By Taffy Lee Williams
This article appears in the October, 2005 edition of SATYA magazine which includes a tribute to this great American activist and hero.
Ben leading the WTO TURTLES, Seattle, 1999
Photo Courtesy Animal Welfare Institute.
How does one define "activist?" One might say simply two words: "Ben White." Working tirelessly for the environment, for wildlife and social justice, Ben repeatedly risked his life leaving a legacy of decades-long direct action that has become a standard to which many activists aspire.
One of Ben's earliest "hardcore" actions was at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Thanks to "insider" information, hearing of aquarium staff taunting and teasing a male beluga whale, Ben headed for NYC. Aquarium staff members were allegedly taking bets as to who could last the longest in the beluga tank with the "vicious male." Ben put on a white lab coat and transformed himself temporarily as "Dr. White from Sea World." When Ben demanded, "Show me the beluga!" he was taken to the tank where he withheld his anger and appraised the situation at hand. Then, under cover of darkness, in the early morning hours, Ben found his way to the whale and in a leaky wetsuit jumped into the icy beluga tank.
Ben waited in the almost freezing waters and shivered, for several hours, before aquarium personnel and the Coney Island police were able to retrieve him. Now this was direct action at its finest, NYC-style, by a Seattleite none-the-less, who cared less for his own well-being than for the oppressed, maltreated and pitiful beluga whale, a prisoner in a sterile, concrete soundless world. Ben, the hero. Ben, the activist. The media jumped on the story, and the aquarium oppression was exposed to a previously gullible, non-judgmental public.
Photo Courtesy Animal Welfare Institute: Marching against the WTO, 1999;
International Day of Protest against the Japanese Drive Fisheries, 2003:
Photo Courtesy Sea Shepherd.
It was just something he HAD to do. It was a dark night in Taiji, Japan, where a group of 25-40 dolphins were trapped in a shallow bay by the infamous JAPANESE DRIVE FISHERIES. This is Japan at its worst. Just 26 whalers in 13 small boats "drive" pods of dolphins, often hundreds at a time, into the shallow bays where they drop nets and begin a bloody carnage that is like a scene from a holocaust movie, dolphin style. Aquarium owners, who subsidize the events, pick out the prettiest, unblemished few, while those not chosen are slaughtered on the beaches. The seas turn red with the blood of dying dolphins, destined for watery graves or to become a plate of sushi, despite mercury and methyl-mercury levels up to five times their allowable limits under Japanese law. Dolphins are seen as competitors for fish that are becoming increasingly scarce given global over-fishing that is affecting western Pacific stocks. An opportunity to slaughter dolphins is seized during the dolphin "drives" while aquarium owners boast to the public they are saving a few dolphins' lives. In return, the fishermen are paid far beyond what they would receive for the sale of dolphin meat. Although they live to be 50 years or more in the wild, 50% of all dolphins die within 7 years in captivity. As Ben was well aware, the resulting financial loss compels operators to obtain dolphins by any means, even if it means virtual slaughter on the beach. He found his way with wire cutters in hand and while armed guards patrolled on the cliffs above, dove down in the blackened seas and cut through the barriers to free the dolphins. Had he been discovered, this master of self-giving would have been stopped literally dead in his tracks. That wasn't to be. More direct action beckoned.
To stop loggers in ancient forests, Ben slept in old growth trees, and trained others to do the same. Using his skills as an arborist, Ben scaled buildings to hang banners exposing circus cruelty. In full view of a Navy warship he jumped into the Pacific Ocean waters to stop the testing of military sonar so powerful it can cause the brains and lungs of whales and dolphins hundreds of miles away to literally explode. Once again, Ben could have been killed had the sonar been turned on and begun its deadly hum. Later, Ben plunged into the depths of the Delaware Bay attempting to save 300 dolphins during calving season by covering another navy acoustical seismic killing machine.
Ironically, it wasn't these almost deadly actions that Ben is most known for. He received world renown as the creator of the marching Seattle WTO turtles, a symbol of the environmental destruction sanctioned by multi-national corporations and international trade agreements. Whether it was making dolphin costumes, fighting for indigenous rights, or working to protect whales during International Whaling Commission meetings, Ben continued a quiet but resolute heroism that shows how powerful and important activism is. The tradition must and will continue.
Ben's life was that of a powerful warrior, a character rarely seen among human beings today. How very few are willing to take these kinds of risks for the things that need defending, for the wrongs that need to be made "right." In Ben's case one can honestly say that the world is a better place for his being here. This great man and heroic activist will not be forgotten.
WE STAND IN MEMORY OF BEN WHITE TODAY.
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