White: An Extraordinary Activist
By Taffy Lee Williams
Ben raising a banner
in protest of animal abuse at a Ringling Brothers and Barnum
and Bailey circus, 1996. Photo Courtesy Lisa Wathne (Orcanetwork.org
How does one define “activist?” One
might simply say: “Ben
White.” Working tirelessly for the environment, 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
One of Ben’s earliest “hardcore” actions was at the New York
Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Thanks to insider information, hearing that
aquarium staff were 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. Then, in
the dark 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.
Ben 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. Direct
action 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.” Just
a small group of whalers in a dozen or so boats “drive” pods of dolphins,
often hundreds at a time, into the shallow bays where nets are dropped and a
bloody carnage begins. Aquarium owners, who subsidize the events, pick out the
prettiest, unblemished few, while those not chosen are slaughtered, left to die
or sold as cheap meat.
That night, with wire cutters in hand, Ben found his way to the water. While
armed guards patrolled on the cliffs above, he 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. 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.
Taffy Lee Williams is Director of the New York Whale and Dolphin Action League.
A writer and environmental (cetacean) advocate, Taffy has appeared on many programs
discussing her involvement in the litigation between the U.S. Navy and NGOs regarding
the use of LFAS (Low Frequency Active Sonar). To learn more about the Japanese
dolphin massacre known as drive fisheries, visit www.ny4whales.org.