Sea Shepherd should live up to claims of being nonviolent

A battle unfolded on the high seas last weekend just north of Libyan waters. The engaged parties belonged neither to NATO nor Gaddafi’s forces. They were instead Tunisian fishermen and the crew members of the US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Fighting broke out when Sea Shepherd, which is on a mission to defend the extremely endangered bluefin tuna from illegal fishing, attempted to inspect the catch of five fishing boats.

Despite the justness of Sea Shepherd’s cause and the sincere bravery of the crew, the following report from the Associated Press reads like a how-not-to guide for waging nonviolent struggle—from the activists’ use of water canons and stink bombs, which hurt the chance of gaining widespread sympathy for the cause and increase the likelihood of fatalities, to the complete indifference toward the Tunisians. These are people who, after all, just overthrew a dictator, in part because of a jobs crisis. Is it possible these fisherman were fighting Sea Shepherd more for job security than for a terrible industry that’s going to send the fish to some expensive Western sushi restaurant anyway?

The Sea Shepherd environmentalists – who have no official enforcement powers – deployed a small launch to inspect the cage, while the Tunisians suddenly scrambled two, then three small dinghies to protect their net. Others tried to cut off the Steve Irwin [Sea Shepherd’s ship] or chase it away.

Fishermen in the larger boats threw heavy links of chain at the environmentalists – hitting no one, but eventually forcing the dinghies to retreat without being able to determine if there were tuna in the cage.

A larger Tunisian boat pulled along the port side of the Steve Irwin and the crew pelted the environmentalists with chain links. The crew of the Irwin responded with water from fire hoses and stink bombs containing, they said, rancid butter.

A Tunisian dinghy also towed a rope in front of the Steve Irwin, hoping it would get tangled in the propeller and disable the ship.

Meanwhile, the cries of the Tunisians could be overheard radioing the French military for help, saying environmentalist divers were in the water trying to cut their nets.

That was not the case. However, the Sea Shepherd volunteers are prepared to do exactly that to free the tuna, if they determine the fishing to have been illegal – and they have done it in the past.

The Irwin’s officers deemed sending in divers at this point too dangerous. The Tunisians were aggressive, and they had deployed divers to protect their cage – which could have led, in effect, to hand-to-hand combat in the sea.

A French military jet appeared on the scene in short order and flew over the area at an altitude of a couple of hundred feet as the drama unfolded below.

Eventually, the Steve Irwin broke off contact so it could continue to research whether the fishing was illegal.

Despite Sea Shepherd’s hostile tactics, founder and captain Paul Watson believes his organization to be nonviolent. In a recent interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Watson used the term “aggressive nonviolence” to describe Sea Shepherd’s tactics, adding, “We don’t break laws and we don’t hurt people.”

There are several problems with that logic. First off, breaking laws is oftentimes a nonviolent act, particularly when the law is unjust or not doing its job, as in the case of allowing the illegal fishing of bluefin tuna. So, there would be no shame in Sea Shepherd breaking the law if it were done for the purpose of saving a life without endangering another.

That brings us to Watson’s concept of aggression. Many nonviolent activists would argue that nonviolence is aggressive—certainly in respect to being forceful and going after something with the intent to win. Aggression ceases to be nonviolent, however, when the opponent’s health and safety are threatened. It may be that Sea Shepherd has never physically harmed anyone, but their tactics seem to be ever-escalating in that direction—especially with the revelation that they possess non-lethal weapons.

So why does Sea Shepherd insist on calling itself nonviolent? Perhaps it rightly understands that nonviolence is the most widely accepted form of resistance. What it doesn’t seem to undersand, however, is that beyond the veneer are proven strategies and tactics that also make nonviolence the most effective form of resistance. Rather than make up its own rules and engage in actions that defy the very dynamics that make nonviolence work, Sea Shepherd should actually study what it proclaims itself to be.

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