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Tell us who you think should be recognized in this special
On a rickety porch in the residential outskirts of Washington,
D.C., battered puppets representing Bill Clinton, James
Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, and Jiang Zemin,
president of China, are holding an unlikely meeting. But
these giant papier-mâché men, with their distorted smiles
and comically extended giant hands, weren't built for
porch chat they're just taking a break after acting
as stand-ins for the real thing in protest after protest
against infringements of human, labor, and environmental
it's no surprise to find them outside Nadine Bloch's house,
where hundreds of puppets are built every year and many
protests on the nation's capital are planned. Direct action
trainer, environmental maven, community organizer and
educator, Bloch has mastered the art of mocking the powerful.
Bloch's main work these days is training activists in
the tenets of nonviolent civil disobedience using the
models of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and teaching
the techniques of creative resistance in the tradition
of Agitprop (the early 1900s movement that used art as
a political education tool for the Communist party). She's
a trainer with the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which
advocates direct action-conscious disobedience, often
involving breaking the law in order to bring attention
to an issue. At Ruckus' direct action camps, which were
launched in 1995, Bloch and others teach the nitty-gritty
physical techniques of protest (how to create human blockades,
how to practice jail solidarity) and provide legal information
and media skills like using puppets to make political
points. "We try to come up with a symbol that's perfect
to convey the message of sweatshop labor or the complicated
issues of trade," says Bloch. "When you look at an environmental
crisis you can just say, oh too bad, they're cutting the
forests down. But if you go one step behind it, you might
find out that there's a multinational entity and
behind that, maybe there's a lending institution. Maybe
it's the reason for the massive flooding in Mozambique
last year. It's about more than just saving the little
animals in the forest."
Bloch first became interested in environmental and social
justice issues through her mother, a nurse and teacher
who strongly believed in the importance of giving back
to their Connecticut community. But Bloch really got mobilized
as an activist while studying the ecological effects of
nuclear war at Cornell University. When President Carter
started talking about reinstating the draft, Bloch began
to question Cold War armament strategies. In the early
eighties, she participated in a series of Women's Pentagon
Actions against U.S. militarization, in which hundreds
of women used performance protest outside the Pentagon
and were arrested.
In college, Bloch also learned to sail during an educational
semester at sea, and loved it so much that she got her
captain's license. Later, as a mate on the Hudson River
Clearwater sloop, where volunteers run on-board educational
and advocacy programs, Bloch became hooked into the political
sailing community. In the early nineties, she took a staff
position with Greenpeace and coordinated fleets of ships,
campaigned against toxic pollution, and led some dangerous
and innovative land-based actions, such as scaling New
York's Time-Life Building. Bloch and two others climbed
about 20 stories without ropes, clamping to the side of
the building with window washer's bumpers to hang a banner
from the building in protest of Time magazine,
which was one of the biggest purchasers of chlorine-bleached
paper in the world. Her bravery is legendary: J.R. Roof,
the former worldwide director of Greenpeace and Bloch's
former boss, says, "If I ever wanted to go to war, Nadine
would be first on my list to call. She's tough as nails."
Indeed, some of Bloch's actions look a lot like war. When
Bloch and three other Greenpeace campaigners sailed inflatable
rafts across 18 miles of the Pacific Ocean to Moruroa,
a nuclear test site in French Polynesia, French commandos
immediately came after them, hacking at their boats with
machetes strapped onto poles. The Greenpeacers were deported
to Tahiti, but they didn't have any identifying information
on them-a staple tactic of direct activists, making it
harder to process them and were eventually let
go. The testing didn't happen in Moruroa that day, and
shortly after, the French stopped testing nuclear weapons
In addition to her commitments to Greenpeace and Ruckus,
Bloch has worked as a training consultant, traveling all
over the world teaching groups about inventive political
action. Her clients have included leaders of the Zimbabwean
resistance movement against President Robert Mugabe, the
National Organization for Women, and Business Leaders
for Sensible Priorities, a group whose goal is to cut
the defense budget by 15 percent. "One of my cardinal
principles is belief in change," she says. "Cultural resistance
empowers people to act out the future we want to see:
we can tear down the prison walls, we can revolutionize
the corporation into an institution that cares about people."
Athletic and compact, with a long thatch of unkempt curly
hair, Bloch effuses energy that's as contagious as her
giddy, almost manic laugh. She has a clarity and commitment
about her that makes you believe that it is possible to
Take Seattle. Not many thought it was possible that people
in the streets could overwhelm the power of big money,
but that's exactly what happened at the World Trade Organization
summit in 1999, where protestors brought the meetings
to a halt. But Bloch believed it could be done. She was
one of the leaders of activist training sessions for Seattle,
where a couple of thousand people learned the skills of
nonviolent direct action from the Ruckus Society and other
groups. When she hit the streets with those trained activists
plus nearly 50,000 others Bloch marched
alongside the 15-foot-tall papier-mâché female "Liberation"
puppet that she had constructed. On the second day of
the protests, Bloch was locked in what activists mockingly
dubbed a "first amendment-free zone" and was pepper sprayed,
tear-gassed, and arrested, along with several hundred
others. Those who weren't hauled off the streets that
day gagged the mouth of the puppet to show how their free
speech had been restricted.
But thanks to sensationalist media coverage, the abiding
memories of Seattle are not of elaborate puppets or peaceful
demonstrators, but of rioting and looting by about 20
people who had little or nothing to do with the protests
that Bloch and others had been planning for months. Since
Seattle, protestors have thronged to the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings in Washington,
D.C. held last spring; the Republican and Democratic National
Conventions last summer; and the presidential Inauguration
Day parade. "We get a lot of commentary in the media that
the left is fragmented, and in fact that's the game of
the corporate media, to deny that we are working as a
whole while we are each taking on different issues," says
Bloch. She does not see the left as fragmented;
activism against global debt, corporate welfare, the "selection"
of the Republican president are all related to fighting
"the overarching infiltration of the corporate agenda
into our daily lives," she says. Bloch also believes that
the economic policies of George W. Bush, the World Bank,
and the IMF increase the rights of corporations at the
expense of individuals and the environment. Free trade
agreements encourage companies to move their operations
wherever labor is cheap and wherever they can buy their
way out of environmental regulations. "Free trade is the
catch phrase for corporate trading in a way that doesn't
take into account people," says Bloch. "And that trickles
down, to the level of them smashing our puppets." Her
hand-painted shirt reads PUPPETRY IS NOT A CRIME,
and it's not a joke. Before recent demonstrations in D.C.
and Philadelphia, the police raided warehouses where puppets
were being made, destroyed the protest materials, and
arrested many of the "puppetistas" inside.
But what's another arrest to Bloch? Even her year-old
daughter was arrested three times in utero. "At seven-months
pregnant, Nadine was one of the key coordinators of the
IMF protests in D.C.," says Ruckus Society director John
Sellers, who also credits Bloch with saving his life when,
in 1992, they climbed the Sears Tower in Chicago on the
fiftieth anniversary of the first sustained nuclear reaction.
Sellers got tangled in the lines as they were unfurling
a banner, and Bloch, hanging 300 feet above the ground
with him, calmly talked him free. "As much as you can
be a leader in a consensus-led movement, Nadine is a leader,"
Sellers says. Fierce communitarian that she is, Bloch
believes everyone can lead in some way. "Sometimes you
get someone who never really thought about the nuclear
arms race or who doesn't care or whatever, and they will
bake a covered dish and bring it to a potluck. And then
they are drawn into the whole process from a place where
they feel comfortable." Bloch hopes that as the movement
grows, it will become more inclusive, so it will bring
the issues, not personalities, to the forefront. "The
police officer on the street can change and so can you.
There's lots of ways to go, lots of work to do."
- Miranda Kennedy is research editor at Ms.