We met up with Author of Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg and all round lovely guy Ben Stewart to chat all things activism and Greenpeace. Until 9am that morning Ben was head of media at Greenpeace but he has now taken on the role of special projects director. During that hour we hung off of his every word as he told us all about direct action, imposter syndrome and peaceful protesting.
‘For the last couple of years I’ve taken on any task where Greenpeace finds it’s in an emergency. For example, a couple of years ago when 30 of our activists were jailed in Russia by Putin, and faced 15 years in jail, I was put in charge of the global media campaign to get them out. Right now I’m doing a lot of work around the VW scandal. I suppose you might call it global strategic communications, which in essence means if there is a massive great shit fire and they need to work out what to say and who to say it to, that’s what I do’
In a climate where finding a job that provides you with mental stimulation and economical support is next to impossible it was rejuvenating to hear a real adult talk about how much they loved their career. At university Ben studied law, but soon realised it wasn’t going to be the Perry Mason–esque career he’d imagined. He started writing for a student newspaper which allowed led him to embark on a different career path.
‘I ended up interviewing the then home security Michael Howard for the student newspaper. He was notoriously controversial, and some might say a ‘bad man’. My interview with him went really well in the respect that he lost his shit and threw me out of his office, getting his body guards to push me down the road. He called me back into his office and tried to apologise but it was too late, I had it on tape. Through that interview I won the Guardian’s Junior Journalist of the Year award, which opened up a lot of possibilities for me. I started working at The Guardian, but being 21 and a little bit too arrogant, I thought I’d go off and travel for a bit. Of course, after I came back from 2 years of travelling, they didn’t really remember me, so I ended up working for Non Government Organisations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace. I’d consider Greenpeace the break of my life. I can’t believe that someone pays me to do this, and I’ve had the greatest adventures of my life and met the greatest people of my life. I hope that down the years I have brought about some effective changes in society. It’s the most satisfying form of work, people hardly every leave [Greenpeace]. Finding an organisation where you pull a leaver and something actually happens it’s a great way to do your 9 till 5.’
Ben has been directly involved in a range of Green Peace action. He had risked being charged with a serious criminal offence that would take him to court in order to get his voice heard.
‘There was once a decision hanging in the balance, when Miliband was energy secretary, as to whether they would build eight new coal fired power stations in Britain. Green Peace were saying we had to end the era of coal – we were the first country to get rich on coal and we needed to be the first country to say we’re going to call it a day on coal. We ran a campaign to stop a Kings Mill plant being built and I was one of 6 people who broke in and climbed the power station. We climbed the station and wrote a deliberately provocative slogan. We aimed to go to court to put our case in front of the jury to try to create a tension point where society would stop and take note. I think that’s what direct action does- it forces the national conversation onto your terms. We presented our case to the country in that court room through the medium of saying it to the jury. We were found not guilty and we were acquitted. It was one of my proudest moements. That evening we all went back to my house and got righteously drunk!
We were bamboozled how level headed and sane Ben could be while dealing with such enormous decisions and high pressure situations. Ask us to send an email while we’re in the middle of an essay and our heads will blow, let alone organising mass scale action while ensuring everybody’s safety and liaising with media. Ben told us about what goes on inside his head when he’s managing a project, when he’s directly involved in action, then in the aftermath of a successful project.
‘When I’m running a campaign the thought ‘this is the one where I’m gonna get found out’ runs through my head. You have imposter syndrome, they need to get someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who is competent, someone who has a degree in it. Everyone secretly feels the same.
What feels good and what actually is good are often two very different things. And you have to learn to do the latter. If I’m actually on direct action, in a power station, on a ship, being arrested or whatever, I must confess, I know it’s the right and the strategic thing to do, but I often think this is just so much fun. This is the closest you’ll get to robbing a bank and still have your family be proud of you.
I was at home when Shell pulled out of the Arctic. I got a call from the World Service to ask for an interview about Shell pulling out of the arctic. I thought it was a hoax, that they’d been punked. I checked up on the Shell website and there was an official press release. It was really unexpected. How did I feel? I felt busy. I threw on some clothes and raced into the office on my bike. I knew I had 5 minutes to knock up a shit hot quote, I had to beat Shell to get my message out. There’s a whole bunch of noise around you, people making demands. It was only later that a few of us sat round and felt satisfied and very proud. Then you feel exhausted, a bit after that you feel drunk and the next day you feel empty. It’s called post action blues. After brilliant action you feel like ‘what was that about’. It’s physical, it’s all the adrenaline draining away, leaving you on a bit of a come down. You slowly build up, then you think whats the next thing?
There is a big question surrounding the most effective method of getting your opinions heard- can violence be justified or is the old saying ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ more accurate than we give our ranting parents credit for?
‘I would encourage young people to cause havoc, but peacefully. Smashing windows will cause the media to criticise you. On the other hand, The Suffragettes had scenes of people blowing up buildings and smashing windows and the audience was asked to be sympathetic with them, they weren’t asked to regard them as terrorists. However, I feel it would be counter productive at the moment to apply acts of vandalism to climate change and fundamentally you can argue that it is wrong to fight with violence. The Suffragettes justified violence because they did not have recourse to democratic means. If you deny someone their fundamental ability to achieve change through democratic means, where else can they go? As a climate activist I have the right to vote at the election and so there is an argument to say that I am not justified in going too far in stepping over the decision of society. There needs to be a balance. However, in some respects I feel I am a voice of people who are affect by, but don’t have a say in, the Western world – like the people who’s homes are being flooded in Micronesia because of decisions made in our country. When I went on trial for the Kingsnorth action we asked the chairman of the Inter Circular Polar Nation, effectively the Inuit nation, to give evidence for us. He said we were representing him in the industrialised West and we were doing what needed to be done to save his nation and his people. That was really important to us.’
Ben being interviewed on Canadian TV
Greenpeace has been criticised for the nature of their work, some people seeing them as pirates. We asked how Greenpeace bear in mind the ‘book of sea rules’ while planning and carrying out direct action. There is an aquatic equivalent to the highway code. Do activists tear it up or do they follow the laws?
‘I’ve been on a whole bunch of Greenpeace actions on ships and the safety regime is so rigorous, sometimes I find it frustrating, it does my head in. Only one person has died on a Greenpeace action and that was Fernando Pereira, our photographer. The French secret services attached two bombs to the hull of our boat and sank it.
Just because an international treaty claims something is the law doesn’t mean it’s sensible. It used to be illegal to marry your partner if they were of the same sex, there are many, many silly laws out there and one way to change them is to challenge them. When we win in court it’s like society saying no we need to change that law. It’s why lots of juries stopped convicting back street abortionists because they knew the law had to change. There are some very sensible laws at sea to keep people safe and we try to ensure that they are abided by.
The only violence and imbecility I’ve seen on these actions come from the authority, we’re just fluffy little bunnies who don’t want anybody to get hurt.
I think Ben has sold the life of an activist to us, but what is his all powerful tip to any future go getters?
You are a better campaigner when you really understand. Direct action is not about shouting as loud as you can so you can feel good about yourself. Direction action is a platform to articulate your side of the argument. It’s important to martial your action. However, direction action can be about stopping something that is fundamentally wrong. If there is an outflow pipe that’s pouring toxic waste into a river and you know there is corruption surrounding it’s regulation, then go and fucking power concrete in the outflow pipe, stop it going in the river and don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, it’s the right thing to do.
During direct action, if you look like you’re meant to be there, then no one will stop you. I once watched Frank Hewetson, and couple of other friends of mine, walk through the security door at Heathrow and climb up onto the top of an aircraft and so it couldn’t fly. Frank stood below the plane in a tabard telling the security ‘I’ve got this covered, go back to your jobs’. For half an hour we stoped the plane taking off. No one stopped them because they looked people in the face and said ‘I’m meant to be there’.
Get involved, don’t sit on the side lines thinking it’s just for other people. The second global super power on planet earth is global opinion, if you can harness it then you are as big as the nation state and you can change the world.
Stay tuned for part two including tales of Russian prisons, the power of Depeche Mose and communicating through toilet systems…
Interview by Alex and Bella