What do bonfires, bicycles, and umbrellas have in common?
Absolutely nothing—except at Reed, where these disparate phenomena (and many others) are indissolubly linked to the shadowy organization known as RKSK.
The Reed Kollege Shit Kollectiv is one of the most popular organizations on campus. It organizes an annual noise parade, holds regular bonfires/potato bakes, and takes credit/blame for communal dispersal of minibikes, umbrellas, fuzzy slippers, smoking jackets, and Furbys. Its escapades include lollipop gardens sprouting up overnight on the Quad. But the origins of RKSK have been cloaked in mystery—until now.
As far as anyone can tell, RKSK started with an informal “wouldn’t it be cool if” discussion. Andy Wallace ’03 was sitting in the student union one evening in spring 2001 with a bunch of students savoring a free cup of java from the Paradox Café, which gives leftover coffee away at the end of the night rather than pouring it down the sink. Wouldn’t it be cool, someone mused, if the logic of the coffee giveaway could be broadened?
Pretty soon, a group of conspirators—including John Saller ’03, Jenn Dolan ’02, Ginny Griffin ’03, April Holm ’03, Peter McMahan ’03, Rose Spitler ’03, and Ezra Goldman ’03—hatched a plot.
“When we had this idea to give stuff away for free, we thought it would be fun to make it faux-Communist, and then all the propaganda and everything else that developed out of it was kind of a natural evolutionary process from it,” Ezra says.
The first couple months of RKSK were “pretty fast and loose.” Ginny remembers going to the Goodwill bins with her RKSK comrades to bring back tons—literally tons—of cheap, amazing stuff to give away free.
The first things to catapult the club’s popularity, however, were the kids’ bikes.
“The idea was that they would be efficient to use to get around campus, and no one would want to steal them because they were tiny and useless for off-campus use,” Ginny recalls.
RKSK’s minibike mastermind was Ezra, who’s now, appropriately enough, starting a San Francisco–based company called UpShift aimed at reinventing car sharing. Ezra had visited an early bike-sharing enterprise in 1995 in Copenhagen.
Operatives bought used minibikes by the dozen from thrift stores and distributed them around campus free of charge, paying special attention to pink girly bikes with ribbons on the handlebars that made for entertaining riding.
After that, RKSK branched out into stuffed animals. In late 2001, Goodwill bins began to fill up with giant quantities of Furbys, the fluffy toy owlish creatures that were the dernier cri of the millennial toddler set. Furbys started materializing here and there on campus, in ones or twos, and then they seemed to multiply . . . until there were astonishing numbers of them everywhere, including those hanging upside down from nearly every bike seat. Eventually, RKSK launched an Offishal Furby-Annihilation Squad when stuffed animals took over Eliot Hall during the reign of interim president Peter Steinberger [political science 1973–].
Bill Wood ’04, Tam Failor ’04, and Dag Arneson ’05 were part of the key “second generation” of Reedies who found a strong foothold for the organization during the administration of president Colin Diver [2002–12]. During commencement, operatives handed Diver a life-sized stuffed bull branded with the hammer and sickle. Other stunts included a chicken-wire-enclosed saxophone effigy of Kenny G (who, for the record, was and still is alive).
How to explain one of RKSK’s defining characteristics, the substitution of “K” for “C”? Reed’s tradition of simplified spelling goes back to President William Trufant Foster [1910–19], but this particular lexical tic can be traced to Andy and John. John was doing an independent study on how traditions (real and fabricated) helped create national identities, a phenomenon he deliberately replicated with RKSK. “It’s part of the silly, grandiose, mock-propagandistic writing style used on Red Menace,” says party historian and current RKSK leader Sam Liebow ’14, referring to the group’s email list.
No matter how you spell it, RKSK has proven a durable Reed institution. Its annual noise parade typically opens the academic year with a bang, and its ongoing stealth operations provide a welcome breath of whimsy through the April rain.