Rocky Mountain College’s First Year Experience hosted author and Greenpeace activist Ben Stewart at First Presbyterian Church on Nov. 6 . As a part of this year’s Common Read program, freshman English students read Stewart’s book “Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30”, which presented the account of multiple Greenpeace activists wrongfully imprisoned by Russian authorities in 2013 for protesting arctic oil drilling. Stewart himself intended to go with the other activists to protest against the drilling. However, Stewart remained behind and once the Arctic 30 were captured, he was relentlessly involved in the campaign to free them. The book Stewart wrote on the Arctic 30 is currently in the process of becoming a film scheduled for release next year.
RMC reached out to Stewart and invited him to address the 2017 freshman class in order to answer questions about the book and open a dialogue on the nature of effective protest. In his speech, Stewart outlined “three red lines” for illegal direct action and touched upon how important it is for citizens to stand up and speak truth to power.
Stewart recounted some of his own experiences and presented photos from specific protests to the audience of RMC students and staff. These included a 2006 protest against an uptake in carbon dioxide emissions. Stewart and his associates climbed on top of a 600-foot coal plant smokestack to leave a message for then British Prime minister Tony Blair, who was visiting the plant on the same day. The message, scrawled on the side of the smokestack, read “Blair’s legacy” with an arrow pointed up at the fumes coming from the power station’s pipe.
In another demonstration, Stewart swam in front of a ship in order to stop its journey towards the Shetland Islands, just off the coast of Scotland. Stewart described the ship as “the size of the Empire State building on its side, but if you swim in front of it and hold your arm out and say stop; sometimes they stop.” The ship intended to drill for oil in Shetland and was successfully stalled for two days.
Stewart stated, “Even though I’ve broken the law a fair few times, that doesn’t mean I think illegal direct action should be undertaken lightly.” He then went into more detail about the three red lines that must be considered whenever a protest comes close to becoming illegal in the eyes of the courts.
“Red line number one,” Stewart began. “ We adhere absolutely and without reservation to non-violence. Red line number two: we will never resist arrest, we will never run away, or hide our identities. Instead we are happy to be judged by a jury of our peers. And red line number three: is the negative effect of the protest on innocent people justified by the positive outcome of our intervention?”
If violence is invoked, if activists lose their conviction and resist police, or the effect on innocent people is not negated by the resulting beneficial change, then the protest cannot be condoned. While Stewart maintains that there are instances where “the case for protest is so strong that it is even ok, under certain circumstances, to break the law,” he states that if any of the red lines are crossed it “would render an illegal direct action unjustifiable.”
Stewart then explained how he once broke into the British Cabinet Office next to 10 Downing Street which is “the epicenter of British government.” The building had recently been outfitted with “illegally logged Cameroonian rainforest timber” for some of its doors. Stewart and his associates took out the doors made from the illegal timber then replaced them with alternative and “sustainable” wooden doors before making a stand on the building’s roof.
The activists refused to come down until the government changed the policy that allowed the illegal wood to be used. The protest resulted in traffic being backed up in the city and inconvenienced a large number of British citizens, yet “soon afterwards the government changed their procurement policy and banned the import of illegally logged timber.” In this case the negative impact on innocents was far outweighed by the positive outcome of the overall protest.
After his address, Stewart briefly took questions from the audience and signed copies of his book for students with the note “Save the Arctic!” He then attended a reception in Prescott’s Great Hall where he chatted with RMC faculty and teaching assistants.
At the reception, Stewart discussed protest further and offered his insight on the recent NFL protests. “I don’t know whether sometimes Americans appreciate the extent to which we in Britain are so interested in what happens here,” he said. “What happens in America influences the conversation in Britain so much. So we have heard an awful lot about the Take a Knee protests, despite the fact that we have absolutely no idea how to play American football and have no interest in learning.”
“In the talk tonight I tried to convey the moral complexity of protest sometimes, but also why I feel it is really important to do it,” Stewart continued. “There are lots of issues that we as a society are incapable of talking about. Somebody needs to bring them to life and make them interesting and that’s why for example I climbed and hung off smokestacks.”
For more about activism and Greenpeace’s fight against oil drilling, check out Greenpeace.org or Stewart’s “Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30.”