Making a living teaching civil disobedience; Activist: Han Shan's job is instructing protesters how to kick up a righteous ruckus.


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.

"Politicians think they can reinvigorate Baltimore ... by clamoring for corporate dollars and investment in the tourist industry that will make a city livable on the weekends for outsiders, for people who come in from the suburbs for a few hours on Saturday night, and then go home and leave the people who have grown up in those communities with nothing for the rest of the week," he says. "That's not the way to lift up a community."

Shan's education in social justice was rooted in his middle-class childhood in Anneslie, near the Baltimore city-county line. The son of a nurse and a clothing salesman, Shan watched his parents strive to provide a good standard of living for him and his younger sister. Observing their quest for material satisfaction prompted him, he says, to examine his own values. As a teen-ager, Shan sang in a punk-rock band. It was within that community that his social consciousness was nurtured.

"I remember first understanding the apartheid struggle from punk kids who would protest at the South African embassy, and these incredibly radical percussion protests," he recalls.

At age 17, after graduating from Towson High School, Shan left Maryland for the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied painting and philosophy. He completed a bachelor of fine arts, then moved to San Francisco, working with humanitarian organizations and studying Buddhism. About five years ago, he adopted the name given to him by his Buddhism teacher. Pronounced "hon shon," it means "cold mountain" in Chinese and was taken from a poet he admired.

Shan says his involvement in activism happened gradually and was more an eventual realization than a sudden epiphany.

His real entry came in March 1997, when he attended a Ruckus Society camp in Arizona. Shan remained in touch, and when a friend stepped down from one of Ruckus Society's few paid positions, he was offered the job.

He joined the staff last summer and hasn't had an address since, leading a nomadic existence traveling around North America for action camps, meetings and demonstrations. It is, he says, "the greatest life anyone can imagine."

In an era of high-tech opportunity, Shan could, like so many of his generation, seek the rewards of a lucrative career, but his inspiration is elsewhere. "I do this work because I'm compelled to and because I feel a profound responsibility to, especially as a citizen of the U.S.," he says. "Long-term, I just want to build a more just society. I just want to be on the right side of history. I don't have any financial goals. I just want to be happy."

For the next few days, Shan's thoughts are focused only on shutting down the IMF and World Bank meetings -- peacefully, of course. He'll gauge the success or failure of those efforts on whether they get more people talking about corporate responsibility and the need for more accountability.

"If I use that as an index," he says, "we've already won."

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