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October 2005
Ben 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 activists aspire.

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.

 

 


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