I overheard two plainclothes cops talking. One said, "Who is that long-haired guy with John Sellers?" I realized we were under surveillance. And so we ended up putting a team in place to do counter-surveillance.
The cops saw that we were watching them. The streets were just crawling with different people. The feds were watching us. It was crazy -- snipers on roofs, pointing. We were waving to the snipers on the roofs. On the last night, I had taken a cab back to Chinatown and I was about to walk into the place where I was staying when some of our own counter-surveillance folks who were coming in behind me waved to the undercover cops in a van parked nearby. To their surprise, the cops rolled down the windows and said, "Hey, we want to meet Sellers. Come on, it's all over." So my friends came up to me and said that the undercover team of New York's finest who were watching me all week wanted to meet. The guys started yelling out of the van, "Yo, Sellers! C'mon, ya chickenshit!" I was like, all right. So I walked down there. I got in their van and we ended up having a great conversation. The guy in charge of the team was this really scrappy, funny Italian guy. He said, "Yo, John, I had a lot of money riding on you, dude. You were supposed to destroy this whole city." I asked, "What are you talking about, dude? I am a nonviolent guy." He said, "C'mon. You were supposed to destroy the whole town." I was like, "I dunno what you are talking about." It was pretty clear that they didn't know anything about me or Ruckus at all. I think they just got handed a file by the feds. They realized by the end of the convention that they had been given a bunch of bullshit by the feds. I've been convicted of a bunch of stuff. But it's all stuff I've been proud of. I have never been convicted of a felony. I've been charged with a bunch of felonies. A lot of times that is what they see when they get your record. They can say, "You've been charged with seventeen felonies." It doesn't mean you've been convicted of them. They try to make it sound as bad as they can. And so, these undercover cops wanted to know who we really were. We ended up hanging out for several hours.
In recent years, Ruckus has been requested to get involved with campaigns all over the world. But our focus at Ruckus is North America, not global. We live in the belly of the beast. We resist the urge to take our show internationally, because we have a responsibility living in America to work on the handles of power right here in this country. We feel that the rest of the world will benefit by making the United States a more democratic and just place, because America imposes its will on the world. We are certainly willing to share our stuff internationally. We've made our training manuals available online and open source so people can grab the information and use it.
In the short term, I am stepping back from the edge as far as risk-taking and jeopardizing my personal freedom. I've been in jail for decent stretches of time. I can imagine what it would be like to spend six months or a year or two in jail. I am not scared of that. But I am scared of not being with my children, especially right now. It is just so amazing to see them develop their little brains and watch their consciousness grow. I want to be around for that. I have a responsibility to them now.
Meanwhile, I think nonviolent civil disobedience has really been maligned. Even during the civil rights movement, profound violence was being done to nonviolent protesters. Oftentimes the violence done to people of nonviolent means is then turned around and projected back onto them, so it looks like they deserve what they got. That is certainly happening with the global justice movement. Then it's easier for protests to be dismissed or marginalized by the media, making it look like we are the ones who are unreasonable or criminal or violent in our tactics and purposes.
The people who leave the United States to go fight in our wars are often seen as patriots and heroes. While this is certainly true, I've felt for a long time that you don't have to kill to fight for your country. You don't have to leave the borders of your country to fight for your country. In fact, the people I have the greatest respect for are people who nonviolently fight for the heart and soul of this country from within its borders. They stay here and fight for democracy in the United States, because we now live in a country that is ruled by unaccountable corporations that are buying up our elected officials and are literally buying up election day itself. All of this corruption to our democracy is going on unfettered. There is a tremendous amount to lose if we allow our democracy to continue being undermined and corrupted. And so, I think the true patriots are here within our borders fighting for the promise of America. They are doing it creatively and nonviolently, exposing themselves to incredible repression and violence to fight for the true ideals of democracy that can and should exist in this country -- but don't.
If I can help in that struggle and do my small part, I love it. It's what I'm called to do. It's what I enjoy doing. It's incredibly satisfying and rewarding. I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I guess I'm a lifer. I am addicted to struggling with my friends for what we believe in and the values that we hold dear. I hate being framed as a protester by the corporate media which likes to really confuse things. I'm not just against things. I like to be talked about in the context of what I am for. I want a more democratic, more responsive government. A cleaner, healthier, more nurturing environment. A real sense of respect and justice from our legal system for everyone. Those are things that are worth fighting for.
Excerpted with permission from "Patriots Act: Voices of Dissent and the Risk of Speaking Out," by Bill Katovsky. The Lyons Press.